Tibet was never a mysterious place to my mind. It is much less mysterious to me than the Western world we live in. Tibet makes more sense.
If I imagine a regular reader of my blog, I see a cerebral and skeptical person without deep religious convictions. To him, my posts about Buddhism may seem like a strange aberration or some Russian spiritualist eccentricity- cute but fundamentally irrational. A crazy dance of a smart writer's inner-hippy.
Not so to me; for me, Buddhism is the foundation of my life. Buddhism is my life. If I weren't a Buddhist, I would likely be a cold corpse laying with some cheap gun gripped in my dead hand. I would have a garbage bag over my head to hide my body from innocent passers-by and a note plastered to my car window explaining the situation to the professionals who would eventually take my remains away.
My car would be parked by some abandoned factory in the Midwest or maybe at a far corner of a park. If I could get my hands on some heroin it would me coursing through my veins as the blood flow would start grinding to a halt, abandoned by the withering blood pump of my heart that was plugged out by its owner.
In absence of heroin, I might take Phenibut - a pretty powerful anti-anxiety agent developed in the Soviet Union for its space program. It is a mighty drug that in Russia could only be acquired at pharmacy with a prescription. Due to its obscurity, in America you can buy it online (as I have) and receive it in powder form that you mix with your ice tea. I take it sometimes in my everyday life but I don't indulge because long-term use can lead to withdrawal symptoms similar to those of the big H.
Alternatively -on my last day- I could just be drunk; though I doubt that because alcohol never did much for me.
I'm not afraid of death itself but I would need some relaxant to help me pull the trigger, block out the thoughts of the consequences my suicide would have on my family and friends and to bypass the fear I have of a temporary sharp pain that may accompany the process of dying after a bullet has blasted a hole in my body.
A song would be playing on my car stereo. Bird on a Wire by Leonard Cohen,
Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
A verse that I often put into the imaginary drafts of my suicide note.
I'm not bringing up this grim scenario to elicit pity from my few readers or because it has reincarnated in my mind over and over, asking me indulge. I bring it up because I do believe that to a large degree we do create our reality with out thoughts, actions and accompanying emotions.
We are like shamans, submerged deep in a trance, dancing in a circle of our own life. Repeating the same dreams, desires and griefs like schizophrenics chanting an insane mantra. This neurotic circle of thoughts and emotions that defines our life isn't real in on of itself but we believe it to be real. It becomes our highest reality. Our dance makes the circle close in on us, becoming ever more suffocating. What began as a joyful dance over a large circumference regresses into a beleaguered shuffle, a painful spinning on a single spot- a crude perversion of the swirling dervishes. We have looked for freedom in the wrong place.
We then invent a merciless God, carefully construct a sacrificial altar and then willingly slit our own throat after climbing atop it. Our sacrifice goes nowhere and means nothing. The dramatic and painful orchestra music that accompanied our demise disappears with our dying breath, it never existed anywhere outside of our head and even there -with all of its glory- it was a hollow illusion.
The pain in our life is born out of ignorance. But it is not a purely conceptual ignorance. The kind that says that two plus five equals three and could be overturned with an instant conceptual correction.
It is a tragedy that in the modern world we search for a conceptual solution to the suffering of being.
We want to climb to a far off Himalayan mountain where a mysterious oriental archetype of a yogi will present us with a magical equation that will unplug our pain like a plunger unclogging a toilet stuffed with shit-stained paper. Not quite so.
Suffering is all encompassing, it permeates our body, heart and head. But because we formulate this pain and define it to ourselves in a form of abstract thoughts, we expect the solution to also be in that form. To steal an old Freudian metaphor, our conscious thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg. Thus it is rational that to dismantle this iceberg we have to go deeper.
And this is where Tibet comes in. I see that land and her people as the civilizational equivalent of a Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker ship- ramming through the icy pain of life. Flawed to be sure, flawed because all societies are, but less flawed than most. A powerful land whose power was invisible on the geopolitical map defined by brute force. A country who vanished from that map when brute force invaded her unguarded borders to claim her.
I often think of a comparison between old Tibet and Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. On the surface, Germany would be considered the more civilized land. Modern scientific knowledge was so poor in Tibet that most of the population believed that the earth was flat. Crop failures were addressed with rituals performed by traveling shamans whose religion predated the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. The game of soccer was condemned by some monastic authorities because -as one monk stated- bouncing the ball is like kicking the Buddha's head.
Child mortality was unacceptably high but the Tibetan children who did survive didn't have to worry about being drafted to be cannon fodder in another bloody political gamble. They lived in a world, where protective spirits guarded the monastery gates where reincarnated saints prayed and meditated for the welfare of all living beings (from the fly hovering above feces to the nobles in their gilded estates), saints who were believed to carry on duties in replaceable human bodies for hundreds and -in case of some reincarnations- thousands of years. They lived in a country where every animal they encountered had to be treated with fundamental compassion because in the beginningless flow of the spirit, at a different juncture in the time/space continuum, this animal was their mother from a previous life.
In Tibet new monastery construction often took ages to complete because any worm found in the earth would be carefully carried to safety. This compassion may seem insane but it created a gravitational pull that would make an idea of a Tibetan Hitler so absurd that today a hipster band could adopt a name like that for its ironic value. The fuhrer simply couldn't function in a society that reserved empathy for invertebrates aside from being a raging beggar regarded with pity and fear.
The Aryan heart was open to him and so Germany stood there with one of the most advanced legacies of culture in the western world. With a heritage overflowing with Mozarts, Goethes and Hegels and yet this whole mountain of polished cultural pearls crumbled in an instant when confronted with the Nazi rational of revenge and racial hatred that spoke to many in that country. It did as much to guard Germans from their own destructive emotions as the brilliance of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy did to guard Russians from the ravages of the civil war and Stalinism. It did as much as the genius of Thomas Jefferson did to prevent him from viewing Africans as smelly subhumans worthy of slavery, this in spite of the fact that he fathered six children with a slave woman who was an unacknowledged half-sister of his deceased wife.
In a way, all that culture was fundamentally useless (a profound but ultimately superficial genius that only tickled the tip of the iceberg of our awareness) because it did little to guard those self-defined islands of humanity from losing their most precious quality - compassion.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama always gets most passionate when speaking with children and young adults. He describes the twentieth century as a century of bloodshed and tells the youth that the twenty-first century should be a century of peace. He tells them about his own mother, a kind peasant woman, and how the seed of his compassion came from her rather than from religious training. He tells them to cultivate compassion, to erase mental barriers between self and other as means of achieving happiness for themselves and peace for the world.
It is in a way amazing that thousands of people gather to hear him speak in the west. Most people know next to nothing about Tibet, its particular version of Buddhism or the lineage of reincarnates that the current Dalai Lama represented as the living embodiment of the Boddhisatva of compassion - Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan). He stands there knowing full well that most of his audience has no idea that his lineages stretches back to the fourteenth century and that many Tibetans consider it sacrilegious to look into his eyes. They don't know that he left Tibet when tens of thousands of his countrymen surrounded his palace in Lhasa to protect him from an alleged kidnap plot from the communist occupiers.
So why do they listen to this stranger from a mystical land? Suppose this attraction could be understood through his celebrity but this doesn't explain why people would sit for hours listening to a moral lecture delivered in his limited English. The commitment required is bigger than taking a picture together to quickly plaster it on facebook. People who do come are attracted -I believe- by his sincerity, presented without a hint of nervous, self-conscious energy that accompanies so many public speakers. His message of compassion resonates in a world where human interactions are so often transactional. A forced smile exchanged for a forced smile. A fake frowny face delivered when hearing bad news from a friend. A possibility of an orgasm as a reward for a night of drunk flirting and superficial tenderness. Petty, repetitive bickering -changing in pitch of irritation- as the defining feature of our political discourse.
The Dalai Lama represents a link to their faith, culture and freedom for Tibetans -all of which are under attack in their homeland. For thousands non-Buddhists who come to hear his public talks he represents a missing link of compassion in our rich societies.
Of course to many in the west the Dalai Lama represents nothing at all. To a cynical intellectual he appear as the monk of Hallmark card type platitudes- the irrelevant prophet of corny empathy. A proclaimer of agreeable sentiments that aren't particularly deep. More agreeable perhaps than the local bishop or televangelist but that's not saying much. This view neglects the fact that he has been taught complex Buddhist philosophy and logic -a tradition predating Christianity- since the age of six. He doesn't expose this aspect of himself to general audiences because Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion. But to me his basic ideas delivered to packed auditoriums hold true.
H.H. Dalai Lama's American interpreter and noted Tibetologist Jeffrey Hopkins was surprised when the Dalai Lama said in English "compassion is society, society is compassion." At first he thought H.H. made a mistake. But then he realized the fundamental point being conveyed. Human beings can survive and even be happy without democracy, consumerism and even education and literacy. But no human life can exist without basic compassion shown to it when it was newborn and helpless. This basic biological seed of compassion is as crucial to our existence as oxygen, water and our DNA. Of course for some of us being reminded of that fact seems corny and trite.
Compassion however is the basic civilizational block, without it no society can function. We become more civilized when we move closer to compassion and we drift toward concentration camp savagery and self-destruction if we move away from it.
In our personal life, our neurotic circle closes in us if we disregard others and make our needs and pain the central deities of our suicidal shrine. We make an endless ocean out of our sorrows and are befuddled when we start to drown in them.
Belief in compassion of others and cultivation of it in ourselves open up channels of awareness in us that were muted before; it begins to show us the true reality of our interdependent world. A flawed and painful world where we can find peace and happiness.
Because Tibet made compassion its societal bedrock, it retains the same place in my heart that classics' scholars reserve for ancient Greece and the same spiritual reverence Muslims have toward Mecca and Medina. And place where philosophy, spirituality and religion did not drift into total segregation as they did in the west but were combined into one.
Don't mistake my view for the idealistic and starry-eyed adoration of Tibet as a snowy paradise or Shangri-la. I've read Tibetan history and know about the complicated and -at times- corrupt power structures that existed there- as they did and do exist in all human societies. The political plots and court conspiracies, the assassinations, the shifts of power between various schools of Tibetan Buddhism- the periodic interventions from Mongol Khans or Chinese emperors.
And yet in all those times -and even under the present brutal occupation- the prayer wheels kept turning, and yogis retreated into their caves to pursue single-pointed meditation. Mao's insane and heavy hand almost suffocated this lineage out of existence; but today, in the shadow of a brutal communist dictatorship fueled by our consumerism, it still clings to life.
In my biased opinion (as a Tibetan Buddhist) Buddha's teachings on interdependence and compassion took root there as they did nowhere else. There are Tibetan rapists, murderers and thieves as surely as there are Russian and American ones, but -overall- a unique moral shift has happened in the land of the snows that I'm not familiar with happening on that scale anywhere else.
A cult of violence and rabid hatred took hold in Germany in the first part of the twentieth century. Normally sensible and moral people joined together to form a ruthless machinery of war and genocide that left millions of victims in its wake. A cult of spirituality, compassion and interdependence took hold in Tibet with the first seeds planted by Padmasambava, a Tantric Indian Buddhist master (from the area that is today Pakistan) who introduced Buddhism to Tibet around 747 AD.
If we want to understand Nazi Germany on a human level it helps to see how a crude ideology changed human behavior for the worse in a matter of years. If we want to understand Buddhist Tibet we have to acknowledge the power of teachings directing and molding the human spirit in a different direction for over a thousand years.
The power I see in the thousand-year Tibetan Reich is no less grandiose than the murderous ghost unleashed by the Nazis; but the Tibetan alternative is not as apparent to the naked eye. Hippies on acid see it better than Ivy League game theory professors.
Just as not all Germans became die-hard Hitlerites, not all Tibetans exemplified the total altruism and non-duality preached by Buddha, but the amazing thing is that thousands did.
Even from a non-religious point of view, one has to acknowledge that after thousands of hours of solitary meditation the reality those practitioners saw was different from our own; and from my point of view, that reality was infinitely truer than ours.
Thus I am drawn to Tibet not our of its distant mystery but because of its existential logic. I never got a high out of unknown ideals. I am connected to Tibet because I see its rational, compassionate heart.
Today we are in awe of science of technology. To many secular humanists, scientists hold an approximate position to that held by shamans and saints in ancient times. They are supposed to answer our deepest questions about existence through studying the flashes and waves our brains generate when scanned with modern machinery. They are the pioneering breed who must chart our civilization's future.
Critics of our technological age are dismissed as irrelevant tree-hugging dupes or dull fanatics. The passing of Steve Jobs was accompanied by an outburst of mourning that was usually reserved for assassinated presidents or beloved popes.
A critical examination of our current reality somewhat dismantles the myth of a scientific Shangri-la that has seen many devotional prostrations offered in its direction.
Genocide as we know it today would not be possible without scientific progress. Genocide is an industrial convener belt designed for murder: a meeting of modern technologies and ancient hatreds.
Science has healed millions who would have perished before, but it has also nourished a population explosion of historic ramifications.
Seven billion humans inhabit the world today, where as for most of human history -up to 1830- less than a billion dwelt on planet earth. Today billions of us leave in slums defined by disgusting odors and lifelong, hopeless poverty. Perhaps our planet -with its rigid economic cast system- can sustain 10 or 11 billion men but is its potential for holding billions of our needy human race infinite?
Science -with the advent of nuclear weapons- has also brought our growing number closer to total self-destruction than ever before- in fact it totally invented the concept. The armies of Russian tsars, Mongol Khans and western imperialists might have been merciless but they could not have dreamed of a weapon that could turn whole nations into nuclear ash. Today -following the universal dictum of the ease creating something with repetition- even a bankrupt and starving nation like North Korea could afford itself such flights of fancy.
On the philosophical front, science has inspired Marx to develop his ideology viewed by his followers as the scientific theory of history and the brilliance of Darwin were central to Nazi racial theories. Today, no paradise exists either for the Aryan master race or the world proletariat. But graceful mountains could be built -with their peaks rising to the heavens- out of the bones of innocent men, women and children who had to die in the name of those phantom utopias.
Both of the ideologies listed above are seen as perversions of scientific truths however the fact that the inquisition was a perversion of Christian teachings doesn't prevent certain warring atheists from using it to lambaste the very notion of religion.
The point isn't to demonize science, the banal point I'm making is that not all of its fruits are sweet. These fruits were as poisonous as an Auschwitz chimney in the past and they could be deadly in the future as well.
Maybe the Japanese are the only ones to see a flash and then have their burnt flesh peel off their body in layers. Maybe nuclear weapons will only be used once in human history... maybe not.
Sitting here as an unemployed twenty-eight year old Russian-American Tibetan Buddhist living in my mother's house, I see a world around me that could collapse into its own narrow dance or expand onward into a further continuum of its existence- with its blessings and curses.
To expand and persevere, it would need to embrace a sense of mutual interdependence and compassion professed by H.H. Dalai Lama in speeches you might dismiss as corny and free of real substance on account of their simplicity.
The nightmares of the twentieth century will repeat themselves unless we stay connected with and cultivate our basic empathy for each other. Society is compassion and compassion is society. I do accept that truth and fear for us if we neglect it in our manic march to meet tomorrow.
Recently a cursed, suicidal circle closed down on me and maybe a different and bright circle of awakening has emerged out of the melancholy mud of my mind and this circle is currently expanding out... I'm not sure if I am reading my psyche correctly but I feel like I'm right.
This essay here is really important to me. Personally -for myself- this is the most important thing I have written in my life so far.
But I struggled to write this and I am struggling to finish it now. In fact, I procrastinated and sat on it for over a week, typing out a few paragraphs here and there.
Although on this blog, I may sound like some post-modern diarist of my own life and and a cynical observer of global politics to boot- totally in sync with the rational, materialistic worldview of smart American liberals and the accompanying conventions of cultural relativism and ironic humor... this is not in fact who I really am.
Put in simpler words, if I were to write as I really think, the veneer of sanity would be shattered and you might be compelled to call the good doctor to take me away to a room with padded walls.
When I feel truest to myself, I see the world in a way that would be dismissed as mystical by my liberal cohorts.
A world closer to that inhabited by spirits and demons seen by my Russian pagan ancestors before this reality got walled off by the iron curtain of Orthodox Christianity and later Bolshevism. A world closer to that of Tibetan nomads than that of 21st century America.
I am both drawn and afraid of that world and often try to keep it under wraps, but since it seems to hold all the answers, I have to embrace it.
Embrace it to breathe.
Well, anyway, what I wrote above in neither here nor there... so I will stop with that line of thought and will try to continue to unravel it in private.
I'll just say that in the past few days and weeks, I felt the ground shift under my feel. But I am almost afraid to write about it, fearing that the progress that I made could be undermined -or even permanently reversed- if I put it into to words to be read by others.
"Form is emptiness and emptiness is form," as the supreme sutra says; and the magical sin of all good writing is confining emptiness to form only. An act of spiritual capture that often leaves the writer mentally unbalanced for his very talent is -in a certain way- a dangerous lie.
And here I am not even sure that I am any good at writing so why should I trespass on sacrilege?
Writing this now, I feel like a doctor doing an open heart surgery on himself. If the scalpel of my conceptual though touches the wrong vein, I could suffer.
The other dilemma I face is that the events that led to this "spiritual shift" within me are extremely pedestrian on the surface and contrast sharply with grand proclamations and insights that they triggered in my mind and that you may have read above- if you weren't a lazy skimmer who just skipped to read the end.
So forgive me for being cryptic, but I will just say that in the past weeks, I have wrestled with my deadly demon.
He having love for a mother and attachment for a father. Attachment was the force that almost drove me to take my own life because my mind got very small and focused on a narrow romantic goal.
When this attachment collapsed on me, instead of despair I felt something else. This attachment stabbed me and I bled a form of serenity and compassion that I didn't experience before. I came closer than I ever did before (in this life) to feeling pure, universal love.
I was alone in my room and I started sobbing- a highly uncharacteristic behavior for me.
I sobbed for about half an hour. I thought about her and I thought about me. But mostly I thought about the deep suffering in the world.
I thought about a man I used to drive for my work. Someone with a deadly oral cancer that could kill him in a matter of months. When he called his estranged father to tell him he had cancer, his dad told him that he is cooking right now and asked if he can call back later.
I thought about poverty, pain and hopelessness menacing so many beings.
I shouldn't say I thought about it, it is better to say that I felt it.
I felt it as if I was feeling my own countless deaths and rebirths.
Happening in every moment of every second. Happening so fast that I didn't see them before.
Of course, I didn't gain enlightenment through these sobs.
And in a way I gained nothing from it whatsoever.
But it was the most precious moment of my life.
You and I are brother and sister. Or brother and brother. Or sister and sister. Or mother and mother.
Or...perhaps the best way to put it... nothing and nothing. Self and self.
We cannot live without one another. And if we try, we suffer. Compassion for you is not a luxury for me. It is a means of survival.
I will try to feel your sorrows and happiness the best I can because there is no other real way to live. You might be a hungry ghost or an ant or a serial killer or a high lama on a golden throne or a giraffe in the zoo.
I will do my best.
May all sentient beings have happiness
and the causes of happiness;
May all sentient beings be free from suffering
and the causes of suffering;
May all sentient beings never be separated from
the happiness that knows no suffering;
May all sentient beings live in equanimity,
free from attachment and aversion.