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Gleanings: Buddhist Wisdom, Christian Enlightenment, American Pseudo-Reality, and the Zen of John Carpenter
Distilled recommendations from reading into the dark
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Two months after my last “gleanings” post, here are some new reading recommendations brought back from my recent foragings. There’s no overall thematic clustering this time, as it has been quite a while since I published a links post like this, so the list of things I have wanted to share has piled up to considerable height and variety.
advice from Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah on treating psychological states like visitors for whom you have no room
reflections by Jason P. Woodbury on the deep spiritual undercurrents of A Charlie Brown Christmas
Ken Wilber’s lucid account of institutional Christianity’s replacement of spiritual awakening with ecclesiastical authority
Megan Garber on America’s embrace of Plato’s cave and Barnum’s hucksterism, as accurately diagnosed/predicted by Daniel Boorstin
a new interview where John Carpenter shows himself to be resting in a chill state of late-career/retirement-stage detachment
All bolded emphases in quoted passages are added by me.
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Ajahn Chah on psychological visitors and the occupied seat of your awareness
Maybe I’m just succumbing to hyperbole, but I am more than a little convinced that the whole secret of living is contained in this delightful excerpt from the teachings of renowned Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah:
I see the mind as merely a single point. Psychological states are guests who come to visit this spot. Sometimes this person comes to call; sometimes that person pays a visit. They come to the visitor centre. Train the mind to watch and know them all with the eyes of alert awareness. This is how you care for your heart and mind. Whenever a visitor approaches you wave them away. If you allow them to enter, where are they going to sit down? There’s only one seat, and you’re sitting in it. Spend the whole day in this one spot.
This is the Buddha’s firm and unshakeable awareness that watches over and protects the mind. You’re sitting right here. Since the moment you emerged from the womb, every visitor that’s ever come to call has arrived right here. No matter how often they come, they always come to this same spot, right here. Knowing them all, the Buddha’s awareness sits alone, firm and unshakeable. Those visitors journey here seeking to exert influence, to condition and sway your mind in various ways. When they succeed in getting the mind entangled in their issues, psychological states arise. Whatever the issue is, wherever it seems to be leading, just forget it — it doesn’t matter. Simply know who the guests are as they arrive. Once they’ve dropped by they will find that there’s only one chair, and as long as you’re occupying it they will have nowhere to sit down. They come thinking to fill your ear with gossip, but this time there’s no room for them to sit.
Jason P. Woodbury on A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and the promises of fearsome angels
Speaking of delightful — and also, for that matter, of Buddhism — this recent reflection from Jason P. Woodbury in his Substack blog is nothing if not that. It’s also quite moving and insightful in its fusion of the three named topics. Additionally: Why did I never know that Jerry Granelli, drummer for the Vince Guaraldi Trio, was a Buddhist?
Despite the fact that Coca Cola paid for and commissioned it, the animated special stands as one of pop culture’s most honest accountings of the disillusioning way “holiday spirit” so often manifests as blatant consumerism and the forlorn sensation that arises from feeling like you’re participating in the season “incorrectly.”
Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas never fails to move me and inspire feelings of hope and peace, in no small part because of the low-key West Coast jazz score by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. I’ve been heavy into Vince’s non-Christmas and non-Peanuts work as of late, but no one captures the gentle tension of melancholy and sweetness like Vince does. . . .
I interviewed the late drummer Jerry Granelli in 2018 about his work on the soundtrack. Jerry had been a practicing Buddhist for nearly 50 years when we spoke. I wondered how his practice informed his read on the spiritual aspects of the film, and his response has stuck with me in the years since:
“The whole thing is about a basic goodness. The world is screwed up. . . . But there is still human wisdom. There still is human dignity. Buddhism is based on the idea that all humans are basically awake. You have everything you need to live this life and help other people.”
My favorite thing about A Charlie Brown Christmas echoes Jerry’s instance: beneath the chintz and false cheer, there is something deeper happening at Christmastime. Even your “own dog gone commercial” can’t snuff out the hint of that deeper, dignified spiritual core.
MORE: Real In
Ken Wilber on Christianity’s historic suppression of spiritual awakening
Ken Wilber has always been famous for his skill at articulating verbally elusive matters of spirituality, transpersonal psychology, and other such things into sparkling clear prose. When I recently read the following 27-year-old interview with him, I was impressed with the force and lucidity of his compressed account of what happened during the historical development of institutional Christianity that led to its official and sometimes violent suppression of teachings about nondual insight and awakening. Wilber’s shorthand explanation of this matter provides a powerful explanatory rubric for a great many things.
Imagine if, the very day Buddha attained his enlightenment, he was taken out and hanged precisely because of his realization, and if any of his followers claimed to have the same realization, they were also hanged. Speaking for myself, I would find this something of a disincentive to practice.
But that’s exactly what happened with Jesus of Nazareth. “Why do you stone me?” he asks at one point. “Is it for good deeds?” And the crowd responds, “No, it is because you, being a man, make yourself out to be God.” The individual Atman is not allowed to realize that it is one with Brahman. “I and my Father are One” — among other complicated factors that realization got this gentleman crucified.
The reasons for this are involved, but the fact remains: as soon as any spiritual practitioner began to get too close to the realization that Atman and Brahman are one — that one’s own mind is intrinsically one with primordial Spirit — then frighteningly severe repercussions usually followed. . . .
[O]ver a several hundred year span, with the codification of the Canon and the Apostle’s Creed, a series of necessary beliefs replaced actual experience. The Church slowly switched from the [spirit-filled] pneumatics [of its earliest years] to the ekklesia, the ecclesiastic assembly of Christ, and the governor of the ekklesia was the local bishop, who possessed “right dogma,” and not the pneumatic or prophet, who might possess spirit but couldn’t be “controlled.” The Church was no longer defined as the assembly of realizers but as the assembly of bishops.
With Tertullian, the relationship becomes almost legal, and with Cyprian, spirituality actually is bound to the legal office of the Church. You could become a priest merely by ordination, not by awakening. A priest was no longer holy (sanctus) if he was personally awakened or enlightened or sanctified, but if he held the office. Likewise, you could become “saved” not by waking up yourself, but merely by taking the legal sacraments. As Cyprian put it, “He who does not have the Church as Mother cannot have God as Father.”
Well, that puts a damper on it, what? Salvation now belonged to the lawyers. And the lawyers said, basically, we will allow that one megadude became fully one with God, but that’s it! No more of that pure Oneness crap.
Megan Garber on Daniel Boorstin’s The Image and how Americans put reality on life support
I was an undergraduate when one of my professors introduced me to Daniel Boorstin’s classic 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. I read it on my own, as part of the self-directed curriculum that I maintained alongside my classroom studies throughout college, and it instantly became and remains one of my intellectual touchstones. This 2016 appreciation of by Megan Garber in The Atlantic, which I actually encountered when it was first published but then rediscovered recently, offers both an effective introduction to the book and an accurate assessment of its enduring prophetic relevance and immediate, organic application to current conditions in the United States, where it can almost seem as if we’re using it not as a diagnosis of our disease but as a playbook for our next moves.
Boorstin, in The Image, coined not just the term “pseudo-event,” but also the epithetic descriptions “famous for being famous” and “well-known for well-knownness”; he was, it would turn out, an extremely reluctant herald of postmodernism. While The Image may have arrived on the scene, chronologically, before the comings of Twitter and Kimye and an understanding of “reality” as a genre as much as a truth, the book also managed to predict them — so neatly that it reads, in 2016, not just as prescience, but as prophesy.
“The image” is, in Boorstin’s conception, both literal (pictures, photographs, etc.) and figurative: a short-hand for images’ cultural primacy, and for an approach to reality itself that is blithely Barnumesque in its assumptions. . . . The image is the spectacle that is most spectacular when it is watched on TV. It is the press conference and the press release — the media event that finds news being created rather than simply reported. It is the logic of advertising, with all its aspiration and transaction, insinuating itself into culture at its depths and its heights. It is the public expectation, even preference, for celebrities who are manufactured, as goods and as gods, because the only thing more compelling than stars themselves is our ability to question their place in our arbitrary firmament. . . .
We are living, still, he suggests, within the sparkle and the spectacle and the fog of P.T. Barnum — whose core insight, after all, was not just that people could be fooled, but that, in fact, they wanted to be fooled. Barnum . . . . knew, long before many others would learn from his tricks, the profound power of epistemic destabilization. He understood, intuitively, how many things Americans find to be more enjoyable than reality. . . .
The image, the stereotype, the ad, the manufactured spectacle, the cheerful lie . . . these are, [Boorstin] argues, all of a piece. They are evidence of Americans’ constitutional comfort with illusions—not just in our cultural creations, but in our everyday lives. Deceptions are our water: They are everywhere, around us and within us, palpably yet also, too often, invisibly. . . .
We don’t quite know what reality is, anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care. Boorstin took history and philosophy and injected into it a clear-eyed assessment of human nature. He gathered Barnum and Mussolini and David Ogilvy and Marilyn Monroe and FDR and Plato, consulted with them, learned their lessons, and then came to a final, tragic conclusion: If Americans are living in a cave of our own making, even if we are offered the benefit of firelight, we might still choose the shadows.
BONUS: Garber’s essay reads well in tandem with “2022 and the Revenge of the Real,” which appeared last month in The Independent with the sub-headline “This year saw hyper-virtualism begin to collapse.” Starting with the following evocative paragraphs, the piece invokes the thought and feeling of a literal apocalypse — the drawing aside of a veil to reveal a hidden reality beneath — unfolding around us, and within us, in real time:
Do you get that alarming feeling, right now, that everything is suddenly, rapidly, falling apart?
At the same time, does everything also feel strangely less real to you, as though modern life were just one big, phoney act — a performative parade of political spin, sloganeering, social-media campaigning, simulated outrage, and petty culture war point-scoring?
These two things are connected. We’ve spent years as a society constructing an elaborate pyramid scheme of virtual realities — from cryptocurrencies to social media influencers to startups that ‘outcompete’ each other only by posting eye-watering losses each year — all to the neglect of the real world. And now, in 2022, the real is finally catching up with us.
The Zen of John Carpenter
Finally, here are some choice lines from a recent Variety interview with one of my favorite film directors, John Carpenter. Of course the entire thing with its various delvings into Carpenter’s fabulous career is worth reading, but these two brief snippets, which resonate nicely with the piece’s well-chosen opening sentence (“John Carpenter has nothing left to prove”), are the high points for me.
VARIETY: If the opportunity came and it involved a streaming platform, would you be amenable to that, or would you want your film to go theatrical first?
JC: I’m wide open to anything. It’s fine, I don’t care.
VARIETY: What is the perfect day for you at this point in your life?
JC: Get up late, watch a little news, play a video game, watch some basketball, go to bed.