Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Snakes & Ladders
You know the feeling: a sense that things are going well, a sense of going in the right direction, when one false move . . . . and it is back to square one -- at which place the best thing one can possibly hope to find is the bottom rung of a ladder.
That is what happened to Nanda in Canto 12 when, for the first time, he found real confidence in the Buddha's teaching. He really believed in better. He found confidence in a better way than the ascetic end-gaining of the Brahmanical tradition and a better way than the Buddhist end-gaining of the Buddhist striver. Back in Cantos 4 and 5 what Nanda evinced was never real confidence in the Buddha's teaching, but only the sort of unexamined reverence that one sees on the adoring faces of superstitious Tibetans when the poor old Dalai Lama is in their presence. That kind of unexamined religious reverence, as I see it, is not any kind of ladder: it is a snake.
In a game of snakes and ladders, going up or going down is purely a matter of luck, not of judgement. But in the reality of snakes and ladders, intuition and awareness come into it, for better or for worse.
Alexander work, as I see it, is very much a ladder, beginning, like the Buddha's teaching, with inhibition of end-gaining. Working with developmental movements towards better integration of vestibular reflexes is so primitive it might be compared to preparation for stepping onto the first rung of a ladder, getting a better footing on the ground before even thinking of climbing up. And in listening work, the metaphor of a ladder has been used explicitly, by Alfred Tomatis no less, who referred to the Biblical example of Jacob's Ladder.
The voices I like to hear, talking of ladders, and snakes, are independent voices. Theravada Buddhism is not for me, but Ānandajoti Bhikkhu is not your average Theravada Bhikkhu. He is a genuine indie. Again, certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism I am deeply skeptical about, not least the readiness to accept the Buddha's teaching around samsāra as if it were a literal affirmation of the ancient Hindu conception of rebirth. But the Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard (M) is evidently another Indie and I recommend to anybody the record of the dialogue between him and his father Jean-Francois Revel (JF) published in English as "The Monk and the Philosopher."
Here is an excerpt:
J.F. -- (discussing the war in Bosnia) A total and bloody anarchy supervened, with Croats killing Muslims, Muslims killing Croats, and Serbs killing everyone. For several years no one managed to get the different factions to stick to any peace agreement at all. What we were witnessing, in fact, was the self-destruction of all the communities involved.
M. -- In place of an analysis of the political and geographical causes, I find it more useful to put it in terms of the mental processes that lead to such an eruption of hatred.
J.F: -- Absolutely. What I'm also trying to say is that the political and geographical causes don't explain anything. If that's what it had all been about, a rational solution could have been found.
M. -- All the causes of war in the world, whether territorial claims, the sharing of irrigation water, or whatever else it might be, come down to a feeling of oneself being wronged, which then gives rise to hostility. That's a negative thought, a divergence from the natural state, and is therefore a source of suffering. The obvious conclusion is that before such thoughts completely invade and take over the mind, we need to gain some mastery over them. A fire is easiest to put out at the very moment the first flames appear, not once the whole forest is ablaze. It's all too easy to get a very long way from the basic goodness within us.
J.F. -- But how do you explain the fact that we stray away from it so much more often than staying faithful to it?
M. -- When you're following a mountain path, it doesn't take much to put a foot wrong and tumble down the slope. The fundamental goal of a spiritual discipline is to maintain perfect watchfulness all the time. Attention and awareness are basic qualities that the spiritual life helps to develop.
J.F -- Yes. But if to eradicate evil from the world we have to wait for six thousand million individuals to reach that spiritual path, it could be a long wait!
M. -- As an oriental proverb says, "With patience, the orchard becomes jam." That it might take a long time doesn't alter the fact that there's no other solution. Even if violence doesn't stop arising overall, the only way to remedy it is the transformation of individuals.