The Not-a-Christmas Letter: Or Where I Am Now

‘Tis the season for family update letters, a tradition I’ve not really been a part of because family is myself, my partner, and two cats. Can’t really talk about the work stuff, and the non-work stuff is a mixed bag.

I’ve not been blogging much about religion. First of all because things changed and I’m still a novice. The second reason is that the second half of 2014 was something of a crisis, so my last attempt at doing devotion online ground to a halt due to physical injury. Possibly a third reason is that Sad/Rabid Puppies proved to be a validation of a bunch of stuff my graduate mentor warned about, and I’m becoming more convinced that the mode of online “discussion” without limits tends to produce superficial and polarized, “party-driven” shouting matches.

So, books that have largely shaped my development from an animist to a reluctant theist over the last year.

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding, Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra

It’s a nice thin volume discussing a very short text. I found it important because it shifts the focus of ontology from individuality to a concept of interbeing (relationally defined being.)

Miranda Eberle Shaw, Buddhist Goddesses of India

I work in a library. To destress, I often walk the stacks and pick up random volumes that catch my eye. This work became a repeat visit. I’ve been very comfortable with Buddhism largely because samsara and dukkha strike me as obvious observations of the world. Buddhism as popularized in America has been very much a build-your-own enlightenment method, so I’ve never took refuge because my brain as a high-functioning crazy person just bounces right off insight meditation. While I’d been previously introduced to the concept of a deity or Bodhisattva dedicated to the liberation of all beings, that one could actually take refuge in them bent my mind.

Eknath Easwaran, The Bhagavad Gita

Somewhere in this I decided I needed more perspectives on the cosmology underlying Buddhism. So I finally tackled a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Some concepts such as pantheism and the divinity of all living things were familiar and a part of my religious views. What stuck out for me was the explicit statement that the kind of insight claimed by Buddhism is only one of multiple ways to enlightenment.

Devadatta Kali, In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning

with mother finally ******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 A.M. and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination—
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time—

— Alan Ginsburg

Something that religion (at least as I’ve encountered it) has been punting on is the phenomenology of mental illness. How can something be in us but not of us? How do we reconcile the sense of being plagued by forces arbitrary and capricious in their attacks, with the modern view that it’s all in our heads? Why is it that all of the treatments currently in play require work with a good possibility of relapse? If we can acknowledge, (if not necessarily believe) in the personal gnosis of god-phones and god-spouses, what does this say about millions of people in support groups?

The Devimahatmya starts with a frame story of two men seeking some measure of peace. A king has been overthrown by enemies of his own court, and wonders about the safety of his loved ones. A merchant has been cast out by his own wayward children. They meet at a hermitage and ask the wise man for answers.

The wise man tells them this. Demons of delusion, pride, and wrath exist, sometimes in spite of our best action. But the demons are never invulnerable. When it appears so, the Gods (the Devi in the Mahatmayam) step in to restore order.

There are other things there that, for now, seem to fit with my other questions regarding cosmology.

What Next?

More reading, more thinking, hopefully more fun reading. More listening. More engagement in offline communities.