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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Who's Your Daddy (and Mommy)?

The Interconnectedness of Everything

Last May on a visit to Tokyo, I picked up Donald S. Lopez's The Story of Buddhism. It's a fine introduction; I put it right up there with Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak and Christmas Humphreys' classic, simply titled Buddhism.

Lopez covers a lot of ground that I'm quite familiar with; the pleasure for me is in finding a story or two that I didn't know before (or perhaps heard and set aside--different stories "resonate" at different times in one's life). Here is one "new" story that really struck me:

The story is often told of the monk Shariputra [considered the Buddha's wisest disciple] encountering a woman with a baby on her lap, eating a piece of pork. When a dog approaches, she kicks it away. Shariputra weeps at the sight, explaining that through his knowledge of the past he sees that the woman is eating the flesh of a pig that had been her father in its past life. The dog had been her mother. Her parents had been murdered by an enemy who had been reborn as the woman's child, now coddled in her lap.

AHHH!!! I got goose bumps when I read that!

There are lots of routes I could take in discussing this. One would be to discuss "Why I Am a Vegetarian." But that will surely be covered later. Another is the whole concept of reincarnation, which the Buddhists call rebirth. (The distinction is fine but essential.)

But, as we are in the early days of our time together, I think it would be best to discuss a technique that I call MS: Metaphorical Seeing.

"The Way of Seeing"

The idea is fundamental to many of the things that I will say in these pages. In one of my Foundations articles, I wrote that perhaps the most important thing I have learned from reading Joseph Campbell's works is to see things in terms of metaphor. Quoting myself here:

All language about "the Other," I came to see, is of necessity metaphorical language. That is, "God," "heaven," and other such words, are referring to something which cannot be expressed in words at all. The more I pursued this idea, the more excited I became. I came to see that words might hint at reality, but they can never capture it. In the Eastern image, they are "fingers pointing at the moon"...but never the moon itself.

Think about it. Christians put great stock in "the name of Jesus." But this name is no word he ever heard; it's a translation (of a translation). The name is just a name, and by extension the story is just a story. It is pointing toward something "real," but cannot be the reality itself.

Can you imagine the effect this insight had on me?

Suddenly, my ideas about "God" became something much... bigger. God was no longer a tame, domesticated animal. Instead, he was ferocious, unencompassable, ineffable. In Otto's words, a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, sometimes translated "a dread and yet alluring mystery." Wow.

This way of thinking, "Metaphorical Seeing," is useful when I think of stories like the one about Shariputra and the woman. Is the story literally true? Can a wise monk really see your past lives? Were the woman's parents really murdered in a previous life? Were the three other players in the story--the pig, the dog, and the baby--really the father, the mother, and their murderer?

The answer is simple. It doesn't matter. Nor does it matter if God made a garden, or if Jesus hung on a cross. This is radical for some of you, I know; our Western traditions have insisted on the historicity of their stories--sometimes, it seems, to their detriment.

Galaxies as "gems"

What does matter in this story is the idea that we are all connected, interdependent. The Buddha spoke of the universe as a Net of Gems. Think of an infinite, three-dimensional net. At every knot in the net there's a gem. Every gem is reflected in every other; and so each gem contains reflections of all the gems. When one gem is moved, they all change. This is clearly a metaphor, describing the interconnectedness of all things.

The story of Shariputra is less obviously metaphorical--but that is exactly how I see it. It is meant to encourage a time-honored Buddhist practice of seeing myself in the other. Everybody was my mother (and my murderer) in a previous life, as was every living thing. If I could learn to see this way, I would naturally be more compassionate.

While this is a notable Buddhist idea, it is not restricted to Buddhism. In a well-known Western example of this idea, John Donne's "Meditation XVII" contains these lines: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. ... Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

And so, as we spend weeks and months and perhaps years together in this journal and website, bear in mind that I am not insisting on the historical or scientific value of any of the stories I tell here; rather, the "bottom line" is: What can we learn from these stories? How can they make us more-fulfilled human beings? How can they help us to Realize! that We Are That?

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