Issue 15 – 23 may 2017 – rattuos
There are always different ways to look at things and indeed life in general. What may seem like fun to one may be dreadful to another. Last night I was filled with despair watching members of gangs talk about their exploits, many of which were violent and centred around drugs or the need for them. One can be quite horrified by the depravity of our species at times and very fearful for our future. When we have a terminal illness we can fall into deep despair too, but equally many of us can treasure life and see it anew at such times, from another angle if you like. There is a famous biblical verse which may suggest this although its meaning is disputed:
“11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love….
“Through a glass, darkly”
1 Corinthians 13:12 contains the phrase βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι‘ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι (blepomen gar arti di esoptrou en ainigmati), which is rendered in the KJV as “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” Wikipedia
It is similar to that expression often used – glass half full or glass half empty. Anyway this is what I wish to discuss today and how it affects our enlightenment.
Our status quo is extremely valuable – if our status quo is endurable. For many it is not but just as many have enviable lives and happiness. For most of my life this fact conjured up a feeling that life is not fair. Perhaps it is not. Some of the fledgling birds I am watching this morning who compete to get at the bird feeder will not last the summer while others will live to make their own nests and breed. Were this not the case we would be overwhelmed with birds, a plague of birds perhaps or have none. But what we so enjoy is something in between. And that half empty glass is what it is.
Today there are wars, famines, torturers at work while some of us are enjoying breakfast bird watching. It was just this enigma that so concerned the man we call Buddha.
“After his experiences as a prince and as a wandering monk, the Buddha had learnt that all people have one thing in common: if they think about their own life, or look at the world around them, they will see that life is full of suffering.
Suffering, he said, may be physical or mental. The Buddha’s most important teachings were focused on a way to end the suffering he had experienced and had seen in other people. His discovery of the solution began with the recognition that life is suffering. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths…..” http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/bs-s03.htm
I only mention that to show that this has exercised minds for a very long time. One way that humans adapt to it is to close their eyes as much as possible to the suffering of others. You will not notice that, in most cases, because they are so clever at hiding the fact and expressing their concern for example for refugees or the bereaved but in reality most are content that the agony has passed them by and struck at someone else, something which is even celebrated in religion.
I have also known some people who were so concerned for others that they suffered with them. It is not difficult to find examples and in the enlightened world the way is usually ascetic, living a life without luxury. We can become obsessed with the suffering of others and many do. But although it is admirable to dedicate our lives to alleviating suffering in one form or another, it is never helpful to fall into obsession. This can lead to even more anti-social activity which is often the cause of even more suffering and which in that case is avoidable suffering. We will all die and that is not avoidable.
I suppose it is the definition of a middle way that is the real problem for those who wish to be enlightened. If we look at a shoal of fish or a herd of animals we may think that the safest place to be is in the middle. Predators will tend to take the outsiders, but some predators will aim for the middle in the hope of catching anything and the human predator delights at the shoaling instinct of fish as he catches the whole shoal in his net, a prize that would be impossible to replicate with a single fishing line and a dispersed prey. There is therefore considerable danger in seeking safety in numbers. Our modern weapons of mass destruction are aimed at cities for example. Pollution is greatest in such places and famines more deadly. But we tend to feel more frightened in some isolated cottage in the country.
However the point is whether we look at life darkly or optimistically. Do I bemoan the fact that cancer has caught up with me just as our health service is crumbling and the waiting list for my operation is longer than ever, or do I celebrate the fact that it took this long to catch me? Having a daughter taken by it and living with it in her early twenties certainly focuses my mind. Looking at countries where only the rich can afford the operation also sends a message. Perhaps accepting some responsibility for it too. But we can only consider life fair if it is. The real problem with it is that for a very long time it has not been. If we are the beneficiaries of ’unfairness’ then we must take responsibility for the suffering we cause. This is the real lesson of the law that governs what we call fairness or justice – karma. And that law states that we create fairness or unfairness by our own actions and will reap reward accordingly. But few among us realise that karma really is a universal law and cannot be avoided.
The most obvious unfairness is being rich when so many around have nothing, or worse, live in debt. We may then look at life as a glass half full but are missing the problem we are storing up for ourselves. If however we devote our resources to alleviating suffering we create a positive karma, but to do that we need our eyes open to our responsibility. The rich seldom feel responsible for poverty. They usually consider that their efforts, or those of some remote ancestor, entitle them to more than the poor. They may even consider that the poor should work for them, clean their houses, cook their food, plough their fields. And some will consider that God himself has granted them this right. It was called the divine right of kings and these days has morphed into a divine right of certain nations. And so entrenched is this that it has entered our books of law to ensure it cannot be challenged = but human law rarely takes account of the law of karma let alone mimics it.
In the case that we may have more than those around us we need to ensure that we look at the glass darkly, as a mirror showing us our imperfections and what we need to do about them. But if we live austere lives we can afford to look at ourselves in a slightly more favourable light. As long as we are not causing others to suffer by our actions we are not storing up for ourselves the awful afterlives we must endure if we do. Now obviously very few really think about the afterlife and, if they do, they consider that it is at worst a neutral experience. But my experience of it tells me that it is far from that and that most there suffer dreadfully and are full of remorse. Most religions tell us that, even if they have watered down the message these days. Some suggest that paradise awaits the violent men and women in our midst.
So shocked was I when I first saw the treatment of perfectly ordinary people over there that I complained. As most people there are dead it came as some surprise to them that I was not. However my complaints merely highlighted that karma really is fair and that what I was seeing was the direct result of the suffering they had caused in life whether they had bothered to look at it or as most of us do, refused to. The treatment of the real criminals in life is very much worse – they endure what they hand our when alive and take great exception to the fact. But if the dead harbour any major grievance it is that they died in ignorance of the real laws that govern us and that they lived in the illusion they have created for themselves.
There is another expression – seeing the world through rose tinted glasses. This seems to date back to the 1840’s if not long before. Now it is a fact that rose tinted glasses can make the world seem more attractive in some ways, reducing the harsh glare, although sunglasses tend to be other colours. We might note however:
“A study performed by researchers at the University of Birmingham, England tested a group of migraine sufferers by having them wear glasses with a rose colored tint called FL-41. The tint preferentially blocks blue-green light and was originally developed to reduce sensitivity to fluorescent lighting, but has been shown effective in mitigating the frequency and severity of migraine, blepharospasm, and other light-sensitive conditions. Participants experienced a reduction in the number of migraines, from 6.2 episodes per month to 1.6 episodes per month. Dr Katz and researchers at the University of Utah continue to study and work to optimize tinted lenses for light sensitive patients“
A few different countries and languages have the expression ‘pink glasses’. Quite how it fits in here is hard to say. As a migraine sufferer for my whole life I wish I had known about this. The emperor Nero is said to have worn emerald glasses and green is certainly a soothing shade, it compares with sitting under a nice leafy tree perhaps or even swimming underwater. I suppose I could compare this expression with the difficulty we have in looking at the harsh realities of our world. If there is a way to look at them more comfortably maybe it is through fiction which is to say that we can experience some suffering best by watching films where we can comfort ourselves with the thought that these are actors and they are not really suffering, indeed they are being well paid. That is increasingly how we do experience different lifestyles in our world, a kind of voyeurism which our ancestors gained from books. In some ways it raises our emotions and encourages some feelings of suffering in ourselves too, but in other ways it inoculates us against real emotions. We become blasé and when we see film of real people blown apart by real bombs there is the same distance and sense of unreality.
Fear for example is an emotion that we have to protect us when we are in danger, but we tend to experience it most when watching horror films. Then when we need it most it is ineffective. What I feel is that the Buddhist explanation of suffering gives us the same detachment from it, and even more so by watching it in others. We need to be clear. Some suffering is unavoidable but most is quite avoidable and we should be doing all we can to minimise the avoidable suffering in our world whether experienced by other species or our own. It has become a weapon used as a deterrent, used as a crude cattle prod to ensure we behave in a certain way. The real deterrent should be what happens to us in the afterlife when we settle our karmic bills but that has been completely hidden from us in recent generations. As a result real suffering in our world is increasing dramatically and is mostly avoidable. So many communities now live in fear of the gangs that exploit the weak, terrorise the old and use violence as their main skill to make a living. If we do not live under them we are fortunate but our eyes should be open to the fact that so many do, even in our own country. We will all suffer ill health and pain at times but we really need to heal our world not arm the hooligans and excuse the torturers. How nice to think they don’t exist, not to see them or suffer under them. How difficult to see that we are responsible for them, and how painful to know that we will have to answer for their actions when we die. Unless you visit an abattoir you will never know what you inflict on the animals you eat. But the same is true about the lives lived by those who produce our food, clothes and other goods whose countries we invaded centuries ago and whose people we enslaved. Whose poor now underpin our wealth. If we refuse to accept our responsibility for this we do not have our eyes open and can never have enlightenment. But when we do travel down the path of opening our eyes what we will find is a thousand times worse that we imagined possible. Real history is a horror story worse than any film. Religions have killed, tortured and maimed the innocents. Justice has been a travesty. Slavery is and has been all around us. All only possible because we refused to look.
But even saying that we must treasure our status quo. Certainly we can improve it and reduce the suffering in it but it is of inestimable value compared to the abyss above which it is perched. As a species we are close to enlightenment and to perfection if only goodness can prevail and survive what is ahead.