Wednesday, June 23

The World As Dew

The world of dew
Is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet --
-- Kobayashi Issa

I am convinced that certain geographical areas “prefer” certain religious traditions. In certain areas of the Nation – I will concentrate on the US, though I think analogous remarks apply elsewhere – climate, topography, and history conspire to render the spiritual climate favorable to what I will call “rule-based” or “command-based” traditions that emphasize a Deity Who stands outside human history, but occasionally intervenes to formulate rules of conduct and to issue commands.  Members of these traditions tend to speak in terms of God being “in control” and in political metaphors of monarchical sovereignty.  It is quite common, also, especially in the American tradition of conservative evangelical Protestantism, for homilists to say things like "God has a marvelous plan for your life" in essentially the same sense that, e.g., a Boeing salesperson, in a presentation to a potential airline customer, would say that Boeing "has a marvelous plan" for new type of commercial aircraft.  (I was told about "God's plan" for my life, often in these very words, all the time in the fundamentalist Protestant church I attended in my teen-age years.) In these environments, it is very easy to be a Christian, especially a Protestant Christian, and most especially a Reformed Protestant Christian, where the emphasis is usually on knowing and doing “God’s will” by allowing God to “be in control of my life” according to "God's plan".  Ditto being a conservative Catholic, the difference being only in terminology, e.g., the Protestant expression of “doing God’s will” vs. the Catholic equivalent of “pursuing one’s vocation”. (You say “to-may-to”, I say “to-mah-to”.) In these environments, it is, not strictly impossible, but much more difficult to be, e.g., a Buddhist. But one place in the Nation where it is easy, perhaps uniquely easy, to be a Buddhist is in Hawaii.

I married into a predominantly Buddhist family in Hawaii in 1984. (I always tell people who are unfamiliar with the story that I won Powerball twice:  by marrying Diane and by marrying into her family.) Through them, through their kindness, their over-the-top welcoming of me, through their practice of … well … their practice of aloha – not just a word in Hawaiian culture, and least of all just a word with my in-laws – I have gradually become acquainted with a whole different kind of spirituality.  In my experience with my in-law family and with the staff of their local temple, “life, the Universe, and everything” has no Controller, no One behind the curtain pulling the levers, because “life, the Universe, and everything” pretty much controls itself internally.  There is no Artifact and there is no Artificer.  In fact, the human self – what we persist in calling “I”, the proverbial “Ghost in the Machine” – is itself a human construct, a social convenience, if you will.  So there is no pressure to fulfill the will of any external Agency. How humans treat one another in company with one another is a matter of deep concern – but not because any Umpire external to us is calling the balls and strikes hurled at us by chance and circumstance, and certainly least of all because there is some kind of pre-ordained plan to which one is obligated to conform.  The only "script" is (what Christians would call) the Golden Rule. In fact, the Eightfold Path is, at least in my admittedly untutored layman’s conception, just a somewhat more detailed elaboration of the Golden Rule.  So, at least (again) in my experience, Buddhist ethics, at least as I have experienced it over the 34 years Diane and I have been married, concentrates on understanding and disciplining my will, not “decoding” and conforming to God’s will. In most situations, this becomes a question of learning by experience how to roll with the punches of circumstance much more than asserting one’s control over circumstance. (Disclaimer: to say that I understand this is decidedly not to say I am very good at practicing it. I am no one's idea of a bodhisattva!) In fact, attempts at control Buddhism views as merely one more form of attachment, one more abortive strategy to nail Jell-O to the wall or to herd cats.

View from beach house -- 1 of 3

The point? Only that Hawaii is suited, arguably uniquely suited, by reason of culture, climate, and geography – and geophysics! (why geophysics? keep reading) -- to facilitate the learning of this (surprisingly difficult, for someone raised in Western culture!) lesson.  In a very deep sense, you have to learn to relax. For most mainlanders, relaxing means some way of anaesthetizing yourself:  you drink to excess, you eat to excess, you commit “serial clubbing” night after night, you hurl yourself into the surf until your body turns into an immense flesh-colored prune, whereupon you leap into a hot tub – preferably with a cold drink – to prune yourself some more. Then in a couple of weeks you return home, where you may very well end up taking a few days off work to recover from (what you are pleased to call) your “vacation”. In one Star Trek episode, Mr. Spock says to Capt. Kirk “On my planet [Vulcan], ‘to rest’ is to rest, to cease using energy. To me it is quite illogical to run up and down on green grass USING energy instead of saving it” (all caps in original). On the mainland, as people chronically overworked who have forgotten how to relax, most of the time, a “vacation” simply is a means of substituting one pattern of frenzy for another.

In Hawaii, I discovered, over time, how to relax.  I mean relax in the profound sense of the great "ox-herding paintings", which over time assumed such significance for me.  I well remember returning to visit my parents-in-law for a couple of weeks, and, after a nine-hour sleep, lying down on a living room couch after breakfast … and falling asleep for another couple hours. At the time, I had a high-profile, technically demanding job developing high-visibility software for Boeing’s client / customer airlines. I loved the job. But relaxing was one of the first skills to go flying out the window – until I got to Hawaii and became re-acclimated to that culture. Then I rediscovered how tightly wound I had been since our last visit. I believed I was pretty laid back. But I was wrong. What I oh-so-gradually learned was  how to relax in the sense of ceasing to ride my own ass into the ground, in particular, by ceasing to whip myself, as the farmer whipped his ox, in an effort to force myself to pursue some Divine plan that was engineered to set me up for failure, anyway.

One of the primary ways Buddhist spirituality enabled me to relax and renounce attempts at “control” was by liberating me from the gas-lighting that is encouraged by the spirituality of American evangelical Reformed-Protestant Christianity, American-style.  "Gas-lighting" is a wonderful word. It refers to the practice of encouraging someone to refuse to give credit to their own direct experience,  to disbelieve what is in front of their own eyes.  Hence Donald Trump’s gas-lighting references to his unprecedently "yuge" Inauguration Day crowds. Anyone who has grown up in the culture of American Christianity – Protestant or Catholic – will tell you that believing your own experience by seeing what is plainly in front of you is a practice sternly discouraged. Did your parents beat you as a child? Did you just lose your job of 30 years to a kid who barely knows how to shave? Is your home mortgage underwater because your mortgage holder decided to play the credit-swaps market? This is all bad stuff, right? Wrong! So says, not all, but much of American Christianity. These are all invitations to growth and maturation, you are told! God is Love and thank y'Jesus! For remember Romans 8:28-33:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

View from beach house -- 2 of 3

By contrast, Buddhist spirituality is about as un-gas-lit as you can get. After all, the first Noble Truth says, with naked explicitness, “Life is suffering”. (Pardon the technical terminology. Any questions?) So you are quite free to say that losing your career of 30 years sucked big time. In fact, trying to see things as other than the "Big Suck" is just one more attachment, one more attempt at control. Of course. The second Noble Truth says, with equal clarity, also corroborated by direct experience, that the cause of suffering is the attempt to nail Jell-O to the wall, to herd cats, i.e., to exert control over That Which Is Intrinsically Uncontrollable. This does not give one permission to rock down the freeway at 130 mph, of course. It simply means you have to face the fact that there are many circumstances in life, e.g., human mortality, that are not subject to your supposedly sovereign will and sacrosanct preferences. You do not get to vote on everything. and even if you could control everything, you would simply end up being the dog that finally snagged the semi’s tailpipe in its jaws. Some control, eh? Congratulations! Period. Full stop. Here endeth the lesson.

The reason I say Hawaii is, perhaps uniquely, the place to learn this by experience is because Hawaii is so radically vulnerable to the elements, both natural and human-made. Hurricanes. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Economic fluctuations (because most all vital commodities are imported into the Islands from elsewhere).  The vagaries of the tourist industry. You name it. I suppose other places in the Polynesian archipelago are equally vulnerable to these vicissitudes. But Hawaii owns the distinction of being uniquely close to the US mainland. More Americans go to Hawaii on vacation than to, say, Fiji or Tonga. So if you are going to spend much time in Hawaii, you have to learn to adopt a much more laid-back attitude of laissez faire, of roll-with-the-punches, of keeping your knees slightly bent as you walk the deck. Drama kings and queens need not apply. Diane and I recently had a painfully personal lesson in just this necessity.

Back in the early ‘60s, Diane’s family bought some spectacular ocean-front property on the extreme south-eastern coast of the Big Island near Cape Kumukahi, the easternmost point in all Hawaii -- where Hawaii first sees the sunrise -- and a few years later built a small cottage there for the use of the family as a fishing-swimming-and-relaxing getaway. I have fond memories of that place. When I was there for our wedding in 1984, I met Diane’s parents for the first time, and we went to the beach house for my first visit. I laid down under a sea-grape tree and made the fatal mistake of falling asleep. When I woke up, I discovered to my dismay that the trees's shadow had moved. I was cherry-red from mid-thighs down and, later that day, could barely cripple around without my second-degree sunburn blazing through my skin. (The wedding ceremony was a little over a week away. But I was OK in time. You could have written the Magna Carta on the dead skin that sloughed off, once my sunburn began to peel.) As compensation, I also became acquainted on that same trip with the large colony of sea turtles that inhabited the bay immediately in front of the beach house. During a 3-hour visit, we would have between 10 and 20 turtle sightings (maybe not different turtles, just different sightings). I was so impressed I named the beach house “Hale Honu” (pronounced "hall-lay ho-new"):  “Turtle House” in Hawaiian. (I even had a brief flirtation with the hobby of wood-burning and created a wall plaque in honor of the house. However, I include no images of "Hale Honu" itself ... too soon ... too painful.) And I long ago lost track of the number of picnics, box lunches, and bottles of beer and Pepsi consumed in and around the beach house by myself and my in-law family over the years.

View from beach house -- 3 of 3

Then along came May of 2018 and the ongoing eruption of Kilauea and the associated lava fountains and flows. The break-out points for the lava became concentrated on the southern and eastern sections of the Puna District of the Big Island, i.e., in the general area of the beach house, the bay, and several other housing developments in the general area. We were there for the two weeks or so following the beginning of the eruption, and followed the news coverage closely. (We had planned the trip a year in advance, so our presence there was just coincidental.) When we returned to Seattle, we continued to follow the news, and were just beginning to flirt with the temptation of believing that the beach house and the surrounding community was probably OK, when the local Big Island media reported that our entire area was inundated with waves of lava so liquid that it flowed like thin maple syrup at between 15 and 30 miles per hour, i.e., lava in the neighborhood of 4,000 degrees F. Madame Pele had evidently decided to rearrange the Big Island's furniture in a major way, including a major revision around one of our old haunts, the Volcanoes Observatory close to the edge of the Kilauea caldera, whose eruption flung refrigerator- and car-sized boulders up and out of the crater for miles in all directions. The lava even flowed into the bay itself, pre-eruption pictures of which I have included. I comfort myself that the sea turtles could sense the rising temperature of the water and, smarter than some humans in the area, got the hell out while the getting was good. But the family's beach house evaporated into history, like dew.

What we have left are the memories, and no doubt even these will fade with time and advancing age. But such is Kobayashi-san's "world of dew", and any attempt to hang onto the memories would only be one more attachment, one more modality of control that would distort the very thing we value, Simon and Garfunkel notwithstanding:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They're all that's left you.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Volcano eruption and Kapoho Beach Lots ...
Madame Pele ... Pinterest ... CC by 2.0
Sea turtle ... NOAA ... Public domain
Loggerhead sea turtle ... Brian Gratwick ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Buddha ... Kevin Johnsrude ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Buddhist monk in contemplation ... IdeaPod ... Public domain
Oceanscapes from beach house ... Personal photographs
Image of "Hale Honu" plaque ... Personal photograph




  • I am writing a seminar on Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions right now. Ran across this paragraph:

    The origin of Power Distance (Value attached to power; low power distance more communal; high power distance more bossy)

    Most of the high Power Distance countries are at lower latitudes and most of the low Power Distance
    countries are at higher latitudes.

    At lower latitudes (tropical climates), agricultural societies are
    prevalent. Survival and population growth in these climates demands a relatively limited intervention
    of man with nature: everything grows. In this situation the major threat to a society is the competition
    between human groups for the same territory and resources. The better chance for survival exists for
    those societies that have organized themselves hierarchically and are dependent on one central
    authority who keeps order and balance.<--need for community and connection At higher latitudes (moderate and cold climates), nature is less abundant. There is more of a need for human intervention with nature in order to carve out an existence. There are stronger forces supporting the creation of industry next to agriculture. Nature, rather than other humans, is the first enemy to be resisted. Societies in which people have learned to fend for themselves without being too dependent on more powerful others have a better chance of survival under these circumstances than societies which educate their children towards dependence. <--need for independence So it looks like there is indeed geographical differences. 🙂

  • Interesting … I also think there is a lot to be said for the idea that, e.g., Greek civilization, with its emphasis on reason, free inquiry, etc., was critically dependent on abundant sunlight, a warm climate, etc. if you’re an Eskimo living somewhere around Point Barrow, you’re probably not going to be terribly gung-ho about going outside to look up and wonder why some of those lights in the sky “wander” while other are fixed for fear of freezing off certain tender bodily protuberances … in contrast to, e.g., the old Hawaiians / Polynesians, who were master navigators.

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