“If one looks at the prajnaparamita sutras with their endless repetitions, they were not just intended simply to be read, but to be recited and reread again and again, in fact being contemplative manuals or road maps meant to be used as practice texts to facilitate the single message of emptiness sinking in through repeatedly familiarizing with it by multifaceted contemplations.”
Karl Brunholz, “Introduction” to his translation of the Ornament of Clear Realization
The deathless gods, impassioned and fickle, bound to their grudges and affections for all eternity. Mortal humanity, granted some release, through death; but death comes dark, black, shot through with the wild fury of rage and battle, bloodlust and pride, destruction, war. Homer is singing of the criss-crossed border between the two realms, deathless and deathly, and it’s terrible to hear. This is the Iliad.
They populate the poem, mingle with average humanity: god-sired and goddess-born heroes. About the hero, Bernard Knox says in his introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation:
To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. But there are human beings who are like this. Preeminent in their particular sphere of power, they impose their will on others with the confidence, the unquestioning certainty of their own right and worth that is characteristic of gods. Such people the Greeks called “heroes”; they recognized the fact that they transcended the norms of humanity by according them worship at their tombs after death. Heroes might be, usually were, violent, antisocial, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessels humanity is capable of superhuman greatness, that there are some human beings who can deny the imperatives which others obey in order to live.
Chilling words, in light of recent tragedies. In a violent world ringed with death, in which the graphic literary descriptions of warriors’ fatal wounds on the battle field sound not like embellishment, but documentation, perhaps the human heroes who blurred the distinction between mortality and deathlessness by their character and nature were a comfort to Homer and the audience for whom he sang. What the deathless gods possess by default, mortal man can attain through heroic action. For the hero, the long memory of man singing his praise gains his immortality and the heroic life continues through story and song. But to me, reading the Iliad from the cultural remove of thousands of years and, perhaps more pointedly, a strangely sanitized modern America in which violence is as close as the television or a video game but not experienced to the extent it is visualized, the violence and rage Homer describes with nauseating detail disturb me. The price at which immortality is gained on the fields of Ilium is too high, to me.
Grief and sorrow exist in Homer’s world. This society, in which war and physical conflict were both endemic and immediate, soldiers dying at the front gates, the fallen brought back to bleed out their lives in the arms of family just behind the walls of Troy, understood sorrow; but they also understood and accepted death as a force in their world and understood it as part of the natural order of things. What Homer hints might be unnatural, although no less integral to his society, is war, “inhuman warfare” (Book 3), the “pain and grisly fighting” (Book 4) whose toils are “the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world” (Book 5). Death comes, but war is a choice. War brings eternal glory to the hero, but also destruction, rending families, testing and breaking alliances. Its opposite it not merely peace, but friendship, the lateral bonds of human society itself.
Homer’s similes have drawn their deserved praise and critical attention for millennia, but I’m still startled to read, time and again, his yoking of the domestic and pastoral with the military. Armies swarm like bees, yes, crash like waves, their armor glinting like ravening wildfire as they gather like flocks of wide-winged birds. More explicit contrasts are drawn between domesticity (and the implication of peace) and war, and I find those lines, in their directness, heartbreaking:
So [Helen] wavered, but the earth already held them fast,
long-dead in the life-giving earth of Lacedaemon,
the dear land of their fathers.
“Long-dead in the life-giving earth…” But we know that fields burned or salted by invading or retreating enemy troops in vengeance, or churned up under infantry, strafed with napalm or seeded with mines, or simply left empty for lack of people to work them, people dead from war— these fields are no longer part of the life-giving earth. The earth, in order to give life, requires peace. Helen is thinking of her brothers whom she left in Lacedaeomon, Achaea, when she sailed for Troy with Paris. They died, far from the battle her departure instigated, and perhaps those “lovely hills” across the sea are still life-giving; but not so the killing fields between the black-hulled ships of the Achaeans and the gates of Troy.
Reaching the front, they climbed down from the chariot,
onto the earth that feeds us all…
So Priam rides his chariot out to the plain in front of the gates, where the Achaean troops with Menelaus at their head wait to seal the oath which will bind Paris and Menelaus to one-to-one combat for Helen. Whoever wins the combat, takes Helen home; and “The rest will seal in blood their binding pacts of friendship.” Those oaths, like the one Paris and Menelaus take, are sealed with ritual sacrifice. The livestock slaughtered for sacrifice becomes a kind of surrogate army. Rather than spill their own blood in continuous fighting, the armies agree to spill sacrificial blood for friendship. It’s still a world drenched in blood, requiring blood even for friendship. Peace is founded on blood. The earth that feeds us all, one way or another, will be soaked red. Whether the red of bloody battle or the red of amicable, appeasing sacrifice, is the uneasy hinge on which actions of the Iliad swing.
The gods meddle. Fate is decreed, then the design tampered with. Hera sets her will against Zeus’, Ares and Athena rouse war-lust in men to serve their own ends, Aphrodite interferes to save Paris from the mortal combat that should have killed him and resolved the war, Thetis pleads for a secret scheme from Zeus to satisfy her son Achilles. The only foregone conclusion in the Iliad is that Achilles will die young. He must, if he is to have a hero’s fate and the immortality which accompanies it. Thetis, his goddess mother, mourns:
O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you?
All I bore was doom…
Would to god you could linger by your ships
without a grief in the world, without a torment!
Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.
And not only short, now, but filled with heartbreak too,
more than all other men alive—doomed twice over.
Thetis imagines the life that might-have-been for her heroic son, griefless; warless. But also unheroic, and therefore, fully mortal.
The Iliad is gory and psychologically disturbing. People and gods alike are driven by revenge, greed, pride, and rage. Few, if any, of the other aspects of the human character are present. Those that are seem latent. Helen’s belated attempt at honor after Paris broke the agreement of his combat with Menelaus is met with fury by the goddess Aphrodite. Honor has no place when it contravenes the will of the gods:
“Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?
Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?
Where will you drive me next? …
But why now?—
because Menelaus has beaten your handsome Paris
and hateful as I am, he longs to take me home?
Is that why you beckon here beside me now
with all the immortal cunning in your heart?
Well, go to him yourself—you hover beside him!
Abandon the gods’ high road and be a mortal!
…It would be wrong,
disgraceful to share that coward’s bed once more.”
But Aphrodite rounded on her in fury:
“Don’t provoke me—wretched, headstrong girl!
Or in my immortal rage I may just toss you over,
hate you as I adore you now—with a vengeance.”
The gods’ high road is not the moral high ground. It is, quite literally, the high ground of Olympus, where the deathless ones live. It’s laughable that Aphrodite would call Helen headstrong, since it’s Aphrodite’s desire to see her favorite Paris live and flourish that compels her to twist Helen’s arm. Aphrodite comes across as bullying. All the gods do, and the ranks of men below mimic this, taking what they want from weaker men by force, or where they can leverage others to obtain either power or prizes. It’s a world ruled by force unyoked from what we would consider a moral imperative. It’s a devastating world in which neither observers nor participants can concluded whether it’s free will or fate that drives events and men.
Achilles, the hero, is still off-stage at this point in the poem. The events which will establish the background and set up the immediate events of the main action are still happening at the end of Book Five. The feeling I have had since the opening words—”Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles”—is that it isn’t Achilles who is the main character of the story. It’s rage, Rage, and the other passions that drive us still today as they drove the characters of the Iliad. If Homer’s battle scenes with their precise descriptions of wounds are physically accurate, I find him no less precise when describing the brutality and wounds of the inner battlefield. A brutal world, and a brutal humanity.
I’ve read Books 1 to 5 of the Iliad so far, the second book in a project to read epics in 2013.
The problem can be made clearer if one looks more closely at how diagnosis and treatment work in medicine. The fourfold formula [of the four noble truths of Buddhism] above is a pretty good approximation. You start with, “Oh, look, there’s a problem!” Then you look into the possible causes. Then you think about how, knowing the cause, you might treat the problem (sometimes, you don’t need to worry about underlying causes to treat symptoms, but often it can help). Then you prescribe whatever therapeutic course is the best response to the problem. So what is the difference when it comes to philosophy? The difference, I think, is that a good doctor will not assume that there is some kind of fundamental condition of corporeal existence, a fundamental condition for which there is a single cure. A doctor who prescribed antibiotics (or exorcism, or cupping, or a week’s holiday) for everything under the sun — broken legs, viruses or what have you — would be a poor doctor indeed. There is no single fundamental condition that is “illness”; and so there is no panacea for all ills. This is why doctors need a degree of cunning. They need their wits about them, they need to know that bodies are complex and that they behave in all manner of different ways, and they need to know that there are innumerable ways of responding to these complexities. Not only this, but there is not always a problem: a good doctor is also able to diagnose, sometimes, that nothing much is wrong, and that patient can be sent upon their way, reassured that nothing (at least at the moment) needs to be done.
In the light of this, sometimes it seems to me that philosophical diagnosticians lack the cunning of their medical counterparts (not for nothing were the precursors of today’s doctors called “cunning men”). Let us say, for the sake of argument, that if doctors treat bodies and what goes wrong with bodies, philosophical diagnosticians try (at least) to treat lives, and what goes wrong with lives. But it seems to me that good philosophical diagnosticians, just like good doctors, should be capable of recognising that lives too are complex things, and that just as there is no single “human condition” that needs treating, so there is no single treatment that is appropriate. Indeed, a good philosophical diagnostician, I think, should — just like a doctor — have the ability to recognise that sometimes there is nothing much wrong with the way that life is going, and to refrain from offering remedies that in truth remedy nothing (and that may have unwelcome side-effects).
The Myriad Things, Therapeutic Philosophy and the Pharmacopoeia of Humankind
“And yet there is a romance and a power and a beauty and a permanence and a sense of reality that actual printed books have, which also does not translate to electronic format for me.”
Wil Wheaton, the quietest and most constant of friends
I wrote a blog post yesterday on my iPad, because I wanted to try using the WordPress app to both upload pictures I’d taken with the ‘Pad and input text with my dad’s Bluetooth keyboard while I waxed poetic on reading classic epic poems (in ebook format on said iPad). But somehow the draft didn’t get saved and the post got lost and it was a good thing. Good because when driving up to Ketchum with my dad I dove into an explanation of how I ended up reading the Iliad that was far more impassioned than the post I’d been writing, and it forced a sense of shame on me for not being as impassioned a writer as I was a soapbox conversationalist. Good because I read some other people’s posts on the internets today on topics that seemed unrelated to either the Iliad or ebooks at first glance, but in my mind pulled together of a sudden like the borders of a woven shawl snagged on a nail. Good because sometimes losing things so that you can reconsider them from scratch is exactly what you needed.
It started with a book on the clearance table at The Strand bookstore in New York City. No, wait; it didn’t. It started with an iPad, my iPad, the one I got because I was tired of hauling around a heavy 17″ laptop everywhere when often all I needed to be able to do was check email, and also because I was getting tired of hauling piles of books everywhere (and more and more of the kinds of books I read are being published as ebooks, too), and also because I had been utterly charmed by an iPad over the summer and had since pined for a gadget of my own, among other reasons. When I landed a largish paying translation job, I used some of that money for an iPad. So it began there, because part of my argument for an iPad was that I could read books and PDFs on it, something of increasing importance to me.
But I hadn’t bought any ebooks. I download PDFs of available scholarly papers and scanned copies of academic books not yet available as ebooks, and I also read the free versions of books that are in the public domain (Austen, Shakespeare, etc.). At The Strand, however, standing in front of a table full of bargain mass-market paperbacks, all of them flaunting the same notice that the paperback price was less than the Kindle version of the book (fiscal economy over physical economy), I noticed Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin.
LeGuin is one of my favorite authors. She tells tales of worlds far removed from ours and yet the stories in the tales are always about us, about home. I’m thinking especially of The Left Hand of Darkness, which was for me, when I read it in my early 20s, a haunting, nuanced, and far more compelling exploration of gender and society than the Judith Butler I’d hung my hat on in college. So Lavinia, at a mere 5 dollars and neither thick nor heavy, won me over. I had 12 hours of travel ahead of me to get to Boise, Idaho. This book was the thing to help me get through a late night waiting at the airport and the underslept crusty-eyed morning of flying following it.
In Lavinia, LeGuin writes the story of Lavinia, Aeneas’ wife in the Aeneid. Virgil never has her speak in the poem; LeGuin imagines the life and world of Lavinia, both before Aeneas arrived on the shores of Latium, and after. The novel explores silence and voice, story-telling and agency, all of which I find of great importance in what we conventionally call the non-fictive world.
It wasn’t the most compelling novel I’ve ever read and not my favorite LeGuin novel by a stretch. In addition to being about giving voice to the voiceless, however, it’s also about antiquity and mythologized history. It’s about the world of the classical epics. Reading the novel, I realized I knew nothing about the Aeneid. Nor could I really remember the Iliad or the Odyssey, both of which I’d been required to read in college. I had taken a course freshman year that dealt with epics, and we’d gone from Troy to Dublin, ending with Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel I actually gave up on and one of the few I proudly admit I never finished. I took a seminar on Virginia Woolf and read her response (rebuttal?) to Joyce, Mrs. Dalloway. Later I took a course on Milton, and of course the majority of the course centered on Paradise Lost. At some point I’d read portions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and somehow I had escaped the Anglophilic Yale English Department with only a passing knowledge of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. All of these are classed as epics, and with the exception of the modern novels, all are poems. Lavinia, thin novel though it is, plunged me back into the poetry of the epics and the conversations that have been happening between them for thousands of years.
I downloaded the Iliad while waiting at the gate at LAX. My first ebook, bought and paid. I felt some trepidation. I love books, and when asked to put my money where my mouth is, I have always bought paper books. (Pbooks? If we have ebooks?) Now, though, I’d crossed some line in my mind, the one demarcating my position as a merely opportunistic user of the electronic format to a committed consumer of the electronic format. I felt a little strange, and a little giddy, the way we usually do when we deliberately cross some personal threshold. Not reckless, but not entirely certain what new territory I had entered into.
More books followed over the week. The Odyssey. RipRap. Red Pine’s Lankavatara. And more will follow. Not all the books I like to read are available yet as ebooks. Regarding that, however, I have learned that for the price of mere patience, I can scan things for free at the library. (The librarians content themselves with posting notices about copyright laws and not looking over the shoulders of students at the scanner.) Even if all the books I wanted to read were available in electronic format, I still wouldn’t exclusively buy and read ebooks. There is the romance, the power, and the beauty of pbooks that does not translate to ebooks; so I move forward and I move backward: I read the classic epics on an iPad, I buy paper poetry chapbooks.
I believe this is the shape of things to come: a heterogeneous reading life, at least until the power fails and our batteries die.
[Jean-Luc] Marion defines an icon as the visible form of the divine, as found in statues, paintings, and names. An idol is visible, and what makes it function as an idol is the act of gazing: “the idol thus acts as a mirror, not as a portrait: a mirror that reflects the gaze’s image, or more exactly, the image of its aim and the scope of that aim.” Like a mirror, it reflects back the gazer’s ability to conceive the divine, but it also necessarily limits the unlimited godhead. [Like] the absent Buddha of post-parinirvana India, God is invisible, and so the idol limits the divine to what the gazer can imagine. …Icons, however, represent a different approach. Marion contends that an icon and an idol may be contained in the same object, but they serve different functions; they are “two modes of apprehension of the divine in visibility. Of apprehension, or also, no doubt, of reception.” An idol restrains the gaze, while an icon liberates it and opens the mind to imagination. An idol is created for worship of an external figure, while an icon represents potentialities in the gazer, which the act of gazing, followed by internalization, seeks to actualize.
A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism,
I have felt the cold here. I have felt something sharper than cold.
The “little old lady,” Bleak House, Charles Dickens
If you want to find God, sin flagrantly to invite divine retribution.
How to find things, Dave Bonta
Took an intercity bus to the train station. I like highways but not buses: car-sickness. I like trains and their tracks both. On the ride north, I read Thomas Merton’s journal, one of the early ones. He sounds pompous throughout. Someone once told me Merton loses his holier-than-thou attitude after a crises of faith of some kind, which he details in those journals. Read the later journals too, she urged me. I was reading entries mostly from September 1948. I like Merton, partly because his self-righteous is familiar to me, as my own.
In Chapter today Dom Columban, speaking in French, made the point that it was not the strictness with which we kept the Rule that counted, but the love with which we kept it: his logic being, I suppose, that, generally, strictness will be proportionate to live. But it is not necessarily so always. So he added that it is possible for a monastery to be very observant of the Rule and yet have very little interior life, if the observance is based on imperfect motives.
I can think of no better place to learn poverty of spirit than in our choir in which there is positively nothing to please the senses.
I know why I will never write anything about prayer in a Journal, because anything you write, even a Journal, is at least implicitly somebody else’s business. When I say prayer, I mean what happens to me in the first person singular.
Entering the Silence: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume II 1941-1952
I got off at Yongsang Station. I met a brother for lunch, and then we headed over to the sangha meeting together in the bright bitter cold.
I had a backgammon-and-coffee date on Wednesday. I was trounced in a half-set, 8-4. We quit early when the cribbage team next to us finished and began to fidget. This move probably benefitted my pride, since I was not anticipating a second-half comeback. I remember backgammon as something a step above checkers and several below chess in terms of complexity, but re-learning the game ten years later with someone who has a head for strategy and a nimble elegance on the board schooled me.
We ate lunch at a Jordanian restaurant and discussed sangha issues informally. Then we split up to run errands, and scattered into the cold evening.
There is a breakfast place in Seoul that serves American-style diner-like breakfasts. We met, a group of us, for an early brunch. I had a vegan omelet. We all shared a brownie with ice-cream (because where else, once we all scatter again to our various home temples and schools, will we find a homemade brownie with chocolate sauce?) after our various plates and pans of hash browns and toast, eggs and cheese. Then WSSn and I went back to the train station and rode back down to North Jeolla. It had snowed heavily the past couple of days in the provinces. Seoul had been dry but freezing, and I had shivered the entire 36 hours under piercing blue skies.
It was WSSn’s first visit to my home temple. We made a nest of blankets on the heated ondol floor, the typical way to stay warm in Korean homes, and brewed coffee at regular intervals all day. She was just in time to see our kindergarten’s antics’ festival, which we hold around this time each year.
Dim Light, Saturday
A little before 1 a.m., I woke with a headache. Not a warning, but a regular-strength attack. Not a bad headache, either, in the balance of things. But it kept me up a couple of hours and left me exhausted. Napping the next morning, another headache developed. That these were only mild attacks, and not the terrible serial ragers that devoured an entire month last winter, nearly incapacitating me and leaving me terrified, was not lost on me. Nor was the blessing of having a good friend around, who could keep me company whether healthy or ill, and was unfazed by the quirks of pain. She was sitting with me in dim light, chatting softly, when the headache lifted as suddenly as it had landed.
Breaking the Sabbath, Sunday
WSSn left after lunch. I came home, my room suddenly empty. I cleared away our accumulated coffee mugs and realized I’d taken nearly a week off of both my so-called “daily projects,” the small stones and Cold Mountain. So be it. My life has an unusual rhythm to it, a feast-or-famine quality that allows for a highly structured and regulated aspect to my solitudes, when I work on several projects during any given day, for the most part alone, and attend to duties in my home temple’s community. Then comes the other extreme, throwing all those structures and regulations and solitude that help me to work and the evenly timed events of an average temple day out the window in order to be with my brothers and sisters, who I often see only once or twice a year. I barely checked email, and forget FaceBook or Twitter, for the past six days: when will I sit over a backgammon board again? When will we be able to eat dessert before noon together? When will I have a chance to watch someone meet Mr. Bennet for the first time, laughing out loud (as I still do) reading the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice in a used bookstore? When will we swap stories, laugh at each other’s jokes, shake one another’s hands, offer consolation and advice, encouragement and strength?
It is not what you think a particular life excludes that makes it what it is. It is what you do not realize it will include. What you do not yet know you will be able to embrace.