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Friday, September 27, 2019

Bliss, Bush, and Bullshit

[This article was originally posted Thursday, January 08, 2004, on the long-gone "Barefoot Fool" blog, which you can read a little more about here. As with so many of my old projects, there are broken promises in this piece: "Campbell's words and work will be a constant theme in this blog..." Hard to imagine when the blog itself is moribund!

[Anyway, in today's political climate, I--like others--find myself yearning for the relatively benign antics of Bush the Younger. Hell, Nixon's starting to look not-so-bad! Anyway, think of the comments at the end as a sort of time capsule, and take away whatever you can use.]

Last Sunday [Jan. 4, 2004] I attended a very L.A. event. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) had sponsored an exhibition of Buddhist art called "The Circle of Bliss." In association with that exhibition, they sponsored a group of Tibetan monks to create an 8-foot-across sand mandala. In weeks to come, I hope to present a detailed interpretation of its symbolism, on a subsidiary page. {Never did--broken promise!] In the meantime, I will briefly tell you of its importance.

The outer edge of the mandala represents this phenomenal world. As one enters more deeply into the circle, one moves through various levels of symbolism, until at last one reaches the center, which represents the union of compassion and wisdom--in other words, Nirvana or "Bliss." Thus the mandala is a model for meditational practices that lead to that result. The mandala was created in October, over a period of several weeks. As a rule, such mandalas are created and then immediately destroyed, symbolizing impermanence. The creation of the mandala itself is a meditation, and the benefits to be accrued are in the making; the image itself is but a by-product.

LACMA kept its mandala on display for over two months. The event that I attended on Sunday was the destruction and dispersal of the mandala. After a ceremony of chanting by six monks, the sand of the mandala is swept up. Small boxes of the sand were given to all of the attendees, and the remainder was taken to the Pacific to be spread upon the waters, distributing the "bliss" represented by the mandala throughout the world. (I brought my sand home and placed it on my garden shrine.)

One of the things that strikes me about this whole process is the integrated thinking it represents. On one level, a bunch of guys in robes play in the sand, then destroy their creation, like boys at the beach building a sand castle and then bombarding it. But the participants--and the remarkably large crowd attending--see in this process a prayer, a blessing, a fulfillment of human potential. Even scoffers lined up to get their little box of sand. What this tells me is that metaphors are powerful, and the ability to see beyond the literal to the transcendent is a liberating power that frees us from the mundanity of our lives and opens us out to cosmic vistas. At Wilshire and Fairfax, next to the Tar Pits.

This brings me to Bush. One of the friends I was with ran into one of his friends at the event. Dave is a freelance photographer who, probably not coincidentally, spent eight years in Hong Kong, my soon-to-be-home's next-door neighbor. We had a good chat (he's a good guy) and one of the exchanges had to do with my reasons for moving to China.
Me: ...besides, I'm achin' to get out of this country and back to Asia.
Dave: Had enough of Bush's America?
Me: Yeah...George W. has never done a thing for me.
Dave: Sure he has! He's made it extremely difficult for you to travel safely in other countries!
And on we went in that vein. Now, Bush-bashing is too easy. And as much as I love reading outrageous bashers, the truth is, I feel more comfortable with more reasoned examinations of W's shortcomings (such as Dave's observations).

So, with that in mind, I offer the first of what will probably be many looks into the deeper problems underlying the Bush agenda and, by extension, some of the ways in which clinging blindly to one's own tradition can have serious negative repercussions. Yes, it was Islamic fundamentalists that attacked American symbols on September 11, 2001, resulting in great loss of life. But it was a Christian fundamentalist who ordered the assault on Iraq, with much greater damage to the ephemeral but noble cause of "World Peace."

It may seem like I'm changing the subject, but I'm not:

Monday I finally got my hands on Joseph Campbell's book Thou Art That. (Campbell's words and work will be a constant theme in this blog, as they are a constant theme in my life; in fact, I have come to think of him as "Uncle Joe," harking back to a time when it was the uncle's role to initiate the young man. It was actually Campbell's avuncular wisdom that helped make me the Barefoot Fool that I am today. Yes, it is, in part, Uncle Joe's fault.) The book is subtitled "Transforming Religious Metaphor," and it specifically tackles such Christian icons as The Virgin Birth, The Last Supper, The Cross, etc. The overall import is the plea for seeing through so-called "historical" events to their transcendent significance. But let Uncle Joe speak for himself:

"...half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contend that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies" (page 2).

This attitude is our natural inheritance from Aristotle. When the symbology of the Judeo-Christian world met the either/or logic of the Greeks, the situation that Campbell describes was bound to happen. A few pages later, Uncle Joe picks up this idea again:

"The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. These deliver more than just an intellectual concept, for such is their inner character that they provide a sense of actual participation in a realization of transcendence. The symbol, energized by metaphor, conveys, not just an idea of the infinite but some realization [read "actualization"] of the infinite. We must remember, however, that the metaphors of one historically conditioned period, and the symbols they innervate, may not speak to the persons who are living long after that historical moment and whose consciousness has been formed through altogether different experiences" (page 7).

And then:

"The problem, as we have noted many times, is that these metaphors, which concern that which cannot in any other [that is, non-metaphorical] way be told, are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts and historical occurrences. The taken as the message, and the connotation, the rich aura of the metaphor in which its spiritual significance may be detected, is ignored altogether. The result is that we are left with the particular 'ethnic' inflection of the metaphor, the historical vesture, rather than the living spiritual core.

"Inevitably, therefore, the popular understanding is focused on the rituals and legends of the local system, and the sense of the symbols is reduced to the concrete goals of a particular political system of socialization [emphasis added]. When the language of metaphor is misunderstood and its surface structures become brittle, it evokes merely the current time-and-place-bound order of things and its spiritual signal, if transmitted at all, becomes even fainter" (page 7).

I don't mean to re-type the whole book. I have given you four paragraphs, and I think it's important to maintain the integrity of the writing. Uncle Joe can be pithy, though; he has elsewhere summed up the entire problem described above by decrying those who "go to a restaurant and eat the menu," failing to see that the menu points to something beyond itself--that is, it is metaphorical.

The emphasized clause in the last paragraph quoted brings us to the crux of the Bush issue: "the sense of the symbols is reduced to the concrete goals of a particular political system of socialization." GWB sees the world in terms of "good" and "evil" without nuance; he sees Saddam Hussein as "evil," as a man who "tried to kill [his] dad." I have no doubt that Bush believes he is right--in fact, righteous. That is exactly the problem. He is "doing the best he can" given his fundamentalist orientation. That is exactly the danger. He imagines himself a "warrior of light" doing battle with "the powers of darkness." That is exactly the bullshit.

His wisdom is foolish, as it fails to take into account the nature of things he cannot see.

You'll be getting a lot more of Uncle Joe. I think that as we make our way through the world, we need not only to "see through" the metaphors, we need to "see through" people like George W. Bush, to see what it is in their worldview that causes them to do what they do.

And try to teach our children to see the world differently, as full of infinite possibilities, and not limited to one narrow perspective. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," said Hamlet, and, later, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."


Posted September 30, 2019

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