Sunday, July 19, 2009

because anything can happen

The first images I saw of the yogin were of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha who became etched in my heart: the awakened one had transcended suffering, embodied compassion, and achieved the epitome of human possibilities, including perfect morality. I loved the immaculate simplicity of the Buddha’s peaceful visage, a being whose wisdom and probity were exemplary and beyond all conventional categories. We westerners prefer our sages and saints to be moral examples of (near) perfection; we connect to the aspiration for ethical ascendency because, as we know, mortals have a way of being all too mortal.

As much as the western saint may exemplify moral transcendence, he or she is also a reminder of the concept of the Fall, the notion that perfection is (now) beyond our reach and that sin is our common lot. In the Buddha, as it is for certain other yogins, moral perfection is attainable, as fully realized as other claims to empowerment, and all within boundaries of mortal existence. Few in the later history of yoga dispute the concept of moral perfection but some question its ultimate importance or, to put it more wryly, its ultimacy; we witness not only implacable power but, as I soon came to learn, a paradigm for human viability in a universe more complex than we might have first considered. There’s no doubt that this evolution of thought happens but we might want to ask why and what does it tell us about our prospects for yoga.

My experience of my teacher revealed a person so gentle, compassionate, and so essentially decent that I cannot help but be reminded of that early concept of the Buddha or, say, of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There is always something compelling about such authenticity. But Appa didn’t teach moral purity nor did he claim transcendent probity as a feature of the accomplished yogin aligning with a moral universe. He once said that as soon as we assent to absolute morality we create a situation that can never be sustained and place ourselves in submission to a paradigm that would insist on conformity. As willing as Appa was to apply himself capably to convention and as consistently as I witnessed his seemingly effortless goodness, he was not interested in moral perfection either as a goal or an indication of the accomplished yogin.

For Rajanaka Sundaramoorthy, our human nature is no less divine because we fail to be morally perfect but, more importantly, he argued that moral absolutes, like all absolutes, are intrusions upon a prior claim the universe is making upon us: that we are free and that the universe itself is in its nature free from all constraints, commands, and imperatives. We live in a universe in which anything can happen for no reason, without any purpose, at any time--- this is an important, albeit simple definition of a lila. That such a playful or lila universe operates as well by the machinations of karma, which makes order out of possibility and causality, creates a certain paradox: the world makes “sense” (karma) though it is always possible that every certainty opens to an utterly random, uncontrollable, perfectly free offering (lila). Perhaps it is because the universe does not have an inherent moral imperative, much less a transcendent nature that stands beyond the more subtle reality we experience, that makes doing good that much more important and indeed powerful.

If we are without an imperative to be good, how much more remarkable it is that there are human beings who choose to be good? And if the universe invites us to participate in its nature, then lila means we are unbound by the bondage of all imperatives. What’s left is our choice to live with the openness of lila, which by definition thwarts any absolutism, and within the boundaries of karma because, well, actions and intentions have their own sorts of consequences.

I’m not at all suggesting that yogins are or need to be somehow “less” moral because they are free but rather that the certain Tantrikas, like the Rajanaka, are telling us about a universe that is quite unlike the one imagined by those for whom the saint provides an unambiguous moral standard of certitude. No doubt we can find examples of the yogic sage acting as moral exemplar but there’s another no less ethical possibility that we can be yogins free to be moral.

Of course, there’s much to be said for human empowerments attributed to compassion (karuna) and non-injury (ahimsa) and the simple but direct ethical injunctive (yama/niyama) that provides a prerequisite for deeper development. People are moved, and rightly so, by acts of kindness, generosity, and the extraordinary capacity of human beings to do good things, things that seem to transcend mere personal interest. There is something deeply charismatic and endearing to us all about an incorruptible conscience and a decision-making process that moves from principles to pragmatism but doesn’t lose its way. But we might ask from the Tantric standpoint: Does sagely goodness arise from a goodness inherent in the universe or is it that human beings are free to act in a universe that creates situations of power in relationships? Certainly humans routinely extend beyond narrow definitions of self-interest but does that mean that interest is itself some form of moral compromise? That the only true morality is beyond all self-interest? We might just as well begin by asking what sort of universe are we living in that somehow creates, permits, or more correctly seems indifferent to human goodness or evil?

Tantric Yoga is about engaging a universe that is powerful, not about the division between good and evil or the ethical injunctions of a creator to which we must submit. The universe is Shakti, Power, because it is dynamic, complex, and creates more of itself through the entropic process of self-expression. In other words, the world is energy that is becoming more diverse and more complex in its variables, and it’s creating itself by unraveling, by moving from greater to lesser levels of order. The Shakti is also free (svatantrya), which means it presents itself for no reason, purpose, goal, or point to prove: the universe of power simply is the way it is. As the Rajanaka see it, we human beings aren’t here to get anything, prove anything, or become anything in particular or that is somehow final because, well, neither is the universe doing any of those things. The question of being “good” isn’t a feature of what the universe wants; it might just be something we want because it suits our interests, because it empowers us.

However a given lineage may connect its goals to its ethics, the heart of the issue of human empowerment rests in the possibility of real choice rather than true morality, and of the importance of exigency, circumstances, and context. In a Tantric vision, the lila concept ---randomness, indeterminacy, and purpose-free reality--- mitigates the weave of karma, which always stands for ultimate accountability. We can find in certain Tantric yoga traditions measures for human behavior and intentionality that simply do not assume that life is about moral ascendency or the attainment of ethical certainty. It’s easy to make an accusation of moral relativism when there is no absolute standard of goodness as such but, in practical terms, it seems plain enough that yogins are no more or less ethical than other folks even when they suggest paradigms that presume the goals of human development don’t conclude with goodness but rather only begin there. Goodness (whatever we mean by that) may indeed be a worthy yogic goal but it need not be absolute or intrinsic in order to matter to us.

To use the term “Dharma” as if it were principally about ethical standards and moral injunctions is, I think, more modern convention, an easier rendering because we in the Western world--- sustained for centuries on monotheisms in which the Creator presents ethical commands and implies consequences--- find it more natural to think about an ethical universe. And with some yoga traditions, like early Buddhism and certain Vedantic interpretations of the Bhagavadgita, for example, karma’s problematic is resolved at least in part by attaining the finality of moral perfection. But what if the universe is not only moving by karma? What if it has no ethics as such, what if it is of another order of being altogether? What if the universe left the creation of ethics to us rather than invest creation with ethics?

What if the universe were not about the conflict of good and evil at all but rather about expressions of interest in matrices of power? In such a vision, Dharma has more to do with the observation and subsequent invention of methods that address the structures and roles that define a universe expressing itself as power. Dharma doesn’t so much define the world as good as it provides a way of structuring, interpreting, and creating parameters, including those for goodness.

Dharma usually begins with the notion that this powerful universe is organized, sorted, and essentially rooted in karma ---the complex causes and effects working through the matrix of time and place that bring things into identity and a world of relationships that are fundamentally inequitable and hierarchical. Now those are words that can make modern yogins cringe since we, especially in North America, would prefer to think about creating a world of equality. But hierarchy is not a zero sum game even when there are measureable inequities. Just because something is given priority or choice creates a de facto hierarchy of “first,” such an action (or intention, both being karma) doesn’t necessarily consign other valuable things to an inferior status. Hierarchy is not the same as inferiority: that would be a principle of Dharma since it allows us to structure relationships out of different forms and expressions of power. Dharma implicitly endorses hierarchy, as it must in the process of making choices. Karma in turn neither dispenses nor supports equity; instead karma describes relationships of causality and probability and enables us to understand interests, advantages, and outcomes. In this process we observe ---because it’s perfectly clear that it’s important to understand--- tacit hierarchies and the implication of choices with consequences, some advantageous, others less so. What karma makes clear is that power doesn’t confer advantage but rather that advantages are made of power. Some advantages take the form of goodness, that is, of affirming ethical choices but this powerful universe is, I repeat, powerful, not ethical by nature. If we really thought about this I think we would discover that it is perfectly possible to be good in a universe that isn’t itself about goodness.

Lila, in a certain way, levels the playing field of karma but, we might add ironically, because that couldn’t’ be its purpose. Lila simply means that the universe need not have any purpose, reason, or goals to unfold perfectly (as it is) and that the universe is free from and free to be without any direction or need or imperative. But that doesn’t mean that the Shakti’s lila ---the universe as power--- doesn’t express its own interest since, well, it is this way and not some other. Lila includes the notion that purposelessness is its own expression of interest and that this is as plausible a way of understanding ourselves as is karma.

Everything in the universe has an interest and whether those interests are congenial or adversarial, to one’s advantage, neutral, or disadvantageous, karma is how yoga means to assess where we are within this grand structure, this Dharma of relationships in which both hierarchy and inequity play important roles. Again, let’s try not to assume that hierarchy or inequity are somehow inherently evil, or good, or moral at all. Let’s just assume that power expresses itself in such structures and that power is also simultaneously expressing itself in ways that do not involve, support, or include any purpose, that is, by lila as well. Dharma could be understood to be this far greater architecture of karma and lila, the blueprint, a road map and a plan but one without a destination, purpose, or point; Dharma may be called santana or “eternal” meaning that it is always present, in some sense resilient, even immutable as such, but if it includes lila as the part of very structure of the universe, this also means that moral codes may have karmic consequences but no ultimate resolution.

As a social and moral paradigm Dharma suggests that it is in one’s interest, one’s self interest to serve that which is greater than oneself, to whit, society, the harmony of nature, etc. It’s not to be moral for its own sake, as if fulfilling a commandment to be “good” is it’s own reward, but rather that interests must serve because we are made from something, from power that is far greater than ourselves. Our participation in the structures of power is what’s at stake, not compliance with an inherent code of conduct that is somehow part of the nature of the universe.

Why am I so about this? I’ve been reading Darwin for the last few years and this year in particular of celebration of his 200th year (Darwin shares a birthday with Lincoln, a perfectly random and at once wonderfully karmic fact, no?). I think no one in our modern age understood better the implications of declaring the universe an expression of power rather than a design with moral injunction inherent to its purpose. Darwin chose not to publish his evolutionary theories for some twenty years after their formulation precisely because he knew just how upsetting they would be to those especially religious persons for whom this creation must necessarily be a design with divine purpose and moral certainty. But there is, as I see it, a real consonance between Darwin’s views and those of the Tantric yogin committed to the concept of a truly free and powerful universe.

Darwin once wrote, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” I confess, I find the strident clarity of this observation not only intellectually compelling but deeply moving. And rather than feel at an existential loss for meaning because the universe has none, I am reminded of the day my teacher so casually, in that calm, gentle voice that could disarm the most adamant in argument, said to me, “Your life has no purpose, no meaning, and no goal. And that is all very, very good news. The rest is up to you.” I was puzzled until I began to think that it might mean that I am truly free because the universe is so free that there is nothing compelling it even to be, much less have in mind a plan or purpose.