Doing Justice To Our Lives

December 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

I drive more than I like.  I find I can make crawling along in heavy traffic much less stressful by listening to college lectures on CD.  As somebody once said, “You can always find a way to learn something.”  Thanks to “The Great Courses” series or the “Portable Professor,” I can use a handy mechanical means to lift up my thoughts (or my associations) from the red brake lights in front of me to the unfolding of Western Civilization, for example, or the life of the Buddha.

Somewhere down the road, I registered how much inspiration I draw from the stories of peoples’ lives, including Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha.  When I was younger, I always wanted to get right to the essence of things.  I wanted the great vertical unchanging truths, the Four Noble Truths and all the other Sacred  Numbered Laws of Reality.  Now, I realize that the profound truths of life unfold over time and through experience.  The price of understanding certain truths–and the mastery or balance or inner freedom that comes with them–is revealing yourself utterly.  Ouch.

This is what I learned in the car:  In his introduction to course “Buddhism,” Professor Malcolm David Eckel of Boston University, referred to Buddhism as a religion of stories.  Of course it is…and so is Christianity and ever other great tradition and teaching.   It suddenly hit me that stories show us how to be fully human–stories impart a kind of truth, a kind of intelligence, that philosophy or practice alone can not reveal.   In Buddhist practice and in other ways of awakening, great emphasis is placed on waking up from the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.  Indeed, profound moments of awareness often come to people in the midst of shocks that suspend our endlessly updated and revised narratives, our comforting certainties.  But Professor Eckel echoed something that P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, described in “The World of the Hero” in the founding issue of Parabola.

There is a myth-making capacity in everyone, wrote Travers.  The intelligence that guided the lives of the ancients “miraculously survives and is ever present in the subterranean layers of ourselves.   It can be tapped as one taps the waters under the earth; it can be questioned as once our forefathers questioned the oracles.”   Travers described the way certain factual stories pick up truth over time and offered the example of Galileo.  Pressured to recant his assertion that the earth moves around the sun, Galileo is said to have muttered into his beard: “Epppur si muove” (“Nevertheless it moves”)–mythologically the heroic Galileo was required to say it.

The mythmaking mind goes to work on the facts, pitting the heroine against a villian,  insisting on “both ends of the stick–black and white, good and evil, positive and negative, activine and passive.”   The hero or heroine, according to Travers is one who volunteers to face the unknown, setting out not so much on voyages of discovery as rediscovery, seeking “a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.” The hero is human and flawed, just as creation is flawed–and the flaws turn the wheel, summon the perfections.  Achilles pride led to courage in battle.  Buddha’s human vulnerability led to awakening (and couldn’t it really be called a rediscovery of a timeless dharma?)

Like a lot of young people, I think I was secretly hoping that I by reading many books or making great efforts in the meditation hall I could skip over some of the steps that Travers outlines, of going from the mud to the mountain top.  Now I know we can’t.  We have to be the heroes of our own lives.  There is just no other way to learn the truth.   Each in our own way, we have to live ferociously, as Damien Echols puts it.


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