leviathan: religion and state in russia

Religion is a nasty animal in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan.

Late in the film an orthodox priest, when confronted by the recently widowed Kolya, who despairingly questions the omnipotence of God in the aftermath of his wife’s death, responds to Kolya by quoting Job chapter 41, Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? God asks Job, Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?

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on religion, or lack thereof

David Brooks’ column in the New York Times Friday morning took as its subject our frustrating inability to understand the motivation behind religious extremism. President Obama gave a speech earlier this week at the self-explanatory and I’m certain highly effective, “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” (eye-roll) which has been almost universally panned.

Between President Obama, Attorney General Holder and the minions they trotted out at talk shows across the cable news spectrum this week, we had our fill of the “party line,” which the administration has been remarkably consistent in communicating. (Hats off to the Obama communication team!)

Anyways, I’ll summarize the speech, and subsequent reiterations of said speech like this. If we, as Americans and world leaders, can just demonstrate the men and women who turn towards various forms of religious extremism and terrorism, the omnipresent, but occasionally elusive economic opportunity they’re assuredly seeking (because obviously everyone wants the same thing) and the subsequent jobs, money, education that will result, they won’t feel the need to cross over to the proverbial dark side.

Right.

Even those of us who are not religiously inclined have a difficult time with the idea that the only thing standing in the way of an individual brutally attacking an innocent human is the lack of, ahem, “economic opportunity.” There’s just a lingering feeling amongst most that there is surely something more.

If you’re tracking with me, the next step I think is to recognize that the motivation for many of these people is composed of intangibles, things that can’t be quantified. Grand, age-old ideas such as faith, honor, spiritual glory, things that are so very far removed from western civilization’s thinking in the 21st century, we tend to forget they exist altogether.

The history of the west is the history of ever-increasing secularization, something which in and of itself is not necessarily bad. A hyper-connected, global world necessitates the inclusion of any number of divergent belief systems in any one system, and the government, along with every other institution, must adapt a sort of impartial status in order to accommodate everyone.

But what no one bargained for, at least I don’t think intentionally, was the rather pervasive blindness or ignorance this secularization would result in if taken to its logical extreme.

In 2015 we (the west) have essentially forgotten (willfully or not) the power of religion; that supremely powerful motivational force of faith in eternal salvation or spiritual honor. They’re not things to be trifled with, and we’re watching the consequences of their power play out on a large scale, completely incapable of understanding what’s happening, I believe Brooks accurately described us as solipsistic. We’ve closed the door on the part of our history that could have offered an explanation, or at least something close to one, for how to confront, or at least understand, what is happening throughout the world.

I don’t know that I blame anyone, it’s just an observation.

I’m not an expert on world religion but I would imagine in many, if not in all iterations of religious belief, there is a teaching similar to that of Christianity; our life on this Earth is only temporary and it is what comes next that we are meant to be preparing for.

That’s a powerful sentiment, whether you’re rich or poor, healthy or ill, because, in the end, we’re all only here on Earth for a short time.

The thing that struck me the most in thinking about our frustrating inability to understand the current global situation, is something that hits kind of close to home.

I understand, we have an all-consuming faith in democracy here in America, and its not unfounded. Democracy has done wonderful things not only for America but many other countries in the world. But no matter what democracy creates for a nation in terms of opportunity, safety or wealth, on an individual level, it, just like everything else, will never provide happiness or contentment.

For those of you perfectly happy and content with your life, I envy you. You’re beyond rare. Most of us, as human nature seems to dictate, live life generally confused. Confused with why we’re not happy even though we should be, and definitively unable to assuage that unhappiness with any amount of education, wealth or relationships. For some reason, we’re kind of always thinking there’s something more.

To deny that part of your nature, except in rare circumstances, is common. And you can get by pretty easily that way. But I would venture a guess that very many people deal with some semblance of seeking or questioning the reason for their existence on a fairly regular basis.

That’s why people wind up in church, converting to (insert your religion here). Because religion seems to be the only thing that can give us what human nature needs the most: the assurance that this isn’t all there is, that there’s something more.

Now sure, religion is probably not the only thing that can fill that hole, Brooks asserts nationalism, ‘nationalism tied to universal democracy,’ as something that might be what is lacking. The key to the terrorist puzzle.

I think he’s wrong. Pride of country is a wonderful thing, and I wish it very much for people who don’t have it. But that does nothing for us on a truly personal level. It does nothing to answer the big questions. The ones preventing most of us from being entirely at peace.

There’s a reason philosophers and intellectuals have debated the big questions, Who are we? Why are we here? And where are we going? Since the dawn of recorded thought. We have an innate drive to know the answers. And yet, centuries later, we still don’t.

Many of the men and women who turn to extremism in the name of religion, think they have found the answers though. And in a sense, they have.

Perhaps, and I in no way am saying this justifies horrific acts, but perhaps, if we as an international body, had not so clearly turned away from, and rejected our collective religious and spiritual history, we could have provided alternative avenues by which the hopeless of the world, could regain hope. I’m not advocating we all need to convert to faith and start living our lives accordingly. We just need to allow for its existence, and strive to understand it.

I’m sure we could get back there. We could open our minds, step outside of ourselves and truly attempt to understand the motivations of others instead of projecting our own on to them. But it won’t be easy.

the man with(IN) MY head

It’s a rare occurrence to come across something genuinely transformative. Rarer still to be paying enough attention to fully realize something’s transformative potential when you find it.

As someone with a myriad number of interests, unceasingly ready to move on to the next thing simply because for me, there are so many things, I struggle with what I hear referred to often as “mindfulness.” In other words, living one’s life fully invested in each and every moment.

On a favorite radio show I recently listened to a doctor discuss the subject and what he described as our human propensity to “mind-wander.” Apparently it’s totally normal for your mind to want to wander during various, especially mundane, activities. Driving to work, for example. But that “mind-wandering” is also the source of many thinking people’s, let’s say, lack of satisfaction, because unhappiness seems too strong a word. It’s a source of stress, I’ll put it that way. Makes sense, when you’re thinking about how late you’re going to be for work or all the things you need to do when you get there for example, you’re dissatisfied, you feel a need to hurry.

Totally. Normal.

Or, as perhaps a better example, think of all the times when you’re at work and thinking about all of the things you’d rather be doing, or need to be doing, that aren’t work. You probably find, as I do, it’s quite easy to wish your entire day away that way. Your entire day, every day.

If your mind, like mine, by nature tends toward a slightly morbid train of thought it’s not hard to see how that can easily turn in to the wishing away of your entire life.

De.Press.Ing.

Just because it’s normal to mind-wander doesn’t mean we all do it, or that we all do it to the same degree, or that we would all admit this mind-wandering causes us unhappiness. For me, however, it is the source of a great deal of unhappiness, not least because I’m hyper-aware of its easy to ignore consequences, imagining myself always as the 80-year old woman who tells a friend how she wished she would have been enjoying life all those years instead of wishing them away, waiting for what’s next instead of realizing it was already there.

So the desire to live a more mindful life has been taking the form lately of me trying very hard to focus on enjoying what I’m doing right now, whatever it is, instead of wishing for 5 o’ clock, or Friday night.

It’s also been manifesting itself in more concrete resolutions.

As a voraciously competitive reader, I’m often really guilty of only halfway reading a book, something I attribute in large part to the hurry up and finish attitude that is totally understandable considering how many books are on my reading list at all times (and ever growing I might add).

Again, totally understandable not only thanks to an obsessive personality, but also because of the nature of life in our ADD-addled 21st century.

Point of all of this is to say that my goal, one of many really, for 2015, was to live mindfully, all the time. So far, if you were wondering, it’s greatly improved my work ethic because it’s greatly improved my attitude about being at work in the first place. It’s amazing how much a sense of accomplishment contributes to continued ability to accomplish.

I’ll also give this whole mindfulness stuff credit for what I hope is only the first of many transformative reading experiences to come in 2015.

The book was The Man Within My Head, by, wouldn’t you know it, mindfulness expert himself Pico Iyer.

It’s almost stupid this book. Stupid in how closely Iyer’s interpretation of Greene’s psyche mirrors my own, and, I’m grasping for words here, but for lack of something better, how freakishly astute Iyer’s ability to explain, in the perfect language, in a way I never could, why I have consistently gone back to Graham Greene’s novels over the course of my lifetime (and in the process explain me, better than me.)

Of course the whole premise of the book is how Iyer felt that Greene was ‘in his head’ as it were as he has traversed the world in his own lifetime. It’s a memoir, utterly creative in its telling, as it uses Iyer’s interpretation and second-hand knowledge through biographies, friends etc., of Greene’s life, perhaps the most formative author in his (Iyer’s) life, to shed light on the impulses that drove him, and decisions that he made.

It sounds weird, and boring, and maybe a tad cliché, but I was profoundly moved.

In less deft hands the book and its premise could easily have trailed off into narcissism, but I think the book succeeds here almost exclusively thanks to Iyer’s ridiculously unequivocal sincerity (and I will offer the caveat, some of it is a little bit too sincere).

If you’re familiar at all with Greene’s stories you probably are aware most of all of his character’s complex and deep-seated ability to, for the most part, live their lives constantly acknowledging their flaws and only occasionally be consumed by them.

His characters are beautifully tragic; the lovers in The End of the Affair, Scobie in The Heart of the Matter and Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American being just a few.

I was always aware of what I would describe as Greene’s ability to create a very human empathy in and for his characters for the reader; building characters who were magically so real and yet too good to be real at the same time, I just never would have been able to tell you exactly what it was about Greene, or about his characters that could inspire this in his readers.

I came away from Iyer with a lot of thoughts, but perhaps most importantly I came away with the notion that Greene’s prescience lies in Greene’s lifelong struggle with Greene.

He saw things in himself that he hated, hypocrisy being perhaps tantamount to the worst, and therein lay his ability to create profoundly relatable characters; his writing serving more or less as a way of exorcising his own flaws, although Greene more than anyone would have known he could never truly be rid of them.

Iyer noted Greene’s opinion that “the things we do are more telling than merely the things we claim to believe” and his own very human struggle to be honest, really and truly honest (which is stupid hard if you’ve never tried), with himself, inspired in him a profound sympathy for sinners of all kinds. Side note: It’s probably not a coincidence that so many of Greene’s sinners are adulterers, having struggled his entire life with fidelity.

Iyer also noted Greene’s astute acknowledgement, of “all the ways we can fail to understand one another.”

I have to stop using the word profound but it’s the best word to describe what seems like Greene’s innate and otherworldly ability to acknowledge his failings, as well as those of others, yet retain a love for, and faith in, humanity, as well as the ability to celebrate our small triumphs over sin.

According to Iyer Greene wasn’t a religious man, per se, something it’s easy to see in his characters, but it’s also easy to see he kind of wanted to be. He never rejects religion, that’s certain, he lives in the in-between place so many of us live in; recognizing the ideas of sin and salvation playing out around us all the time, yet never reaching a true “faith;” another way of saying it is that he had the “emotional” but not the “rational” basis for religion.

Iyer’s assertion that Greene maintained the intensity of faith yet “refused to stake out the easy ground of a nonbeliever” is paramount in his work, perhaps no more –so than with Scobie who struggles viscerally with sin and faith.

Greene like so many of us, lived his life hyper-aware of the frustration inherent in never really knowing anything for sure. Always feeling “much of the anguish of religion but little of its joy.”

Iyer also elucidated for me Greene’s role as “the caretaker of that part of us that feels we are larger and much harder to contain than even we can get our heads around.”

His struggle with faith is mirrored in myriad additional philosophical struggles Greene would deal with throughout his life, the “craving of knowledge,” as it were, that only some of us have. Something which is occasionally an asset, but is most of the time better described as a burden, refusing its bearer happiness. The curse of knowledge, in a manner of speaking.

But for me, the most profound element of Greene’s novels, the aspect that moves me the most, is the overwhelming empathy he feels for humankind.

His ability to acknowledge each of us has only a provisional point of view, in tandem with a deep understanding of, if not satisfaction with, the self, and a life-long struggle with knowledge, and a lack thereof, refused Greene the gratification of answers, and thereby, the absolution which goes hand in hand with the knowledge of good and evil.

“In our fallenness lies our salvation.”

I’ve felt acutely for many years all of these things; a struggle with the rationality of faith, the surprising difficulty of being honest with yourself, painful communion with the struggles and pains of others and the irresolution inherent to an overwhelming craving of knowledge.

Reading Iyer’s take on Greene’s novel was like reading a diary of my own, albeit far more beautifully written. I was once removed from Greene here, as if Iyer was the person within my head.

I’m so very grateful for having found the book, although I am now no more at peace than before, perhaps even less so, feeling more than anything else as I finished the book, an acute sense of what I earlier called irresolution. It was a reminder that these things I (and I’m sure many others) struggle with, will never be settled. I’ll never be at peace, which is a hard thing to come to terms with.

But hey, if Greene can do it.

How I Began Contemplating a More Serious Study of Buddhism

Okay, deep breath.

I’m a self-admitted religion skeptic. Who isn’t these days? And for quite some time Buddhism has drawn my most potent skepticism. Consider that changed.

The Crow Collection of Asian Art opens their new show, Noble Change: Tantric Art of the High Himalaya this weekend. The exhibit contains eleven gorgeous copper Buddhist sculptures as well as one embroidered silk panel and represents work acquired by Trammell Crow last year for his private collection.

While I guarantee you’ll get lost amongst the glistening pieces, this exhibit is about much more than aesthetic pleasure. This is part of what will be over the next several years an important project for the Crow Collection; introducing Dallas museum-goers to the hyper-relevant practice of Tantric Buddhism. Spoiler alert, this is not an article about sex.

According to Crow Collection Curator Dr. Caron Smith, the principles of Tantric Buddhism have in the past been dismissed as “titillating erotica or stultifying ritual” and during the 1960’s, were appropriated by the Hippie culture as a justification for their pursuit of un-inhibited sexual pleasure. Smith states, “The time is ripe to reveal tantra for what it is truly intended to be.” And what exactly is that?

The answer isn’t simple, but if you find religion and human nature even remotely interesting, you’ll be fascinated.

The teachings of tantra are part of Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of the complex and constantly evolving teachings of the Buddha that arose in the 6th or 7th centuries and is especially prevalent in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia amongst others.

Like all forms of Buddhism, the base of tantric teaching lies in the four noble truths: The truth of suffering: the truth of the origin of suffering: the truth of the cessation of suffering: and the truth of the path of the cessation of suffering.

Contrary to the sound, people who practice Buddhism are not consumed by depression. Especially so in tantric Buddhism, where students or followers use suffering and other negative aspects of existence in order to achieve a higher state of being, one in which the goal is to reach a simple life through reflection and the emptying out of themselves.

Becoming a student of tantric Buddhism is reserved only to a select few, similar to a mystic Christianity or Judaism for example. Students of the official practice work with a guru and study secret texts in monastic settings. Free of worldly influences, they tame the mind through reflection, begin to question the “real world” around them and empty themselves of temporary reactions to feelings and emotions, admitting the world around them is not “real” as we tend to define it. It is only after this that man’s compassion for others can expand. (Sidenote, the Dalai Lama is a practicioner of tantric Buddhism).

Tantric Buddhism is essentially a reaction to previous forms of Buddhism through its embrace of ordinary experience and human instinct, not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to inspire change. No longer is the negative ignored, instead it is embraced, all of humanity is embraced in fact, to incorporate change not for our own self-gratification but rather to foster compassion for others.

The dualities of traditional Buddhism and Hinduism are shunned while the idea that the deities are not here to help but rather to inspire remains integral in tantric practice. Students learn that the potential for change is within themselves and our lives are fulfilled through their own, unique evolution. Tantra, in its simplest form, means continuity. Continuity of actions, impulses and desires in a constantly evolving state of being.

At least that’s my brief summary from my very brief study in an attempt to better understand these intricate and highly symbolic pieces of art that were created in the ateliers of Tibet to inspire the followers of this unique not religion per se, but rather science of the mind. A science of the mind which, might I add and assume many will agree, represents more closely than many other “religions” the psychology and mentality of modern man. In the opinion of this writer, Smith could not be more right in assuming that “the time is ripe” to expose the West to the tantric notions of openness, compassion and self-sufficiency.

Now on to the art.

When exploring the intimate gallery space at the Crow it’s vital that the viewer leave preconceptions outside. This work is highly symbolic, overtly sexual and complicated, but don’t let that intimidate you. Keeping in mind the philosophy behind this exhibit while viewing should at least make the works accessible enough to enjoy for more than aesthetic beauty, as they were intended to be.

The deities on view in the exhibit represent various Buddhas. Two Vajradharas, in other words the first Buddha, are represented here, each signifying the unity of male and female. Part of the “revisionism” of tantric Buddhism allowed for a stronger role to be played by the female in the “story,” and in these Dorje Chang (in Tibetan), there is rampant symbolism indicating male aspects in the female, and vice versa. The sexuality of the two will be obvious.

There are also two Dakinis represented amongst the scultpures. Dakinis in tantric Buddhism are the female embodiment of wisdom and energy. The Sarva Buddha Dakini, or Dakini of all the Buddhas is represented as a young female, innocent and therefore able to serve as the protector, provider of wisdom and home to all. The symbolism in the Naro Khandoma (in Tibetan) is throughout as she treads on Ignorance and Ego and drinks the defilements of all in order to liberate.

The other Dakini in the exhibit is Kurukulla or the Dakini of flowers. Using her feminine seductiveness, Kurukulla is able to subdue and pacify demons. She treads on a naked body representing her dominance over desire and the skulls surrounding her are reminders of death. A quick note on the skulls. Buddhism is stringent in its embrace of the ugly, the dirty and death as parts of life, just as the religion does not shy away from sexuality as so many others (Christianity and Islam for example). Buddhism embraces the disgusting as part of life, as it is.

One especially meaningful piece in the exhibit is the unadorned Samantabhadra, the supreme Buddha and the primordial form of Shakyamuni or the historical Buddha. The union of man and woman is honored in this gorgeous, simple sculpture.

Viewers will also encounter the Jambhala, the Buddha of wealth.  He looks out for the wealth of others while seeming to greatly enjoy the corporal aspects of the flesh, yet another example of Buddhism’s rejection of the demonization of human desires. It is assumed, however, that the embrace of the wealth and sexuality of the two in union will be used to inspire the attainment of the next level of existence, as each of these pieces is intended to do.

You may not need the reminder but this is religious art, not in the sense that it is to be worshipped or even instill reverence, but rather to inspire. It is not “art for art’s sake” in the words of Smith. Dissolving duality (namely that of male and female), embracing the unity of ourselves and using our human form to achieve these aims are central tenets of tantric Buddhism. These exquisite pieces were created in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to arouse a desire to improve the world and those living in it.

Although you may not begin living your life in pursuit of Buddhist principles following an exposure to this unique and high vein of Buddhist practice, I think most viewers will recognize aspects of their psychology in this difficult but innately human “science of the mind.” Thanks to the Crow Collection, westerners have an opportunity to discover it through beautiful, artistic representation.