All those old books – the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Nag Hammadi Texts, the Bible – were written for a slice of humanity which lived at a specific moment in time. They have a few pieces of timeless human wisdom (that’s why we kept those smelly old things), but they’re not able to explain the stuff going on at the edge right now–except for in very general ways.
The conflicts many of us experience in our day to day lives, as well as the spiritual trials we are facing, are unique to 2011. For example: how can we balance privacy and membership in a community? (You need communities to transcend individuality and effect things on a larger-than-individual scale, but you have to sacrifice some of your anonymity / autonomy to do it) How do we escape the consensus trance of modern living – and should we? Ancient man thought of deities as personifications of universal forces, but now we think of the universe in different terms – what is a deity in this context? What is the relationship between capitalism and spirituality? Is an identity made of market-determined capitalist choices a real identity? How do we pick which tragedy of the commons to rally against? Consumerism, by its nature, creates suffering elsewhere in the world – how do we balance our desires and our compassion for rain forests, sea creatures, and those poor spags in sweat shops? How can you relate to a guru who is also selling something, as most are? Is politics capable of healing our world, or is it a distraction from the forces we should be focusing on? What is nature, and are we inside or outside of it?
These are the things I wonder about as I read stuff like the Gospel of Thomas and Zhuangzi and the Principia Discordia and other spiritual ravings. Religious writings can suggest answers to most of these questions, but we are a new people now, we are in need of new myths.
The best way to use religion is not a matter of perfectly internalizing the lessons some dead people left behind. You should figure out how those writings uniquely explain the world you’re living in right now. If it seems intangible and you can’t relate to it, you might be reading it wrong, but there’s also a good chance it’s no longer relevant. I mean, Jehovas Witnesses are prohibited from receiving blood transfusions, even in times of emergency. How does this help them master the period they live in now? We live in a dangerous world, and refusing surgery is not going to save you from it. The Buddha says we should not harm living things, but what about when some crazy dictator is gunning down his people en mass? If somebody was about to gun you down for speaking out against their regime, wouldn’t you want somebody to intercede on your behalf?
We live in the information age. Few religions have successfully described it. I think we live in increasingly syncretic times. We have to take the contradictory inputs and synthesize them into something new, something personally relevant. This is an active process, it takes critical thought and self-reflection. I don’t have the answers. I’m just some spag trying to make sense of things for myself. There is no true wisdom, no really-real model which beats the other models, they all suck in certain ways.
In Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, the titular character seeks wisdom from the Gotama Buddha and discovers that he has to create this wisdom on his own.
“You have found salvation from death. It has come to you in the course of your own search, on your own path, through thoughts, through meditation, through realizations, through enlightenment. It has not come to you by means of teachings! And—thus is my thought, oh exalted one,—nobody will obtain salvation by means of teachings! You will not be able to convey and say to anybody, oh venerable one, in words and through teachings what has happened to you in the hour of enlightenment! The teachings of the enlightened Buddha contain much, it teaches many to live righteously, to avoid evil. But there is one thing which these so clear, these so venerable teachings do not contain: they do not contain the mystery of what the exalted one has experienced for himself, he alone among hundreds of thousands. This is what I have thought and realized, when I have heard the teachings. This is why I am continuing my travels—not to seek other, better teachings, for I know there are none, but to depart from all teachings and all teachers and to reach my goal by myself or to die. But often, I’ll think of this day, oh exalted one, and of this hour, when my eyes beheld a holy man.”
The Buddha’s eyes quietly looked to the ground; quietly, in perfect equanimity his inscrutable face was smiling.
Siddhartha gets it – you have to choose to captain your ship. Don’t let yourself get subsumed by the forces that guide you. This is the lifestyle I aspire to.
Militant Subjectivism? Fundamental Post-modernism? Ecstatic Pragmatism? I don’t know what to call it. Maybe it’s best to not ossify it by naming it. It’s a constant battle to make sense of the ever-changing world. Nobody can do it for you. We should reinterpret our traditions before perpetuating them. The new humanity is being born this year, let’s raise that kid right.