Here at Mesocosm we’re huge fans of Melvyn Bragg’s BBC radio show In our Times, which may be streamed on demand here. The format is simple – Bragg moderates discussions of interesting topics with a select group of 2-4 academic specialists. Hosting that show is basically my dream job – I’ve listened to spell-binding episodes covering everything from Faust to the An Lushan Rebellion in China to the Cambrian explosion.
I was unusually transfixed by an episode on Shakespeare and Criticism, a half-hour discussion between esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom and the dazzling Jacqueline Rose of the University of London. Their conversation quickly took flight from Shakespeare, using a discussion of Hamlet as a touchstone for an animated defense of the western canon, upheld by Professor Bloom, and a bold probing of its limitations by Professor Rose. It’s a conversation I will long remember, which articulately embodies a dialectical tension in the way the humanities are taught, and I recommend it very highly.
Flipping idly through Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, I came across the following:
Over immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species: those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves or their progeny. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, include the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good or me is also good in itself. It was only very late that such presuppositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged – as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those basic errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial. Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became norms according to which ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ were determined – down to the most regions of logic.
Thus the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life. Where life and knowledge seemed to be at odds there was never any real fight, but denial and doubt were simply considered madness. Those exceptional thinkers, like the Eleatics, who nevertheless posited and clung to the opposites of the natural errors, believed that it was possible to live in accordance with these opposites: they invented the sage as the man who was unchangeable and impersonal, the man of the universality of the intuition who was One and All at the same time, with a special capacity for the inverted knowledge: they had the faith that their knowledge was also the principles of life. But in order to claim all of this, they had to deceive themselves about their own state: they had to attribute to themselves, fictitiously, impersonality and changeless duration; they had to misapprehend the nature of the knower; they had to deny the role of the impulses in knowledge; and quite generally they had to conceive of reason s a completely free and spontaneous activity. They shut their eyes to the fact that they, too, had arrived at their propositions through opposition to common sense, or owing to a desire for tranquility, for sole possession, or for dominion. The subtler development of honesty and skepticism eventually made these people, too, impossible; their way of living and judging were seen to be also dependent upon the primeval impulses and basic errors of all sentient existence. (section 110, translated by Walter Kaufmann)
The Gay Science is probably my favorite of Nietzsche’s books – it has a more developed and mature insight than his earlier works, while retaining a lightness of tone and lacking the ponderous quality that increasingly dominates his later works.
Here we find a potent formulation of an insight that is, to my mind, one of his most important contributions to the history of philosophy – namely, that philosophers and sages, too, speak and act from self-interested positions, and very often what we find in their timeless systems is a projection of their own priorities and values onto the fabric of the cosmos itself. There is no impersonal philosophy.
And as one hand writes cherished conclusions in the Book of Nature, the other hand simultaneously erases all memory of having done so. Thus the sage usually discovers in the world what they most value within themselves. As the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna memorably put it, “You are like a person who, riding a horse, forgets that very horse.”
Let us be forewarned, and proceed with caution, where the sage claims to have found the great truth, or to have brought themselves into identity or alignment with it, be they philosopher, scientist, doctor, or priest, of the East or of the West. They may have simply found themselves, and forgotten where they had looked.
I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Thupten Jinpa speak about his new book A Fearless Heart, which is an accessible and entertaining presentation of traditional Tibetan techniques for cultivating compassion informed by recent research in psychology and neuroscience. It reminds me a bit of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in its ecumenical and rationalized approach to sharing Buddhist techniques for self-cultivation. It’s full of engaging autobiography and short on life stories of the Buddha or hagiography of various masters.
Dr. Jinpa has served as the principle translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for many years, having earned an esteemd geshe degree in the traditional monastic curriculum, and subsequently turning to lay life and earning a PhD from Cambridge.
During his presentation, I thought quite a bit about an episode in the biography of Je Tsong Khapa, the Tibetan master who founded the Gelukpa lineage in which Dr. Jinpa was ordained. According to traditional teaching, Je Tsong Khapa had a formative moment of profound personal transformation in a dream. He had been studying the Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way, which focuses on the ultimate nature of reality, and in his dream he was approached by Buddhapalita, one of the key figures of that lineage. Buddhapalita held a copy of his principle treatise in his hands, and he touched it to Je Tsong Khapa’s head. At the moment the scripture made contact with the crown of his head, Je Tsong Khapa had a tremendous flash of insight into the nature of reality that animated the rest of his life.
So I remarked to Dr. Jinpa during the Q&A session that Buddhism had come to many cultures in its transmission out of India, and each time it has done so, it has taken on new symbols and new stories to serve as the matrix of its message. But its transmission to the West appears to be the first time that it has been transmitted into a context of no symbols.
I asked him, given the repertoire of profound images in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and the integral role they have traditionally played in the process of self-cultivation and transformation, what happens to these practices when they’re abstracted into a scientific language, and the symbols are left behind?
Given his background, Dr. Jinpa is in a unique position to comment on this issue. He said it’s a very complicated problem, but in essence, he doesn’t believe that Buddhism will become a major religion in the West in the foreseeable future. The way he sees it, it tends to be concentrated into pockets of highly-educated elites. So the question becomes, not what form Western Buddhism will take, but how, in a larger sense, will Buddhism influence European and American culture. And in this regard, he believes that mindfulness and compassion techniques, which are already being taught in hospitals, have the most potential to provide a positive influence.
I found this a very illuminating and thought-provoking answer. Of course, Buddhism has typically first attracted the attention of well-educated elites in any new zone it enters. This has been true in Tibet, certainly, where ironically, the adoption of Buddhist beliefs by the imperial Yarlung court may have been a factor in precipitating the empire’s downfall, as doing so undermined the adherence to traditional religious beliefs that legitimated their rule.
But that is another story. The bottom line, I think, is that it becomes a question of doing the good that you can in the way you can.
It’s a nicely-written book, and if this is a topic of interest to you, you should check it out. I also like Jeffrey Hopkins’s Cultivating Compassion.
Lately I’ve been studying up on the history and culture of Central Eurasia, which has been home for millennia to important settled and nomadic people, including the speakers of proto-Indo-Europeans, the Parthians, Scythians, Huns, Xiongnu, Turks, and Mongols, to name a few.
The story about these peoples has long been told from the perspective of the high centers of civilization. To the Greeks, Romans, ‘Abbasid caliphs, and Chinese alike, these are barbarian invader-folk who periodically amass in sufficient numbers to cause serious problems by raiding and invading past their steppe hinterlands, toppling empires and bringing ruin. Such is the legacy of the Huns and Mongols in particular, who, according to popular conception, surged out of the steppes on horseback to leave smoldering ruins and piles of skulls in their wake.
While this model isn’t without a grain of truth, as usual the truth is more complicated than that. There is a widespread and traditional antipathy between settled peoples and mobile populations, and wherever these two forms of society are found we see similar stories told by the latter about the former. They are thieves, primitive warriors, and bellicose brutes – this is said not only of the Huns by the Romans, but of the Apache by the neighboring Pueblo peoples in pre-modern times.
In the last generation in particular we’ve started to see an important revision to that prevailing conception, which examines history in the light of the Central Eurasians, not as a usually-unimportant people dwelling at the perimeter of history, but as a worthwhile subject in its own right, and that shift in emphasis is challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom. What is regarded by imperial powers as infringement on their rightful borders, for example, often dissolves into complex disputes regarding encroachment into new territory and violation of trade rights by some of the societies in question. And far from the brutish horsemen of their adversaries’ histories, we’re gradually coming to appreciate the complex societies, economies, and cultures of the peoples of Central Eurasia, which has been a key nexus of cultural interchange and transmission for at least six thousand years.
In the 19th century when historians started looking closely at the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the general understanding was that classical civilization and urban culture began in Greece and Rome. It took a couple of generations of looking at overwhelming evidence to the contrary before we collectively revised that understanding and appreciated the degree to which complex urban societies existed in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt for millennia before the Greek iron age. I think we’re in the midst of a similar revision now with respect to Central Asia, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that these societies cannot be understood simply as a footnote to Roman and Chinese history. They are themselves key drivers of history, and the closer I look at them, the more I see that the history of Europe and Asia simply cannot be understood without a thorough understanding of these cultures.
There is a lot of great information out there on Central Eurasia; one source I recommend to interested readers is Christopher Beckwith’s outstanding study Empires of the Silk Road.
In other news, a great recent discover of mine is the wonderful BBC Radio series In Our Times. Our lively host Melvyn Bragg guides animated discussions of fascinating topics in history, art, science, and culture, typically with three university professor guests. I’ve listened to spellbinding episodes on the Samurai, Sappho, the Venerable Bede, and the An-Lushan Rebellion, and look forward to streaming many more. Episodes are 45 minutes in length.
It’s interesting to find how much your experience of a book can change when you’ve put on a few years. Today I’m having that experience going back to Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. It didn’t make much of an impression on me when I first read it, but now I find it nearly overpowering.
“I went to see the shrine of Muro-no-yashima. According to Sora, my companion, this shrine is dedicated to the goddess called the Lady of Flower-Bearing Trees, who has another shrine at the foot of Mount Fuji. This goddess is said to have locked herself up in a burning cell to prove the divine nature of her newly-conceived son when her husband doubted it. As a result, her son was named Lord Born Out of The Fire, and her shrine, Muro-no-yashima, which means burning cell. It was a custom of this place for poets to sing of the rising smoke, and for ordinary people not to eat konoshiro, a speckled fish, which has a vile smell when burnt.”
“I mounted the horse and started off, when two small children came running after me. One of them was a girl named Kasane, which means manifold. I thought her name was somewhat strange but exceptionally beautiful.”
Excerpts are from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa.
“A rabbi, whose grandfather had been a disciple of the Baal Shem, was asked to tell a story. ‘A story,’ he said, ‘must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself.’ And he told: ‘My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance and show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story!”
From Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim.
For some reason, it never occurred to me until this morning that Robert Bresson’s film “Au Hasard Balthazar” is essentially a Christianized retelling of Lucius Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass;” only where Apuleius passes through suffering to a towering epiphany of world-redeeming insight, Bresson’s dour world is unredeemable, unto the gates of death.