Today’s New York Times has another article about Penguin Books India’s capitulation to Hindu fundamentalists when it agreed to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. In their legal complaint the fundamentalists “called Ms. Doniger’s approach to Hinduism ‘that of a woman hungry of sex.'”
I was probably too harsh when I made it sound as though certain scholars would be too judgmental to appreciate a song like “It Is What It Is.” High-minded, holier-than-thou closed minds can be found in all religions and all states of life, lay as well as clerical. One of the best examples of a layman who selfishly puts his religious “purity” ahead of loving his wife can be found in Deepa Mehta’s movie Fire. Reportedly this movie provoked riots by Hindu fundamentalists, not the least because the lonely wife Radha falls in love with her sister-in-law Sita.
When Radha’s husband Ashok discovers the affair, he tries to lecture Radha.
Ashok. Desire brings ruin. I know that.
Radha. Brings ruin? Does it, Ashok? Do you know that without desire I was dead? Without desire there is no point in living. And, you know what else? I desire to live. I desire Sita. I desire her warmth, her compassion, her body. I desire to live again.
I’m with Radha. And I don’t think that is inconsistent with the Second Noble Truth of the Buddha. Ashok exemplifies the “inhuman” spirituality and smug “toughness” that I questioned when I was reading Santideva’s classic text on how to become a bodhisattva as I was sitting next to Laura in the National Cancer Institute.
When Laura finally started the NCI trial, she was randomized into the group getting an established chemo (carboplatin) and an experimental anti-angiogenic (vandetanib). She received her first infusion of carboplatin on a Friday afternoon in early December, 2009. It was a grey, cold winter day. The fluorescent lights over the bare room did nothing to cheer the dull, dilute mustard walls. As Laura and I were waiting, however, I noticed that we had the luck of the draw. Laura’s nurse was moving quickly to get Laura’s chemo up from the pharmacy so she could get started. She also helped expedite my trip to the dispensary to pick up the stuff we had to bring home with us. Laura would be taking the vandetanib every day. The French woman in the bed next to Laura was fretting to her husband. I couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying, but I did notice that her nurse seemed willing to wait for the pharmacy to work at its own pace. After a morning of blood tests, scans with and without contrast, consults, and the inevitable waits, Laura was tired and fell asleep as soon as the infusion started.
I started reading Santideva’s manual on how to become a bodhisattva, and found these lines from chapter 8 to be very challenging considering what was going on with Laura right next to me:
For what person is it appropriate to be attached to impermanent beings, when that person is impermanent, when a loved one may not be seen again for thousands of lives? Not seeing them one finds no pleasure and cannot remain in meditative concentration, and even when one does see them one is not satisfied. One is tormented by longing, just as before. One does not see things as they really are. One loses the sense of spiritual urgency. One is consumed by that grief, by hankering after contact with the one who is loved. While uselessly preoccupied with that person, life gets shorter by the minute. For a friend who does not last, the everlasting Dharma is lost. Shāntideva
The way of enlightenment does not indulge in grief because grief is self-centered?
It is hard for a westerner not to read these lines from Santideva as hard-hearted Calvinism or Jansenism. Or neo-Platonic devaluation of the material in the way Boethius presents Orpheus’ glance back in love at Eurydice:
For you I sing the sad affair,
Whoever seek the upward way
To lift your mind unto the day;
For who gives in and turns the eye
Back to darkness from the sky,
Loses while he looks below
All that up with him may go. Boethius 114-115
Should I value “meditative concentration” more than helping my wife? Does “spiritual urgency,” saṃvega (DN 33.1.9 ), really demand that I stop “hankering after contact with the one who is loved,” even as she’s dying? Does the way of the bodhisattva prohibit becoming “uselessly preoccupied” with what is going to happen to her? I don’t think so. But having said that, it is hard to find a path from “meditative concentration” on no-self to the practice of compassion and lovingkindness towards any individual, much less one’s wife.
In the Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning creates a supposedly progressive free-thinker who is self-righteous, smug, and self-centered. Guy Pringle’s false solidarity and fraternity with the oppressed embodies the Western version of pseudo-enlightenment—in love with everyone, but no one in particular, especially his wife. At the level of one-on-one relations, Guy treated his wife Harriett as part of himself. Harriett kept looking for signs that Guy loved her above all else. Guy saw his mission/duty/role as an enlighted member of the vanguard for the liberation of the oppressed through art. If he “sacrificed” himself to this role, then as part of him Harriett too should just be satisfied with my taking care of business. Guy’s false self is really a narcissist masquerading as an altruist. (Hochschild 195-6 describes these two types of false self.)
Just as impossible romantic love attaches itself to titillating unfulfilled desire, inhuman love of God, the Buddha, or Humanity grabs at being above-it-all. The same goes for inhuman love of Mammon.
In the 1936 film The Petrified Forest, Alan Squier wanders into a restaurant in the desert and gets the attention of the waitress Gabrielle Maple. Squier learns that her grandfather is holding on to the money that she could use to fulfill her dream to go to France, where her mother came from. He challenges the old man for being selfish, resulting in the following exchange.
Gramp Maple: But let me tell you one thing, Mr. Squier. The woman don’t live or ever did live that’s worth five thousand dollars!
Alan Squier: Well, let me tell you something. You’re a forgetful old fool. Any woman’s worth everything that any man has to give: anguish, ecstasy, faith, jealousy, love, hatred, life or death. Don’t you see that’s the whole excuse for our existence? It’s what makes the whole thing possible and tolerable.
On the same topic of love between a man and a woman, I found it interesting the way The Petrified Forest uses one of Francois Villon’s poems.
I do not lose the seed I plant in your
field, when the fruit resembles me;
God wills I plow and fertilize this field,
and that is why we both are here together. Villon 95
Villon wrote this poem for a friend of his to read to his friend’s wife. It is very loving, but the message is very sexually explicit—it’s the morning; we’re in bed together; we know what we’re here to do; let’s enjoy. The movie turns the poem into an ethereal, artistic sentiment. Villon was very earthy, but they turn him into some sort of 19th Century aesthete, i.e., another version of the high-minded above-it-all. Using Swinburne’s translation helps in the transformation.
I’m still struggling with the questions that started that afternoon as I sat next to Laura. Mark Epstein presents one possible direction out of my quandaries over Santideva.
Anne Carson points out that desire implies the presence of three things: the lover, the beloved, and that which separates them. In other words, there is always a gap, an obstacle, impeding the union desire seeks. This obstacle seems like a problem, and we want to get rid of it. This is clinging. I propose that if you relate to desire in a different way—if you learn how to simply dwell in the gap it opens up—then desire can become a teacher in its own right. In practical terms, this means learning to desire without expectations.