Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Swinging in the Park, Summer 2010

Swinging in the Park, Summer 2010
By zenjew

He insists, crying, pointing
To the swing beside him--

Our swinging is as easily rhythmic
As the first yellowed leaf,
Drifting, swaying,
In the late afternoon sun

Before grazing the gravely cheek
Of a father too young.

Later, I follow behind him as he
Wobbles, skips, runs--
Breathing lightly
Turning quickly
Smiling into my eyes,
Forever busy—

He’s always been alive
We’ve always
Gone to the park—

And allow myself

The breath,
The tearful smile
that is already gone.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Where Does the Journey Begin?

I first heard this poem more than years ago.

My guitar teacher gave me two gifts upon departing: Eckhart Tolle's "Power of Now" which transformed irreversibly my thinking...and a recording of David Whyte's "Poems of Self-Compassion". The first of the gifts opened my eyes to new worlds; the second gift sustained me even when I fell into old worlds.

The first--and in my opinion, most important and most powerful--poem on the recording about self-compassion was Mary Oliver's "The Journey". Read it, repeat it; let it be your mantra.

Remember: the only life you can save is your own, but by doing so, you have re-claimed a place for that life that is really the world's. Such a gesture may seem selfish, but it is the most self-less offering you can give the world: your own life.

"The Journey"
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Statement of Purpose: Blogging About Non-Duality

What is non-duality?

Is it a mystical perception? Is it an abiding awareness of "reality"?

What follows is a great passage in the modern literary canon that describes this self-less awareness of an objective state:

"I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all that," Teddy said. "It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean."

-"Teddy" by J.D. Salinger (included in Nine Stories)

What I hope to explore in this blog is the conversation between the East and West regarding non-duality in literature, religion, philosophy, and particularly in the now-emerging exploration of the possible affinities between the traditions of Jewish thought and the currents of Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindi thought.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On Language as Such and the Practice of Religious Forms...and other Benjaminian Musings

Although I haven't blogged in a while (since my fiery college years), reading "The Orthoprax Rabbi's Blog" has moved me to again reformulate some of my thinking and responses to some of the pressing issues raised by those most learned and yet disillusioned by their Judaism. By way of modern critical theory, hasidism, and some Eastern philosophy, I posted the following reply to his most recent post:

Anthropologically speaking, all of language is mythical–that is, emerging from humanity. Every modern thinker would admit that language itself is flawed, arbitrary, and the translation of other languages along a long chain of linguistic history. To claim a “pure” or essentialist language, a language that is intact and purely signifies uninterruptedly for the last 6,000 years, a language given by God to man, a language holier than any Other, is both highly ignorant and racist.

Further, we live within the myths of life cycles, social institutions, and political fields. These are our modes of thinking–or at least until we re-mythologize them. We might say that the history of western civilization is that of thinkers who have done one of two things: they have either offered a more profound language for imagining humanity’s project, or they have exposed the richness of humanity’s own myth-making project.

Walter Benjamin famously wrote: “Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars”. This analogy, though simple, speaks to the core of human imagining and constellating; the trouble is that we forget that what we see is only a constellation, an arbitrary relationality. Such is the power of human reading, and such is the failure in forgetfulness of that reading.

The solution, then, especially to an individual embedded in an Orthodox culture and language: celebrate the language as myth, not as “truth”. Celebrate the possibility for re-imagining these mythical forms and tenets: God, Torah, Mitzvah, Man, etc. Arthur Green (the man behind the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) has done some great work in recently publishing what is one of the most important works of Jewish theology for the 21st Century, “Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition”, in which he does exactly what he claims in his title (interestingly emerging with a radically hasidic and Spinozan account of Judaism).

Also, keep in mind that the ancients would not have understood such a distinction between fiction and non-fiction, or between truth/myth or history/myth; this are mostly modern and post-enlightenment distinctions. In fact, Daniel Boyarin at UC Berkeley has done some interesting theoretical work in this area, particularly when examining pre-Christian midrashic literature as uninfluenced by the linguistic norms introduced by Christianity and therefore unaffected by Platonic hierarchies of thought above speech. The implications for thinking of the Judaism of our ancient forefathers, the tribes of Israel, as radically different than ours–not only in terms of Torah Sh’beal Peh, Sectarianism, etc–but in terms of how they imagined the function of their religion as more of a practice than a belief (of course, see Menachem Kellner’s important work on this as well) is tremendous.

Thus, to be an atheist, or agnostic--as the Orthoprax Rabbi finds himself, but still a practicing Jew, may very well be in line with ancient Jewish practice as praxis, and perhaps even the radical direction in which we are headed today--a direction that will challenge Judaism's religious forms by emptying them of signification, allowing for a relevant re-constellating.

In fact, let us pray for and anticipate a Judaism in which the mythical forms, the mitzvot and torah, are emptied once again of their overdetermined and usually fundamentalist weight. In fact, R. Nachman of Breslov famously wrote “the highest kavanah is to have no kavanah at all”. Aware of the danger of conformism, we must move beyond the stagnant waters of signification in which we find ourselves, all the while preserving our traditional forms.

I end with the following challenge offered by one of the greatest Jewish (re)thinkers of the 20th Century: “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”; Also in his Arcades Project, “Convolute N”)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hello, World

Hello, World.

The blogosphere has been kind; I have incarnated before when necessary, and now I am grateful for this present incarnation!

What follows is a tribute to one of my favorite writers, Franz Kafka. Kafka, I believe, is greatly misunderstood as solely a writer about the modernist angst of social, political, and personal alienation. Admittedly, he was quite aware of the limits of language and what was possible to express in the modern era--and was quite tortured by this knowledge, but he sought a profound spirituality that had a distinctly Eastern texture (incidentally Gustav Janouch, a good friend of his, reported on at least 5 translations of the Tao Te Ching that Kafka kept on his shelf).

Regardless of the historical possibility of Kafka's awareness of foundational Eastern works, I am quite interested in the affinities in Western modernist thinking--particularly as expressed in Kafka's fiction and writings--to ancient Eastern methods.

The Zen Jew in me is particularly excited by the gems in Kafka's work that are nearly radically Hasidic in their re-imagining of the Western, Judeo-Chrisitian typologies in terms and with the textures of of Eastern philosophies.

Thus, as this day of mourning and yearning closes, I gesture with citing Kafka's vision of the messianic:

“The Coming of the Messiah”

by Franz Kafka

“The Messiah will come as soon as the most unbridled individualism of faith becomes possible–when there is no one to destroy this possibility and no one to suffer its destruction; hence the graves will open themselves. This, perhaps, is Christian doctrine too, applying as much to the actual presentation of the example to be emulated, which is an individualistic example, as to the symbolic presentation of the resurrection of the Mediator in the single individual.

The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.”

Thus, our prayer today:

May this year’s 9 of Av be the very last.

May our Messiah arrive when he is no longer necessary.

May our national exilic mind dissolve into the garden of Eden that is always and already present.