Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How is Liberation?

I love the wide-open, sometimes gnarly, sometimes snarly, totally in love with life presence of Alan Clements. Last night, I listened to a recent interview with him, and then discovered this interview from several years ago, which covers some of the same territory, but also breaks off in different directions.

One of the beautiful things about this guy is that he is a fierce dissident when it comes to Buddhism in it's institutional, rhetorical, and commonplace forms and views, while still embodying respect and even reverence for the people and practices found therein.

Witness this exchange:

AC: As far as I understand, the Buddhist practice of non-grasping is meant as a means to discover anatta—that‘you’ don’t exist. My point is that we do exist and that we must do all that we can to learn how to embody our existence, our humanness, and not homogenize it or try to transcend it. And to me, that means desire. It’s taken me a long to time to see desire as a beautiful thing. I love drinking coffee in the morning. I love sex. I love...

IM: Don’t you mean you love the satisfaction of your desires?

AC: I love both. I love desire—the heat of passion—as well as the satisfaction of desire when its met. But I can also live with restraint. I did it for years in a monastery and I do it every day of my life. And I’ve taken restraint to some provocative limits. In the monastery I lived for years without sex. Years without touching a woman. But I also found a kind of satisfaction in the desire to restrain one form of sexuality for another expression it. It wasn’t as if sexuality went away. You transmuted it into another form. There was something very erotic about celibacy. There were many other forms of restraint as well. I was silent for many months at a time. Still today, I can cross my legs and sit still without moving whenever I want. I’m not afraid of myself. And to me desire and passion are vital aspects of living as a free human being.

It might be tempting to quickly say he is talking about something else besides desire, but I don't think that would be wise. Sit with it awhile first. Maybe he's missing something - I don't know. But I like the way he's upsetting the apple cart here.

To me, when he says "I'm not afraid of myself." that should be a big cue for all of us. Regular readers have seen me going on about the need to lighten up about forms, to not think that sitting zazen all the time is some great thing, for example. Now here is a guy who has lived the forms, lived in sangha, lived with that laundry list of monastic rules that has tumbled through time, and he's basically telling us - get over your fantasies! These are great tools for learning about what it means to be human, but that's just it - what is it to be human? How do you embody it fully?

If I were to take a poll on my own experience, I have tended to be more of a suppressor. Others lean more in the director of expressing. In my case, this has meant hiding, denying, minimizing, or reframing aspects of experience that either are threatening or too wild and thus scary. This isn't just about what we label as negative. It's also been what we'd label positives. Like holding back enthusiasm for something. Or tamping down the level of caring I have for something or someone. That's how I generally have operated in my adult life - not always of course - but probably the majority of time. And that pattern fits in really well with what I have experienced in my zen community, and others, including what I've seen online to some degree.

The opposite group, those who express readily, are also coming from an afraid place. Maybe it's a deep fear that not expressing will mean they are dead. Or that they believe the world is a scary place and that you best play the drama, or else you'll be stomped on. I'm less familiar with this way of living because I don't do it as much, but I think both are coming from a place of bone-deep fear.

AC:Another complexity I have with classical Buddhism and vipassana meditation in general is its drive towards achieving a state of equanimity, as if perpetual balance is the best way to be in life. A bit too Dr. Spocklike
for my taste. Flat lining the emotions isn’t part of my picture. Nor am I interested in the idea that dispassion and stillness are characteristics of the highest states of consciousness. I’ll be still enough when I die. For now, I like singing. I like music. I like dancing. I like yoga. I like hip hop theater. I like good wine. I like things,most things that is. Unless, I don’t like it. Normal behavior, in other words.

This is a bit jarring for me, given my penchant for balance in recent years. And yet, it does give rise to the question: what was Buddha talking about with "equanimity"? Not what's in the sutras, or some canned definition of equanimity. Lately, I've been thinking that equanimity is being able to ride the flow of life as it is. That all the talk about attachment is really aimed at teaching us how to swim better, not just to be logs floating calmly in a river. Think about it. Good swimmers are buoyant. They have to have a deep sense of lightness, regardless of actual body weight. And they need to be engaged with the water as it is, moment by moment.

And as for cessation of passion and desire - I've always thought that the stories about Buddha and some others seem a little too clean. Even saintlike at times. On this, Clements remarks:

let’s not get stuck in some high, singular note called nirvana and just go on singing silently forever and ever. (Sings) Ahhhhh. Nirvana may be cool and peaceful, but I happen to be a complex, energetic, finite human being who happens to like being in a body at the moment. I don’t like just sitting there all the time
assuming that ‘stillness’ is freedom. I’m an active lover of the dharma, but I believe in finding one’s liberation through living in the world, where it is often messy, and harsh. We need to develop human responses to life, not transcendent ones.

How do we be still while active in the world? This is an important question for me. Because if the deep stillness from which wisdom arises is only about physically being still, we're kind of fucked as a species. If this whole thing is really about permanently breaking away from the active world, one by one, well, that seems no better than Christians who condemn this world as an irredeemably sinful mess in need of being escaped from.

Maybe Clements' take on Nirvana is mistaken. Or he's working too hard to counter it in statements like this. I do think, though, that he's taking aim at the commonplace understanding of liberation being equated with cessation.

Which leads to me think perhaps people have misunderstood the entire teaching around breaking the cycle of birth and death. That cessation, stopping production of karma, isn't about ending human experiences like passion and desire.

That it's about being liberated in such a way that you can swim through all of it, move through all of it, without getting caught, getting stuck. Another way to put it might be that you don't get torched by the flame of life.

There's no way to know for sure that the historical Buddha ceased to desire, ceased to experiences passions. But I'm pretty damned convinced that this guy had a radically different way of living with it all, that whatever passions and desires came weren't taken the way the average person takes them.

At the end of the interview, Clements quotes Elie Wiesel: "Favor the question, always question.” Yes. But I also think this, too, can become a troubling certainty. Like all those who run around citing the Kalama Sutta, and then don't question why it is they are questioning.

So, I'll end with the odd sounding question that titles the post: how is liberation? Liberation being a verb, don't you think? And the how pointing us to process, functioning, movement through stillness. How is liberation for you?

*Image is of a Green Tara


Was Once said...

i really like his statement,"... Anything you see in the world could happen to you..and likely will." A motivator to work on compassion beyond yourself and close family.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Maybe this comes back to "nothing to attain" again—only, you really need all those years of practice to attain nothing.

Nathan said...

Yeah, he's been very active in the world since leaving the monastery, and sees it as vitally important to expand ourselves somehow beyond immediate family/friends/etc.