July 20, 2010

The cultural vacuum and variant genes

"I worked in hospices for over seventeen years, and I never heard a dying patient wish she had spent more time at work."

- Rodney Smith, Stepping Out of Self-Deception

I'm reading Rodney Smith's new book (not coincidentally it will be discussed in the Tricycle Community Book Club starting next week) and this line struck me. Generally speaking, I feel very lucky in my job situation (witness my co-worker's tweet from earlier today after our morning sit) but still, you'd have to be Paris Hilton to not have this line resonate with you. And yet there are so many people out of work that having any sort of job is—or should be—a real blessing.

Hokai Sobol recently showed up at the Secret Buddhist Geeks HQ, secretly located in a secret underwater city (possibly known as Taylorville, according to Will Ferrell in the August issue of Wired, seemingly not yet online) and spoke on the record with Vince Horn about lots of important, geeky stuff, including Buddhism not operating in a vacuum (we need to breathe, after all.) Hokai:

So basically, when the traditional texts talk about the right attitude, they will describe the spiritual meaning of this: what is right and what is an attitude. But the spiritually informed right attitude never functions in a cultural vacuum. So basically a spiritual attitude of any kind will magnetize certain content from the immediate cultural situation in which the practitioner, or practitioners in plural, find themselves immersed in.

So, basically if you have a spiritual attitude or a healthy attitude in agricultural India 2,500 years ago. And if you have the same basically spiritually speaking healthy attitude in 21st century West, especially you know Europe and United States and countries that share the features of this part of the world… In that case what will magnetize around that right or healthy attitude will be of a different nature. Basically, the roles and the relationships and the whole range of tacit knowledge that was available to Indians more that twenty centuries ago will differ hugely from the roles, relationships, and tacit knowledge available to Westerners now a days. And basically what will happen is that unwittingly we may find this right attitude exposed and then fused with a completely different set of cultural values and cultural assumptions because of which we may have, well modestly speaking, certain difficulties.

They go on to talk about teachers and how we approach them in 21st century dharma. (Warning Label: This podcast and transcript contain the phrase "Western Buddhism.") If you like Buddhist Geeks and you like Hokai's blog, you'll like this too. Here's the Buddhist Geeks link again.

And here's more on that variant gene Tibetans are said to have that we wrote about last week. The article is mostly notable for the New York Times's caption of the photo of the monks:

"Monks took a break while reading through the Bhuddist commandments at the Drepung Monastery in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa."

Wow! Never mind the Bhuddist commandments, how about monks take a break, fellas? Make us feel like we're right there, slightly short of breath because we're missing the variant gene. Maybe that breathless caption was written at 11,000 feet.

In the Washington Post, Clark Strand (taking a break from his Green Koans) writes about the Flushing Remonstrance, a crucial document in the history of American religious freedom—a religious freedom that is threatened by the startling intolerance and fear of people like Shakespalin who object to a mosque being built two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. Why are mosques allowed in our nation's capital, for that matter? We'll let Glenn Beck tell us what George Washington would have said about that.

[Image: The New York Times]

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Doug Elliott's picture

I listened to a Joe Goldstein audio dharma talk recently and he has a relevant comment I will try to capture... something along the lines of, "oh the succinct excellence of being able to say after an awakening experience - much like a paperweight on your desk might say - 'Done: what's needed'"

Philip Ryan's picture

Thanks for your comments!

Bija: I read the quote as a wake-up call to try and be more present at home. A long, hard day can burn you out, but you have to be present for your family (Don Draper just walked in and poured himself a glass of rye as soon as he came in the door—and look what happened to him!) Especially when we have illness or young people at home, we need to be able to reboot on the way home from work, but it isn't easy. The real thing we'll remember when we die is how we related to our family, and as you imply of course this relationship is partially a financial transaction that of necessity involves our work.

Genju: I love your 100% idea, but some days I feel like everything only adds up to 60%! I often find I need to think about work while I'm at home, and home while I'm at work. You are in a different situation, it seems. With internet access making most places possible workplaces, there's a real erosion not only of privacy but of private time. This can be a blessing for some and a terrible burden for others. Personally I have to work very hard to resolve the tension of being "needed" in two different places—work and home—at once.

Genju's picture

Interesting quote by Rodney Smith which I've read somewhere else while staggering along this path. The intent and context notwithstanding, I find this compartmentalization of work from everything else too confusing as a Bear of Little Brain. I mean, how much is "more" which implies "too much" of one thing - as opposed to more of what other. It's similar to times when someone says to me, "I apologize for my half of the situation." Which half? - the half where you were the idiot or the half where you arrogantly thought I was the idiot. ;-)

Life doesn't lend itself to being sliced up into percentages or fractions or components. Here's a strange perspective: it's all 100%. I spend 100% of my time at work, but not always in the office. I spend 100% of my time with my family, but not in their back pockets. I spend 100% of my time loving all those dear to me, but not expecting immediate gratification.

I wonder if we would fare better by not demonizing ambition, hard work, or commitment when it doesn't fit our neat box of what constitutes a "balanced life." It may be more useful to learn how to access what is needed from us in the moment its needed be it work or relational intimacy.

Bija Andrew Wright's picture

Just focusing on the pithy quotation at the beginning. It's obviously true, but work is a means to an end. Certainly there are dying patients who wish they had accomplished more in life, or wished they had provided a more comfortable lifestyle for their children.