Friday, June 26, 2015

Voltaire's Yoga, Durer's Wings, Shiva's Tandava

My teacher once said, 
wearing a familiar unconcealed guile, “The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is certainty…”  He paused.  And with a Steven Wright-worthy riposte, “Though I'm sure we can’t be too sure of that.”

Appa made a point of parlaying criticism into actions, often without further comment.  If he was sitting in a chair and I sat at his feet like the dutiful disciple he would calmly put the chair aside and sit beside me. “I can hear you better from here.”  Another time he sighed with just a hint of exasperation and said, “Please get another chair, I don’t feel like sitting on the floor today.”  He was not the sort of “guru” who would tolerate even implicit superiority much less allow me to submit when a much more constructive deference could be implied, one that might even assume the appearance of parity.  There was no parity when it came to my understanding of Hindu lore, Sanskrit or Tamil literature, but Appa loved the gambit: he wanted me to keep up with him when he taught, he wanted me even to surpass his abilities, he wanted to learn, and most of all, not allow me to act as if he were some wisdom-Pez-dispenser.

The sworn enemy of honest erudition is submission, the cowering that accompanies intimidation, questions withheld, and, above all, the inculcated presumption of faultlessness.  Worse is the immunity supplied to “spiritual truths” to guard them from their own disregard of criticism.  That kind of servility is often freely extended because a lazy surrender to the preeminence of tradition is more satisfying than the torment of good thinking.  Thinking, after all, has its limits.  Thank goodness, we might add.  But not because the alternative is some Capital T for Truth.

Religions suffer from the kind of moral and intellectual certitude that follows as much from ideology as it does from irrefragable personal experience.  Who, after all, can tell you that is somehow not your experience?  Certitude is not all brimstone or smug quietist asservation, it has its ironic advocates as well.

We can admire especially those Buddhist philosophers committed to the principle of prasanga, the strategy of logical impasse made doctrine by Candrakirti’s reading of the great Nagarjuna.  The idea is that all argument must ultimately default to a standoff with the limitations of language and logic.  Unless you corral what’s not OK, your ultimacy will end up looking like the rest of us.  “You shall not pass,” to put this in another wizard’s words.  If the redolent treacle of irony does not yet feel like a plate of jellied eels served up on a Southampton damp winter’s day, let the Buddhists’ point be made the clearer.

There’s never an inopportune moment to pause for the didactic Middle Wayer quailing with ineffable glee at Ultimate Truth being empty (sunya) of itself.  You see, if all arguments are merely conventions of agreement (vyavaharika) then anything said about the ultimate (parmartha) truth must also be nothing more than another convention.  Ultimacy is thus safely beyond the boundary of conversations that, by definition, are imprisoned in the morass of ordinary meaning.  There’s no escaping this Donnemora.  Notwithstanding Bhavaviveka’s perspicacious 6th century efforts to establish the independent veracity (svatantrika-satya) of our meager provisional understandings, it is the Scaliaesque temerity of the Prasangikas that carries the ideological day.  It seems not even the most ardent zetetic can withstand the temptation to insulate an ultimate from the limitations of the temporal rumpus that forms our human condition.  Three more cheers for tortured prose in a twisted world.

The alternative is never merely agnostic because that too must take refuge (…saranam gacchami) in not-knowing as knowing.  What we can’t know rarely has meaning unless it serves, once again, the agenda of those who would confer authority on that Unknowable.  To wit, if we can’t know there’s a God then God or, to put this to wrights, “On the other hand, you have different fingers.”  Who said doubt is without a sense of humor?  Arguments about the ineffable are not usually a laugh a minute but they are, like everywhere, walking distance if only you have the time.  Trying to pry a person’s private experience from veracity is much the same as solving traffic problems by expanding the universe.  (N.B., more and more apologies to Steven Wright.)  To Land The Plane: serious self-inquiry can lead to not-knowing but this isn’t the same as certainty, no matter how certain one is that she or he doesn’t know.

A favorite argument for the personal-experience-is-truly-true comes at the opening of Patanjali’s Yogasutra.  After defining yoga as the occlusion of mental processes (1.2) which results in “abiding in the seer’s own form” (1.3), the next verse takes its turn at sealing the deal, “at other times, it takes the form of the movements.”  In effect, he says, if you are doing that abiding-thing in your “own form” (svarupa) then you’re done, no need to read further because you don’t need the further instructions.  You have arrived at Eternity in the form of that Person not-confused-with-mutable-experiences, all befitting the use of Big Letters because Truth.  However, if you’re not as certain as you could be, he demurs then read on, practice on, keep trying ‘cause there is such a thing as finality, a permanent and incontrovertible reality that can be accessed so long as you don’t mistake it for this pesky, afflicted, mercurial world.  Once you know, or even Know, you won’t even need to know that you know.  Must be grand.  This argument is strangely akin to Rudolph Otto’s opening salvo in the redoubtable Das Helige, not a book about the idea of The Holy but simply The Holy.  Here Otto, not merely appealing to the wonder of his own palindromic agnomen, tells us that if we have not had the feeling of what he terms the numinous, this utterly real but ineffable Holiness-Thing, well, we need not read further.  I recall the graduate school seminar when, assigned this book, I declared to the instructor that reading further was not a requirement because how could we know we are sharing the same ineffable experience? Otto’s got plenny on that too but it need not detain us.  All appeals to experience leave us outside each other’s minds anyway.  Getting inside, even with diodes and stuff, won’t tell us if the mind is what the brain does, or if the mind’s experiences are still something else.  What could “something else” be if it isn’t our brains and bodies creating it?  Good luck with that one.

So there can be no decent doubting without admitting that we’re in for a rough ride.  But far worse is certainty, a maudlin numbness much like the experience of flying at 35,000 feet so smoothly you don’t even know your flying at all.  Like Durer's wing, there's no bird in sight.  Brain lag is jet lag’s seat buddy: switch off the experience of change and with it comes a malady that can take days to remedy, maybe even a whole lifetime.  Of course, an alternative life to certainty must admit to Voltaire’s adage about how "life is a shipwreck" with the proviso "but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” Sing loudly and, when you can, in tune.

A lifeboat of certainty’s demurral is disquieting, often confusing, but it need not be distrusting.  Appa proved that everyday.  He invited your trust because you felt safe being vulnerable and welcomed risk as a way of learning.  He was not diffident to people’s needs for spiritual consolation, understanding that so many of us simply require destinations for faith to make it through our daily journeys.  If those destinations are heaven after death ("he's in a better place...") or a God who has mysterious purpose that assures meaning (ask Job about this), he could avow their comfort without assenting to their propositions.  We can’t always get what we want but we get what we need? 

I’m not sure I need to doubt or that I can ever fall in love with uncertainty but I feel reasonably sanguine that it gets my blood moving and always sets my heart 'aflutter.  Love too is something better when it is more interesting than it is unconditional.  Unconditional, after all, is simply our first condition.  I would not like it if the reality of contingent knowledge ---that true things seem true till shown otherwise--- were to suggest that this position is somehow, anyhow, or in any way morally superior.  I loathe feeling too safe and, as much as I like flying without turbulence as the next guy, I think a 21st century “spiritual life” can no longer lay any claim to an undisturbed spirit.  There’s plenty to say here about the concept of tandava, a feature of Shiva’s character we can spend lifetimes reconsidering.  Never has there be a less undisturbed spirit.  And, truth to tell, tandava is only a “dance” if you don't fathom the rage that fuels it.  More on this soon.  Keep Dylan Thomas in mind, just as a preface:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Ah, Shiva's tandava.  There’s a book(s) to be written about that, and more.  If you prefer to abjure the mystifications that can substitute for the harrowing authenticity that comes with inconclusiveness, then I think there is room for more conversation.  Nothing stanches good conversation quite like a that’s-my-opinion show stopper.  Let’s start with a few decorous lies devoted to deeper truths, you know, myths that aren’t just false and certainly never certain.  Tandava for all.  More wing, less prayer.