We tell ourselves “I am this” and “You are that.” But we are like clouds. Ever changing, always moving, where does one end and another begin? Carried by the winds of the past, collecting and disintegrating in response to the dynamics of the present. Mutable as water, never to appear or disappear but only changing forms.
There is no “they” because there is no “we.” We construct identities such as white, urban, liberal, middle class, Christian, American. We invest meanings in these constructions, ascribe commonalities, posit a collective. But these are stories we tell ourselves.
There are 99 of us for every 1 of them. So why don’t we overthrow them? Because it’s not they who oppress us. We do, by ascribing implicitly to the idea underlying all hierarchy: otherness. This idea keeps us divided against ourselves. We do not trust each other and therefore we cannot exercise the revolutionary potential of cooperative power. Given our numerical advantage, we do not even need violence. We simply need to demonstrate coordinated resolve against the premise underlying hierarchy. We simply need to agree that we are all equal, that we are all the same, that we are one.
Again and again, we mistake a contingency for the essence, and in so doing we pervert the essence into its opposite.
For example, we view the practice of sitting meditation as essential to enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, whereas, according to Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen, the practice is a contingent feature with no necessary relationship to Zen. If one tries to achieve enlightenment by sitting in meditation, this very act of trying, this contrivance of following a preconceived form, dooms the meditator to frustration. At best, a sustained practice of sitting meditation can help one realize the absurdity of trying to achieve naturalness and thereby prompt one to be simply spontaneous — thus finding Zen not by seeking it but by giving up the search. More mundanely, Watts speculates that sitting meditation assumed such exaggerated association with Zen because in the 10th and 11th centuries Zen monasteries became fashionable finishing schools for Japanese families to send their children to, and the discipline of sitting meditation was a convenient means of managing unruly youth. This is not to say that Zen monks may not spend hours per day sitting in meditation, but they do so as a consequence, not a cause, of enlightenment: they are not seeking enlightenment but giving up the search and therefore experiencing it, for we already are Zen, we just do not know it.
Similarly, we mistake contingencies of Christianity for its essence. We mistake church-going, prayer, and other signs of piety for the reality of piety. But, in a passage of Matthew featuring striking resonances with Zen Buddhism, Jesus pointed out that true piety is invisible, not only from others but even from oneself: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them…. [W]hen you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” If one pursues goodness by trying to conform to a contrived conception of goodness, then one will only travel farther and farther from it. Watts compares Zen spontaneity to “[t]he deepest meaning of the Christian doctrine of free will, for to act ‘in union with God’ is to act, not from the constraint of fear or pride, nor from hope of reward, but with the baseless love of the ‘unmoved mover.'” The left hand knows not what the right is doing because doing flows spontaneously from being. Doing good follows from being good, not the other way around.
We pervert the essence of politics, too. We take, for example, the oppression of regimes like the USSR and China to be intrinsic to communism, or the deregulation of capitalism characteristic of post-Reagan America to be intrinsic to democracy. We are not savvy enough to distinguish between a new way and the old way wearing a new mask.
I feel too disgusted with America to write about it. Reading of Zen is my new catharsis.
And admiring clouds. This one looks like that island in the Indonesian archipelago, Sulawesi, with peninsulas shooting like tendrils from its center.
Reminds me of New Hampshire’s Indonesian Christians in deportation limbo: in deportation proceedings because they are undocumented immigrants, in limbo because they are Christian and their fear of persecution by Muslims plays well here.
Reminds me that my wife, a naturalized citizen who came to the US as a refugee over 25 years ago, will be subject to social media surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security.
The clouds have changed form. As they do. Now like boughs of a giant spruce tree, laden with snow that glows pink in the sunset.
We could stop referring to the United States of America as a country because we lack sovereign control over our territory. We have been conquered by holders of concentrated wealth who exploit our productive forces of nature and labor, dupe us into cultural civil war, and rule us with puppets.
The pink boughs have given way to a misty blue like air over ocean.
Change brings loss and sadness, but in change lies hope.