Thursday, July 20, 2017

GOD(S) AND CHAOS - Part I

My oldest grandson, Cameron Young, recently gave the following talk to the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is currently the Director of Lifespan Religious Education. He told of his trip to India, along with photos he took while there. As this is rather lengthy, I decided to post it in two parts. 

I always thought that Cameron would be a professional performer (he was a voice major at LSU, and sings opera), but not only does he have the ability to present a good sermon from time to time at his church, he shows a remarkable gift for writing as well! Proud grandmother speaks.

GOD(S) AND CHAOS
by Cameron Young

   Those of us in the western world tend to view what is spiritual and what is holy to be only synonymous with what is tranquil and calm. Wealthy westerners spend thousands of dollars going on spiritual retreats being drawn in by taglines such as “find your inner peace,” “align your chakras,” “heighten your cosmic vibrations,” and a classic “embrace the power of positive thinking!” Not to negate the validity of eastern religious practice, especially yoga and meditation, which provide immense benefits for body and mind, but since the new age movement of the 1960s, we’ve seen the emergence of bastardized eastern practice that has drawn in thousands. The fundamental difference between the true practices and the new practices is that, while eastern spirituality encourages you to embrace discomfort and learn eventually to accept it, the latter teaches to spiritually bypass any feelings of unease and that only the positive feelings are valid. 
   Having visited India for a month, I quickly realized there was a market for this. There were these very expensive Yogic retreats offered to Europeans and some Americans where people got to come to India, yet conveniently got to avoid the Indian people and cultural climate. The noise. The smells. The poverty. The “chaos.” Not only is that antithetical to those philosophies, but that mindset is also racist and classist. Upon leaving for India, I certainly had an over-romanticized vision of it, and though I might’ve been looking for some semblance of self-realization, my motives were quite different from the ones previously stated. I recognized the spiritual validity of being out of one’s comfort zone.
   I left the U.S. thinking that I had left most of my ego behind. I’ve never been too attached to material possessions, in the spirit of our second UU (Unitarian Universalist) principle, I’ve made it a practice to have open and compassionate relations with others, and I like to think my spiritual practice enables me to approach most situations calmly and objectively. The moment I set foot in Mumbai, I became painfully aware of how wealthy I was in that context. People, mostly in desperation, wanted my money, and so I became a target for some to scam, rip off, or simply pester. Despite having plenty of it (everything was so inexpensive), I found myself clinging to my money and possessions in a way I never had before. While some level of a defensive disposition is healthy in such an environment, my hypervigilance coupled with jet lag was manifesting in paranoia. My adventuring was often coupled with sensory overload and a constant need to look over my shoulder. 
    My third night in Mumbai, I ventured to Chowpatty beach, because the beach is a relaxing and tranquil place, right? I stuck out like a sore thumb.



 
 As a practicing Zen Buddhist, I’ve become quite familiar with the writings of Shinryu Suzuki, who’s often accredited as father of the American Zen movement. In his most famous work, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki speaks of small mind vs. big mind, or little “I” vs. big “I.” “We create airplanes and highways,” he writes “And when we repeat ‘I create, I create, I create’ soon we forget who is the actual ‘I’ which creates the various things; we soon forget about God. This is the danger in human culture.” He goes on to write “But because we do forget who is doing the creating and the reason for the creation, we become attached to the material or the exchange value.”
   Suzuku writes of the Buddhist understanding of God, which can be simply understood as the oneness of everything, or as UUs like to say, the interconnected web of all existence. Suzuki is implying that the danger in human thought is the illusion of self, the illusion of attachment, and the illusion of creation. Anything we perceive as being created by us, we’re really just rearranging matter already manifested in nature. And when we think this way, we become attached to these material things, we fear the loss of those attachments, and thus emerges the little “I” or the ego that separates us from everything.
   Welcome to my existential crisis upon entering India. My sudden anxiety and possessiveness over my pocketbook, my phone, my laptop, and other belongings, at least at first, constantly interfered with my enjoyment of an otherwise grand adventure.
   Though this realization of the dichotomy between the egoic little self, and the higher, universal self is fundamental to Buddhism, it’s by no means unique to it. The Transcendentalists of young America, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Channing, all Unitarians at one point or another, were perhaps the ones in the west who most eloquently articulated this truth. Transcendentalism went as far as to say that institutions and illusion of order actually corrupted the purity of the individual, constantly citing the validity of a human’s subjective intuition. 
   We heard earlier a reading from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. He goes on to write “I exist as I am, that is enough, if no other in the world be aware, I sit content, and if each and all be aware, I sit content.” Here, Whitman is implying that our fundamental purpose is our subjective experience. What emotions we feel, what thoughts we perceive, and how we internalize those experiences trumps anything that happens extrinsically, including the materials and institutions we create.
   So what was the primary spiritual philosophy that influenced the Transcendentalists and early American Unitarians? You might be surprised that, it was the Hindu religions of India, which similarly gave birth to Buddhism. Many of them were actually fascinated with Hinduism, and though they may not have interpreted it with complete accuracy, some of its core tenets dramatically informed their spiritual outlook. 
   Ralph Waldo Emerson writes about the relationship in Hinduism between Atman (the individual self) and Paramatman (the eternal self, where individuality vanishes into selflessness). Emerson calls it the over-soul, and that it must be reunited with the individual self to, in his words, “recover that unity which had been clouded and obscured by the magical illusions of reality.” This is important for two reasons: 1) is the relationship between little “I” and big “I” that I’ve cited before, and 2) Emerson is citing the qualities of Hinduism that imply that reality is inherently spiritual and that spirituality is not about escaping reality. This leads me back to my original subject line, “God(s) and Chaos.”
   Western Judeo-Christian theology tends to have a dualistic approach to chaos vs. order, and perceives that order is superior, whereas eastern theology, originating in Hinduism, has a more non-dualistic approach in which chaos and order are two sides of the same coin, thus cosmic inevitabilities. You can see these differing philosophies reflected in our culture. When this American first set foot in Mumbai, it seemed as though a place with no order.
   I’ve shown you the picture on the beach. Another example is the traffic laws - there are none. The driving in India is every person for themselves, and every inch of space on the rode is claimable. Drivers will get to within an inch of hitting the next car. Upon further examination, however, you realize how skilled the drivers are and that major accidents are not more ample than they are in the west. I would see some of my taxi and rickshaw drivers accomplish feats with their driving that I could only dream of doing. Another example of order within chaos is the Dabbawala system of Mumbai, a 125-year old lunch delivery service that navigates the streets of Mumbai, appears to be chaotic and random, but is actually incredibly sophisticated. 
   As I’d indicated previously, this anxiety I felt from culture shock, lack of amenities, and the chaotic activity was resulting in a breakdown of ego for me, but there were several remarkable people and extraordinary experiences I had along the way that helped me to once again see beyond that little self. That Atman.
   First, I met Muhammad Ali, a Muslim rug salesman in the town of Hampi. We had chai together every evening, on my way back to my guest house. He had a gentle spirit, and a great sense of humor, often making fun of the way I smoked and coughed on his cigarettes. 
   Muslims make up a quarter of the population of India yet have none of the institutional power there. They’re highly marginalized, but this man did not have resentment towards those of different faiths, but rather an earnestness to learn about them. He seemed to effortlessly get along with the Hindus, Buddhists and Christians alike, all of which have substantial numbers there. One of the most beautiful aspects of India is its religious pluralism. My last night in Hampi, I had just been pick-pocketed - only petty cash. I told him what happened and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “If someone in this country steals from you, it’s because they are desperate.”
(To be continued)

4 comments:

  1. It sounds as if he truly experienced the country of India not just the sanitized India most tourists encounter.

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  2. That's my boy.

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  3. Wow!
    Obviously I can't wait for Part 2, and I'm sure I will have to re-read both several times to get the marrow, but I'm one of those who believes that there are no coincidences.
    I am the poster child of "chaos is inferior" thinking and have also been trying to work on a trip to India for a couple of years now (clearly not the place for the chaos-adverse).
    I'm not sure, but I think Cameron may be speaking to me :)
    Thanks Marilyn!

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  4. Mary (Smith) HendricksJuly 21, 2017 at 12:28 PM

    I've just read the first installment of grandson's visit to India. He is very wise and a gentle​ Man. He has the abilities to walk in another man's shoes and with that gift he will go far.

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