A Lover’s Quarrel With the World
In Chapter IV of The Masks of God, Vol. 2: Oriental Mythology, Joseph Campbell supplies his readers with a quote from the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, a dharma talk focused on renunciation and developing an “aversion” to the material world, including expressions of the self in body, mind, and imagination:
And in conceiving this aversion, he becomes divested of passion, and by the absence of passion he becomes free, and when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what it behooved him to do, and that he is no more for this world.
One gets the sense that “this sorrowful world,” as Campbell refers to it, “will go on forever,” (323) and as a result, there appears to be a powerful religious instinct to escape suffering by leaving the world and physical, biological life entirely. Lifetime after lifetime of ascetic practice is designed to burn off karma and blow out the flame of life, ending the cycles of death and rebirth by reaching nirvana (which literally means blowing out, or quenching). The negation of earthly life isn’t unique to Asian religious traditions; Christianity similarly disparages the material world and worldly existence, and looks beyond it to an eternal life in heaven spent in the presence of God. In a very, very broad sense, the main difference between the two is that Christianity, lacking the eternally recurring and reincarnating life monad, limits rebirth to a transformation of consciousness.
I can’t help but conclude that the life negating reflex exhibited in most religions is evoked by a literalization of mythology because, if one participates completely, wholly, in religious life, the narratives and symbols of the religion must be understood to be literally true, historically real, and ultimately irrefutable. In such a cast of mind, the world and worldliness is bad, fallen, a prison. The world is often problematic for human beings, it is true, but it is also true that the world’s ubiquitous beauty, its inexhaustible stores of wonder, dazzles the soul and confounds the understanding.
I sometimes find myself longing for a re-engagement with the Renaissance ideals of Giambattista Vico’s humanism, with Ficino’s explorations of consciousness, enthusiastic, even joyful, textual criticism, and the re-emergence of the primacy of aesthetic ideals. I still yearn for what Lionel Trilling called, “the old classical culture, that wonderful imagined culture of the ancient world which no one but school boys, schoolmasters, scholars, and poets believe in.” (Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning, 112) Having said that, I know full well that my romanticized fantasy of classical life never existed in reality in the way in which it lives in my imagination.
Certainly there exists a middle way between a hopeless, passive resignation to life, and Sallekhana, a means of self-destruction that simultaneously destroys karma and the possibility of rebirth by suppressing, and ultimately abandoning, all physical and mental activities. It’s not that I can’t see logic at work in the practice of Sallekhana; in fact, I do. The deliberate negation of life suggests that there is at least a modicum of humanity beyond the reach of institutional and cultural control, and that this residue of unadulterated, incorruptible humanity, small and unappreciated though it may be, serves as a critique of culture, a criticism of life itself, and prevents life lived in the agora from becoming all-consuming, over-determining, and imperiously monolithic. The horrifying sight of Buddhist monks self-immolating during the Vietnam War remains, perhaps, the most poignant of examples.
However, living outside of these religious traditions, this ultimate self-abnegation seems so extreme as to contradict religious tenets of ahimsa, prohibitions against causing injury or death to any living creature. But there is an argument to be made from within the tradition that this severity is a part of one’s ethical and moral effort to know what is real—to seize reality from the powerful grip of illusion and desire. But I fail to be persuaded by these arguments because, at the heart of the matter, self-annihilation necessarily prohibits transformation of the self, and by extension, the world. One who is truly spiritually awakened shares their gifts with others who, in turn, are transformed, and eventually their transformation transforms the world. In his novel Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.” It is the idea of death, not actual death itself, which is redemptive. The idea of death saves one from the loss of self demanded by the dehumanized activities institutions and the materialistic beliefs of a culture or society precisely because it concentrates the mind on what is most significant about human existence—its loves, its passions, its triumphs, as well as its beautiful failures, and its human—all-too-human—frailties.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed that the willing suspension of disbelief constitutes poetic faith; incidentally, it also constitutes scientific methodology, technological innovation, and especially mythological thought. Suspending disbelief means that we set aside our own beliefs and consider possibilities that previously, we had been unable to imagine. Thinking in the metaphors of myth rather than the reified literalisms of religious dogma reveals, not mere arguments from authority or appeals to faith, but rather, the activated symbols, clues, and the personal intuitions that can take one to the brink of transcendent states. The truths we receive from mythology are revelations about what it means to be a human being, they are revelations of life itself. To make use of those truths, we must remain engaged in life as it is. If we negate or manage to escape life, we forfeit those truths.
Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Ninth Duino Elegy, put it this way:
But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.
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