I’ve…probably just spent a good two hours looking around on the Reader. It seems that the lifespan of a blog here is not all that long; though I’m following many people, those people tend to wander off; sometimes to return, sometimes not.
One of the things I wanted to mention was my identification of an Art History book I found by chance. It is called Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton, by Roger Lipsey. The method of my location of this was strange enough to cause me to take pause: I looked up to a certain shelf, saw the book, became interested in the book, and then saw that someone had shelved it in such a way that two of the digits of the call number were transposed. This caused it to be shelved in the Sports section instead of the Art History section. Had I not found it, it eventually would have been considered, “Missing”…and likely not found until someone did a book-by-book check to make sure everything was in correct order. Considering that this may have well been an, “angelic (i.e. purposeful, even if unconscious) mistake,” which I had successfully located, I brought it back home with me. (Bibliomancy is one of those things which I just…do.)
It might be noted that this is a Shambhala book. Having read through (and tried to read through) a number of books from Shambhala Publications…there’s a certain feel that I can discern from them. I wouldn’t be quick to discard anything published by them, though what I have read in the past might have been topically unsuited to me.
Those who have been following this blog might recall my mixed cultural heritage: Japanese- and African-American, before we get to the regional influences of culture on my parents (Southern California, which in turn is strongly influenced by Mexico) and myself (Northern California). When I was growing up, my Japanese-American grandmother kind of tried to mold me to be as Asian as she could, despite my racial difference from her and the rest of that side of the family.
To avoid getting into gritty details, I’ll just say that I’ve had something of a cultural conflict growing up, because of largely being exposed to only one side of the family, but still being between worlds, so to speak, where it came to culturally-segregated groups of youth. Because I didn’t look stereotypically Asian (and it’s seen as a bad thing to be mixed-race in at least my own background and in many other Asian cultures as well), I’ve had a history of being rejected by Asian groups; because I am distant from what is, by now, traditionally African-American culture, I didn’t quite fit in with the kids of African descent, either (they actually told me I wasn’t “Black enough”).
When I was in school, I began studying Buddhism on my off-hours. One of my aunts is Buddhist, so I guessed that I would try and learn what that was about. What I found initially put me off, but I am familiar with exoticization of non-White cultures within White U.S. society — which is often enough the target audience of these books — so I kept digging.
What I may not have really had the maturity to admit until this portion of my life is that perhaps in chasing after Buddhism, I was looking for some kind of proof that I really was Asian…and Daoism, Shinto, Hindu faiths…just did not have the same kind of popularity or easy access.
(For example, in introductory Buddhist texts, many core terms will be translated out into English, even though this results in a loss of meaning. Duhkha will be translated into “suffering,” though duhkha in reality implies much more than the English word, “suffering.” In Hindu texts translated into English, the key terms [amrita?] are often not translated out, which probably holds more closely to the words’ original meanings; but they can also make the texts relatively opaque, to a newcomer. Daoism is relatively…not talked about [though Chinese influence is becoming stronger where I live; not to mention that there is Chinatown — but I have no proficiency in either Cantonese or Mandarin, and only know of one place which sells apparently quality info on Qi Gong in English]; and Shinto, being a local culture thing, is near-inaccessible outside of the islands of Japan.)
The texts I can recall reading which were published by Shambhala (not one by name [EDIT: untrue, A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers was great], but enough by content) dealt with Buddhism, and I am learning I may not be suited to be Buddhist at this time in my life — at least, not so in a Theravadin vein. There is no reason for me to get into personal views of Theravada vs. Mahayana vs. Vajrayana here… If I were anything in this vein, I’d be a not-fluffy version of one of the latter two, to the point that I know the warm fuzzies (metta, along with the belief that it is possible to live without causing others pain) may feel good to the participant but may be intellectually dishonest, political in nature (Buddhists were nearly wiped out in their original birthplace of India for having no gods [apparently offensive to the Mughals]; subsequent to which, a Public Relations campaign showing Buddhists as moral and virtuous is understandable), impractical and/or against the rhythm of life. Well, of course, if life is samsara, yes?
I also have here at least two books from them on Daoism, and one on Hindu Mysticism. The latter, I’m still interested in; one of the former is quite dense…and there is the fact that Daoism and Buddhism in the present day appear to mirror each other, despite having possibly (or at least, originally) different goals. The distant past — before the school of Theravada was developed, though (Theravada was not the first school, it’s just the surviving school with the earliest roots) — it’s hard for someone who doesn’t know either Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit or Pali to parse. I know that in Daoism, the goal either is or has been either immortality or long (and pleasant) life. In Buddhism, the goals differ; but at least within Theravada, it seems to have been not to be reborn again. This has been interpreted as “immortality” within the state of nirvana, but …this kind of mirrors the saying, “the only way to win is not to play the game,” which seems kind of…static, to me.
It would be interesting to see what goes on behind the doors of Shambhala; what the actual statements are which the books I have, are selected and edited towards fulfilling…but anyway, that is not the aim of this post.
The book I’d found (Angelic Mistakes) references an author I had heretofore not heard of (Thomas Merton), although to hear the book speak of it, he’s famous. The book itself publishes images of some of the drawings and prints from his later (“mature,” as art historians like to call them) years, though he didn’t live a particularly long life. Shambhala probably picked up the book because of the influence of Asian art (particularly Sumi ink drawings) on Merton’s drawings and prints…apparently, the guy was friends with D.T. Suzuki at one point. (Suzuki was key in disseminating knowledge on — particularly — Zen, in the Western world, from what I know. This was back around the 1960’s [with the Hippies] and probably a bit prior, with the Beats in the 1950’s or ’40’s.)
I feel better reading that Merton was a Spiritualist — as that’s a vein that I’ve also followed, at one time in my life — it’s just that all the Christian stuff in that book is a bit difficult for me to deal with. I’m just…not Christian, and as far as I can remember, after the age of six or seven didn’t want to be Christian (I’m not one for gratuitous violence, and threats of Hell and separation from loved ones drove me away rather than bringing me closer); so it’s a bit alien to me.
Anyhow; the reason for my beginning this post at all was to express some form of letdown after having begun to read this book and starting to wonder if all of this art, creativity, culture, stuff — is based on non-truths. That is, I may eventually become a walking encyclopedia of Buddhism, but unless that cultural-heritage material is making a difference, helping somebody, what is it worth to know? I may come to know about the routes of evolution of Art from prehistory to the present, but is that knowledge actually helping anyone? (Other than people who trade in art as a form of currency, who then may need to know if the Van Gogh they want to buy is fake?)
Granted that the knowledge is enriching, and definitely is something that makes life worth living, both for the artist or creative, and the person experiencing the results of that creativity. What would life be without music, or design, or dance? We could get along, but we probably wouldn’t know what we would be missing — or that there was anything missing — or that in our state of deprivation, that there was anything wrong.
Is the question one of, “what is the value of culture?”
I’m reminded of having taken a trip down to the Central branch of San Francisco Public Library and finding a very, very stripped down Spirituality & Religion section. I have a feeling that it was that way because so many books on Spirituality and Religion are based on such shoddy thinking and scholarship (granted, the latter reasoning may be sound but the premises [or canon] may not be: and it remains to be seen whether logic and reasoning are useful where it comes to this facet of human experience at all) that whoever was doing Acquisitions found them to be not worth buying. (Either this, or it’s possible that these books had a habit of growing legs and walking away. The area is at the edge of the Tenderloin.)
This is granted that a Spirituality section may not be true in most any way, shape, or form; but insofar as these kinds of thoughts allow us insight into the minds of others, there is still value in having the knowledge. Knowing that others think differently than we do cannot help but have a positive impact on our own communications with others, right? There would still be a use where it comes to broadening tolerance, towards enriching our lives, toward making a life that is worth living.
So maybe my interests, in Art and Art History, in Spirituality, in Writing, in Culture(s)…in Music…aren’t actually useless. I’m not sure why the lifeblood of a person or a community may run through these creative generative cycles which would seem to have little to do with the day-to-day of actually surviving. I don’t know why my own proclivities draw me to learn about and practice things that don’t seem “practical,” except maybe they keep me alive by pointing to what is possible, not just what is; because what is is pretty heartbreaking.
I guess we all need to dream.