Tonglen, Illusion and Injustice – A “Theory of Everything”


This worm, my brother, symbolizes vulnerability for me
This worm symbolizes vulnerability for me

I really like combining some tonglen breathing with my dumbbell exercises and a set of tai chi. I usually come away with a feeling of calmness and purpose.

I precede the above with 30 minutes uphill walking on a treadmill, during which I listen to a CBC podcast from one of my four favorite reflective CBC programs: Ideas, Tapestry, Writers and Company and The Sunday Edition. These free podcasts come automatically into my iTunes account.

I don’t do the exercises every day, and, for me, that’s OK. Often I walk outside instead in “Our Woods” with my wife. Our walks have been getting longer as we will be walking a lot on our next trip and, at 68, that can be challenging.

This morning when I began my routine I was thinking about a thoughtful blog I had read a couple of days ago by Traveling Thane Furrows. N.B. Thane’s blog is no longer available.  Pity. His post featured one of my living heroes, Noam Chomsky. Thane presented several of Mr. Chomsky’s points in an October lecture given at the American University in Cairo. Thane commented in the above post that Chomsky “nonchalantly condemns US Imperialism and gives lucid explanations for the current political events sweeping our world.” I remember thinking that the last adjective I would use to describe anything Chomsky does is “nonchalant.” He has spent much of his very long life meticulously and passionately documenting political abuses of the third world by the powerful nations and trans-national corporations. The US is his principal, but by no means sole, target and he gives copious endnotes to support all his sources.

But Thane made me think twice when he respectfully suggested that there is typically too much negativity among critics of the status quo. I had to think about my recent posts that have been severely critical, contemptuous even, of Canada’s small “c” conservative government under Stephen Harper.

Thane refers wisely to Buddhist  and Kabbalist beliefs and tonglen as tools that can be used to soften one’s heart and learn to look primarily for the good. I think Thane feels that Chomsky and I are too unrelentingly harsh in our criticism of the right wing. He quotes the Kabbalist,  Rabbi Moshe Cordevero:

Your ears should always be tuned to hear the good, while rumors and gossip should never be let in, according to the secret of sublime listening. There, no harsh shouting enters, no tongue of evil leaves a blemish. So listen only to positive, useful things, not to things that promote anger.

This quote initially took me aback. It seemed that Thane was implying by this passage that Chomsky should have been more circumspect and positive in his lecture. I suspect now that Thane was quite sympathetic to the “facts” as Chomsky presented them, but was troubled that this information darkened his perspective and made Thane himself somewhat prone to negative feelings that he personally wants to overcome.

Here I invite Thane to comment on this post, because I am not certain of his perspective and do not want to misrepresent it. I thank him for stimulating me to think more carefully about my writing style.

My opinion on this is that there are different, valid roles for all of us if we “H. sapienses” are to find our way intact into the next century. People like Noam Chomsky, though overwhelmingly critical, are important communicators of the serious issues that need to be addressed if justice, peace and sustainability are important. In Canada, for example, there are four times as many right wing daily newspapers as liberal ones. Voices like those of Chomsky and Naomi Klein are a necessary, if tiny, attempt to bring the public, poorly informed due to materialistic distractions and the bias of the  corporate-dominated media, up to speed on the reasons and powers behind what is happening to the indigenous in Central America, Canada and, soon, to them. This is what the recent Idle No More Movement is about. People are becoming aware of threats to Canada’s First Nations and to themselves if our land, water and air continues to be polluted to serve the god of GDP and the corporate growth paradigm.

There is also place for spiritual leaders of good faith, past and present. There is also place for agnostics and atheists. There is an important place for indigenous spirituality, which is closer to Mother Earth than any other form.

But back to the ideas spawned by Thane’s blog – and my stream of consciousness:

I am aware that much of what we perceive is illusion. Buddhism, Hinduism and even quantum physics support this. It seems the Hindus  intuitively “got” the String Theory of quantum physics centuries before plodding, Western atomistic scientists came to get a peek into its intricacies. Sort of reminds me of the Polynesians (through magnificent, intuitive, advanced navigational virtuosity) having populated the tiny islands of the vast  South Pacific five centuries before the Spaniards came along hugging the coast and generally screwing things up. Fast forward to the present World Order… but I digress.

Being aware of the illusory nature of existence helps one to cope with suffering. This is one of the real benefits of tonglen breathing.

Breathe in suffering, breathe out healing.

Simple, deep, effective. It helps, but it does not change the injustice that leads to widespread suffering around the world, much of which has been spawned since European colonialism began in the 15th century. I still cling to the idea that injustice must be fought. To me it is not a complete illusion that a girl going to school can be disfigured by acid thrown in her face. (The Taliban, by the way, has arisen because fundamentalism was aided and abetted by the US to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. It achieved that goal, but turned out to be a Faustian bargain, but I digress yet again.)

This sort of injustice makes me angry. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. Not so angry that my blood boils and my blood vessels constrict – thanks to tonglen and, to a greater extent than previously, tuning out. My Internet activity and bodily presence at peaceful protests, critical and side-taking though it is, also helps me feel that I am doing something to fight injustice.

In the very long run, for an athiest who understands the Second Law of Thermodynamics, all momentary struggle is indeed absurd. In the end a state of formless uniformity will be everywhere in the universe. Free energy, necessary to build complex structures like a human fetus out of atoms, will be all used up.

Even in the relatively short run, our sustainer, the Sun, having indifferently helped life to evolve on Earth over the past 5 billion years, will start to lose its primary and secondary fuels, hydrogen and helium. Before it peters out to a dwarf during the next 5 billion it will cool and expand into a red giant, whose fiery mass will envelop our Planet. Sayonara, baby.

Some might say that to struggle to keep Homo sapiens and a few other vertebrates in existence on Earth for a few more millennia is itself an absurd quest, given the ultimate existence endgame. For me, and this is my own personal, though deeply held, sentiment,  it is the only thing worth doing. I consider those who aid the new colonists in their rape of my Planet the Enemy who must be turned into an ally or relentlessly opposed. I cannot do otherwise.

I will give the last word to the author of Don Quixote, the incomparable Miguel Cervantes:

Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be.

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Author: mytiturk

Travelbug Minstrel: Strum for my supper, croon for my cuppa Search for a sign, write for my whine

3 thoughts on “Tonglen, Illusion and Injustice – A “Theory of Everything””

    1. Hi Bob,

      Thanks for allowing me to comment on your post – I feel blessed to connect with someone else who considers these ideas as passionately as I do.

      ————————-

      First, a little background on the development of my post:

      “Putting the ‘Evolution’ in Revolution” was inspired after reading Gene Sharp’s influential work “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation.” For anyone reading this reply, you can access the aforementioned text at the link below: 

      http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations/org/FDTD.pdf

      ————————-

      The “anger-awareness” sections of the post date back to my youth…

      As a teen who had recently been exposed to his first effective dose of dissent content, I felt anger on levels that I had never previously experienced. I feel blessed that I eventually found tactics to engage that anger through awareness. 

      I find that many of my peers today still haven’t found constructive outlets for this anger; they seem to take actions rooted in impassioned hostility, with a lack of self control. My post was a reaction to their uncontrolled responses to the indignation they feel. Harsh criticism and anger are not problems in themselves. In my opinion, it’s the lack of mindfulness when utilizing these responses that’s the issue.

      I personally believe that feeling anger is not to be avoided, it is an experience one must be present with in order to create the most appropriate and effective response to the given situation.

      ————————-

      As for the usage of the word “nonchalant” when describing Chomsky’s condemnation of US Imperialism, I stand by this assessment. For me, every time I listen to him I end up laughing; I’m always awestruck by his demeanor – he appears so calm and relaxed when explaining such potentially infuriating matters. I think it’s a interesting contrast to those who scream in order to be heard, even when they are completely justified in doing so (as at a political demonstration, for instance.)

      ————————-

      Here’s my official stance on critics of the status quo:

      Critics of the status quo are the most important members of our human society – we must take heed of their warnings and implement appropriate solutions as soon as possible, otherwise, the evolutionary experiment called “civilization” will have proven to be ineffective.
      (Paraphrased from the ideas of Ronald Wright)

      My stance brings to mind what you had to say in your post:

      My opinion on this is that there are different, valid roles for all of us if we “H. sapienses” are to find our way intact into the next century. People like Noam Chomsky, though overwhelmingly critical, are important communicators of the serious issues that need to be addressed if justice, peace and sustainability are important.

      ————————-

      While writing this response, I keep thinking of the quote from author Anais Nin, “Societies in decline have no use for visionaries.” I believe the quote should be amended with “(the authoritarians which rule) societies in decline have no use for visionaries.” 

      Societies in decline, in fact, have the most urgent use for visionaries. It is they who provide the catalyst to create the bonds which hold civilization together. It is through implementing this imagination that we evolve toward a more equitable society, where the nourishment of all life is held as the the most important factor.

      Again, what I have to say sounds a lot like what you said:

      Some might say that to struggle to keep Homo sapiens and a few other vertebrates in existence on Earth for a few more millennia is itself an absurd quest, given the ultimate existence endgame. For me, and this is my own personal, though deeply held, sentiment,  it is the only thing worth doing. I consider those who aid the new colonists in their rape of my Planet the Enemy who must be turned into an ally or relentlessly opposed. I cannot do otherwise.

      ————————-

      So, as you can see, the language that we use to translate our shared values can create apparent incompatibilities – even though our values are ultimately just that – shared. I personally believe that, due to the nuances of the expression of ideas, we all actually speak and comprehend ever-evolving versions of infinite languages – but usually beneath the surface, we all seem to share common values. For that I am thankful.

      To me, this understanding is the true secret of sublime listening.

      ————————-

      Let me know how you would like to continue this conversation.

      Ben Broenen

      1. Thank you, Ben, first of all, for taking the time to have found my blog. Thank you also for your careful, supportive replies. I see that we share many interests and concerns besides opposing injustice. Travel, tonglen and using a good photo or two to tell a story are three obvious examples. I look forward to sharing ideas with you in the future. I liked your blog immediately and will try to learn from it to improve mine. A wicked norovirus prevented me from contacting you earlier. I sense we both will be continuing our conversation in different ways as allies. I hope your readers don’t judge me as a smug Canadian. As I look deeper into the (largely and, as we speak, still massively suppressed, even by the churches) history of the way we Canuck settlers have essentially committed a vicious, subtle and ongoing genocide upon our First Nations, I cannot hold my head up. The Idle No More Movement has made me aware of this and the more I read, the uglier it gets. Peace and brotherhood, friend.

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