Monday, April 30, 2018

Job mettastasizes

I wrapped up my part of the current iteration of "Performing the Problem of Suffering: The Book of Job and the Arts" today talking mostly about Buddhism. (Next week students will share their final projects.) Some students have found the course too western- and monotheism-focused, a justifiable concern given the course title - though the subtitle explains why we've been doing what we've been doing. Still, it seemed appropriate to return to the larger questions I began the course with. What is the problem of suffering?

We began with a poem from the Man'yoshu, an ancient Japanese verse anthology, which I've thought somehow problem of suffering-related since I encountered it a very long time ago (during the year I spent at the Ethics Department of the University of Tokyo, 1992-93!). In the poem a poet recounts finding the body of a man washed up on the beach of an island which had a reputation as paradisaical, and laments his inability to inform the unknown man's wife of his fate. I distributed a copy of the poem and asked students to read it and write or draw a response. In the ensuing discussion, one student drew our attention to the way the poem moves from the third person to I, and then by way of we to you - first you the dead man, and his lost you, the wife who will never know what became of her husband - and the whole thing addressed to the you reading the poem, witnessing the poet's pain.

This time I used my old fave, Alice Walker's talk "Suffering too Insignificant for the Majority to See," as a way of exploring some Buddhist ways of performing the problem of suffering. The first was the famous "parable of the poisoned arrow"; the second was "metta" meditation. I decided I might as well lead into the poisoned arrow story by recalling Job's plaint, early in the Book of Job (6:4),

          For Shaddai’s arrows are all around me –
               my breath absorbs their venom –
               terror of the god invests me. (Scheindin translation)

The Buddha offers the tale of a person who refuses treatment for a poisoned arrow until he knows who the archer was, what the arrow was made of, etc., etc. in rebuffing the "unedifying" metaphysical questions of one Malunkyaputta. The point seems to be that metaphysical questions don't treat the true problem, which is suffering. The list of the man's questions is long and verges on the absurd. In any case, The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him. 

What might the Buddha say to Job? I invited students to consider this with a partner, and soon the room was abuzz. Wasn't the whole point of the Book of Job that demanding an accounting of suffering was right and just? Rehearsing Job's story helps us keep suffering a problem, warding off shallow explanations and the explicit or implicit view that all suffering is somehow deserved (a view common in Buddhism, too). Or is the theophany perhaps making the same point as the Buddha!

This was subversive enough, but adding metta to the mix took us farther still. Like the poem from the Man'yoshu, metta meditation extends concern for oneself in ever widening circles to include friends, acquaintances, adversaries and ultimately all sentient beings.

                              May I [s/he, they, all] be happy 
                              May I be safe 
                              May I be peaceful 
                              May I live with ease 

Alice Walker's talk uses metta to offer a way of facing a past of murderous oppression, healing the ancestors by remembering them... but also remembering their oppressors, who are ancestors, too. I wound up the class sharing Walker's metta-inspired ritual of remembrance, as powerful a performance of the problem of suffering as they come.

What I didn't get into was wondering what might happen were the Buddha, after having discussed the appropriate responses to being shot by venomous arrows, to have told Job about metta. In a way, Job experiences that widening of concern, discovering that suffering is so widespread as to raise questions about God's care for all people, not just his servant Job. But there's something in metta's expansion to include all beings without exception that left me with a challenging thought. Might Job's metta not extend all the way to heaven? And not just the satan. I remembered Archibald Macleish's Zuss' indignant response to J.B.'s answer to God:

                                               Then he calmed me!
                                               Gentled me the way a farmhand
                                               gentles a bulging, bugling bull! 

This might sound blasphemous but there's more of this in the monotheistic traditions than one might think. How powerful inter-religious dialogue can be, broadening our grasp of what matters, and deepening our appreciation for our own  as well as other traditions!

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