Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Empty promises

Time for another tangerine dream, this one part of the opener of "Buddhist modernism." As in earlier iterations, tangerines were distributed for mindful consumption, with prompts from Thich Nhat Hanh. A sweet moment of shared silence and concentration led to a gentle discussion of awareness, interdependence, self-care, diet and even commensality. How nice to discover that simply attending to things we already do can show us our connectedness, our reality. How delicious to find the whole interconnected world in the tangerine in the palm of our hand...

But of course I couldn't leave it at that. We turned next to Bertolt Brecht's poem "The Buddha's parable of the burning house" (you can find it, in German and English, here), an expression of dejection at the impotence of political art to get people to join the revolution. It's presented as an analogy with the Buddha who wasn't able to get people to flee a burning house,

... Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I opened the door and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them
When the heat was already scorching his eyebrows
Asked me what it was like outside, whether it wasn’t raining
Whether the wind wasn’t blowing perhaps, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought
Need to burn to death before they stop asking questions.
Truly, friends 
Unless a man feels the ground so hot underfoot that he’d gladly 
Exchange it for any other, sooner than stay, to him 
I have nothing to say. Thus Gautama the Buddha. 

But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission 
Rather with that of not submitting, and putting forward 
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men to shake off 
Their human tormentors, we too believe that to those 
Who in face of the approaching bomber squadrons of Capital 
Go on asking too long 
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that 
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers 
After the revolution 
We have nothing much to say.

Only one student was familiar with Brecht, so we had a quick summary of his critique of most art as simply helping people dull their sense of the pain and unfairness of the world with periodic, safely quarantined catharses. I didn't have to spell out that safely quarantined catharsis pretty neatly describes the promise of many a lay Buddhist retreat. What I said was: what if that tangerine in your hand is a lit hand grenade?

But rather than drive the point home, I told them about the Buddha's actual parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra, presumably Brecht's source (though how he found it is hard to trace). As you may recall, the Buddha doesn't throw up his hands at the children's refusal to heed his warnings. (Brecht has elided this with the "questions inconducive to edification" from the Milindipañha.) Rather, he lures them from the house with elaborate promises of amazing chariots for their pleasure. As they emerge, the house explodes behind them. Belatedly - but just in time - they realize what danger they had been in, and even as they find only one chariot (the "great vehicle" of the Mahayana) they appreciate the sagacity of the Buddha in tempting them out with the promise of an array of different vehicles, the only thing that will have got them out.

Will the real Buddhism please stand up?

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