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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

liberation in chelsea

I am in a museum dedicated to Himalayan art in Chelsea. The site was formerly occupied by a Barneys. There are two musicians, arrayed in white, seated at the foot of the staircase, playing trancelike music representative of a certain Pakistani genre. The staircase is a holiday for architects -- a crooked, cubist thing that ascends up six flights. I like the staircase. My friends and I decide to listen to the guide, who appears at 2:30. The guide is a loud, gray haired Brooklyn-ite with the Yogi Bear figure towards which middle aged American avoirdupois seems inevitably to tend. In a barker's voice he points out salient aspects of Buddhist iconography, and gives a compressed version of Gautama Buddha's message to the world: the letting go of craving, fear, anger and attachment.

Later, my friend K. tells me that she is plagued by craving. She wishes she could purify herself, annihilate it.

Now, I am not a stranger to the purifying impulse. I, too, would like to toss into some ultimate refiner's fire all the dross encumbering my life: the pennyante terrors of my economic life, the irresistable impulse to manufacture opinion that crowds out more valuable contemplative matter in my mindspace, the gnawing, daily sexual lust. But as I told K, I am not so certain that the purifying impulse is the equivalent of life more abundant -- it could well be the hollowing out of life itself. There is a moment in letting go in which liberation crosses over into surrender. In better moods, I believe that the moral point of the secular life is not to get rid of craving, but to get to its very center -- to sink into it until one has unlocked its puzzles. I am disinclined to think that the achievement of some state of gilded hibernation should be called enlightenment. My friend A., at Milinda's Questions, claims that I am a prisoner of my chains. To which my response is: where does that metaphor come from? It seems to me that, if these are chains, human life itself is a chain -- and the symbol of the chain, thus ramified into a world of chains, chains endlessly, loses its edge. I doubt that the Buddha touched earth as a chain touches another chain. In fact, I want to liberate myself from this particular metaphor as my part in freeing myself from the chains...

By the way, the exhibit of the handprints and footprints of the various incarnations of Buddha is extraordinary.

3 comments:

Brian Miller said...

A very interesting commentary, roger.

This may show my lack of understanding, but I've never understood the appeal of oblivion, surrender into some ineffable wholeness. Isn't the glory of human conscioussness that we are "separate," self-aware, bounded, and imperfect? Even if such means suffering? Is this just the comfortable, middle class American speaking-would I feel different about "suffering" if I lived in a calcutta slum? Probably.

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