Live outside the box

OK, I’m a geek. I work in front of computers all day long, I play mostly in front of a computer all evening. But it’s occurred to me that I live too much of my life (almost all of it!) in boxes. I live in a box, work in a box, and get from home to work (and vice versa )by means of driving a smaller box. This is true of a LOT of us. (You know who you are.) Today I had a pleasant day with several hours outside the box at Cape Hatteras. It was great!

New goal for the Frimster: a hour of unboxed living every day.

A Christian Fatwa? “He Should Be Killed”—Robertson

Q: What religion has leaders who use all available media to call for a religious government, and urge those they find most unworthy to be killed?

A: The Christian Religious Right. On the 700 Club on Thursday, August 19, Ayatollah Pat Robertson called for a fatwa on Ayatollah Muktada al-Sadr. His entire quote follows:

Al-Sadr is a rebel whose breaking the law. He’s a murderer, there’s a warrant out for his arrest. He should be killed, it’s just that simple. They should execute him and they should take care of those people. He’s holding up the most powerful army on Earth and he’s thumbing his nose at the authority of the new government, and it’s time the forces took action against him and stop the play. I hope this news says they’re going after him.The news yesterday said, well. he’d agreed to some kind of a deal, but he’s a liar, he’s not going to do a deal and it’s time we move in and do it swiftly and get this sore out of the way.

You can hear it yourself at The 700 Club website. [UPDATE: this broadcast has rolled off the page, as of Sept. 11, 2004l]

A few thoughts on Robertson’s fatwa:

  1. Making al-Sadr into a martyr would be unbelievably stupid. It would almost certainly condemn Iraq (and the U.S.) to years of war.
  2. Ayad Allawi, the Prime Minister of Iraq, doesn’t want al-Sadr to be killed. He actually wants him to run for office so al-Sadr can see that the majority of non-extremist Iraqis reject him.
  3. With this pronouncement, Robertson seems to have lost all contact with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
  4. Robertson can be quite comfy with killers when he can profit from them. Consider his business relationship with Charles Taylor in creating Freedom Gold through the tax shelter of the Cayman Islands. Taylor escaped from a Massachusetts prison, fled to Libya, instigated an insurrection in Sierra Leone, killed the president of Liberia, and initiated a war taking over 200,000 lives, and has been linked by the FBI to funding al-Qaeda:

Let’s pray for light—for ourselves, for Iraq, and for Pat Robertson.

We know what we want for ourselves . . .

I received this email from someone called “The Writer.” (I guess he or she meant to leave a comment but emailed me by mistake.) Anyway, The Writer had a brilliant insight, that basic spiritual truths are self-evident on the personal level, but not on the social level. No wonder Christ said to love our neighbor as ourselves!

It’s amazing how basic spiritual truths take many thousands of years to be learnt via hard experience by humanity. That the ends do not justify the means, and that peace is better than war and life better than death, and freedom better than imprisonment, are on the personal level self-evident. But on the larger social level things do not seem quite so clear, for some reason. . . . the writer.

Underneath the painting—the First Noble Truth

Last night, I had a deep realization of the First Noble Truth. Now, to anyone who’s not immediately put off by the negativity of the statement that “life is dukkha (loosely translated as ‘suckiness’),” the fact probably seems self-evident. There’s death, sickness, poverty, hatred, fear, all the stuff. You know it, I know it. Big deal. What came to me last night, (and it came to me like a sledge hammer on my head—it was a shock, I’m telling you, it was not pleasant!) was that life is anxiety. Or that anxiety is the canvas our lives are painted on.

It’s one thing to accept the suckiness of life intellectually, or even to see its effects in the world in general, but what happened last night was I saw it in everything. Most people have very few moments in waking life that don’t have a tinge of anxiety, although it might be so subtle it’s like the hum of a refrigerator in the kitchen, when you’re upstairs listening to the stereo. But it’s still there! We’ve really trained ourselves not to see it. (Even though it seems a third of their articles are about it, you could read Tricycle for years and not get it!)

Our anxiety comes from many sources—psychologists concentrate on our parents and authority figures, and yes, there’s anxiety there. All of our lives we’ve been given rules and consequences for not following them. And so, we become conditioned. Am I doing what’s right? Did I do something wrong? But this root anxiety is a lot more basic than that. Will I get what I want? Will I get what I don’t want?

On an even more primal, unconscious level—Will I get something to eat? Will something eat me? How do I stay alive?

And even more fundamental, and more subconscious—Do I really exist? Who/what am I?

So we cover up our anxiety with everything—possessions, positions, activities, interests, thoughts, beliefs, etc. ad nauseum. None of which are wrong in themselves,but the anxiety that makes us cling to them is usually unaddressed. “Now that I have x, feel x, think x, know x, do x . . . I’m OK, right?” It doesn’t matter what color the paint we throw on the canvas, the canvas is still there. Even the belligerent thug who slugs whoever disses him is just throwing another layer on the underlying dukkha, the canvas of anxiety.

Just being—I mean simply be-ing, as opposed to doing, and having—is something that causes tremendous anxiety to most people. Try to even talk to some people about sitting meditation, and even the thought—not the action, mind you, but the mere thought—of sitting and doing nothing horrifies them. Now I can see that’s at least part of what makes it the laboratory, where all the paint is stripped off the canvas of insecurity.

What happens when we go farther and strip off the canvas? What’s left? That must be what awakening is.

Spider-man 2


spidey poster

Mild spoilers follow. If you really have no clue how it ends, you might want to see the movie first.

Simply put, Spider-Man 2 is the superhero movie par excellence. Its effects are amazing, the action is thrilling, but beyond that, it actually transcends its comic-book origins, and succeeds as a moving human drama. I had the strong sense that 2002’s Spider-Man wanted to do the same, but failed. Whenever it seemed it was getting close, the Green Goblin would pop in, and Bam! there we were in cartoon-land again.

Thankfully, the villain in Spider-Man 2 is more believable and sympathetic. Alfred Molina’s masterful portrayal of Dr. Octavius is refreshingly human and appropriately chilling. Rather than being simply mad or evil, Octavius (Doc Ock) is actually a good man, but ambition and carelessness has caused him to lose control, and his mechanical arms now control his actions. As in the Matrix movies, machines symbolize the inhuman side of our passions, a mechanical force that keeps going of its own accord, using the human being just to power it (as in The Matrix) or just taking it along for the ride as it does here. Mechanical arms furthermore suggest the reach of amoral, inhuman ambition.

The superhero as spiritual warrior

But of course, Spider-Man / Peter Parker is who the movie is really about. What is so refreshing about this movie is that it shows the trials of the superhero in surprising detail. The superhero is a metaphor for the “spiritual warrior”—those who dedicate their lives to conquering the evils of fear, arrogance, violence, anger and greed in the world. In the comic book, these are usually depicted as external things, the superhero is already perfect.

In reality, spiritual warriorship is a learning path; the warrior first must conquer him/herself. While Superman showed the infant Kal-El as performing miracles from the time he came down from heaven, the Bible points out that Jesus waited till 30 to begin his ministry. Similarly, the Buddha spent years practicing yoga before he awoke, and even then, hesitated to teach what he had found. No matter how sudden the transformation may occur, work precedes it and it takes dedication to live the awakened life.

Christians are urged to “fight the good fight,” and Buddhists are taught to become bodhisattvas, and vow to save all beings. It’s a tall order, and Spider-Man shows the human struggle of the spiritual warrior very honestly. True, many spiritual warriors have been monks, nuns, and hermits, but far more have had to take on the call to be “in the world, but not of the world.” These spiritual warriors live in two worlds, the spiritual world of prayer, meditation and the awareness of what is really going on despite appearances, and the day-to-day world of bills, work, school, and relationships. Peter finds it impossible to be Spider-Man and attend properly to his life in the ordinary world. He is behind on rent, can’t hold a job, is failing his classes, and is about to lose Mary Jane forever.

Just being Peter

His motivation to be Spider-Man largely stems from guilt—his uncle’s last words to him were “with great power comes great responsibility,” and soon after that, his irresponsibility caused uncle’s death. Spider-Man is slipping; except in life-and-death situations, his webs fail, he slides off of walls, and his vision blurs. Even his heroic, life-saving actions are slammed by the Daily Bugle which rants against him as “a public menace.”

Peter Parker ends up doing what most of us would do in such frustrating circumstances—he quits, and throws his costume into the trash.

There’s no going back

At first, Peter has a tremendous sense of relief in just being Peter Parker. But he cannot forget who he has been, nor what he could do, when he turns away from someone being beaten in an alley, or when he hears sirens tearing down the street. Finally, he can bear it no more—when he sees a burning apartment building that has a child trapped inside, he rushes in to save her. And the little girl ends up saving him.

This is just one of several instances that show Peter he must be able to accept the help, forgiveness, and advice of others. A doctor tells him that his loss of powers is probably psychosomatic. His aunt forgives him for his part in her husband’s death—and with what seems to be a knowing twinkle in her eye, she reminds him that heroes are vital to the world.

Behind the mask

Peter picks up his Spider-Man costume again to stop Doc Ock from destroying the city. In a stunning fight sequence, Spider-Man endures an agonizing crucifixion on the front of a speeding train. Instead of nails, his own webs stretch out his arms to save the innocent. As he falls exhausted, the passengers on the train gently pass him back and make room for him to rest. And since he lost his mask in the battle, everyone is astonished to see that the miraculous superhero is an otherwise ordinary, human, mortal youth.

Peter and Ock

It’s easy to believe that the savior is different from us in kind, since even when their deeds are known, they themselves are not. To anyone who didn’t know the shy, klutzy geek named Peter Parker, Spider-Man seems a being from another world, like Superman, with nothing in common with ordinary folks. Knowing the humanity of the hero is the difference.

Many Buddhists prefer to offer chants and prayers to the Buddha, rather than seek his enlightenment. Similarly, Christians are generally are more at ease worshipping Jesus as God, and largely forget about a Jewish kid named Yeshua who realized who his Father was—in fact, only a single story from his youth has been preserved. The ancient Christian teaching of theosis, that the consummation of the Christian life is to become Christ, just as Jesus did, is ignored by most churches. We prefer to trust him to lead the Christian life for us, and while he does, the call to awaken still sounds: “Awake, O sleeper, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph.5.14) With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a little bit scary. No wonder we keep haloes on our saviors, and capes and masks on our heroes.

Never alone

But the hero also wants the mask, which represents the anonymity of the bodhisattva/spiritual warrior. True spiritual warriors don’t seek glory for themselves. Jesus repeatedly asked persons he healed not to tell anyone about him. But usually there comes a time when the mask has to come off. This can be frightening, but it’s also an opportunity for the warrior to gain the support he or she needs. Jesus needed the disciples, Gautama needed the sangha, Francis needed his brothers, Dorothy Day needed her friends. Similarly, awakening people need teachers and friends. In doing so, we discover that not only is there is a great, invisible communion radiating the love of God, an invisible web (yeah, web!) connecting all who have the Christ-mind or Buddha-mind, but there are also friendly faces ready to help us here and now.

The warrior’s victory

Peter and MJ

As Zen master and spiritual warrior Vernon Kitabu Turner wrote in Soul Sword, a modern classic on spiritual warriorship, the warrior seeks to save both the victim and the oppressor from whatever evil forces are bringing suffering into the world. A beautiful moment in Spider-Man 2 is Dr. Octavius’s redemption, as Peter (unmasked) is able to bring him back to his senses. Octavius declares “I will not die a monster!” and destroys his machine (and himself) before millions of innocent people would be killed.

In this scene, too, Mary Jane realizes that Peter is Spider-Man and that he’s in love with her. The painful secret is destroyed, and Spider-Man has a mate to help him in his difficult mission. As she says to him, “Isn’t it time someone saved your life?”

Movie stills © 2004 Columbia Piactures.