A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Anchoress' Questions

I don't know how many of you have encountered the blogging round robin of questions which appears to have started over on the Christian oriented blogs. You can look at some of it here, here, here, and here. It's an interesting concept, particularly if the questioner and the answerer have distinct differences in opinion, life experience, and attitude, but share the emotive recognition that the other party is somehow one of "us", that group of people who are strongly linked by karma from previous lives.

From my early twenties forward these people with karmic links to me have been highly numinous, and they are part of the reason, I think, that I was first drawn to Buddhism, because it explained this phenomenon so well. They are what one of my members of "us" liked to call the "special people". Unquestionably, the Anchoress is one of mine, and, therefore, she sought me to question in this round robin.

What is fascinating about it is that the questions tell you as much as the answers. What someone wants to know from me, about me, is essentially a dialog about how we are alike and a discovery about how we are different. Some differences are expected, some surprise. I know, for example, (how could one not since the signs of it are as prominent as one of the thousands of billboards owned nationwide by Clear Channel) that one of the defining characteristics of the Anchoress' life is the feeling and belief that there is an irreconcilable opposition between the sacred and the profane. This is externalized for Christians by the notion of sin and redemption.

The Anchoress is also bemused, and, I think, sometimes troubled, by an equal sense of dualism and opposition between the frivolous and the serious. In this she shares what I think is a particularly exaggerated common trait among almost all Americans: guilt about play. This quaternio of guilts in tension, with sacred/profane somehow perpendicular to frivolous/serious is the core of what makes her writing persona unique and attractive, the thing which the fluidity and facility of her writing talent has that is worthwhile to write about, and the thing which she inevitably does write about, whatever the nominal subject of any of her posts.

I share neither of these. My life from childhood has been based on the intuition that there is absolutely no difference whatever between the sacred and the profane or the frivolous and the serious. My own major religious choice was made certain when I finally encountered the particular teachings, known as the Vajrayana, or Buddhist Tantra, which explicitly articulate, and take advantage of, this point of view, as well as by contact with Tibetans, who are so free of the conflicting emotion that we call guilt, that they literally have no word for it in their language, and it took years of explaining for the concept to make sense to them.

If you are a Christian, my point of view is best summarized, I think, in the remark by Saint Theresa that, "All the way to Heaven is Heaven, for He said, 'I am the Way,'. " And this is the thing which I write about, whatever the nominal subject of my posts, and what makes me, American as I am (and that is, as American as it gets), feel like a stranger in a strange land in my very own country.

So here are the Anchoress' questions, and my answers:

1) Celibacy. A path to enlightenment and self-discipline, or an unnatural and oppressive restriction?

Neither. The point of celibacy, or any religious vow, is to give you the time and the freedom from emotional distraction to fundamentally sort out your own mind. Some need celibacy for this, others don't. If you have taken the vow, however, and you abandon it before you sort out your own mind, you make the sorting out far more difficult. Once your mind is sorted out, it doesn't matter what you do, for compassionate activity for the good of others arises spontaneously and inexorably, whatever unenlightened convention may say about that activity's outer form.

2) Who do you believe is the greatest historical - non religious - figure? I'm talkin' thru the ages, here, male or female, the one human being you feel simply surpassed all others in greatness. Why?

None. Human equipment was originally designed (this, by the way, is a metaphor and not a "scientific" counter-theory) to flake flint, tie things up with sinew, and hunt wooly mammoths in clan-linked tribes. We did this quite happily and successfully for tens of thousands of years. We have only been doing much of anything else for about 8,000 years. Despite the genuine beauty of the artifacts, everything that has come since has been at the cost of true human happiness, leisure, and freedom from unnecessary and useless toil for most of us, while giving a privileged few the luxuries of wealth, beauty, and power. The only exception to this is religion.

3) Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg? Why?

Haven't a clue. I've never seen a full film by either of them. I have my favorites--Jean Renoir, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa--but film as a whole does not attract me. In realms of both fiction and fact I find it thin; one-dimensional; and generally destructive to aesthetic distance, thought, and imagination. Give me artifacts, prose, or prose combined with artifacts, every time.

4) Everyone in the world lives with some sort of handicap, usually we have several small ones, and one larger one that keeps us from doing all we would like, or being all we can be. If I could magically take away the handicap that most debilitates you, but you had to accept another in its place, what would you have me remove, and what would you voluntarily take on?

None. Handicaps are handicaps, large or small. Being all you can be is a matter of how you respond to the circumstances life hands you, not the particular circumstances themselves.

5)Baseball or football? Why?

Baseball, of course, particularly National League Baseball. No other sport has quite the optimum combination of drama, skill, luck, effort, and craftiness of baseball. The apogee of baseball: the last three innings of a no-hit pitching duel with plenty of sacrifices, bunts, and base stealing. The next best: a come-from-behind hitting lineup, like the old Big Red Machine.

As for football, I agree with George Will. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings, and dull as ditchwater. When I was young, callow, and naive it attracted me. Jim Brown is still the nearest thing to Superman, Dick Butkus the archetype of intensity and controlled mayhem, John Unitas the greatest field general (I never saw Otto Graham), Vince Lombardi the greatest coach, the old Oakland Raiders the epitome of dirty, winning football, and the old Pittsburgh Steelers the greatest collection of talent. This despite the fact that every one of these (with the possible exception of the Steelers) would have their clock cleaned by the modern steroid pumped freight trains who can do surreal 40 yard dashes, and have no more personality than a paper cup.

Now, Anchoress, let me ask you five questions:

1. Why is The Code of the Woosters a lesser book than To Kill A Mockingbird or In This House of Brede? (By the way, my spell checker wants to replace Woosters with "oysters". Apt, don't you think?)

2. What does Joe Williams' old fashioned twelve-bar blues really bring forth in you?

3. Have you ever gotten a glimpse of the Real Presence?

4. If your 1930's were like my father's 1930's, searching for work from town to town with his father, and living on one mustard laden hot dog a day, how would you cope inside?

5. Do you remember the old Life magazine as a child? How did you respond to it if you do?

Thanks for the opportunity to respond. I'll try to round up three more bloggers to query, but I'm not sure I'm well enough known to do so.


Blogger The Anchoress said...

Egad, you little sneak you. I don't recall saying I'd answer any of YOUR questions! :-)

I'll try to answer them by the end of the weekend, though. Weekends, it's hard to find time to write.

I'm glad you prefer baseball to football. Too bad you don't know the difference between Tarantino and Spielberg, though. I was expecting something GREAT from you with that answer! Ah, well.

12:56 PM  
Blogger jaygee said...

Joe -- question #2, can you expand. How is religion an "exception?"

Regarding your introduction, you don't think that guilt is universal? How do you define the feeling that you get when you know the good that you should do and yet fail to do it? Or don't you believe in "ought to's?" The Bible does talk about "seering one's conscience," which might effectively eliminate guilt for those who have chosen to ignore its warning signs.

The Big Red Machine? Up north here, it's "Go Tribe!"

7:04 AM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

Well, John, the exception of religion is that it allows us to do something about those difficulties of life which are inevitable: birth, old age, sickness, death, and rebirth.

From at least settled agriculture forward I think that the restlessness and busyness of our lives--whether in pursuit of confort, beauty, and luxury; or in the burden of constant labor--has sytematicly increased. The one advantage I can see from it is the growth of religious opportunity.

From my experience with the Tibetans, no, I don't think guilt is universal. This is not just the religious professionals: lamas and monks. The ordinary lay Tibetans seem to be free of it, too. Shame may be universal: this I have seen in Tibetans.

Morevoer, having become familiar with Buddhist ethics, I can see why they don't have guilt.

By factoring in rebirth, ethics become purely functional and pragmatic; there is nothing you "ought" to be doing particularly, but bad actions are those which lead to bad results for you personally and no one else, and good actions function this way as well. We Buddhists simply do not have the "when bad things happen to good people" dilemma of monotheism, because of our view of karma and rebirth.

Everybody likes their team, but the old Big Red Machine was clearly something special beyond this--a bit of magic, like the old Pittsburg Steelers, which I think will never return to any professional sport due to economics.

8:44 AM  
Blogger jaygee said...

Joe -- you got me thinking aloud here....but if Buddhism is the best or truest explanation for life in this universe, then every Buddhist "ought" to practice it? So there's one thing a Buddhist "ought" to do. Wouldn't disobeying a truth claim like Buddhism be a bad action? And if it isn't, what's the sense of following it if there are no consequences for not following it?

I'll think more on this. I hope I didn't tie my brain up in a knot.

It would be hard to beat the Steelers dynasty. I saw them beat up the Browns many times. Very ugly.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

Well, John, from the Buddhist vantage point, only certain people will have the karmic links to actually become a Buddhist in any given life. So Buddhists are not particularly evangelical.

If you do become one, that's great, but if you don't, it's far more important to practice the religion you are attracted to well, or, if you unable to commit to one particular religion, to keep constantly asking yourself the questions for which religion has answers, than to be a Buddhist specifically.

So I always encourage my Christian friends to be the best Christian they can be, and my secular friends not to abandon religious questions.

Where do you get the karmic links? They come from your contact with Buddhism in any given life. If you encounter it, and, particularly--if you encounter it with an open mind and genuine interest--you will plant the seed that will grow into becoming a Buddhist in the future.

Once you know this, a great deal of what the Tibetans do, like painting mantras on rocks, makes more sense. For such things are opportunities for anyone to make that kind of open minded contact, whether they intended to or not.

7:32 PM  

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