July 26, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Plot is about the elements that make up a novel or story or film. Structure is about timing. To the ever-lasting gratitude of most of Hollywood, Aristotle analyzed what makes drama work and came up the three act structure. Why does the Act I, Act II, Act III structure still work after all these years? Many writers and teachers of writing suggest that it’s because it resonates with the way we live: We wake up, we work, we go to sleep–we are born, we live, we die. Humans are drawn to threes, in landscape design, in spiritual symbolism, even in jokes (a Buddhist, a Christian, and a Jew walk into a bar, never just two). Nature likes a triangle. Readers and listeners just innately expect any story to have a beginning, a middle (one wag called it a muddle), and an end. With apologies to Aristotle, this is how it goes: The hero or lead is presented with a problem (Act I); he or she messes around with the problem (Act II); the problem is solved or not (Act III). Western mythology and literature rests on the sturdiest of all shapes, the triangle.
Having just come from a wonderful class with Bhikkhu Bodhi at Chuang Yen Buddhist Monastery in Carmel, New York, however, it occurs to me that the drama of our lives on the twelve factors or steps of Dependent Origination. Basing his classes on In the Buddha’s Words, his anthology of discourses from the Pali Canon, the brilliant and patient scholar-monk led a class that ranged from experienced to beginner (me) through the traditional Buddhist understanding of how we keep the wheel of our karma turning life after life. Boiling it way down, the “dramatic structure” works something like this: Ignorance leads to a stream of conditions, consciousness, karmic tendencies which carry us into this world and forward into the groove of our lives (Act I); we perceive and conscious in a particular way, and inevitably feelings arise (Act II); craving, clinging, and karma are created based on how we respond to our feelings. Based on our particular cocktail of feelings and reactions we come to the end of one life and enter another (Act III). Here, the dramatic high point, the cliff-hanger, the who-saw-that-coming surprise twist can come in the “unconditioned” opening at the end of Act II. When feeling arises, we have a choice about how we respond. The link in the chain that binds us to our habitual, unfree life can be broken right here. No matter what we feel, we don’t have to crave or cling to anything. No more swords or pens or wands. Radical freedom.
July 21, 2009 § 2 Comments
P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins and a founding editor of Parabola, once wrote that mythic heroes (and she stressed that potential heroes are everywhere) were not so much setting out on voyages of discovery but of rediscovery; “that the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.” In Joe Berlinger’s powerful documentary Crude, Pablo Fajardo, an attorney who was once a desperately poor manual laborer, stands up for 30,000 Ecuadorian rainforest settlers and indigenous people. They call themselves los afectados, “the affected ones,” and allege that they live in a “death zone” of pollution that is roughly the size of Rhode Island that was created when Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001) began drilling for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the late 60s and 70s. At some point in the midst of a hard, dangerous early life, Fajardo happened to attend a youth group run by a Spanish priest that instilled in him a sense of the underlying dignity of all human life–including poor and indigenous lives. Although Crude does an admirable job of offering a balanced point of view, early viewers of Crude have compared Farjardo to David going up against Goliath. He has David’s faith that he is on the side of truth. No matter how much money Chevron has to spend, he says at one point. You can’t put a price on clean water or food or the inherent value of human life and a healthy planet.
In 2005, Joe Berlinger set out on his own journey of rediscovery as a filmmaker. Berlinger visited the Ecuador and was shown an ecological disaster. He saw and smelled the petrochemical sludge that for decades has been dumped into huge open pits or directly into the water and soil–a system designed by Texaco. Berlinger, whose previous film, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, had a four million dollar budget, went into the Ecuadorian jungle with a skeleton crew and shot footage, not sure how he was going to finance it, not knowing how the story line or the film itself was going to turn out.
“I felt like the universe was tapping me on the shoulder,” Berlinger told me by phone. “In many ways the legal case I was filming is an excuse to explore the plight of indigenous people who got no benefits from industrializtion, only heartache.”
When was the last time you felt that the universe was tapping you on the shoulder? Can you recally feeling as if you were stepping onto a new path, heading into the unknown just because it felt like the right thing to do?
July 12, 2009 § 3 Comments
A “Naked Lunch,” said William S. Burroughs is that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Since I saw Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. last weekend (at the excellent Jacob Burns Film Center last weekend), I’ve been reflecting on the way even well-intentioned people can look away from hard realities. I always loved beginning each meal the way I learned to in various Buddhist retreats–by thanking the animals, plants, and people who sacrificed themselves for each meal. I always loved Martin Luther King Jr.’s evocation of the way the whole globe participates in our morning (coffee from Brazil, etc.) But Kenner opened my eyes to the way much of our food supply has come to be controlled by a handful of huge corporations who prize profit above any scrap of concern for the health and wellbeing of animals, plants, farmers, workers, consumers, or the planet as a whole. I’ve come to see that it’s not enough to thank a fantasy Farmer Brown. I’ve gone back to Gurdjieff’s advice to people new to his Work, that one should look into things so to speak (clearly, I am paraphrasing), to have a questing, searching attitude about the origins of things and how they have come to us. Gurdjieff urged people to bring this attitude to all things, not just food. And it is a tool for awakening. Try it! It wakes up the mind and the heart and the senses.
A parabola is bowl-shaped, like a lens or an antenna dish. The magazine Parabola was designed to pick up radio signal from the deepest recesses of space (I can’t help picturing the Voyager space crafts). It seeks to pick up evidence of the eternal truths that are central to all authentic traditions and ways, serving them to readers in a non-reductive way that might lead them to the center of themselves. It isn’t meant to be academic. It isn’t meant to be practical, a kind of handbook. It was meant to be handled, carried, left on the night stand. “Information wants to be free,” wrote Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalogue (which cost $5 in 1968), anticipating the free information on the internet. You can’t put a price on truth, especially sacred truth, especially truth at the center of your Self. Yet the form of Parabola–the tradition of search it represents–needs your support.
July 3, 2009 § 7 Comments
Happy Independence Day! This is how mine is going to go. A small group of us is going to one of the colonial manors around here where a canon will be fired and the Declaration of Independence read. We will mill around among people in colonial dress. My 19-year-old daughter is likely to provide a lively counter-point to all patriotism by expressing her passionate wish to be an ex-patriot. Eventually we will come home hot and tired and swim in our lake and I will perform what I have come to think of as a little version of the ancient Indian fire sacrifice. I will fill my fire bowl with wood and after the coals turn white I will roast chicken sausages and corn and other cook-out Americana as a way to appease the gods of domesticity. I sometimes fill the role of mother and householder in an almost sacrificial way. Not that this is a bad thing.
I just returned from a week-long retreat where I spent a great deal of time contemplating what it might mean to live so there is no separation between going outwards into activity, manifesting as we usually are, and moving inwards to the experience of oneness, of pure being, that can appear in stillness. How can we experience a state of being one with everything in the midst of life. By mid week, I began to experiment with living as if I was about to die. I did whatever I did, walking, talking, eating, without striving. I abandoned all hope of escape from the bare truth of what I was. I forgot I ever had a head full of ideas and a heart full of aspirations about how I could be better. I went around just being and bearing witness to it.
It gave me an inkling of what it is like not just to be–but to wholeheartedly volunteer to be. It helped me understand (at least for a second or two) that we are needed, not just on the meditation cushion, but in all our quirky particularity. We are meant to play a role in this wholeness. Last year, I interviewed Robert Kennedy, a wonderful Jesuit priest who is also a Zen Roshi. He reminded me that od is not a gift-giver, separate from ourselves. Everything is given to each of us. Creation plays itself out in our lives , as we experience it. Everything is poured out. Everything is a gift. If we can be open to receive it that way.
I have a hunch that being receptive has to do with agreeing to fill the role your in (really hold those BBQ tongs like you mean it!) What do you think?
May all beings be free and at ease here.