Friday, August 25, 2017

Life Without Living

I recently stumbled upon a curious web page calling itself Visiting the home page, I found links to various pages like "Want to Be Happier? Ask Yourself This Question Every Morning", "7 Habits of People with Remarkable Mental Toughness", or "Chronic Negativity Can Literally Kill You, Science Shows". One of them sparked my curiosity, "Once you learn these 5 brutal truths about life, you’ll be a much better person". Curious to know what "brutal truths" it could be referring to, I followed the link to the page. What follows is what I found.

1) Worrying is useless…Worrying is simply in the mind and really doesn’t help with any issues in our lives. Can worrying really change what’s going to happen? No, it’s a waste of time. As Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh says below, try to remain in the present moment without putting labels on your “future conditions of happiness.”“Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone. I am happy in the present moment. I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect any additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
2) If we want to be happy, we must see reality for what it is…Buddhism teaches us that we must see reality for what it is if you want to be truly free. Instead of being set in our own ideas and opinions, we need to stay open to and accepting of whatever truth arises. So many of us try to remain positive by avoiding all negative emotions and situations. However, we need to confront them and accept them if we are ever to be truly free. Buddhist master Pema Chödrön says it best:“We have two alternatives: either we question our beliefs – or we don’t. Either we accept our fixed versions of reality- or we begin to challenge them. In Buddha’s opinion, to train in staying open and curious – to train in dissolving our assumptions and beliefs – is the best use of our human lives.”
3) We need to accept change actively…Life is change, you’re born and eventually, you will die. The weather changes every day. No matter which aspect you look at in life, everything changes. Many of us attempt to keep things “fixed” and “constant”. However, this only goes against the true forces of the universe. By accepting and embracing change, it gives us enormous liberation and energy to create the lives we want. Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda says that accepting change allows us to take initiative and create positive changes in our lives.“Buddhism holds that everything is in constant flux. Thus the question is whether we are to accept change passively and be swept away by it or whether we are to take the lead and create positive changes on our own initiative. While conservatism and self-protection might be likened to winter, night, and death, the spirit of pioneering and attempting to realize ideals evokes images of spring, morning, and birth.” – Daisaku Ikeda
4) The root of suffering is pursuing temporary feelings…So many of us crave those feelings of happiness. We think happiness includes excitement, joy, euphoria…but these are only temporary versions of happiness. And the constant pursuit of these feelings only turns into suffering because they will never last. Instead, true happiness comes from inner peace. It’s found by being content with what you have and who you are. Yuval Noah Harari describes it perfectly:“According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings and stop craving them.” – Yuval Noah Harari
5) Meditation is the path to reducing sufferingMeditation teaches us that everything is fleeting, especially our feelings. It teaches us that the present moment is all that exists. And when we truly understand this truth, we become content in ourselves, according to Yuval Noah Harari:“This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realize how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasizing about what might have been. The resulting Serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.” – Yuval Noah Harari

I am not sure that these so-called Buddhist principles (except for the promotion of meditation, it all sounds suspiciously like stoicism) stand up very well to their encapsulization. What little I've learned about Buddhism over the years hasn't inspired me to learn much more. But its principles sound to me remarkably political. Insisting on a degree of detachment from life, on a dispassionate attitude toward the excitements and enticements of life in order to also avoid its disappointments and despondencies is powerfully political. As George Orwell put it, "The opinion that [one] should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." ("Why I Write," 1946)

Siddartha, the man who would eventually establish Buddhism in his own lifetime, was born into a Hindu ethos. It was due to the apparent hopelessness of the Hindu understanding of life and death that Siddartha was inspired to discover a "middle way" that allows human beings a way out of the endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. The middle way is compassion, which makes me wonder what Marx thought of Buddhism, if anything. The extreme asceticism practiced in Hindu "bramahcharya" was adopted by Gandhi, whose political influence not just in India but all over the world, continues to be seen and felt. "If one could follow it to its psychological roots," Orwell wrote about Gandhi's asceticism, "one would, I believe, find that the main motive for 'non-attachment' is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work." The ultimate goal of Buddhism, it seems to me, is no different from every other extant religion - some dimly-conceived next life that no living human being has ever proven exists.

But another drawback to Buddhism, as expressed in the above "5 brutal truths", is its subjection to the fallacy that the object of life is to be happy. This seems to me, from what I have read about Buddhism, to be a distortion of its basic tenets, which have to do with avoiding everything that causes suffering, which includes emotional attachments to the people and to objects around us. Only by assuming a scrupulous detachment and a strict avoidance of passionate involvement in anything can we achieve a kind of serenity. Granted, such serenity has always seemed to be inhuman. Beng a good Buddhist requires one to abdicate one's responsibilities as a human being. Life is reduced to a passionless sameness that is as distant from what I regard as a full life as possible. 

Some people make the mistake of thinking that because Buddhism doesn't have a god to worship or any emphasis on personal morality that it's fundamentally different from other religions. When it is observed closely, however, Buddhism bears a resemblance to other religions in its striving to alleviate suffering and the general and quite natural fear of death. It teaches, for example, that an extreme avoidance of emotional attachments to the world and other people can reduce our experience of suffering and that meditation can reduce worry and stress. Unfortunately, the ultimate goal of buddhism, a disengagement with our passions and living without hope, turns out to be not just an avoidance of suffering and pain but a disavowal of life itself. The "quietude" that buddhists cultivate is deathlike. Hasn't a corpse attained the ultimate quietude (quietus)? As Philip Larkin put it, "Death is no different whined at than withstood."

One of the most powerful rebukes to the dispassionate Buddhist approach to life can be found in a story by Chekhov called "In Exile." Chekhov wrote the story after a visit to a penal colony on Sakhalin Island, in Easternmost Siberia. In the story, two prisoners operating a river ferry are sitting at night by a fire. One of them is Semyon, aka Canny, a longtime resident of the penal colony (and a virtual Buddhist philosopher according to the precepts outlined above). The other is known only as "the Tatar," who is a newcomer. The suffering meted out to the prisoners is the catalyst of the story, as each prisoner finds divergent ways of dealing with the hardships that life has to offer them. 

The Tatar is lonely without his mother and his wife. He looks around him at the desolation and cries, "'It's bad! it's bad!'" 
'You will get used to it,' Canny tells him. 'I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am.'"

Canny tells the Tatar the long story of Vassily Sergeyitch, a "gentleman" prisoner who arrived fifteen years before. He missed his wife so badly that he wrote to her every day and sent her telegrams. Finally, after two years, the gentleman's wife arrived in the camp. She stayed with him for three years but she couldn't tolerate the life of the colony, the terrible weather and the drunkenness. Finally Vassily's wife ran away with a young man. He tried to pursue them, to no avail. 

Alone with his young daughter, Vasily Sergeyitch flung himself into making her life as pleasant as possible, pampering her with whatever he could acquire for her. But she becomes afflicted with tuberculosis, and Vassily spends all of his time and money trying to find a doctor to cure her. 

Canny continually tells the Tatar that all of the gentleman's efforts, all his running about trying to make his life and the life of his daughter the slightest bit better was a waste of time. Finally, a man on the opposite bank calls for the ferry. When the men, including Canny and the Tatar, reach the opposite bank they discover it is Vassily Sergeyitch. He has heard of a new doctor and is going in his coach to find him and bring him to his daughter. Canny only laughs at Vassily's hopeless fussing over his sick daughter.

"'She is certain to die,' Canny says, 'and then it will be all over with him. He'll hang himself from grief or run away to Russia — that's a sure thing. He'll run away and they'll catch him, then he will be tried, sent to prison, he will have a taste of the lash. . . .'
'Good! good!' said the Tatar, shivering with cold.
'What is good?' asked Canny.
'His wife, his daughter. . . . What of prison and what of sorrow! — anyway, he did see his wife and his daughter. . . . You say, want nothing. But "nothing" is bad! His wife lived with him three years — that was a gift from God. "Nothing" is bad, but three years is good. How not understand?'
The Tatar went up to Canny, and, looking at him with hatred and repulsion, shivering, and mixing Tatar words with his broken Russian, said: 'He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are a dead carcass. . . . God created man to be alive, and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!'"

Vassily Sergeyitch does the opposite of what the Buddhist doctrines laid out so heartlessly above. But, unlike every good Buddhist, who, like Canny, has learned not to strive after anything and never to surrender to his emotions, to be a "stone," the gentleman is alive, and has something, no matter how fleeting, to show for his life. His life may indeed end badly, but at least he tried, and his failure is, after all, proof of his belief - however misdirected - in love. That is more than Buddhism would've given him, for all of its dubious serenity.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Victory to the Victims

In 1994-95, as celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the last battles of World War II were spreading across the Pacific, I was in the U.S. Navy stationed in Japan. When the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa arrived in April of '95, Japan declined to join in any commemoration whatsoever. I suggested to my superiors that the U.S. Navy should raise the Yamato, the great Japanese battleship that was sunk in the Battle of Okinawa, and then sink it again. My suggestion was not passed up my chain of command.

The great controversy sweeping America over the past few years about all of the symbols, statues and memorials to the Confederate side in the Civil War is an important one. The past has a great deal to teach all of us, but exactly what is the lesson to be learned? Events of the past few weeks have shown us that some memorials mean different things to different Americans. 

Comparisons have been made with Germany and how the German people have come to terms with their much more recent past. The Germans have been scrupulous in their renunciation of Nazi ideals, and while there is still controversy about certain aspects of its treatment of the past, contemporary Germany is a model at how a society can come to terms with a terrible past.

Part of how Germany has dealt with its past was thanks to the U.S. occupation and its strict ban of any and all demonstrations or representations of Nazi doctrines after the war. The U.S. occupation of Japan was similarly strict, and its success at suppressing militarism and feudalism in Japan was startlingly thorough. But there were some compromises made by the U.S. in its pacification of Japan, like the immunity of the Japanese emperor from prosecution for war crimes, that have since caused problems for the full acceptance of the Japanese people of their responsibility for the war and for the horrific crimes carried out by Japanese forces in Asia in the name of their emperor.

Lately, Japanese prime ministers have openly visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the soldiers, sailors, and kamikaze pilots who perished in the war. The memorial includes the names of more than a thousand Class-A war criminals. The German Kaiser was stripped of his title at the end of World War I, but the Japanese Emperor, in whose name all those soldiers and sailors and kamikaze pilots fought and died, remained on his Chrysanthemum throne.

When I lived in Japan one of the things I learned was that there are no war memorials anywhere in the country. There are, however, numerous peace memorials, the most famous of which is in Hiroshima, the site of the first use of an atomic weapon against civilians. The Japanese have used their defeat by Allied forces in World War II as the inspiration to become the greatest peaceniks in history. In their constitution, Japan limits their armed forces to a strictly defensive role. If you go to Hiroshima, you will find innumerable reminders of the terrible ending of the war, but no reminders of how or why it started. The Japanese like to think of themselves as the war's greatest victims. Foreigners are routinely reduced to tears by the exhibits in Hiroshima. Some American tourists even feel overwhelmed by guilt and find themselves apologizing for the dropping of the bomb. Harry Truman is sometimes represented as some kind of villainous, racist monster who cared nothing for the innocents who perished in a flash on August 6, 1945.

Similarly, many people in the American South like to think of themselves as the victims of Lincoln and his imperialist federal armies violating their sacred soil at the end of the "War Between the States," imposing crippling "reparations" on their broken economy - made worse by the loss of millions of slave laborers who no longer felt either compelled or obliged to pick the cotton rotting in the fields. The cause for which Confederate soldiers fought, which was nothing less than the freedom to buy and sell human beings like livestock, to break up their families, and to subject them to savage physical and mental abuse, became, for them, the Lost Cause, romanticized in fiction so horrible that one Southerner, D. W. Griffith, made a play called The Clansman into the first feature length motion picture made in America, The Birth of a Nation in 1915, in which liberated blacks were portrayed as apes who wanted nothing more than the liberty to rape white women and the heroes of the film, riding to the rescue of the film's virtue-threatened heroine, were the Ku Klux Klan, created right after the war by a former Confederate officer named David Bedford Forrest.

Over the past week, commentators have drawn comparisons between our extremely strange manner of remembering our calamitous civil war to the way that Germans remember the Nazis and the Third Reich. The parallel they should be drawing, however, is between Civil War memorials and Japan's peace memorials - between the unwillingness of Southerners to face the truth about the Civil War and the way that the Japanese have absolved themselves of all guilt for the disastrous war that they started, first by invading Manchuria in 1931 and by attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Some Japanese historians continue to argue that the attack on Pearl Harbor was "provoked" by American expansionism in Asia. (Coinciding with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces also attacked U.S. bases in the Philippines.) To hear the Southerners and the Japanese tell their war stories, they were the great victims, not the villains.

As American historians have reminded us over the past few weeks, most of the numerous monuments to Confederate generals and statesmen found all over the South and even in Northern states were erected in the era of Jim Crow and were intended to be monuments to white supremacy. The American Civil Rights movement which culminated in the 1960s didn't change people's minds so much as it changed our laws so that the people who refused to accept the equality of black Americans could no longer commit acts to enforce their prejudices. 

In the state of Alabama, Martin Luther King Day (the 3rd Monday of January) is known as Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Since the two holidays are so close together on the calendar (King was born on January 15th and Lee was born in the 19th), the governments of Alabama and Mississippi simply to incorporated them.(1) It is just one of many incongruities in the South, like accepting integration and affirmative action as the laws of the land and tacitly supporting the principle of racial equality, while Confederate flags and enormous stone and bronze monuments to "heroes" on the losing side of the American Civil War stand as eloquent rebukes to the law. Every one of them must come down, and the pedestals should be left empty to remind us of the emptiness of the ideas that they once supported.

(1) According to the official Alabama state website (, "Alabama and Mississippi have celebrated Lee's birthday since the 1800s and King's since 1983. The Lee/King holiday is one of three Confederate-related days on Alabama's official holiday calendar. The state also marks Confederate Memorial Day on the fourth Monday in April and the birthday of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the first Monday in June."

Thursday, August 10, 2017

War or Peace

With the war of words between North Korea's Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump ramping up, and the law of unintended consequences coming into play, I think it's a good time to take a look at North and South Korea, two nations with a common culture and language, divided by a 64-year-old war and subsequent political patronage. 

The North was founded with the strong influence of Stalinism, which can still be seen in its absolutist ruling family, its rigid social regimentation, its heavy-handed propaganda and its incessant military parades. It is a country that is in a state of perpetual war-preparedness. Its small economy is geared toward maintaining an enormous military complex, an army of a million soldiers, a considerable number of artillery pieces, all trained on South Korea's capitol city, Seoul, and it's surrounding areas. Now it has long-range missiles, with possible nuclear warheads, whose sole purpose is to threaten other countries in the region and even the continental U.S.

In stark contrast, South Korea has lived for the past 64 years under the protective umbrella of an American military presence. Two years of military service is mandatory for every able-bodied male citizen, and the ROK (Republic of Korea) military is a formidable force in itself. When I served in the U.S. Army, I was stationed for a year with the Second Infantry Division in what is known as Area One - the region between Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea. Prior to the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, units stationed in this area of South Korea were the most forward deployed in the U.S. military. Because of this proximity to a hostile state, soldiers were stationed there for one year only, like any other combat zone, and their dependents were not allowed to accompany them.(1) I met a young female soldier who told me she had just given birth prior to her deployment in South Korea and had to leave her newborn child with her parents for the duration of her tour of duty. I myself was married during my tour, but had to leave my wife back in Denver.

Stationed on Camp Casey, with my own artillery battery headquartered on nearby Camp Hovey, during my year in Area One my unit was subject to strict curfews and numerous unannounced "alerts" in which we were awakened at three or four o'clock in the morning, dressed in "full battle rattle" (LBV [load bearing vest] & kevlar helmet), got our M16s from the arms room, proceeded to the motor pool, cranked up our track vehicles and sometimes even rolled out of the motor pool to establish a firing point for our howitzers.

The alerts were accompanied by a siren that resounded over the Army post and the adjacent town. One of the things that struck me about these alerts was that they had no effect whatever on the Korean citizenry. All the while we were flailing around as if war had commenced, ordinary Koreans went about their ordinary lives as if there was nothing to get excited about. While North Koreans were living with imminent war, South Koreans lived in blissful peace, making for themselves a technologically advanced and rather beautiful country. Seoul itself is a magnificent city with one of the finest subway systems in the world, bristling with department stores, restaurants and nightclubs, and populated by millions of people for whom war is at most a rumor. It was virtually impossible for me to picture Seoul under attack from North Korea's long-range artillery and rocketry, let alone the target of a nuclear attack.

The reality of a war with North Korea was never brought home to me as an actual possibility during my tour in South Korea, despite the proximity of the DMZ, the curfews and the alerts. But fighting a war was what I was there for. Our artillery batteries engaged in live fire exercises, but there were no tank trails for our track vehicles to travel on. We had to drive them on the commercial roads and highways of South Korea, jockey for position in traffic with Hyundais and Daewoos back and forth from our garrisons to our firing points. The absurdity of our presence on a city street was never brought home to us more powerfully - and the prospect of war more distant - than when our 155mm self-propelled howitzers, bigger than an Abrams tank, were being cut off in traffic by Hyundais.

Soldiers returning from their year in South Korea sometimes brought home with them souvenirs like ballcaps on which were sewn the message "I'm sure to go to heaven because I've done my time in hell." Hell? Despite our proximity to an enemy poised to destroy us and as much of the resplendent cities of South Korea as they could reach, soldiers in Area One had weekends and every national holiday off, could be found "downrange" (off post) every evening in girlie bars drinking heavily,(2) and had easy access to legal prostitutes around just about every corner.

Watching as events unfold nearly twenty years after my tour of duty in South Korea, part of me itches for a final resolution to a conflict that seems to go on forever. But another, probably better, part of me will never forget the mornings off post, when Koreans who, unlike their counterparts in the North, have chosen life instead of death, embraced another day of peace, mindful of the past and of possible futures, but happily observing the terms of a 64-year-old ceasefire and enjoying an uninterrupted peace.

(1) Military members could bring their dependents to live in off-post housing, but only at their own expense. The only personnel who could afford to do this were, of course, officers.
(2) To my knowledge, no one has addressed the reasons why military members have such a well established reputation as heavy drinkers. My own guess is that what these young men and women seek in their off duty hours, so far from home, family and the life they could've been living had they not enlisted, is oblivion. The message I found at the bottom of every glass was always the same: tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Graven Images

She appears, fleetingly, in Truffaut's The 400 Blows, being pursued by Jean-Claude Brialy. It's the scene in which the boy, Antoine Doinel spends a night on the streets of Paris, stealing a bottle of milk and feeling obliged to drink all of it. She walks past the boy, smiling, as Brialy shoos him away, in pursuit of his prey.

In his 1970 interview with Truffaut, Charles Thomas Samuels asked him, "Why did you include in The 400 Blows that little 'guest' scene between Jean-Claude Brialy and Jeanne Moreau?"

Truffaut replied, "Brialy was a good friend of mine and offered to pass through the film, bringing Moreau with him. Since I knew and admired her work as a stage actress, I was very happy to agree."

She is the reason that Maurice Ronet, in Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, murders (her husband), before getting stuck in an elevator from which all his skills as a paratrooper can't extract him. By the time, the following morning, he finally escapes, his beautiful American convertible has been stolen and she, has spent the night wandering the streets (of Paris again) looking for him, convinced that he has absconded with another girl.

She is the brooding, emotional wife of Marcello Mastroianni in Antonioni's La Notte, grieving for a dead friend, and once again wandering - this time through Milan - looking for the lost thread, and making the only other principal female in the film, Monica Vitti, look unaccountably thin and pale by comparison. As a woman,
she was far too real for the fake world Antonioni depicts. She can't even bring herself to cheat like the rest of them do. We last see her in a golf course sand trap, resisting Marcello's "last ditch" lovemaking before the camera steals away. . .

She is Catherine, the object of Jules and Jim's love, the embodiment of a graven image of a goddess they found. In the film that defined - and continues, indelibly - to define the French New Wave, she is an image set free, let loose from the frame, in what sadly became Truffaut's - and the New Wave's - last great film.

Because she was flesh and blood, unlike American stars, she had the grace to grow old before our eyes, her voice dropping to subterranean depths. That voice is all we have of her in Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Lover. Hers is the voice of Marguerite Duras, telling us the story of her first love in Indochina - Saigon. Despite the striking physical beauty of Jane March, it is her voice that invokes the experience, across the ages, that Duras is resurrecting.

She wasn't a timeless beauty like Darrieux or Deneuve. She was utterly feminine, its embodiment. Thankfully, she had the flower of French film to immortalize her, and not the overwrought fakeries of Hollywood. The films to which we can now turn to remember her are fitting vessels to carry her image.