LIVING WORDS

by John Hanagan–Published in the Kyoto Journal, 2003

I’m pure shame

What I do and what I say never the same.

Ikkyu (c. 1450)

“We live in one world,” said Joseph Campbell, “and babble about another.” As a longtime professor of philosophy, I find this observation particularly unsettling. I have filled countless classrooms with words that echo the wisdom of the ages. Yet my actions sometimes fall so far short of my ideals that Ikkyu’s pure shame is the only decent response. I aspire to speak words that live and then to live those words with integrity and courage, but my resolve often dissipates in the haze of unconsciousness and the darkness of fear. Why do these forces exert such power against the truth? Why are words so often empty?   And how is it that some people, in ways great and small, manage the heroic feat of living their beliefs?

I recognize these questions as ancient and seemingly intractable, but they take on renewed urgency in these troubled times. “History,” said William James in 1906, “has been a bath of blood.” After nearly a century we are still mired in a gory and ignoble torment of hatred and oppression. The list of the world’s ills seems endless. The distance between rich and poor gets ever wider. Villages are ravaged for the good of the cities, poor countries are exploited for the energy needs of industrial countries, and children starve every day while tons of food are wasted with hardly a thought. There is a desperate need for words and deeds that embody the simplest human values, but our leaders sink ever deeper into a quagmire of self-interest and greed. George Orwell’s nightmare vision of 1984 has become the harsh waking reality of the 21st century. Doublespeak is high art. We are told that massive killing is the road to peace, and self-righteous vengeance is the essence of justice. Jesus, Mohammed and Moses are each invoked to stoke the fires of hatred and to justify the addiction of some fundamentalists to the use of violence. Indeed, the distance between the words of Christ and the deeds of some Christians is mind-boggling. Information is so often withheld or distorted that trust in governmental, corporate, and religious institutions is seriously undermined. Lies, like violence, might yield some amelioration in the short term, but the long term detriment to human beings in both body and spirit is catastrophic. With all the brilliant minds and good hearts among us, why can we not bring this cycle of violence and lies to an end? Why can we not transform our noble words into noble deeds?

The lack of engagement on the part of the educated left is especially disappointing. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. said that his greatest disappointment was not white racists but white liberals. They consoled themselves, he said, with the right words but lacked the courage or consciousness to engage in creative and effective action. Extremists seem to act with a solid trust in the absolute certainty of their take on things, while liberals and centrists dither under a painful circumspection. We academics often wallow in masturbatory symposia, parsing the inflections of abstruse theory, wandering the hyper-tolerant labyrinth of an exaggerated version of postmodern epistemology. Consider the following expression of “postmodern” broad mindedness written in the 7th century by the Japanese statesman Prince Shotoku Taishi.

Let us cease from wrath and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are ordinary men. How can anyone lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like them.

These sentiments stir my liberal heart, but notice where they lead. The last line takes the wind out of liberal sails. Words luff, flapping in the breeze of tepid conviction. The forward thrust of consciousness is attenuated until it lacks the power to propel one into passionate engagement with the world. It is nothing short of tragedy that so many magnificent words which point to the center of life–wisdom, compassion, love, virtue–are so often anemic, while words drenched with anger and hatred seem to explode into action. According to Thich Nhat Hahn, “words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word ‘love’ to mean appetite or desire, as in ‘I love hamburgers.’ We have to use language more carefully.” When we apply the word ‘love’ to hamburgers, cell phones, our children, spouses and God, it becomes a cliche. How can such words inspire? Yet inspire they must. If we cannot find a way to enliven the vocabulary of compassion, the only words to carry the day will be those filled with the passion of hatred. We need ardent voices like those of Arundhati Roy and Barbara Kingsolver to jolt compassion into consciousness.

Of course, during times of super-patriotism, speaking out against the views of the majority takes great courage. Kingsolver tells of the hate mail and death threats she and her family have received. Given the virulent power of group-think and the passionate righteousness of aggressive leaders, one feels severely challenged to summon the imagination and grit needed to act in meaningful and efficacious ways. This situation is especially neuralgic for those of us who have made a profession of the truth. Indeed, to remain silent while one’s most sacred values are profaned entails a painful disloyalty to a lifetime’s vocation. Another professor of philosophy tells of his distress in the face of this conflict:

“…government officials tried to keep the actual course of events secret from the people in order to conceal their own responsibility. Criticism of any kind became impossible. All public opinion, except for propaganda in favor of the government’s policy, was suppressed. Freedom of thought was severely restricted, and the only ideas given official recognition were those of the extreme rightists.”

These words were written by the Kyoto philosopher Tanabe Hajime in 1945, as he described with particular poignancy the pressures he felt in wartime Japan. “I was haunted by the thought,” he wrote, “that as a student of philosophy I ought to be bringing the best of my thought to the service of my nation, to be addressing the government frankly…”   These haunting thoughts even led him to consider leaving his post as a professor at the University of Kyoto. Confused and exhausted, he finally decided that he was not fit for the sublime task of philosophy. I will return in a moment to the telling resolution of Tanabe’s quandary.

Perhaps “Government Official” is a special sub-set of humanity, equipped with a special gene designed for manipulative pandering and meretricious venality. My own president has an incredible knack for daily sending me around the bend with his self-righteous bellicosity.   Sadly, however, the practice of hypocrisy, conscious or unconscious, is not confined to our leaders. Would that it were, so that I could write a smug and self-satisfied little article about the evildoers at the top. I believe, however, that my assessments of other people say much more about me than they do about them. In judging another person I put my own character on display: my insights into human nature, my compassion, my self-awareness, the height of my arrogance, the depth of my understanding. All of my life’s experience forces me to acknowledge the truth that when I paint others as fundamentalist (read dumb) or willfully oppressive (read evil), I commit the same sins of which I accuse them: absolutism, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness. Pogo’s famous insight again hits its mark: we have met the enemy and he is us. As Plato pointed out so many years ago, society is the individual writ large, and the web of lies which enmeshes our political, economic, religious, and communal lives is firmly anchored in the psychological and epistemological soil of particular human beings like you and like me. It follows that effective social action must be accompanied by sincere personal transformation. As I deplore the greed of rich nations, I need to look at my own habits of consumption; as I criticize warring factions, I need to examine the attitudes and techniques of conflict resolution I bring to my own family; as I become exasperated with the lies of politicians, I must own the painful disjunction which divides the values I express from the values I live.

I am not saying that we must wait for enlightenment before we take action, but it does seem essential that we keep our sights sharply focused on the aspiration, at least, of ensuring that our social words and deeds mesh seamlessly with our personal lives. Heroism is clearly needed in the Tianamen Squares and the ghettoes of poverty in this world, but if I cannot be truthful with my wife and children, kind to my students, and courageous in the face of adversity, my public voice will have a hollow ring. Similarly, demands for peace and justice that are angry and self-righteous are not only jarringly dissonant, they are ultimately ineffective. Words, while passionately dedicated to a better world, need to come forth firmly yet kindly, forcefully yet humbly, and yes, with love. As the Dhammapada has it: “In this world hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred is appeased by love. This is an ancient law.”

This is exactly the direction Tanabe Hajime took as he labored under the tension of his desire to speak out in the face of political repression. He broke under the pressure. But he did not break down; he broke open, open to the measureless depths of his own interiority. Here is how he put it:

“At that moment something astonishing happened. In the midst of my distress I let go and surrendered myself humbly to my own inability. I was suddenly brought to new insight! My penitent confession–metanoesis (zange)–unexpectedly threw me back on my own interiority and away from things external.”

Interiority: the unthinkable, unspeakable terra incognita of our own beings. Thinkers from Lao Tsu to Hegel have insisted that words pale in the presence of the richness of our inner world, yet since the Delphic Oracle and Socrates, humankind has been urged to “know thyself,” to make what Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey” to the “inner reaches of outer space.” Indeed, it just might be that the outer reach of my words is directly proportional to the depth from which they emerge; that truly heroic interaction with the world is launched from a courageous engagement with the Self.   If Hopkins was correct in asserting that “there is a dearest freshness deep down things,” perhaps we need to sound those depths.

There are many models for the various levels of human consciousness, from Plato’s Cave to Ken Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness, from the koshas of Vedanta philosophy to the Monkey mind/Buddha mind of the Zen tradition, but perhaps the complexities of these models can be gathered under the simple rubric of the interplay between the mind and the heart. The mind is an amazing thing, chock full of facts and techniques and ideas and beliefs and values. It is a valuable instrument that both shapes the world and gives one the ability to live in that world. One could never play the piano, for example, without the knowledge of melody, harmony, and rhythm that resides in the mind. Yet in most of us, the mind thinks it is running the show. We give reasons for our feelings, beliefs, actions, morals, and loves, as if every important thing in life dangled from the end of a syllogism. It is not the mind, however, which is the problem, but the hard shell that encases it, the shell of ego, which is generated as a hedge against the fear of living in a threatening and bewildering world. Ego claims the content of the mind as its own, as its locus of power, and uses it to create the illusion that the world is understood and controlled. When ego convinces mind of this illusion, the words and deeds that result might be perfectly correct, but they are never very good.

I can see three ways in which words and deeds play on the stage of consciousness. In the first mode, the mind is a closed system, a hermetically sealed manufactory of ideas and words. One could, for example, read hundreds of books on love and use the accumulated knowledge to write yet another book. In this way one could become expert enough on love to get a Ph.D. in the subject, to acquire a stunning reputation and to teach generations of students. It is conceivable, however, that this person might spend the rest of his life closeted in libraries and classrooms, loveless and alone, consoled by the reputation and security which might result from his expertise. Not venturing outside of his own mind he would never know he knew nothing. He would be a fine example of Socrates’ fool.

The second role is that of the cartographer seeking to craft an ideational and verbal map of the terrain in order to navigate the mysteries and uncertainties of life with a minimum of vulnerability. Fortified with an arsenal of ideas that purport to chart the course, such a one might enter into relationship, but without risk, for she would know the rules and would do the right thing always. She might win every argument, dishing out words instead of kindness and hugs, which would be given only when she thought it was the right thing to do. This is a life lived within the secure assurance of ego, but whose words and deeds are dry, soulless, brittle, and unengaged. I am reminded of ee cummings: “who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.” This second type of person might engage in social action, but in self-righteous or angry ways that would serve the needs of ego. In this mode, the loving thing would be done not because it is loving, but because it is right. This was the essence of King´s lament: he had heard too many loveless loving words—or in Rumi’s image, warm words can be uttered on cold breath.

The third way springs from the transpersonal ground of the heart and opens to the risks and possibilities of life. The discipline of the body and the structures of the mind are not done away with, but the thing-ness of their encapsulation, the thing-ness of ego, softens and opens to the bottomless depths of the no-thing-ness of not-me, of love. The shell of ego cracks, or better, the egoic borders of mind are rendered permeable, and the energy of the Heart, the power of Love, wells up to enliven our words. It is the intimately experienced rush of life that vivifies the contents of mind and grounds our loving words in the experience of love itself. There is a release of the illusion of control and a surrendering into love. As Tanabe says, he “let go and surrendered to my own inability” to figure things out, to control. As love softens the rigidity of ego, there is a sense of not-being-there coupled with a powerful realization of absolute presence. This is a self-negating/Self-affirming paradox which often gives rise to terrific resistance, but as Rabindranath Tagore observed: “when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart.” Thus Tanabe continues, “to submit oneself to one’s own death without reserve is, dialectically, to live…this is what is meant by absolute transformation or absolute conversion.¨ This transformation, however, unfolds within a maelstrom of powerful emotions as we mourn the loss of the self we have known while celebrating the creation of the self we long to be.

Until we initiate this process of transformation (metanoia), words are either sterile, as in the first example above, or, as in the second example, animated with a self-serving energy that is discontinuous with the currents of life. Loving words, however, whose roots tap into the infinite reaches of the heart are charged with an energy which cries out for completion in the world of action. Our words sketch the outlines of the world in which we live, but it is only a mirage, a dream, until engagement and commitment add the richness of substance, color and texture. Likewise, by conferring reality upon our projected worlds through engaged action—and only in this way—we ourselves coalesce into our authentic selves, adding weight and substance to our self-imaginings. It is in meeting the resistances and the challenges of life, both in our heart of hearts and in the world at large, that we have the opportunity to discover our true selves, to find out who we really are beneath our eloquent rhetoric. Love remains a mere sentimentality until it is concretized in the quest for justice, while righteousness is humanized through kindness and compassion. Finally it is here, in the cauldron of lived existence, that we not only discover the genuine dimensions of the self, but we find the empowerment to advance the project of our own self-creation.

The surrender to love which issues forth into engagement with an uncertain world makes very little sense to the mind, and, when trust fails, is laced with terror. It is much like the Zen stream, in which the stones do not appear until one firmly launches one´s foot into the void.

But the alternative is to feign life, wrapped in the dull security of disconnected words, and to miss the opportunity to partake of the wondrous adventure of embracing love´s drive to co-create a more just and more beautiful world. We are not all called to the center of life´s stage—this is left to those among us who are challenged and blessed to be inspiring examples. But we are each of us called to the heart of life itself, and to answer this call with trust and love and courage in the face of life´s quotidian surprises and profound adversities is a quiet and noble greatness, a heroism beyond telling.

 

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