Sunday, June 17, 2007

the leopard in the machine

I’ve finished Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which has been on the Reading List for many years. Way back, I read his Wildlife in America, a chronicle of the extermination and extirpation of species in the New World with the coming of the Europeans, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a chronicle of the genocide of the native Americans (a book kept off the shelves for nearly a decade by the then-governor of South Dakota) continuing right through the case of Leonard Peltier. So I’ve always been curious about TSL, which is usually referred to in the context of its Buddhism. Buddhism’s something I know little about, even though I’ve seen Uma’s dad slap hands in debate with a Rinpoche.

The book’s a very interesting trip. In every sense. As I read, I kept thinking of Godot in the mountains at the top of the world. Like Godot, the snow leopard is never seen by our seeker. Tracks and scat, yes, but no long-tailed mountain cat. Despair at not meeting animal, god, or ghost? No, not at all… for, after all, we must go on. As a bird watcher, and a no sucker for Hollywood-endings, I was already prepared to miss the rare and elusive animal. Perhaps next time. Or perhaps never. (And the yeti, too.) No sense in fretting until then.

Between denial and desire, or the flagellations of Ramadan and the fleshpots of Euston, how do we deal with suffering, with pain, and the terrible human awareness of our death? Why, we invent religion, of course, philosophies of explanation and exculpation. I never signed on to any of the monotheisms, all that stern sky god/angry old man and narcissistically-conceived son/sun messenger/errand boy prophet, and promises of an afterlife. But the self study of the east is most interesting, more adult in so many ways.

Meanwhile, I stand with the atheists, agnostics, and liberal denominations against the fundamentalist assault on secular pluralistic democratic civilization, rationalism & scientific inquiry, and sexuality as a lovely and loving expression of our humanity. (All fundamentalisms are alike in their misogyny.) I do believe in one commandment, although I can’t say I always follow it: treat others as you would be treated by them. The rest, as the good rabbi said, is commentary. Meanwhile, the Capitalist Christ so prevalent in America, a version of our perennial self-help/help-yourself ethos, seems to me to be a grotesque perversion of teachings. And people who have relationships with invisible friends or suburban cults based on mysterious golden plates conveniently “returned” once they were translated? Please.

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