Nirvana

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The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth. – Lao Tzu

The laws of the Universe demand that everything remains perpetually in balance. Death and life appear simultaneously, though individually we usually only experience one of these poles at a time: last year, you celebrated the birth of a child; this year, you mourn the passing of a loved one. On an elemental level, disintegration and manifestation are a singular process as matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed. The only realm untouched by the Universal law of balance (or, if you prefer, the eternally balanced stream of Tao) is that of conscious experience. Not of Consciousness, mind you, but individual temporary conscious experience. Because we are unable to apprehend anything more than a mere fraction of the information around us through our limited sense organs, we feel as if any given moment in time is one of good fortune or bad luck. This, in turn, causes us to invent and conduct ourselves according to such conceptual pairs as justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, sinner and saint, good and evil.

This is why human life is so unnecessarily difficult.

The Buddhist concept of Nirvana is wildly misunderstood in Western culture. Much like we’ve done with the idea of karma, we have tailored the word to align with our own philosophical understandings so that most people consider it the Buddhist equivalent of Heaven. It isn’t. Nirvana is not a place, nor is it an afterlife reward for having lived a morally upstanding life. It is simply a state of mind that sees reality as it is and consequently elevates the individual who achieves it to a condition no longer vulnerable to the suffering of ignorance. Though many auspicious lamas throughout the ages have claimed attainment of such a state, I tend to think of it more as an ideal to guide us in our psycho-spiritual development.

I know from direct experience that practices designed to aid an individual in the nurturing of wisdom and calm abiding are effective. Not all are to everyone’s taste, which is why there are a myriad of diverse meditative and yogic techniques for our correspondingly diverse mindsets. I utilize what methods work best for me and can attest to an enormous personal transformation over the course of the past five years from a surly, selfish, nihilistic drunk to…well, whatever the hell you’d describe me as now. But no matter how one might choose to describe me now, it’s an improvement, I assure you. However, I am not enlightened. I do not dwell in Nirvana as I am still just as vulnerable to the dualistic illusions of Samsara as anyone. So in speaking of the Eastern wisdom traditions as I’m obviously wont to do, understand that I only seek a lessening of personal and interpersonal suffering, not its complete eradication. Though I know it’s not always apparent in the words I utilize, I am always attempting to approach matters with the motivation of pragmatism as opposed to divine mysticism.

We tend to base our views of vital issues on the concept of time as it relates to our average human lifespan. For instance, if a person spends the majority of a lifetime struggling for social justice or equal rights and in their twilight years injustice and inequality only seem to have gotten worse, this person’s final thought may be that it was all for naught. That is a shame, because every noble struggle is worthwhile. However, if we really care about such causes for reasons beyond our own self-satisfaction, we need to realize that we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetimes that are but a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Acting from compassionate virtue must be its own reward. Every action sooner or later yields a corresponding reaction; incidentally, that’s the actual definition of karma, not some supernatural system of punishment and reward. So your virtuous actions will yield positive results…just maybe not as soon as you’d wish.

Due to my personal predispositions, I tend to be quite passionate about issues of equality and rights. This goes hand in hand with my spiritual understanding of the inherent equanimity of all beings. As a result, those who have read my ramblings for any length of time have come to expect occasional admonishments of those who discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other surface-level classifications. Effective writing often demands a certain amount of hyperbolic idealism and absolutism, but I understand how things really work. In order for my words and actions to have any effect whatsoever, they must be shared and practiced by countless other individuals (and, of course, they are — usually FAR more vitally) because it is the collective mind that has to shift if any real, lasting change is to occur. Also, to avoid succumbing to discouragement, I have to understand that a massive psychic transformation on such a scale takes time. Whether I live to be 100 years old or die tomorrow, I will not be afforded the time to witness the effects of the virtuous human action of those currently inhabiting the planet. If this is the case, why struggle? Why care? Because spiritual evolution is not about the individual — it is about the forward motion of embodied Consciousness. If our selfish vantage points tell us that such efforts are futile, then we’re missing the point. Those who came before us brought us to the world we currently inhabit. We are doing the same, for better or for worse, for those who will come after us. If you are a parent, you might have a better instinctual understanding of the importance of leaving a better world for future generations. But this is something we all need to understand, whether or not we plan to pass on our genetic code.

So yes, the problems we currently face are bigger than any one of us. From the standpoint of individual efficacy, they are quite literally insurmountable. Yet I know in my heart that if we can take a broader view and drop our personal arrogance and self-protective attitudes enough to join hands and form alliances with those whose lifestyles and outlooks we may not understand, the prospects for a brighter and more cooperative future are great. Here’s hoping we can all make an effort to do just that. And if you still need a little bit of pride to sweeten the deal, I think it’s perfectly harmless to envision a new generation that truly appreciates the bold and kind efforts of its predecessor. We should aspire to go down in history, not infamy. To paraphrase a line from a cheesy Belinda Carlisle song, Nirvana is a place on Earth.  Potentially, of course.  By tapping that potential, we become timeless.

 

Hypocrisy

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Never meant to leave you all alone. Said I’d be your shelter from the storm. Now your clothes have all been torn. Kingdom sacked, attacked and dethroned. – Matisyahu

Like most people, I habitually make grand proclamations about how I’m going to behave in certain situations “from here on out”. Even on this recently conceived blog, I’ve already contradicted myself several times. “This will be my last political rant” (until the next one). “Fuck it, I’m moving to Canada” (perhaps, maybe, if a good opportunity arises). “From now on, I will view everything through eyes of compassion” (until someone pisses me off).

At the same time, I post frequent dispatches from the etheric level of my mind informing readers, essentially, that there are no absolutes. When I invariably follow such spiritual essays with a declaration of absolute “irrefutable” opinion, do I thus negate myself entirely?

Obviously, confident pronouncements of my future outlook and/or conduct are verbal chimeras as the future is an invented concept to which the Universe does not subscribe. But one can only be so meticulous with his words before the emotion gets sucked right out of the script. Therefore, with full knowledge that I am once again attempting to predict the non-existent future, I concede that I will probably continue to express myself in a somewhat contradictory manner. That doesn’t necessarily render my words hypocritical, just inadequate.

I have to admit that throughout the recent existential crisis faced by the US and by extension the world, I’ve been disappointed to find that the representatives of the Buddhist community to whose newsletters I subscribe have been confoundingly silent about all of it. I receive e-mails informing me of new stupas being built, some lama’s upcoming birthday, or most frequently, another redundant paean to Milarepa or some other long-dead Dharma icon. Of course, a significant percentage of meditation practice is designed to facilitate the disengagement from ego. This is a long process, to put it mildly. Ideally, when one has thrown off the bonds of Samsara, he or she is said to possess perfect natural compassion due to the panoramic view thus attained. But let’s be honest: who among us – dedicated meditators and spiritually disinterested people alike – possesses anything like universal compassion that informs their every thought, word and action? To put it mildly: precious few of us, if any.

So in our imperfect state, are we expected to disengage from all social and political affairs until we reach that fuzzy place called Nirvana? Sometimes, it seems that this is precisely the message I’m getting from people who are supposed to be so spiritually advanced that they elicit reactions akin to worship from their devotees. Humans sure do love to grovel at someone else’s feet. The ironic thing about this tendency in many Buddhists is that its implication is the antithesis of unity and equanimity, two of the most important aspects of Siddhartha Gautama’s original message. Like any other ancient wisdom tradition, Buddhism suffers from having acquired “too many cooks” along the way in its 2500 year history. The Buddha himself warned against the kind of inferiority complex implicit in such misguided fealty.

So here we are, imperfect seekers inhabiting a dangerous world. Humanity’s cruelty is just as prevalent as ever, even if the surface features have changed with the times. And now, at the threshold of a truly global emergency that threatens to increase the suffering of mankind to unprecedented levels, some of us look to our spiritual “superiors” and hear only crickets. Or we’re told about fund drives to finance a new, perfectly unnecessary opulent temple or stupa. Granted, these symbolic structures are beautiful, but can they free prisoners? Feed the hungry? Stand up for the oppressed? I’m sorry, but some vague statement about the positive energy emanating out to the world from these construction projects doesn’t cut it. People are suffering, people are scared…and they need help. Real help. Tangible help. Now. Building a miniature Angkor Wat in Palm Beach doesn’t constitute help.

If you meditate, the time spent on the cushion or walking mindfully is the time to disengage. When the bell signals the end of the session, your ego reasserts itself. Ideally, ego’s strength is slightly decreased with each immersion into non-conceptual awareness, but to proclaim that you have conquered your ego is an oxymoron. Therefore, at this critical juncture, I am asking my fellow travelers of the path to care for your suffering brothers and sisters. Volunteer. Protest. Donate. Comfort those in need. Divert the self-interest of your ego into charitable activities. Get out there. Get your hands dirty. Spreading the message of the Dharma is a wonderful thing (so long as you refrain from proselytizing), but it doesn’t feed people or heal their wounds.

I am aware that many dogmatic Buddhists would take issue with what I said here. But the Dalai Lama wouldn’t, so if you’re itching for a debate, take it up with His Holiness…if you can get a minute with him, of course. He’s usually busy these days taking steps to alleviate real suffering and therefore may not have time for your pointless semantics. That’s what real spiritual people do. The charlatans sit in their temples and solicit donations to increase the shininess of their surroundings. Spirituality without pragmatism is futile.

And if, like me, you wish to decrease the use of absolute language in discussing issues that are fluid rather than static, maybe just try to be quieter across the board. Those who suffer don’t need our words, and acts of kindness can be performed just as well in silence. But charitable acts performed bombastically are still better than silent negligence.

Sacrilege

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You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me… – Exodus 20:5

Early last month, the Orange Homunculus held a gathering of evangelical leaders in the Oval Office. At the conclusion of this bizarre love-in for the New Messiah of the Christian Right, the assembled “faith leaders” laid their hands on him with the same reverence described in the bible by those who had the blessed honor of touching Jesus’ sacred garments. Think about that. If there are truly any humble and ethical Christians left in this arrogant and increasingly despicable nation, I would have to guess that it was enormously offensive for them to see other “followers of Christ” bestowing such undue admiration upon this morally bankrupt piece of shit with a narcissism that rises to the level of a God complex.

How can alleged devotees of someone dubbed the Prince of Peace possibly justify such sycophantic fealty to a man who causes so much suffering with his hateful rhetoric and draconian attempts at consolidating dictatorial power? How did a group of senators and cabinet members just days earlier live with themselves after bestowing coerced hyperbolic praise and decrees of loyalty upon a lawless “president” who had publicly insulted and lambasted every one of them over the course of the past year? The answer, believe it or not, lies in the bible.

The authors of the scriptures, particularly of the Old Testament, knew a thing or two about erecting power structures to assure their own selfish ends. They created an image of God based upon the tyrannical leaders of ancient empires. A god who created mankind out of the dust for the express purpose of demanding adoration, obedience and loyalty from it, the failure of which will be punished by an eternity in hell. Nice, huh? Can’t you just feel the pervasive love and forgiveness beaming down from this Fuhrer In The Sky?

It’s high time that all people of reasonable intelligence and decency start to analyze their own religious beliefs and their reasons for having them. Lazy non-answers such as “it’s the religion in which I was raised” don’t cut it anymore. That says absolutely nothing about why you find a particular religious tradition’s claims to have any veracity. To be clear, I am not attacking anyone’s genuine faith here, as long as that faith doesn’t demand judgment and persecution of others. I am simply calling out hypocrisy on the part of those who claim to “base their lives” on the example of Jesus and then proceed to treat their fellow man in ways that he specifically prohibited.

I find it ironic that the god of the bible seems to be a perfect amalgamation of all the qualities we’re told are wrong and sinful: anger, vengefulness, narcissism, selfishness, jealousy. These are the qualities of a dictator; an emperor; an authoritarian who exacts obedience through fear.

One cannot simultaneously have a “fear of God” and a love for God. Similarly, one cannot fear a ruthless human leader and love him. The two emotions are mutually exclusive. So while someone like Trump may have no qualms about basking in insincere adoration from spineless politicians, how can people attribute such an attitude to their “loving creator” and fail to see the preposterousness of such a myth?

I believe that religion is a true panacea and moral guide for some people. However, if one cannot be inquisitive and, yes, skeptical enough to question the glaringly contradictory aspects of their tradition’s ancient scripture, then this person is just desperately grasping at blind faith motivated by fear. Love and compassion can have no real place in such an egocentric and paranoid cosmology. Nor do they currently have a place in the United States of America.

The Passion of Walter White

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Guess I got what I deserve. Kept you waiting there too long, my love. All that time without a word. Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret the special love I have for you, my Baby Blue. – Badfinger

Though I’m often adept at summarizing complex subjects in a succinct, blog-worthy manner, it would be impossible for me to compose a condensed analysis of the psychological underpinnings of the brilliant serial drama Breaking Bad. Such a study could fill a book and believe it or not, several such books have been written.

Vince Gilligan had to know what a risk he was taking when initially pitching a show about a middle aged chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer turning to the manufacture of methamphetamine to leave a sufficient posthumous financial legacy to his family. Fortunately, AMC took a chance on this exceedingly dark premise and thus we the viewing public were treated to the most meticulously crafted, gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted morality tale ever aired.

If you did not watch the show, feel free to stop reading now. Your time will be much better spent Netflixing all five seasons and watching it in a non-stop, coffee-fueled marathon. Now. Why are you still here? Go. Watch the show.

If you’re still here, I’m going to assume that you are quite familiar with Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Hank Schrader, Skyler White, Saul Goodman, Hector Salamanca, Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmentraut. This post will confine itself to the final episode of the series, Felina. The title itself had a double — perhaps triple — meaning. To indicate the end of the series, the word is an anagram of finale. Also, as we witnessed Walt slip back into Albuquerque sight unseen to utilize his intellect and some tricks of the trade he had learned during his two year odyssey as a drug kingpin to exact revenge and tie up loose ends, he did so with the subtle grace of a cat — felina. The third meaning is my favorite.

As the episode begins, Walt is still hiding out in a cabin in rural New Hampshire. He made his way down to the local watering hole where the TV was tuned into an episode of Charlie Rose, who was interviewing Walt’s former business partners, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Since Walt was now a nationally renowned criminal on the lam, Charlie asked the Schwartzes to comment on him. Their condescending response spurred Walt into action. He used the bar’s pay phone to call the Albuquerque office of the DEA and asked to speak to the head officer on the Walter White case. When asked who was calling, he deadpanned, “Walter White'” and dropped the receiver, letting it dangle from its metal coil. He threw the authorities off his trail by bringing them right to his doorstep.

There is an old car outside the bar covered in ice and snow. Walt delicately lets himself into the driver’s side, being careful not to knock any of the obscuring frost and snow from the windows. When the police descend on the tavern, Walt slouches low in his seat and waits for them to leave. He then hot-wires the vehicle and notices a cassette tape case on the passenger’s seat: Marty Robbins’ Greatest Hits. When the engine turns over, the stereo kicks on: Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl. Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina, music would play and Felina would whirl. This old country classic was the perfect choice for this scene. The narrator in the song ultimately dies of a bullet wound in the arms of his love, Felina. A death, but a death done his way, on his terms. This was precisely what Walt was planning to accomplish with his return to New Mexico.

The series began on Walt’s 50th birthday: the same day he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It ends on his 52nd birthday. In that brief time span, we watched him transform gradually from a henpecked, underachieving and mild-mannered family man into a dangerous, cutthroat, power mad drug kingpin. (“Say my name.” “Heisenberg?” “You’re goddamn right.”) Many of Walt’s colleagues and family understood long before he did that he was not motivated solely by the welfare of his family for very long. During his final visit to Skyler, she won’t suffer his tired altruistic explanation any longer and tells him to level with her. Understanding that at this point he owes her the truth, he admits for the very first time: “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”

Walter White, like all of the amazingly nuanced characters in the show, cannot be pigeonholed as either good or evil. Just like all human beings, he is far more complex than a black or white description can do justice. Our sympathy is with him right out of the gate, even after he makes his fateful decision to partner up with his former student Jesse Pinkman and cook an incredibly pure form of crystal methamphetamine for distribution throughout the city. He quickly learns that murder comes with the territory, but at first, he’s extremely disturbed at having to take a life even in self-defense. As time goes on, killing becomes second nature. Finally, it becomes his method of cementing absolute control over the entire Southwest meth market. Gus Fring’s former enforcer, Mike, sums up how much Walt had let the whole thing go to his head shortly after Walt’s brilliant nursing home coup that took out Gus: “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch. We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no! You just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man.” Mike was right. Walt did have to be the man, because never before in his life had he ever been so feared and respected; he had never before been “the man”. This is why I found myself rooting for Walt to successfully pull off his final coup even though just two episodes prior, he had spoken the most intentionally devastating and evil words imaginable to Jesse before his former partner was taken as a meth cooking slave by the group of Neo-Nazis with whom they’d recently done business. As Jesse struggles to free himself from Jack’s grasp, Walt looks him in the eye and referring to Jesse’s late girlfriend, says with matter-of-fact malice: “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her, but I didn’t.”

How could I possibly still have been pulling for a character that would say something so abhorrent to a young man he had grown to view in an almost paternal way? It’s hard to explain. And this was the genius of Breaking Bad.

Freeing Jesse from his nightmarish servitude to Jack, Todd and the rest of the scumbags in that crew was, of course, on Walt’s agenda when he drove across the country to make things right in Albuquerque. He also wanted to ensure that every penny of his ill-gotten wealth would be left to his family. Looking emaciated and ill, an unshaven Walt arrives home on his birthday and sets his multi-faceted plan in action.

With a self-crafted MacGyver-style gun turret contraption hidden in the trunk of his car, Walt arrives at the Neo-Nazis’ hideout and coaxes Jack to bring Jesse into the room. When Jesse appears, Walt tackles him to the floor, covering him with his body, as he presses a button on his keychain that activates the revolving gun. The entire gang is killed by machine gun fire except for Jesse’s main tormentor, Todd, who Walt allows Jesse to choke to death with the chains Todd had bound him in weeks before. Walt kicks a lone pistol on the floor over to his now liberated former partner (and student) and tells him, “Do it.” Jesse notices that Walt has a serious bullet wound in his gut, kicks the gun back to Walt and tells him to do it himself. He then hops into a car, crashes through the gate of the compound and drives to freedom.

We hear multiple police sirens approaching as Walt slowly and wistfully walks through the former meth lab, stopping here and there to caress the pristine cook tops with a bittersweet smile on his face. As his hand touches a metal vat, it slips down leaving a bloody trail as Walt falls to the floor, smiling, and dies.

This was when I began to cry.  Real tears. The kind of tears I usually reserve for the most devastating of personal losses. I was crying for a fictional character. A morally ambiguous drug manufacturer, liar, manipulator and murderer. A fictional character whose journey took all of us along for the frightening yet exhilarating ride. Because none of us are purely good or evil. Because all of us have made regrettable decisions and have hurt the ones we love most. Because nothing and no one is black and white.

The ghost of this fictional character still haunts the desert metropolis of Albuquerque and the outlying areas, and probably always will. Those who believe in the supernatural claim that ghosts tend to stick around the very area on which they had the biggest impact and where they left the biggest emotional traces. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that no single person, real or fictional, has had a bigger impact on the Duke City than Walter White.

And he leaves us with a profound question to ponder: if any of us were to find ourselves in the situation that Walt did on his fiftieth birthday, what would we do? Until you can answer that question with unflinching honesty, please don’t judge me for grieving the passing of a fictional meth cook.