A few days ago, I read a book review of The World Is Not Ours To Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. It was perception-altering for me. Given it’s the review’s brevity (and of course the fact that I haven’t actually read the book), it’s surprising that this piece could leave me with the profound feeling I’d just been called out by the mirror on my wall.
So, what’s this all about? You may ask.
As I understand it, The World Is Not Ours To Save delivers the message that any individual can only do so much to effect positive change in the world. Each of us is imbued with specific strengths and weaknesses, circumstances and opportunities and circles of humanity with which we interact. In all of the possible permutations of these domains, each of us is uniquely able and prepared to help make the world a better place in some way or other. No matter how hard we work or how thin we spread ourselves, however, we cannot fix all of the world’s extant problems. We can’t even fix all of the problems we become aware of though experience, news outlets and the internet. Therefore, in order to ensure that we don’t fail our calling we have to focus or we will burn out and do good for no one.
Wigg-Stevenson approaches this message from a strictly Christian (specifically Baptist) perspective. The title of the book implies that even humanity taken as a whole cannot be responsible for the ultimate repair of sin, because that’s God’s job. In his view only God has the power to effect that level of redemption. A large part of the book illuminates the theology behind his thesis to help Christians incorporate the message into their lives.
Despite our difference in theology, I believe that Wigg-Stevenson’s premise is equally important for Buddhists. Aren’t many of us wanna-be Bodhisattva’s at heart? In our meditation and other practices, we vow to eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings. Wow! That’s kind of a tall order, don’t you think? It’s actually kind of conceited when you think about it and somewhat childishly naive as well.
Part of the problem lies in a this-life perspective. Many forget that the entire concept of a Bodhisattva is that after death the Bodhisattva foregoes Nirvana and enters the human realm again and again until all sentient beings are relieved of suffering. The actualization of the goal lies in perhaps millions of years over thousands of lifetimes. Nonetheless our feeble perspective is always anchored to this world, this body, this lifetime. In that view the pressure is always on to get this thing done now! In so doing, we doom ourselves to failure and more damaging than that, we lose hope and live with the persistent feeling of being overwhelmed.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in God to see that surrendering to the ultimate Groundlessness of our place in the matter of elimination of suffering is critical. We must humble ourselves before the massiveness of the task at hand. The Bodhisattva Vows have been being taken for thousands of years. How central to the functioning of the universe can any one of us think we are that we could do alone what so many more practiced and disciplined beings before us could not do?
I’m not trying to be discouraging here. The most important feeling I had after reading the review of The World Is Not Ours To Save was relief. Why do I feel like I can’t fix everything? Because I really can’t. I had to chuckle at my hubris. Afterward though I could begin to lay that burden down and ask myself: What are my best gifts? In what way can those gifts serve to ease the suffering of the greatest number of sentient beings of which I am capable? Each of us doing our own part for the world, in harmony not competition, is the best implementation of the Bodhisattva Vows imaginable.
Here is a link to the Patheos page for The World Is Not Ours To Save
I’ve been watching the coverage of the Newtown student massacre with the usual blend of outrage and sadness. Political pundits from various arenas are each spinning their own favorite issue in the usual attempt to assign a cause to the bloodshed – or shall I clarify – a cause that can be easily summed up and addressed with Bold Legislative Action.
The most obvious of these is gun control and the expiration of the assault weapons ban. Also promoted is the impoverished state of mental health care in the United States and the difficulty inherent in obtaining (if not requiring) treatment for those who are dangerously mentally ill. All of this discussion is occurring over and around the din of the so-called “fiscal cliff” with it’s arguments about tax rates for the wealthy and expenditures on health care and other sustenance programs.
Talk, talk, talk. It goes on ad nauseam. It is irrelevant.
What will change as the result of Newtown? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because we are not even close to addressing something far more fundamental.
No matter what machinations we attempt to avoid this fundamental truth, we are all interconnected. America has a pathological relationship to interconnectedness. We have fallen victim to the lie of hyper-individuality and it is making us suffer. Ironically, the more we suffer, the more we snuggle into the cocoon of this make-believe land and the cycle begins again.
Anyone who knows me understands that I have immense respect for the strengths of an individualist world view. If Americans were not afforded individual rights and fundamental self-determination, I would not be free to be a Buddhist. If I were in China, for more reasons than one I would likely have been sent off to one of the “reeducation” work camps referenced last week in the New York Times. If that were the type of individual liberty we were talking about I’d be all for it.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. We have moved from a society that promoted individual liberty as a way to reduce unfairness and intolerance to a society which the primary concern is “I want what I want and forget everyone else.” Forget society, forget my family, forget my neighbors, if it gets in the way of what I want. That is what we have become. It breaks my heart every day beginning long before Newtown.
Until Americans experience a cultural shift in which value is assigned to our well-being as a group, not just of self, we will continue to spin our wheels when it comes to addressing some of our most crucial conundrums. Unless we are willing to put some parameters around the lawlessness of unrestrained individualism, we will be nothing more than a country of I’ll-get-mine-and-you’ll-get-whateva’.
There will never be rational discussion about an assault weapons ban outside of the context of understanding that our safety as a group outweighs the desire for certain individuals to own military-grade weapons. We can never progress in terms of care for the mentally ill until we acknowledge that societies’ right to not incur the consequences of untreated severe mental illness at times outweighs an individual’s right to refuse treatment. We can never internalize that the wealthy are so largely because of a group effort on their part with their employees and society (or from their parents) rather than their own private brilliance and therefore their worth is not so precious. It’s not just that policy can’t change. We can’t even talk about it. We can’t even imagine it.
The force of our cultural myopia in this regard will ultimately leave the events of Newtown as just another missed opportunity in a long list of missed opportunities that will be forgotten in the next news cycle. If this kind of change were easier, I guess we’d have many more Buddhas in the world. For now, we’ll have to work on it one Bodhisattva at a time.
Image credit: gsagi / 123RF Stock Photo
The next book I’m reviewing for Blogcritics is John Taylor’s In the Pleasure Groove. Having been a “Duranie” since 1983, I jumped at the chance. What fun! Taking a little jaunt away from the neuroscience, voice science and Buddhist philosophy I’ve been stuffing my head with for a while now. Leave it to me to turn it into a lesson in interconnectedness. It crept in sideways when I was least expecting it. The prompt was a story Taylor told about having asked the driver of the limousine of one of his favorite bands if he could have the used champagne cork from the floor of their car. Later, he met a fan who’d gotten a cold from him after having absconded with his tissues – um, eewww! Then there were the boots.
Any of you who lived through the eighties will recall those short ankle boots popularized by Duran Duran. I had a pair. All of my friends had a pair. And yes, you know it, you had a pair too… Mine were black. To match the fedora. Yeah. I know.
But I digress. What does all of this have to do with interconnectedness?
The first half of In the Pleasure Groove had a lot of information about Taylor’s musical influences, what bands were his favorite and how each related to the development of the pop/rock genre from the mid-seventies into the eighties. The Sex Pistols, David Bowie, Blondie had various influences on the sound palate and musical sensibility that Taylor brought to the band. It was really interesting to me and led to rumination about where I fit into this lineage.
It has for a long time seemed to me that musical influence is not unlike spiritual transmission from one adept to another. If the Sex Pistols, David Bowie and Blondie left pieces of themselves in Duran Duran’s music, how many pieces of themselves did Duran Duran contribute to my musical heritage? How much Bowie and Blondie are left in the mix after it’s filtered through Duran? When I write or sing, I can’t help but be aware that it’s not only me up there, but actually every musician who’s ever meant something to me. And no other band has meant more to me than Duran Duran.
So I asked myself, what about my students? I’m now teaching the next generation of singers and songwriters. How many pieces of Duran Duran will be left in them after being filtered through me? The answer came to me in an amusing form.
My 9-year old daughter is a budding singer, who is now studying guitar so that she can be the next Taylor Swift. She has one pair of shoes she loved enough to grow out of and buy another pair…
Then there is Kitarah. She’s a great new R&B singer who’s in the middle of recording her second EP. She came into her lesson last week in perky bright
green pants and – you guessed it…
What does this mean? In reality probably nothing, but over the past week it has served as a reminder that we are not always aware of the tiny ways in which we influence those around us and those who come after us. It was just a little funny nudge to keep me focused on our ultimate interconnectedness in all of its brilliant variety.
It’s funny that the first post in a blog about Buddhism isn’t going to talk about Buddhism at all. I’m not going to talk about how much I love Pema Chodron or expound on my insights into life. Instead, I’m going to honor the spirit of a man who recently passed away and who was for me one of the most inspirational people I have come into direct contact with – Arthur Lessac.
For those of you who don’t know of him, he is one of the great voice/movement/expression teachers of our time. And “our time” is expansive in this sense. Arthur Lessac died at age 101, only a few days after teaching an extensive course in Croatia.
Arthur Lessac (see URL below)
I met Arthur Lessac last year at a course with speech-language pathologists and singing teachers (of which I am both). One hundred years old at the time, he bench pressed a 200 pound man, led us in movement and dance exercises and spoke in a voice as clear and strong as anyone I’ve known. He exuded a joy in the exploration of life that was both genuine and inspiring.
Walking to work this morning, I thought about him and remembered how he used to encourage us all to walk as if we are dancing. Energy (NRG) will carry you in a way you wouldn’t expect. I thought about his demonstration of that last year and some clips of him in memorium that I watched yesterday. So, I started to dance to work, copying his bouncing and circular arm and leg motions and I was instantly consumed by joy.
This was the most intensely genuine emotional experience I have had in quite some time. It was akin to my experience in sitting meditation with a Zen group, when they asked us all to turn around and face the wall – WHITE. That was it. Today; JOY. That was it.
So, that is why I decided to write about everyday Buddhism. See you soon!
To learn more about Arthur Lessac’s work, visit: http://www.lessacinstitute.com/index2.html
Now buy the Book!