From Last Communion:
Disclaimer: Below is my final paper for a Coursera social psychology course I took last October in which I wrote about my “Day of Compassion”, influenced my peers, and applied to win a chance to meet the Dalai Lama. Mr. Lama, I am sure, is a kind and gentle human being. I do not wish to offend anyone who follows and applies his teachings. He must deal with slightly depressed, delusional characters like me all the time. Please consider the following essay more tongue-in-cheek clowning around rather than an attempt at thoughtful criticism. Thank you.
I do not feel much love for the brand Dalai Lama. Maybe because twenty years ago, I read through part of a biography about “His Holiness” while my girlfriend sat in the kitchen of our drafty apartment flirting with an old boyfriend who audaciously stopped by on his motorcycle to chat with her. I was “into” spirituality back then, devouring authors who appealed to the hair shirt side of my brain. I read Thich Nhat Hanh—he got me to walk and meditate; histories of Hinduism—they taught me how a poor working father could hold his head high before his daughter; anything by Henry Miller—I was a passionate line cook in America for God’s sake, not St. Francis of Assisi. I wanted to woo a mate, and wear my hat like Walt Whitman. I was a romantic and a shy showman, desiring to perfect my life in love with a friend who would help me raise my daughter subsisting on bean soups and warm bread.
I gave up reading the biography to eavesdrop on the kitchen conversation. She wouldn’t be “the one”, that was for certain. Nor would the Dalai Lama. Too much money, not magic, in the making of his brand. I wanted men who suffered first and then found enlightenment, not coddled children who got hand-picked by golden-robed men to be religious kings. The Buddha left his wife and child to find enlightenment? My God, what a coward! I was a twenty-five year old American flopdoodle, yet even I knew better. Siddhartha ran away from true responsibility. Went and sat under a tree, leaving his kid back at the palace to wonder for the rest of his life why daddy left home. And that suffering wheel the Buddhists chant about while bowing along humble walks to oblivion… Obviously the boy grew up and abandoned his own children, either figuratively or literally.
Buddha rose above the wheel of life and death, and left his family to suffer karma.
What a selfish narcissist!
“They like to take all this money from sin/
build big universities to study in,
Sing Amazing Grace
all the way to the Swiss banks”
So this day of compassion I have led… What of it? What came to be? Did it change our President’s mind about bombing helpless children in Syria? Did it prevent the Dalai Lama from stepping into another jet airplane to whisk his wisdom around the globe, while stuffing a dirty sock down the throat of our atmosphere? Did it make me stop and be mindful of the man I dream to be? No more or less than any other day since I have decided to not take the path, but become it. Yes, perhaps I am delusional to the point of actually teaching the Dalai Lama a thing or two about “right living”, the Eight-fold Path, that yarn about “Have you had your supper? Then clean out your bowl Bingo!”
I read in my 2009 edition of the Myers’ book about the “sadder-but-wiser effect” demonstrated by mildly depressed people. I quote at length to shed light of how susceptible professionals are to avarice, the powerful vice preventing our living Rimbaud’s “Christmas on earth”:
“Normal people exaggerate how competent and well-liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more evenhanded in recalling their successes and failures. Normal people describe themselves primarily positively. Depressed people describe both their positive and negative qualities. Normal people take credit for successful outcomes and tend to deny responsibility for failure. Depressed people accept responsibility for both success and failure. Normal people exaggerate the control they have over what goes on around them. Depressed people are less vulnerable to the illusion of control. Normal people believe to an unrealistic degree that the future holds a bounty of good things and few bad things. Depressed people are more realistic in their perceptions of the future. In fact, on virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases. “Sadder but wiser” does indeed appear to apply to depression.” Taylor, S.E. (1989) Positive Illusions: Creative self-deception and the healthy mind. New York: Basic Books. (p. 516)
Looks like all the “normal” people are getting their daily soma pill, while the wise ones are prescribed anti-depressants to “dress up” their bummer reality.
My mother has a mantra, not likely to be repeated on rice begging walks throughout Lhasa. I tend to agree with it more than any empty philosophy uttered by a holy man from a Palo Alto hotel room.
It is this:
Charity begins at home
I have deep compassion for my immediate family, my wife and children, my ingroup. Yet it is never enough. Yes, I am prejudiced to all outgroups, no matter how large or small. No, I do not feel the need to feed the poor, clothe the homeless, instruct the ignorant. I want to teach myself and those whom I can truly influence, the joy of life. That is the true wheel. Wisdom shared from parents to children. I believe that being mindful of our responsibility to the next generation, that is, to raise children with the utmost care and kindness, is the only worthwhile profession.
And then avarice rears its ugly head. The economy improves year after year. The money is there, also the mortgage, the two cars, the cable, the supermarket, the retirement, the “me, me, me” pumped up on methamphetamine. Children potty-trained then day-cared to professional babysitters. Our own professions calling us to depart in mind, body and soul for the majority of our awake time. Childhood depression, stress on the freeway, and Freddy grows up wanting to become a Zen Buddhist. The wheel of suffering turning and turning, my own professor assigning a “day of compassion”, personal Bodhi trees for all the parents out there agonizing over a Lexus car payment.
I wrote the following in a letter to my daughter for her high school graduation. I include it to shed light on the generation (let alone cultural) gap:
“In an interview Noam Chomsky once admitted that he did not expect, nor even encourage his children to share a similar world view. I don’t think that is possible considering his fame and misfortune as a world renown humanist. Perhaps by stating publicly their ignorance of his politics, he would prevent future Army Ranger raids on the cribs of his grandchildren. Either way it is wrong thinking. Here is a man alive today who wants to drastically change the public’s perception of the American Empire, yet leave his children ‘off the hook’.
Geez, if he can’t persuade his own flesh and blood at the dinner table, then how is he going to achieve moral revolution to the millions of minds of a sick society? Doomed to failure, don’t you think, if his own spawn cannot be convinced?
Well, I am no Noam. Sure I have opinions, but most are formed in the gut. My gut persuades me to believe that it is a more reliable reader of our political world than the eyes, ears, and encyclopedic inner wanderings of Noam Chomsky’s well documented gray matter.
Surely there is something to be said about his ignoring the kids. Is Noam any different kind of careerist than the bank vice president? I mean it takes a lot of time out of a person’s day whether he is an astute member of the board or a genius in sneakers. Loans to sign, books to read, lunch to eat, books to write, desk arrangement, office hours, thousand dollar plate fundraisers, speech invitationals, an immoral philosophy to uphold, a moral philosophy to uphold… So much in common when there is not a minute of free time to teach the children. Really, why have kids if there is no intention to pass on a philosophy?”
My question to be answered by the Dalai Lama if ever I meet him on a Stanford sidewalk is this:
What’s up with your Twitter account? 7,636,789 followers, but you follow no one? Is that the path to enlightenment? Compassionate arrogance? I would think that a spiritual leader who wants to connect with as many people as possible, to be ever mindful of their love and hope and dreams, would at least follow the many who follow him. You want us all to be in touch? Then you must be in touch. Open the flood gates and leap into the suffering tsunami of humanity. Or become the true path, the raccoon, the camel, the hummingbird, who have known all along, that there is no enlightenment outside of teaching your young. Ah, but when that is done to the best of our human abilities, like it was without the help of antibiotics fifteen thousand years ago, the same Heaven and Hell will be known again to all living things.
Until that day returns, it’s all topsy-turvy in the human world.
So, at first light on the morning following my day of compassion, I will bake some baguettes and sift through the cat litter. Exactly what I have been doing almost every day for the past fifteen years.
Maybe in the next life I’ll be picked up for future international fame from some Himalayan village off the beaten path. Perhaps not. More likely I’ll be a shy goat chewing tin cans while his holiness is placed onto the royal Lhasa litter. But that is neither here nor there. Thank you for this chance, Professor P. and staff, to clean up my mind the last several weeks. I really enjoyed your class.