Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Amaurosis Unveiled


In the Tamil language the Lord of Dance Shiva Natarajar is also known as Tillai Kuttan (say "Kuu-tan"). He is described as the "Dancer of the Blinding Forest" because, it is said, that once upon a time a vast mangrove forest enveloped the brackish byways where today stands the great temple city of Chidambaram, deep in south India. The tillai is no ordinary forest grove: its fruit and flowers are dangerously toxic and its circuitous aqueducts a menace to all who accept the forbidding invitation.  But times have indeed changed--- at least in some ways--- and today we enter these same precincts with the gracious aid of the Podhu Diksitar priests, descendants of the original "three thousand," the muvariyavar, brought from the heavens to perform the pujas, the rituals that are daily performed in witness of the Dancer and his beloved Ambal, the goddess Sivakamasundari.

My teacher, Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy, whom I call "Appa," grew up in Chidambaram in the home of Sri Rajaratana Diksitar, where he evolved his life into every aspect of Natarajar's lore. He had experienced first hand the toxicity of the tillai trees and reveled as much in telling the ancient stories of those who dared to enter the glowering darkness to seek out the Dancer's grace.  Nowadays, of course, we seem to enter with such ease, guided and made welcome by the Diksitars.  But Appa also explained that to venture into such a forest is enter the depths of one's heart, and when you go there, to love with all your heart you must put your heart at risk. Such a place can never be entirely safe because for all the ways in which love provides every reason to live, love also puts everything in peril.  How could it be otherwise?

The chalk notice written in Tamil that you see at the top of the page appeared inside the temple of Sri Natarajar this past January.  It announces a small gift of sugar cane and turmeric root made to each of the Podhu Diksitar families, the Priests of the Sabanayaka Temple, that they might come and collect in celebration of the holiday of Pongal.  The gift was made in the name of Dr. Sundarmoorthy but those of you who were there know that you made this possible because it was you who ventured this time into the forest, you who took the risk to enter the place where the heart puts everything before the Dancer.  Thank you for this gift and for your gracious hearts.

The words below are assembled from my notebooks as Appa described Tillai Kuttan and our journey into his forest. There are many more such journeys ahead.
***

Tillai Kuttan, The Forest Dancer

Enter the Blinding Forest of the Tillai at your peril,
Where the Lord of Dance performs his Tandavas, and
Sages Descend as Grace to drink the Tiger’s Milk, with
Three Thousand Born to Serve.
Dare but do not touch the milky mangrove,
For your skin will burn and blister, amaurois too and
smoke that poisons when leaves are long since dried.
But choose to chance it all and gamble with the dice,
as did he and his beloved,
And perhaps you will also see the Dance of Tillai Kuttan,
find healing to cureless love and refuge in life’s artistry,
Beneath the golden roof within the Hall of Consciousness.

----assembled and rendered from the words of Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoothy

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Gratitude of Understanding a Spiritual Life: A Thanksgiving Sermon for the Choir

Happy Thanksgiving, dear pals! 
What a strange and curious holiday this is as we Americans give thanks for our blessings havingcome here as illegal immigrants greeted warmly by the native folk. It's fascinating what we have done since. The ironies can go further unnoticed, of course, but who could resist? Most of the people going to work today either perform truly important services for the public good or work in commerce for wages that they cannot afford to pass by. We have in America a "right to work" (read: can't make a living by taking a holiday) and apparently a right to shop. I preach to the choir here, which means you've already read too far for me to apologize.
Let me make a point about something that goes to the heart of yoga traditions and to our conversations that extend beyond the usual how-do-you-do-sricakra puja whatever yo. From the outset Indian philosophers and commentators on the ritual life have privileged efforts of understanding and explanation. These are understood as empowerments, not mere exercises in thinking.  When you understand and can explain, more can happen: more meaning, more progress, richer life. These are contrasted and often rejected (vilified is not too strong a word) by those who maintain there that a direct, intuitive experience that defies and does not mandate an explanation or rational portrayal of events. Yes, India has plenty of mystical anti-intellectualism, the favored position of far too many, if only because it's uninterested by definition, or to put it more bluntly, a cop out and an excuse not to think because...religion. Not that I have an opinion about such matters.
The only thing less interesting than claims of ineffability and beyond-understanding are claims to Oneness, which are really just another way of saying you don't want to talk about the world that you experience on a daily basis but prefer instead to assert an experience of exceptionalism. Checking into Oneness is, by definition, checking out of the complexities and sufferings of the conditional world. Oneness never means that we share a common humanity, which is what we might want it to mean (please oh please), rather it means we don't have to: that's precisely the gist of arguments made by the Oneness-philosophers. References abundant upon request. Please feel free however to check into the mystic Oneness that checks you out, if that's what suits you. Diversity is a good thing, unless you think it's all One. I have expressed a dim view of that but who knows, from the mystic's point of view I'm the one who is dim. My point is that we might just as well prefer the world we experience with all its glorious limitations and boundaries imposed upon our provisional knowledge, which is the one we can talk about.
Understanding experiences is not the same thing as declaring that experience is rational. Hardly. Note our efforts here and elsewhere to understand events in Ferguson, Missouri and the genuinely tragic, tortured American history of slavery and race relations. We mean to understand and even try to explain why people are acting as they are, not to endorse or condone, not to reason or explain away but rather to comprehend and to feel more. Thinking has always been a form of feeling in Indian thought, this is why the "subtle body" (manas, ahamkara, buddhi) belong to the material (prakrti) part of the equation. We feel-and-think: this is an important way to understand the word "manas," which means something like mind-and-heart. Now in Indian thought to explain and to understand is not to justify behavior. It is to fathom, to comprehend in ways that draw thought into feelings and our feelings more deeply into our thoughts. It is in fact to do yoga, to engage deeply and to integrate however it is possible the expanse of comprehensive Self that is embodied physicality into the mental autobiographical experiences of consciousness.
This task is not considered optional by the more interesting philosophers unless you are happy to buy into mystical bypassing. Yeah, I said that. Mystical bypassing is the refusal to admit that our limited process of understanding is our ultimacy.  Or to put this differently, it's the claim that we must admit more than our human limitation to find the "true" spiritual life.  It favors instead a "please pass go" and "collect on the 'pure' experience" of [fill in the blank with your favorite "spiritual" claim of beyondyness.] Don't mistake me we all loves some mystical bypassing and some folks simply need it to get through the horrors and ordinary indiginities of being human. There is also the implication that we as individuals are solely responsible for our behaviors just as we are capable of changing hearts but one at a time. But there is an alternative: creating explanations is another way you can arrive at a spiritual life---ask Krsna about this when you open the Gita and find that Arjuna is bypassing his duty, asks for renunciation, looks to abjure the world in favor of some alternative mystical plot, and can't fathom wtf he is doing. Krsna then _explains_ that he has to do far better than that. But importantly it is the explanation along with the instructions for practices that are the keys to a greater yoga, a deeper engagement. 
When you can explain something you don't reduce it to reason, rather you make it available to understanding. Could our current situation in the news provide better examples? When you can put it into a context of understanding then you can act, discern what is knowledge (and what is not), and so commit (translate that: karma, jnana, and bhakti). Without the explanation you end up in a puddle in the chariot with the bow slipping from your hand, having a meltdown. In America the effective response is to make everything we humans do an individual choice, an individual responsibility, and individual incidents, thus preventing any understanding that there are deep, ancient feelings, there are realities of society and history, there are rich fields of explanation that help us understand that we are created by worlds greater than ourselves. Without trying to understand can become the mystic (there is no need, it's all beyond) or simply one who fails to appreciate that a good explanation, however unsatisfying or even unsatisfactory, is the beginning rather than the end of a spiritual life. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

When Violence is Not Beyond Explanation, Ferguson Again

Rioting is not beyond explanation, even if it's counterproductive. A friend of mine asks, why destroy property? What sense is there to these riots?  To explain violence and destruction proffers no remedy.  First we need to understand.
When society preferences property values over people and profits over the value of labor and there is a crisis of trust where a significant segment of the population feels fundamentally disenfranchised in that system, then those persons feel like prey. It is a predatory capitalism, our current model rooted in inequities. The system preys upon them and the law comes to represent the enforcement of a system that is betraying them rather than serving and protecting them. That system confers profits on others while it preys on those disenfranchised. There are consequences, emotional and often counterproductive but not unexplanable. The social contract has been contrived to exclude a group that believes it has lost rational recourse.
Sure, we can deem it irrational, counterproductive, and foolish to destroy another's property or hurt others (and oneself) to express this point, but it is not a wholly irrational reaction. It's an ill-conceived reaction because it is so counterproductive. What is rational about such an action is that when those preyed upon have _in fact_ been preyed upon _by the system_ (it's crucial to see this as structural, endemic, and institutional, not individual incidents which are triggers and examples), such persons respond by becoming self-predators and have no compunction in destroying the system.
Why care about a system that excludes you and means to oppress you? Why care about a system that is designed to exclude you or imprison you in situations where property is always before people and profits are more important than your labor? Like working for forty hours a week for a minimum wage that does not pay you enough to live? Why _not_ just burn it down? And then some are also sociopathic criminals but so too are the structures and authorities who hide behind the guise of their "justice for all" and "fair trial" claims when any serious look at history tells you that is another form of power claiming its own prerogatives and prejudices over others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On Our Original American Corruption, A Note on Justice, Racism, and the Dream

I have until tonight reserved these pages for notes about Tantric spirituality and scholarship, and my life in the traditions of yoga and philosophy.  Then a Grand Jury in Missouri decided there was "no probable cause" for the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.  The President called upon us to respect the Grand Jury's decision, reminding us that we are "a nation of laws."  He is, of course, beholden to say as much but much more, I think, needs to be said about these events.  I will not refrain. There are causes far deeper than the circumstances of Michael Brown's death that brought about these events and, as I fear, the more that will unfold.

There is a rot in the American soul that has yet to be addressed and requires still far more definition.  It began with the founding of this country, with labor and commerce built on the backs of slaves and the exploitation of the powerless.  And just how far have we come?  I remember heady days of progress as a child of the Great Society, I was a kid in school.  And I also remember the murder of Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, and realities of waging war in southeast Asia while trying to effect change at home.  It's not only a story of despair, of course, but tonight warrants a contemplation of that Original American Corruption that begins in slavery and the reason for its possibility: the rejection of a shared humanity on the basis of racism.
Growing up in the first school system in America committed to desegregation by busing, the change that enveloped my young life was profound and palpable. We learned and played together, loved, lost, fought and made our peace together. But could we understand the depths of endemic racism and the systemic power committed to unraveling the progress we wished for America?
I want to say we struggled mightily then to try to effect change and yet now, some fifty years later, America’s inequality of power, wealth, and income is greater than in the past ninety years. At the heart of the matter is our continuing legacy of racism, a divide that only those served by its denial will fail to admit. It was indeed not Officer Wilson before the Grand Jury in Missouri but rather the victim, Michael Brown, and his chances were seemingly no better in the halls of “justice” than on the streets of Ferguson. 
Could this decision not to indict _for any crime_ better illustrate a system that _means_ to serve and perpetuate privilege and power over the disenfranchised? Charles Blow today in The New York Times, speaking to the President’s detractors on immigration reform, also pointed to issues that inform Michael Brown’s death and explain Wilson’s flight from culpability: once again we are directed to an original corruption in our American history. Mr. Blow writes, “This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.”
Make no mistake about it: change is coming and there are no means beyond those who fear most its advent. Still long before such change takes honest root, more young black men may die in the streets by the hands of “justice,” more politicians bought to serve the powerful, voter rights repressed to prevent “fraud” while plutocrats continue to debase every last shard of decency from an American dream save their own dystopic revelries. Tonight what is left of other childhood dreams seems a bit further away than it was years ago waiting for the bus at school.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

On Showing Your Hand, or Consolation Unfixed

My teacher Appa was my appa, a “father” in more than figure or authority, he loved me and I loved him so.  I'm confident I will never “get over” his premature death, no amount of soporifics will create the promised blessedness.  The loss and the pain far too real for that, the harvest of experience that I reap is the hope I still cherish as a gift of mortal birth.  There can be no nourishment without toxicity, no medicine without unforeseen implications or unwanted vulnerabilities.  When there is love there is terror, the certainty of losses and the fear of fear.  That rage of fear is the bedfellow of love’s rage.  There is nothing more dangerous in life than certainty, especially when it’s certain.

We look for ways to make our endemic humanity a richer ground for reflection as we traverse the territory of outrageous fortune.  There is no denying slings or arrows even for those whose religion promises, well, what exactly does it promise?  Most spiritual paths invite some kind of palliative and consolation, even claims to exemption, immunity, and transcendence.  Let’s add mystery to that and if we put it in capitals we might feel all the more Mystery.

Who is more famous for offering consolation than Boethius’s (De consolatione philosophiae) where all misery defers to a higher source, our human love mimetic but incomplete in comparison to Platonic form or God’s mysterious Love.  More Capital Letters.  More affirmation that limited human experience seeks not just more of limitation but something more that is Else and More.

Nunc fluens facit tempus,
nunc stans facit aeternitatum.
The fluent now makes time,
The remaining now makes eternity.

We pick and choose our consolations but my inner historian reminds that Boethius is not conforming to my preferred readings but rather making his case.  And I would not deign to deny him: we all prefer our boats to float than be sunk in a tempest of criticism or, dare I say, evidence to the contrary?  Being dissuaded of our needs is tantamount to declaring another’s consolation unsound.  But religions do this all the time; it’s one of those things that make religions so sure of themselves.  Even religions that validate others’ experience don’t maintain the Other is just as sound, because sound means really true and who holds an opinion he doesn’t think is true?  True in that sound kinda' way. We can be offended and dissociate from dogmas and we can interpret privately to suit ourselves but religions prefer to claim things whole even when every interpreter---be that institutions or individuals-- is by equal terms picking and choosing.  I’d like to say that a spiritual life invests in making one’s own picks and choices but that would be denying that religions are somehow not doing as much, notwithstanding their claims to completeness, certainty, and finality.

Do recall that most forms of admitted incompleteness refer to an unfinished project: you are not yet liberated or enlightened or you can rejoice for your reward will be great in heaven.   The word “faith” now appears and you’ll notice that this is a preferred way of describing someone’s expressed preferences for private experience.  We call them “faith traditions”---think of how American politicians try to talk about religion this way.  I want not to be annoyed at another's claims of faith, their prospects or promises made but I can’t help myself.  I see them as a con game, a scam, a grift, a hustle, a bunko, a swindle, a flimflam, a maneuver, a wheedle, a honey trap, sweet talk, sing along string alongs, a get around, a gaffle, a racket, hornswoggle, a bamboozle, a caress made of mere blandishment.   Shall I go on?  This too takes us, again in decidedly American First Amendment terms, to the invitation to be hands off, accommodating, opinion-free, in a no disenchantment zone because we confer the dignity to the Other no matter what we might be thinking.  I may well have already offended because what’s at stake is another’s experience---to which no other human has access and so is without claim--- and it looks like I just called that out.  Called out always feels insulting or diminishing; no one likes to be shown wrong and how much less brought to account for what she or he feels and told is subjacent to another’s version of reality.

But this private-only club of experience begs the question: what do we share when we say we share a personal experience?  If it’s that personal then there’s nothing left to say because there’s no way your feeling is my feeling.  Peace at last?  Tolerance doesn’t mean we agree, it means we agree to disagree without talking (more) about it.  The damage has already been done.  What we do about those feelings matters aplenty.  When does our inner forbearance become acquiescence, the sort of phlegmatic, groggy compassion we tell ourselves keeps the peace but maybe doesn’t feel so peaceful?  I confess I prefer vexation with tolerance because that’s the emotion that comes with not knowing, not being able to know, and wondering how another could feel so differently.  Or just apparently so.  How would I know?

It was Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia who wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  Jefferson was making a case for taking private belief out of certain public domains, a kind mind your own inner business zone for the State’s common weal.  We all know how that’s working out these days.  We humans seemingly tolerate Other’s religions only so long as they conform to ours.  The ideal of a secular politics has never been so manifestly forsaken as in our recent American experience and never been more conspicuously banned nearly everywhere else.  There’s no getting ‘round the issue that convictions remain a topic of conversation despite efforts to spray non-toxic tolerance on the leaky crannies of intolerance.  We offend and are offended.  It comes with the territory of having experiences, not just opinions or even well founded opinions, the kind with evidence and reasons.  The alternative peace is not merely silence but permissive inaction.  How we doin’ with that?  Not working out so well, is it?

In a world of powers sought and inflicted we all seek some form of personal authority.  This is one of those frightening things about delegating and deferring, about being cajoled, bullied, or determined by the will of others.  We all succumb to the vicissitudes of time, pain, and death, well, unless we tell ourselves otherwise.  How do we choose to live taking on such powers when our experience tells us there’s no way to have it only our way?  Running from is running into.  Run hard.  Then relax enough to run again.  Appa taught me that.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Black Swan




"If I say to you, ‘all swans are white’ how many black swans will it take before your belief changes again?"


When my teacher, my Appa, Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy, invited me to live with his family in India he took risks I didn’t fully understand at the time.  I was but twenty years old, an eager student, devoted to learning, and to him.  He had placed his trust in me and, no matter what might happen, I meant to earn that trust each day.  But that was the simplest of matters.  Appa wore his dignity, his intellect and courage with such poise and decency that one always felt welcome, safe, and respected---even those who might not have earned such privileged shelter.  He spoke so softly one had often to lean in to hear him.  Yet this gentle voice was equally resolute to invite every question.  Nothing was beyond the pale.  No matter how contrarian or probing the query, he encouraged the all of it, it was a duty to ask, to doubt, to push beyond the merely comfortable or consoling.  With an intention to empower critical awareness, it was Appa’s belief that belief itself was far too often an obstacle to change, to serious learning, to engaging knowledge as process rather than end.  We don’t just have beliefs, we want to believe in beliefs.  This is as much a liability as it is ever an advantage.

“How can we learn if we are unwilling to question?  Our questions include all that is discomforting, difficult, awkward, even painful.  How can we expect to learn if we do not risk error or challenge even our most cherished beliefs?  We are here to have that conversation.”

The invitation to live in his home might well have jeopardized his standing in the Brahmin community or brought family members an unwelcome or unnecessary exposure.  After all, the youngest of the children, nieces, and nephews were still at home.  Who exactly was this young foreigner he had so wholly taken in?  It was no obligation on his part.  It was trust and no small compassion.  It was risk and a clear sense of what he deemed worth the risk.

“I was taken in by a family of Diksitar priests at Chidambaram when just a child, when my mother was a widow, penniless, homeless, and illiterate, when there wasn’t even enough in the priest’s house to feed his family.  But what did he do? He opened his heart and he understood we were grateful.”

Appa’s home was rooted in tradition and orthopraxy, his mother wore the blouse-less saffron widow’s sari from the time of his father's passing at just nine months of age, his brother-in-law a professional priest skilled in smarta and Vedic ritual brought a cast of colleagues and patrons almost daily visiting the house.  But Appa was as revolutionary as he was committed to the value of his ancient heritage.  He had been born into worlds he meant to change while embracing the occasions of greatness.  And while his invitation might well discomfort conservative elements in the community not as determined as he to subvert their privileges of caste and sexism, Appa was unwavering in his commitment to create what had been offered to him: a chance, an opportunity to make something honest and enduring.  This wasn’t just about me.  This was about everyone around him he could help, his family and now the thousands of children who have over these many years passed through the matriculation school he founded in Madurai.  I still don’t fully understand how he made himself into such a person ---born into abject poverty in a remote village in south India in the 1930s, with so very little but his wits, a loving, strong mother, and just the splinter of a chance.  Whatever we might think about karma and consequences, sometimes we’re just plain lucky.  I knew that was my life when we met.

“Grace just comes: you don’t earn it, you don’t deserve it, and you can’t pay it back.  It’s lila, the play that comes, as Krsna puts it in the Bhagavadgita, ‘by rare chance.’  You can say ‘thank you’ and you can offer your gifts.  The best gift, of course, is yourself.”

Indian traditions praise the guru to supernatural ends.  Such persons are not only regarded as the indispensible sources of liberative wisdom, they are its embodied form.  This is said so often, in so many scriptural sources, that the normative claim is tradition.  With that too come magic wands and holy ashes appearing out of nowhere, implicit claims of implacable authority, and license to act beyond the reach of our ordinary human accountability, beyond the boundaries of individual conscience, with indifference to others and to society’s claims.  And Appa would have none of it.

“Guruji…” I said, wanting so badly to say it that I might hear it for myself so he would know how I felt about him.  And how I wanted him to be that guru.  Up went his hand in abhaya mudra as he smiled and averred his glance, at once to welcome fearlessness and to create a place safe for fear.

“If you call me ‘guru’ we will tumble into a chasm of tradition that implies submission when we could only mean respect and suggest deference.  Everything we learn we learn from traditions of learning.  But these traditions must seek ‘truth’ by discovering ways to revise themselves rather than confirm their dogmas; to create new understandings that always challenge and subvert their most cherished beliefs; we must be relentless to learn more and to change our minds.  If we submit to gurus, to ultimates, to absolutes, then at what cost to our conversation, what chance do we have?  We must keep asking the discomforting questions.  And this is where Indian traditions of the guru, especially Tantric traditions, have so often been corrupted.  They tell you time and again to surrender all!  But you must never abandon your power, your gifts, your own critical abilities.  Nothing is more dangerous than certainty. Perfection is a claim that ends conversation because it admits no change.  Better we learn with our imperfections and from our mistakes.  We become only less human when we believe the guru or the god or any such ‘realized being’ is beyond the conditions of mortality and humanity.  Let others find consolations where they may, perhaps in such authority with claims to religious salvation.  But I choose another path, a different path.  Every tradition’s orthodoxy is another’s heresy.  Perhaps I am too happy to be an apostate to tradition.  But you don’t think I invited you to live here because I wanted you to receive magical initiation or because your ‘guru’ is perfect, do you?  Your ‘guru’ is flawed like every human being and that is the truth we learn from, from each other, and from the lessons of life.  Our imperfection is not the problem we are here to solve.  A conscious welcoming of ignorance is our gift: to be human is to learn.  That commitment we make to bind ourselves to what we understand is valuable, that too is a teaching.”

Appa spoke often of his conflicted feelings about modern gurus.  How can we not admire their efforts to build hospitals and open schools?  And yet how can we overlook the abuse that invariably follows when traditions endorse disciples to grant them spiritual immunity, transcendental authority, and place them beyond the reach of human accountability?  From historical texts in Sanskrit we get little sense of the social impact that gurus are meant to create beyond their duty to educate.  “Teacher” is indeed the most endearing and empowering sense of the word.  Drenched instead in the theological language of immutable knowledge, non-dualist or divine consciousness identity, and unconditional recognition that is beyond critique, we are encouraged to profound acquiescence, offered an aspiration to wonder while treated to claims of supreme experience that are, at best, remote or unattainable in our current human birth.  What is usually reserved for The Almighty amongst theists, so many yogins confer upon their gurus.  But Appa would have none of it.

You mean then there is no salvation from this human condition? 

“What I understand is this: there is such a thing as good conversation.  Bring all of your thoughts, your feelings, your values, your questions and doubts, bring yourself.  Become the company you mean to keep and make that a gift to others.”


Happy Guru Purnima.


Douglas Brooks
Bristol, New York

July 12, 2014

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Valediction

Over the past twenty-eight years serving as Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester I have been occasionally charged by my esteemed colleagues to offer the Valediction, quite literally, the “words of farewell” as our class of senior majors graduates.  
I’ve done this plenty of times but I thought this time the words might be of some interest to others.  No one really remembers the speeches they heard at college graduation.  I think they might remember if somehow those words struck a chord but I’ve no such pretentions.  I read the great work of Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace, and of course I consulted the remarkable rhetoric of the late Christopher Hitchens.  Added a little Zen.  Voila.  But what really happened was this: Last week I saw an interview with Bruce Springsteen.  The Boss was asked why he still did this, go on the road, write new songs, keep going.  After all he’s richer than the gods and sixty-four years old, what compels him?  He said something like this: Things still bother me.  Things have to come out.  Why does a man my age do this?  Because he has to.

I got that. 
Loud and clear.  So that’s what I told them. 
Here. We. Go.


The Valediction for the Graduating Class of Religion and Classics Majors, 2014

Congratulations graduates, it is truly your day.  And you did earn it.  Yesterday in the NYTimes there was a column from a professor who’s also the president of the American Enterprise Institute.  That’s a think tank but in this case you can reserve the word “think” for something more useful.  His principal commendation was “earn everything”, which you must realize is fatuous nonsense, a fantasy of redolent seduction that means to juxtapose your sense of independence to entitlement, as false a contrast as the purported existence of a sacred is to the profane.  Remember Eliade?  He was making things up too.

So while I will not purport to tell you that my own platitudes are less trite, I will instead do something familiar to your education.  I will make an argument.  What is best about arguments is that they aren’t quarrels.   Rather, as Orwell put it: an argument is the art of telling someone else what they don’t want to hear.  This is because everything not grounded in strife and rooted in well-founded bias is merely public relations.  Argument is not optional to a well-lived life, in fact the reason it is essential is because it rises to that rarest level of worth: it is valuable for its own sake. 

Religion majors learn this in every class, in fact it might be the point of every single class you’ve taken.  Did you know that?   In Classics it is Plato’s reason to be, not merely his method.  But just in case, here’s the reason why this argument about argument is true.  It’s provides the reason you can graduate today with the confidence you will need to survive the questions that will follow you around the rest of your life (and not excluding today): You majored in what?  What are you going to do with that?

As students of religion you know that conversion plays a role, we forget that in some sense all religious persons were at one point converted to if not from.  Most people skip conversion because they have forgotten that fact of heritage and so never had a chance: they were indoctrinated.  Religions prefer to indoctrinate rather than argue, and that makes studying religion decidedly different than being religious.  Those asking the uncomfortable question ---what are you going to do with that major?---not only fear for your future economic well-being, they wonder about indoctrination.  Little do they know, argument is itself another way to live life with conviction, the conviction of doubt as the best gift of learning.  But rather than begin your reply with an argument, my first suggestion would be to lull them into thinking you are confirming their opinions---since one of the most important things you have learned studying religion is that people love their opinions more than they care about the possibility that others also have theirs. 

Tell them a story.  Now you’ve got’em right where you want’em.  The conversation can go something like this:

“What are you going to do with that degree?”
“Why, everything.”
“And how is that?”
“Well once there was a seeker on the path who came upon the obstacle of a great river that ran wide, deep, and fast, the kind of river that would daunt any sensible person from crossing.  Continuing along she gets a moment of lucky, seeing another person on the other side.  She notices that this person is holding a staff, which suggests a fellow traveler, or cripple, a wizard, perhaps retired hockey player, it’s not clear.  But it so happens that this is a teacher, the spiritual kind.  
He shouts across, “Can you tell me how to get to the other side?”  
The teacher ponders a moment and replies, “You are already on the other side.”

If the questioner took our class, From Confucius to Zen, you may now be at a disadvantage but I doubt it.  And don’t fret: you don’t make arguments to win them anymore than you stand a chance at conversion by arguing.  If religions were arguments, we’d all be Buddhists but we know that’s not an option.  The Rabbis of the Mishnah have made that perfectly clear.  What you’re facing in this ‘what are you doing with your life conversation’ is a religious situation: minds are made up in advance and, at the same time. confused by the necessity to change, just a little, but only if your reply warrants a reply.  The story of the journey gives you an out, the questioner isn’t sure why you told it much less what it means to convey.  Wait.  The reply is coming.

“So you did something you really wanted to do.  That takes courage.”
Your answer is obvious to you, less to the questioner.
“Umm, I don’t think so.  It was neither just what I wanted to do nor did it take much courage.”
“You did something you didn’t want to do?  Leave it to religion.”
“Not exactly.  Of course I wanted to do this but some things you find out aren’t just wants, some things you just have to do.  That’s how you find out who you are: you find out you have to do it.”

College really happened for you when no one else was looking but you.  Now you are being asked to explain that.  Consider it a privilege.  As personal a choice as it has been to choose your majors, it’s just as true that your necessities now implicate everyone, especially those who really care because they ask discomforting questions. 

Your self-esteem, even your pride is up for grabs (Are you being tacitly insulted and loved?) so you recognize that there is something more here than a point of argument, there is near-religious concern for your well-being and a challenge to your self-allegiance.  You don’t win arguments by converting the other; you feel the ground beneath you move in ways that also compels the other to realize that he too must make concessions, refinements, forced to adjust opinions rather than revel in the safe and familiar atrophies of self-complaisance.  Everyone leaves a little differently than they came.  That’s success.  To ask for more is to seek a conversion, an indoctrination, and that is something you learned about, but not the something you learned.

Knowing how to think---what we purport to teach you when you are fledglings here in college---must give way as adults to what you choose to think about.  For as many choices in life as we can imagine, the important ones become necessities.  As enterprising as you will be is already evident in the enterprise you have completed today.  But do remember: you will earn and indeed achieve important goals (graduating college today is exactly that) but you will not earn everything.  Instead you will gain an advantage by virtue of a privileged life of education and participate in creating opportunities for yourself---and should you choose greatness, for others too.  Frederick Douglass reminds us that those who expect truth or justice without a struggle only imagine the sea without a tempest.   Conflict may be painful but there are no painless solutions.  Strangely enough, that was meant to be encouragement.

When the semester’s toil seemed like it would never end, much like our Rochester winter, you understood how the evolution of learning can be tenebrous and equivocal, but that it never fails to incite real demand for more.  There will be no simple explanations that cleanse the ambiguities of meaning to life precisely because meaning itself has been assailed, understood as a human invention that arises from considering whatever is meant by the word “divine.”  What you have gathered from the classics and the study of religion is that there's something sentient in the relationship between the primal and the purposeful that threatens sanity with something better than complacency.  Facts are necessary and replaceable with better facts, but people are not.  And that takes us again to you.
.
The liberal arts cliché about learning to think is true and not just because that’s what makes clichés what they are: necessary truths.  What you have before you are not infinite possibilities since possibilities are, by definition, finite.  What you have before you is the honest opportunity to answer to your inner necessity.  Not to choose who you want to be but rather to become what you must.

You’ll go make a living, you’ll do things you don’t want to do, sometimes to make money, but you’ll also have another kind of necessity.  Not the sort that the world demands of you but the one that you create in yourself.  Answer to that and you will live, not seduced by irrational wants but rather by forging ahead knowing you are always in the middle of things.  You aren’t only self-made even as you realize you must make yourself.  In the process, take Christopher Hitchens’ advice: don’t subordinate or annihilate yourself just because you fear being called arrogant or selfish.  Prefer dignity and give that to others rather than mere argument.  Then have a lived life, not just a career.  Pay attention and complain precisely when there is something worth arguing about. Don’t expect to come out the same when your antagonist is just as convicted as you are.  A good argument is one that changes who you are, even when you can’t quite tell what’s changed.

I was standing in the Port Authority once awaiting a bus home to New Jersey after a long stint in India.  A young woman came up to me with copies of the Bhagavadgita, the great Indian classic.  She was a member of the Gone East movement called the Hari Krsnas.  They aren’t so popular anymore, not since George Harrison died and they’ve been banned from stalking bus stands.  But there I was.  She hands me the book and explains that this is the portal to divine truth.  That in this book, written in the holy language of Sanskrit, nearly impenetrable for its recondite grammar as it is for meaning, I would find all that life has to offer.  Oh really, I replied.  I would positively know who I am?  Oh yes, she insisted.  She pushed the book into my hands as the bus approached.
“I gotta go,” I said. 
“But this…this is The Truth!  This is the answer!” 
Handing her back the book, I began to recite the familiar opening verse in the original Sanskrit..dhamaksetre kuruksetre samaveta…She halted.  Eyes agape.
“Wait. What? Who are you? And how did you know that?”
“Well,” I replied, “you never know in what form the Lord might come.”

 And so onto to New Jersey I went.  I suspect that this woman is still wondering from her home in the Hamptons about how she met Lord Krsna in the Port Authority.  But be that as it may.

What you want to know is who you are.  That you’ll find in necessity, not just in desire.  The answers aren’t nearly as interesting as the questions.  Being daunted doesn’t mean you can’t also be undaunted, it means you don’t have to go it alone.  Find good company, keep good company, you know already that you become the company you keep.  And go with this blessing: come back but don’t look back.  You will not solve the world’s problems but you will change the world by the way you answer to your own necessity.  I leave you with another saying from Sanskrit and a poetic translation,

shashvat purosuo vyuvaasa devyatho adyedam vyaavo maghonaa |
atho vyuchaad-uttaraananu dyuunajaraamrtaa carati svadhaabhih||:

“Look well, therefore, to this day. For today, well lived will make every yesterday a dream of happiness And every tomorrow a vision of hope.  Look well, therefore, to this day.” 

Good luck, good bye, come see us again when you have a moment.