by Modaser Shah
If memory serves, June 21 this year, The New York Times reported that a “radical” Buddhist monk in Burma declared, apropos the Muslim minority in that country, that although Buddhism enjoined love and compassion,”one can’t sleep next to a mad dog.”
It is hard to argue with that; who except Mullah Nasruddin, the foolish sage of the Sufis, perhaps, can sleep next to a mad dog? Furthermore, it is also hard to deny that there are Muslims in the world who, at times, at least, have acted like mad dogs, though the latter cannot, as far as one can tell, be accused of intending to inflict destruction on self and others.
Although I can’t be certain, statistically, it is quite possible that Burma has its share of such, i.e., Muslims who have at times acted “like mad dogs.” So the monk may have had a point; and yet he seems to have missed another point. The point, it seems to me, is that there are human beings who, at times, act like mad dogs. What is one to do about this undeniable fact?
There is no answer, as the Biblical story of Job makes crystal clear, though it doesn’t directly refer to mad dog-like behavior by humans. (That this clarity from God is all too often missed or glossed over is a theme that requires a whole separate blog post.) So, an answer is lacking. To be more precise, the kind of total and generalized answer that the spiritual greed in us humans makes us crave—one that will make further struggle and deep thought superfluous, the kind of answer that will make life easy ever after—is not available.
To be sure, there are little answers, little things that can be done, little truths that can be grasped (refer to Lacan’s saying that a little bit of truth should suffice). But the craving greed in us will not let us be content with such little things; we must have or find the BIG TRUTH, preferably without too much difficulty or suffering. And when there are no such answers, it can be an extremely painful, indeed intolerable position to be in. This unknowing, knowing one doesn’t know (one form of Absolute Knowing per Hegel, as interpreted by Žižek) is, as mentioned, a painful yet unavoidable prelude to the deeper journey. For the mystic traditions, it seems to be important to tarry in this abyss, this darkness. (Nasruddin’s looking for the key, lost in the dark, in a lighted area is showing us where not to look.)
A common way out of this state of helplessness and not knowing, a huge affront to our narcissism, is to resort to some kind of “omnipotent” or “magical” (as it is termed in psychoanalysis) posture, to generalize and cling to an ideology, or to bury one’s head in the “ashes” of a tradition; and when one does this, suddenly it is all clear, you have all the answers. Now you can safely think within the box.
Says Gerald G May, MD, in The Dark Night of the Soul: “The darkness, the holy unknowing that characterizes this freedom (i.e.,the freedom to be who we really are), is the opposite of confusion and ignorance. Confusion happens when mystery is an enemy and we feel we must solve it to master our destinies. And ignorance is not knowing that we do not know. In the liberation of the night, we are freed from having to figure things out, and we find delight in knowing that we do not know.”
According to Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life: “We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even—or perhaps especially—in an emergency.”
The monk, it seems, has looked into the abyss, that of acting like a mad dog, and, it seems as though, the abyss has looked back into him. The result seems to be that he sees this tendency, this potential, almost everywhere where he wishes to see it, except inside the hearts of the community he leads, and himself. This refusal to see and think about bad things inside ourselves, complemented by our eagerness to see them in others, can strengthen their impact on our words and actions. Hence,the oddly shocking and confusing effect of the monk’s words on the media and his seeming trouble anticipating the potential consequences of his words. In this, he is showing us, even more than Nasruddin, that he is human, all too human, which is to say, all too Muslim, all too Sunni or Shi’a, all too……(fill in the blank).
A quote variously ascribed to Gustav Mahler or Thomas More goes as follows: “Tradition ist nicht das Halten der Asche, sondern das Weitergeben der Flamme” or “Tradition is not holding onto the ashes, but the passing on of the flame.”
- Reading Stephen Grosz (morecakeplease.wordpress.com)