Philosophy, Koan, Orange Pop

And in some weird life convergence, I have been reading about five different books and finding that they all seem to share similar ideas. Or maybe it's that I am looking for a particular thing and recognizing the pattern because I want to. For my philosophy class, we're reading this series of pretty surfacey books about philosophy and pop culture. Despite the fact that the writers seem to be targeting their essays to undergraduates (making off-color jokes, relying heavily on oft-quoted lines from TV and movies), a little real philosophy leaks in every once in awhile; brief explanations of Plato's idea of the forms, the different categories of love (eros and philia), and the three stages in development (aesthetic, ethical, and religious? I believe I am stuck permanently in the aesthetic phase; that's the "Kramer" ideology according to Philosophy and Seinfeld; a person who basically just seeks pleasure and distraction).

Then I'm also reading this library book called Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy. This is a difficult books for me to get through because it requires me to allow the more moo-moo side to have some reign--the slight part of me that doesn't cynically dismiss every reference to spirituality or meditation or other abstract Buddhist ideas that seem so so far out of my reach. "Koans" are basically riddles or questions meant to teach you something about how to live a better life.

One koan goes like this: "Someone asked Zhaozhou, 'Does a dog have a Buddha nature or not?' Zhaozhou said, 'No.'" You are then supposed to take this puzzle and mull over it to try to uncover the hidden meaning. I cannot, for the life of me, even begin to understand it, despite the author's attempts to explain it in ten different ways. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you expect and want Z. to say, "Yes." Yes, dogs, those animals that we love, our best friends, must have a Buddhist nature because that's what we want to be true. The author talks about facing the "no" in every day life. Or maybe it has something to do with accepting that you will never know the "true" answer; that the search for a solution always ends in disappointment so it's better to stop trying so hard to find the right solution and accept what exists now, in the moment. Acceptance is a big thing for these Buddhists. It reminds of a scene from the memoir, Autobiography of a Face. If you haven't read this book, it's a painful, beautiful first-person account by Lucy Greeley, a person who, as a child, developed a rare form of jaw cancer that caused half of her facial bone structure to be removed. She struggled for the rest of her childhood and adult life to come to terms with this deformity. The scene I'm reminded of is a moment when she goes into the bathroom while at the oncologist's and sees that someone has written on the bathroom stall, "Be here now." And she tries. She tries not to dwell too much in the past, or in imagining what her life might have been like if she didn't have cancer, and also not to project into the future and worry about what her life will become. Instead, she realizes that she has only the moment in front of her and that she should pay attention to it, always. The book ends on a positive note, with her accepting to an extent this idea. But here's the thing: she killed herself a few years after the book was published.

And I'm also continuing my Ian McEwan kick by reading Black Dogs. This is a love story told by an outside narrator and it's about loss and desire and the pivotal part of the novel seems to rely on this turning point the female character experiences decades earlier--I haven't gotten to that part yet, but she has a terrible scare because of two black dogs and it causes her to have a spiritual epiphany about the true nature of the world and she becomes a sort of Buddhist too(the title reminds me of...Is it FDR who talked about struggling with the "black dog" of depression?).

THEN finally, all of this reminds me of a scene from The Color Purple, a similar moment of clarity where Celie is talking to Shug and Shug explains how she sees herself connected to all things in the world. I can't remember how it happens. Do I still have a copy of the novel? Oh, yes, I do, in the little teeny African American part of my library:

Here's the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don't know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.

But what do it look like? I ast.

Don't look like nothing, she say. It ain't a picture show. It ain't something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found It.

Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose.

She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can't miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

I love that part. And, just now, the reason I started writing this, was I was listening to a program on NPR about a man who wrote a book about his father dying of a heart attack, and you know, they always have callers and so this one awkward older man called in and said something about how he has heart disease and how he's somewhat overweight and has other physical problems, but how he wants to fight to keep alive for the sake of his children, how he wants to see his daughter get married, and how he wants to be there when he has grand kids and he was such an ordinary, stumbley person, you could hear that he was nervous and that he maybe didn't talk about his feelings too much, and normally, I can't tolerate this kind of vulnerability, especially in men, but it just struck me. I find that happening to me often these days, particularly when I see older people struggling. I saw an elderly man shopping by himself at Super Fresh the other day and he had an entire case of orange soda in his cart. It broke my heart a little, which is possibly extremely condescending, I don't know. But I kept thinking how like, well, how revealing grocery carts are, you know? Like mine always has stacks of frozen dinners because I don't cook and I always feel slightly embarrassed by it, and want to stack hunks of beef and veggies on top of the boxes to pretend I live a different life. Anyway, when I saw this old man with his orange soda, I thought about how that is this small, small thing that makes him happy and it seemed sad. I don't know why. Maybe he buys it for his twenty grand kids who visit every two days. But it seemed more likely that it was for him, and I could imagine him thinking with a vague sense of pleasure about how at 5 p.m. when he has his dinner, he'll also have an orange soda.

So maybe all of this reading has effected me somehow, made me even more sensitive than I usually am because I can't stop seeing the vulnerability in other people, strangers mostly.