Eating is Weird

by Sam Buntz

Eating is weird: you have a hole in your face, a kind of trash can (to paraphrase this pseudo-Buddhist manual I read once) into which you can place various objects. If you smoke, you pour smoke into your bizarre-o face-hole; if you chew gum, the face hole can mash around some sweet-tasting puddy for awhile, before spitting it out.

On the most basic level, all you really need to do is eat—if the climate is right, and there aren’t too many savage beasts around, you can probably deal with just folding a giant leaf over yourself. That’s shelter. After satisfying this essential, you can freely cram whatever non-poisonous articles you can find into your face-hole with abandon. Love and togetherness and sexual reproduction and Transcending the Mundane Sphere through Culture and all that stuff are fine, but as Orwell once noted, we are first “bags for putting food in” (not that I necessarily agree with the total primacy of eating—though it’s certainly funny).

[DIGRESSION: Lord Byron, ever the womanizing misogynist (a classic combo), once said, “A woman should never be seen eating unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine and becoming viands.”  Contra Byron and most chivalrously, I’ll watch a woman eat anything, and will enjoy the experience to boot (not in a sick way, though).  But if I had to pick something to watch this hypothetical chick eat, in particular, it sure as hell wouldn’t be lobster salad.  On a related note, I’d like to see someone figure out how to eat a burrito elegantly and without appearing to be a total slob — only a woman would be capable of fulfilling this challenge, in my humble neo-feminist opinion.]

I’ve never done and have no desire to do psychedelic drugs, but a couple friends of mine took acid (or some weird synthetic peyote powder stuff—I forget) and claimed that they realized that their faces were actually a certain kind of pet.  You needed to constantly care for your face-pet—feed it, comb its hair, tweeze its eyebrows, whatever. Despite my skepticism about the ability of chemicals to expand consciousness in a genuine way, I had to admit that this was sort of an insight. Your face really is like a pet. For some reason, I feel that this is directly related to what I just said about eating.

In any case, I was babbling on about this very subject to a Wise Sage I know. (Something as basic as eating starts to seem like divine Nonsense when you think about it too much—kind of like repeating a word over and over again until it sounds ridiculous.) The sagely man had this to say: “You have to eat the world to stay in the world.” My mind was totally blown—I thought this was great.

In the science-fiction novel, The Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, the hero travels to another planet by drinking a bottle of light from that planet’s solar system. It’s a specific kind of light called “back rays”—the tendency of back rays is to return to their source, so when you imbibe them, they transport you to that same source. In tandem with the aphorism from the contemporary Ecclesiastes just cited, this provoked me to wondering: if we were able to eat food from another world—a better one—maybe we could go live there… If a stranger gave you some Celestial Vittles, wrapped up in wax paper, on a drizzly November evening, maybe you could take off for Arcturus or Narnia or The Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha. And maybe the food that can do that is… Compassion. Soul Food. (Yeah—I know you didn’t think this was going to get all lame at the end.)


“The Broken Cup: Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s ‘I Want You'”

by Sam Buntz

“I Want You” is a frequent choice for both the avid and casual Dylan fan’s favorite— and rightly so.  Leading Dylanologist and lauded literary critic Christopher Ricks says it’s his, for one thing.  Yet, it’s also easy to get caught up in the perfection and catchiness of the song—it’s sheer likeability—and interpret it as being thematically little more than a love song or, more accurately, a song about sexual desire.  It is, of course, about that—but if we look at the images Dylan uses in the song, we start to sense deeper implications.

We start off, afloat in a sea of troubles, where “the guilty undertaker sighs” and “the lonesome organ grinder cries.”  The singer faces a problem: he really wants this girl, but time and tide seem to be against him.  “The cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn / But it’s not that way / I wasn’t born to lose you.”  Why are the bells “cracked” and the horns “washed out”?   As in the late ’80s Dylan track, “Everything is Broken,” the ages have worn them down—it seems too late in the day, too deep in the jaded decades of the mid-to-late 20th Century, to have an authentic love-connection or mighty, passionate desire for someone else.  Yet, Dylan snubs time—he wasn’t born to get overwhelmed by the way history’s heading, because he knows what he really wants.

What he really wants is explained directly in the chorus: “I want you…so bad.”  In the next verse, however, we’re back in the sea of troubles again, where drunken politicians oppress the people and fool them—the fact that mothers are weeping in response to this might very well indicate that their sons have died in Vietnam or in any other misguided war effort.  But the next lines, I think, are some of the most interesting in the entire song—though they can easily zoom by without the listener suspecting anything.  Dylan sings, “And the saviors who are fast asleep, they wait for you / And I wait for them to interrupt / Me drinking from my broken cup / And ask me to open up the gate for you.”

I sincerely hope you don’t find this theory too crazy—because I’m rather proud of it, and the images and metaphors, to my mind, seem direct enough.  Dylan isn’t just talking about a girl now—or, he is and he isn’t.  At any rate, I think he’s almost certainly using the language of Jewish longing for the Messiah to express his passion… Yeah, that’s right.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is believed that there are, in every generation, thirty-six righteous people on earth, called Lamedvavniks in Yiddish. Throughout World Jewry, people are pretty commonly aware of this, so it’s not unlikely that Dylan had, by the time he was recording Blonde on Blonde, absorbed the idea. The Lamedvavniks go about their lives performing acts of goodness, though they themselves have no idea who they are—they’re hidden, from the world and from themselves. Their goal is to repair the world, which Jewish mysticism imagines as being like a glass that God intended to hold his Light, before it shattered with the Fall of Adam.  The Lamedvavnik’s existence consists in picking up the pieces of this glass, and putting it together.

As I interpret the song, Dylan—like Matisyahu singing in the Hasidic-rap classic, “King without a Crown”, “I want Moshiach, now!”—is saying that he wants this girl as bad as some people want the Messiah to come back.  It will be that big of a revelation for him—though maybe, in another sense, he really is saying that he wants the Messiah to come back.  The ambiguity helps make the song more powerful…

At any rate, the saviors who are sleeping are all the Lamedvavniks of all the ages—to be revealed to themselves and to everyone else when the Messiah brings about the “World to Come”—and the broken cup from which the singer is drinking is our yet unrepaired world, which he continues to enjoy despite its fractured state.  But the saviors—these perfectly righteous people—are going to remind the singer of what’s truly valuable.  He’ll put down his cup, and by performing one good deed, one mitzvot or another, he’ll help open up the gate for the Messiah—or, at least, get with this girl he’s after.

In the bridge and the next verse, Dylan talks about lacking love and counterfeit love.  His forefathers went without “true love” in the past, and their daughters today chide the singer for not thinking more about it.  This is almost comprehensible if it’s just about how much he desires this girl he’s after, without it being true love, but it makes more sense if you interpret it, again, through Judaism: in the past, so many of Dylan’s ancestors went without their love or longing for the Messiah being reciprocated by God, and the good Jewish girls in the present era are chiding him for not taking this all more seriously—which he perhaps somehow feels he should do, although he isn’t doing it yet.  I’m not saying this is the only way of interpreting the song—again, it’s my personal theory.  But it makes sense, considering the particular Jewish cultural associations of the images and metaphors Dylan chooses (especially with the saviors and the broken cup).

After talking about how the chambermaid of the Queen of Spades is good to him, and knows a lot about him, he says that it doesn’t matter—because he has this more authentic desire for another woman, whoever she may be.  In the final verse—which could easily be dismissed as classic Dylanesque nonsense, although it isn’t—he sings, “Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit / He spoke to me, I took his flute / No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I? / But I did it, though, because he lied / Because he took you for a ride / And because time was on his side / And because I . . . want you.”

The dancing child is a false prophet or false Messiah or, simply, an inferior poet and songwriter.  Whatever he is, he’s wasting the girl’s time, drawing her in with insincerity and un-truth, and—in a higher sense—seducing and monopolizing the attention of the world-at-large.  He’s every slick operator who digests other people’s attention without giving them anything real in return, and his suit is Chinese because it might look nice, but it was made for cheap and is likely of a lower quality than it appears to be (certainly no offense to the Chinese intended on my part—this is simply what Dylan’s metaphor, in a perhaps un-P.C. manner, indicates).

So, the singer smashes the phony’s flute, and replaces this impostor’s music with a more genuine song—this song, in fact, entitled “I Want You”.  The tune of the “dancing child”—this immature winker-and-nudger—is one with the voice of the cracked bells at the beginning, since time seemed to be on their side too: it’s the voice of cynicism, the voice of personal and societal corrosion and, ultimately, despair.  But the singer’s ardent desire overrides all this—fate, time, history, the entire package–and all because he wants this unnamed girl, so bad.

Got Soul?

by Sam Buntz

“And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line…”
-Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”

“You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”
-C.S. Lewis

In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, most adherents tend to think of the soul as a permanent version of one’s present personality: you’ll still retain your name, your basic earthly identity, and (quite possibly) your hair and skin color, throughout all eternity, after the Judgment Day recalls you from your dusty entombment—resurrecting you to endless future duration in a heavenly paradise or in an intemperate and otherwise rather uncomfortable hell.  The soul for most Christians is, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “the form of the body”: the mental order behind our corporeal being.  It’s the silvery, ethereal glue that makes our physical being and our personality hang together.

However, surprising as it may seem to some, not everyone views the soul this way.  In many Hindu schools of Yogic thought, the Soul or Self has almost nothing (or—to cut out the “almost”—precisely nothing) to do with the personalities we inhabit on a daily and yearly basis.  It is something radically other.  Again, Abrahamic religions tend to think of the Soul as being essentially the same thing as the mind or personality—but, according to the Hindu Sage Patanjali’s famed Yoga Sutras, the “Purusha” (the Soul or “True Person”) is utterly distinct from the mind and personality.  It is, itself, an unknown island, a virgin continent spread out somewhere beyond the ocean of our interior darkness, perpetually awaiting discovery.  The purpose of Yoga—understood, in this case, to be a program of meditation and moral conduct rather than a method of physical exercise—is to unite this hidden, essential Self with…itself.  The Soul is both the knower and the known—knowing, to steal St. Paul’s phrase, as it is known.

The Yogi seeks to realize that our normal, everyday modes of being are essentially disguises—products of “Maya” or cosmic illusion.  The great Swami Vivekananda told audiences in the United States, “You are not your body”, and also—more shockingly—“You are not your mind.”   The true “you” is something beyond either, impossible to define, just as God Himself would be impossible to define.  You could only be it, realizing your existence as it—since any information gained about the Soul or any attempt at formulating a scholarly definition would still be occurring at the level of the mind—which is the part of our being responsible for looking up and creating those definitions in the first place.  At most, the purified mind can act as a sort of mirror or reflector for the soul—as the moon does for the sun—shining with a little of the soul’s light while simultaneously dimming it (the metaphorical association of the moon with the mind is pretty persistent throughout many Hindu texts.)  If the mind “shifts to strange effects / After the moon” (to steal a line from Shakespeare), the soul is like the sun since it is always at full strength, a limitless source of life and energy—because it is life and energy.

In Yogic thought, the Soul is like a person watching a movie—the play of the body and mind—and becoming so enveloped in it that it identifies itself with the characters in the film.  However, it stands a chance of remembering its true identity—indeed, in the fullness of time, it will eventually step back from the mirage entirely. (I can’t claim this is a particularly original analogy—in fact, it’s sort of a stock analogy in describing this concept, I’m afraid, though hopefully a potent one).  Before this happens, the Soul remains trapped in time—in the cycle of births and deaths, reincarnating as one life-form and then another—lost in the pantomime.

Interestingly, this notion of the Soul radically up-ends the typical Western and Near Eastern ideas of sin and wickedness (some Sufis, Kabbalists, and Christian mystics excused).  If the soul isn’t really the same as the body and the mind, it can’t ultimately be guilty of their sins—it may continue to identify with the false self that does these wicked deeds, but it can’t, in the final analysis, be held hostage to the sins of the body and mind for all eternity.  Hence, in Yogic philosophy and in Hindu Thought more generally, no one burns in hell forever—sins are finite, mere dirt that will be washed off when one eventually incarnates as a successful Yogi.  It is nothing permanent or essential—hence, nothing you can burn in hell for.  This is obviously not to deny the vast amount of evil and suffering present in the universe—but it does state that evil is nothing that can infect the deepest part of our being: the Soul remains pure and good (or, more accurately, “beyond good and evil.”)  It is only the body and the mind, subject to the effects of cosmic illusion, that continue under the sway of sin—though one needs to break away from sin and live a moral life if one is going to gain the peace of mind necessary for encountering the Soul.

Although this might seem quite alien to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ways of approaching the soul, it is strikingly akin to the distinction the early Christian Gnostics (or “Knowers”—since their goal was to know the deep Self) drew between the different parts of the self: there was the body, and then the mind or psyche, and, finally, the true self, the spirit or pneuma.  Although contemporary Christianity generally avoids such spiritualized notions of, um, the spirit—preferring to imagine The Kingdom of Heaven as a kind of All-U-Can-Eat Buffet, presided over by none other than Jesus Christ, in the flesh—hints of a deeper understanding are evident as far back as…well, the teachings of Jesus.

The Gospel of Thomas—recognized as potentially being an authentic representation of at least some of Jesus’ actual words by Professors Helmut Koester of Harvard and Elaine Pagels of Princeton—records such sayings of Jesus as, “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are that poverty,” and “Those who have found themselves, of them the world is not worthy.” Also, it is important and instructive to remember that, on page one of the Bible, God breathes His own breath into Adam, granting His Spirit to His newly formed child…  Might that not have some deeper significance to it, as well—hinting that the origin of the deepest part of our being has a source alien to our physical and mental uniform?

Discussing the need for Self-Knowledge can easily rankle Christian sentiments (and those of non-Sufi Muslims, and—to a far lesser extent, because of the impact of Jewish mysticism—Jews).  Inquiry into the nature of the Soul or the Self seems to be beside the point for many of the more socially-conscious believers—the point of religion, for them, is to do good in the world.  However, this is to set up a false division between Christian and Hindu thought (as evidenced by Jesus’ own likely authentic sayings on Self-Knowledge), where the Eastern person turns inwards and does nothing socially constructive, and the Western person expands ever outward in his or her un-reflective zeal to improve.  Obviously, this isn’t a correct depiction of reality, and the lives of Hindu saints like Kabir and Mirabai, help demonstrate how a commitment to knowing the Soul can go hand in hand with selfless ideals of service (since the ego, which hampers such service, isn’t the true Self or Soul in the first place)—as do the lives of Christian saints like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.

But where does God fit into the Yogic system?  A Western believer might rightly desire an answer to this question.  The early texts on Yoga definitely acknowledge the existence of a Supreme God, Ishvara, and many schools of Yoga make God-Knowledge their end-goal, attempting to rejoin the now-free Soul to its original home in God—a droplet falling back into the primordial Ocean of Mercy.  For these Yogis, Self-Knowledge is but a necessary step on the way to God-Knowledge.

This is doubtless a strong dose of medicine for the Western World, where our attempts to adjust the world around us frequently become deformed, primarily due to our inability to know ourselves (numerous failed revolutions and social movements, from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution to the rise of Fascism, all testify to this fact).  On the other hand, to give a more positive example, the Jesuits are known for being “Contemplatives in Action”—and isn’t that what, in a sense, we are all required to be?  A more thorough acquaintance with the Yogic idea of the Soul could help at least some Westerners regain a better sense of proportion—refreshing their persistent efforts at external reform with at least the occasional cup of contemplative water, drawn from the deep well of the Soul.

A Teacher for Our Time: The Message of Guru Nanak

by Sam Buntz

Of all the founders of major world religions, Guru Nanak probably remains the least known and least discussed in the West.  This is surprising, considering that the religion he founded— Sikhism—has over 30 million adherents (which, for comparison, is nearly twice as many as Judaism’s total).  Indeed, it is the fifth largest religion in the world.  Yet Sikhs are better known in America for being confused with the followers of another religion: the Sikhs are the people who wear turbans but are not Muslims.  That sentence probably encapsulates your average, fairly well-educated American’s knowledge of Sikhism—through no fault of his or her own, of course.  I don’t mean to berate Americans for their lack of religious literacy—but considering that even Zoroaster (the founder of Zoroastrianism or Parsee-ism, whose followers today number somewhere in the range of 1 to 2 million) has received more press in the West—probably due to the fact that the Zoroastrian conception of God and vision of the Apocalypse influenced Judaism and Christianity—I’d say a decent popular book or PBS documentary on Guru Nanak would be in order at the present time.  The Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad have all been carefully treated in well-written, detailed books marketed to the average reader—but Sikhism’s founder has not yet received quite the same audience in America and Europe.

The lack of proselytizing zeal among the Sikhs—stemming partly from their faith that all humans and, furthermore, all life-forms are on a sure path back to God—may partly be responsible for the Western World’s general unfamiliarity with their religion (though Sikhs would undoubtedly appreciate a wider exposure).  But the message of Nanak is so relevant, so directly related to the concerns of the casual Monotheist-in-the-street—the person who believes in a Higher Power, but finds concepts like that of an eternal hell or the “Wrath of God” to be more than a bit unpleasant—that it demands to be expounded.  Although Nanak is revered as the founder of Sikhism, it seems fair to say—and perhaps most Sikhs would accept this—that he did not consciously intend to found a new religion.  A “Sikh”, after all, is simply a disciple, a follower of Nanak and the nine teachers who came after him (or ten, if you count the Sikhs’ holy book, The Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, which is also revered as a guru).  Sikhism, as an organized religion with a more distinct cultural identity, emerged under the pressure of the later Mughal rulers—like the fanatical Emperor Aurangzeb, an Islamic fundamentalist who intensely persecuted the Sikhs, forcing them to take to the sword in self-defense.

But Guru Nanak himself originally expounded a sort of religion-less religion.  As a young man, he was an ardent spiritual seeker: Nanak was attempting to discover the Grand Trunk Road back to God, seeking to determine how much of the truth lay in Hinduism or in Islam—the latter of which had been making so much progress in India, due to the Mughal conquests and the peaceful missionary activities of mystical Sufi teachers.  As the New Testament says, “Seek and you shall find”—and, for Nanak, the crucial moment of finding, the epiphany or break-through, came when he was meditating while seated in the shallow part of a river (note the curious thematic connection that the Hebrew prophets, or Jesus during his baptism in the Jordan, also experienced major visions while standing beside or while immersed in rivers; I have no idea what that might signify, but it strikes me as interesting). Nanak disappeared—his family found his clothing by the riverside, but no trace of the budding saint, himself.  Everyone assumed that he had died—that he was washed away, drowned.  Yet, three days later, he emerged from the river with the startling pronouncement: “There is no Hindu.  There is no Muslim.”

Consider the nature of the pronouncement: Nanak did not say something like  “Hinduism is false or “Islam is false.”  Rather, he expressed the deeper truth that, from the Divine Perspective, all religious distinctions are illusory—there is no follower of one sect or another; there is only the soul, longing for its Source.  After expressing himself in this rather sublime and shockingly direct formulation, Nanak said, “Since there is no Hindu, and there is no Muslim, whose path shall I follow?”  He answered by stating, “God’s.  I will follow God’s path.”  Nanak was determined not to inherit his spirituality second-hand—he didn’t want to get it from the priestly class of Hinduism and Islam, the Brahmins and the Kazis, but straight from the Source itself, from the Power that had formed all religions.  (I’ll note here too, that the parallels with Christ are striking—Jesus is reborn as a world-changing Messiah,  in conflict with the priestly class, after his immersion in the Jordan and his experience of the Descent of the Dove—the Holy Spirit, the Power of God.    Likewise, Nanak felt the descent of God’s Power, the Naam, and emerged from the river after three days, as someone who not only was in contact with that Power, but could put others in contact with it, as well.  (Additionally, the three-day disappearance interestingly mirrors Jesus’ three days in the tomb before his resurrection.)

During his experience in the river—when, in his meditations, he’d been taken to the highest heaven, Sach Khand, the very throne-room of God—Nanak had discovered a way to God that wasn’t based on outer forms or rituals, but on devotion, love, self-surrender, and a direct attachment to the Power of God.  The essence of Nanak’s teaching involves the supreme importance of God’s Naam—the Name or Word.  It bears a marked similarity to the identification of Christ with the Word or Logos of God—the Creative Power that has made or manifested everything.  The Naam is not any sort of human word, one that can be formed vocally or through writing.  Rather, it is—or can be spoken of as—the eternal stream of God’s creative energy—the Power that is manifesting the entirety of the universe (and other universes) at all times, now and forever.  (The idea is related to the “Music of the Spheres”, described by Pythagoras—which John Milton imagines ringing in the birth of the Christ Child in his poem on the Nativity.)  Through Simran—the remembrance of names of God throughout the day and in meditation—Nanak showed his disciples the way to bring the divine presence into everyday life, to find a contact with the higher power of the Naam, which goes beyond all spoken names.  Continual devotion and self-less service helped pave the way.

While Islam and Christianity threatened unbelievers with endless roasting in hell, impaled on whatever spit a rather angry and—shall we say?—frowny-faced Deity had sharpened and prepared for them, Nanak preached a God of Mercy and Universal Love.  Embracing the Hindu conception of reincarnation and karma, while holding fast to the idea and the experience of one transcendent God beyond all names and forms, Nanak did not see life as a term after which the conventionally pious would be eternally rewarded in paradise, while the wicked would get their horribly just deserts.  Rather, he saw life as a sort of school—all human beings were here to struggle against their egotism (haumai) and surrender to the greater, all-inclusive Naam of God.  All the karmic punishments doled out for failings were merely a way of helping that struggle progress—they were ways of instructing and rehabilitating the soul, not Divine Retribution or Wrath.  God’s Grace was an essential ingredient in helping lift the soul out of the world of karmic justice, liberating it from birth and death, and leading it into the deathless state of God-Consciousness.

Obviously, to offer up an exhaustive study of Nanak’s teachings is far beyond the scope of this miniature essay—suffice it to say that he took equality between genders, races, and religious adherents as a given.  Today, in Sikh Langars throughout India—gigantic kitchens and dining halls—free food is served up to everyone without distinction, taking all diets into account (vegetarian and halal), allowing everyone to honor their spiritual equality through a communal meal.

It only remains to give a brief taste of Nanak’s personality—that vital influence which re-made the souls of so many people.  It’s often said—and, I believe, perfectly possible—that Nanak made four epic journeys, during the space of about twenty-five years, which took him to places like Arabia and the Levant, all the way back through Nepal and Tibet.  During the course of his travels, Nanak had occasion to both instruct and disconcert the people he met on his way, often at the same time.  For instance, when he encountered a group of Hindu yogis, who were demonstrating their spiritual attainments by publicly levitating, Nanak sent his own shoe flying (miraculously) into the air.  It slapped each of the yogis directly on the face, before returning neatly to its owner’s foot.  The message, of course, was that such spurious magical attainments mean little or nothing—it is only the awareness of God that gives peace.

Another tale involves Nanak’s journey to Mecca.  In the Arab world, it’s considered quite offensive to point the soles of your feet directly at someone else, yet Nanak, after arriving in Mecca, slept with his feet pointing towards the Kaaba—the sacred space which Muhammad had cleared of idols, re-dedicating it and its sacred black stone to God, and toward which every devout Muslim prays.   When the people present demanded that he move his feet, he did—but the Kaaba vanished, and re-appeared wherever Nanak’s feet were pointing.  The chastened crowd of Muslim pilgrims was forced to imbibe Nanak’s lesson, so mischievously inculcated: there is no place where God is not.  Also, on a different occasion, the Emperor Babar—a not especially devout Muslim— offered Nanak a hit on the medieval Mughal equivalent of a bong.  Nanak politely declined, saying that he had already become intoxicated on the Naam—an infinitely higher kind of bhaang (cannabis) than that which Babar had just offered him.  The emperor was evidently perplexed, but somewhat humbled.  Nanak had impressed him.

This is only a tiny sliver of Nanak’s dharma—an extremely, even absurdly brief glimpse at a genuine Saint.  Interested as Western people have been in learning more about the teachings of Buddha and the teachings of great Hindu figures like Paramahansa Yogananda, there would likely be a strong desire to learn more about so illustrious and powerful a figure as Nanak if one could be awakened.  His teachings reverberate with a quality both timeless and somehow modern—exalted in their philosophy, but simple, direct, and utterly practical in their approach.  A good dose of Nanak’s wisdom would prove to be an immensely effective tonic for what ails the consciousness of the contemporary, spiritually-interested person.  As Nanak said at the end of the Jap Ji (a poetic scripture that quintessentially distills his teachings): “Those who have communed with the Naam, their toils shall end, and their faces shall flame with glory.  Not only they shall find salvation, O Nanak!  But many more shall find freedom with them.”

Sufi vs. Salafi: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam

by Sam Buntz

Islam is so diverse as to utterly defeat the attempt to describe its various divisions in a mere blog post.  Fundamentalists often claim that Islam is a singular entity, and assert that they possess the purest form of it—but every honest scholar knows that this is wrong.  Nonetheless, we can see roughly three big trends or movements within contemporary Islam (as I discovered in a number of my college religion courses—to give credit where it’s due):  the fundamentalists (or Salafists and Wahhabists), with their popular movements, their crudely harnessed mob-strength, and their ridiculously narrow interpretations of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions; the progressive reformers, who want to adapt Islam to a Western Enlightenment approach, to make its claims subject to the believer’s reason; and finally, the traditionalists, who live in accordance with a wide variety of Islamic legal schools, who support the classical tradition of Islamic learning, who often practice forms of spirituality and mysticism that date back to Islam’s origins (yet are considered heretical by fundamentalists), and who side with many of the cultural and artistic values that characterized the Islamic World’s periods of renaissance.

The first and the last of these groups are the most numerous—though, unfortunately, the fundamentalists seem to have more manpower and zeal on their side.  If they aren’t numerically superior—and they may or may not be (I don’t know)—they are, at least, far more vocal than the traditionalists, who often take a quietist approach, continuing to do what they intend to do, but remaining politically invisible.  Yet it is the traditionalists who likely hold the key to defeating  fundamentalism, because they possess Islam’s sources of strength: it’s classical tradition, its ideas—the Spirit that speaks through its greatest artistic and cultural productions belongs to them (or, they belong to it).  If Nietzsche was correct when he said that “the greatest ideas are the greatest events”, the tide of history may well lie with these apostles of Islamic Renaissance—provided they can transfer their ideas into the realm of action.

The fundamentalists treat the Qur’an as though it were a magical tome that somehow interprets itself.  It is not—nor is any holy book (the question of divine inspiration aside).  It requires interpretation, and interpretation is the moment when power is exercised—the moment when the individual interpreter wrestles the maximum amount of meaning out of the text. The traditionalist Sufis (mystics) and others who embrace the elements of Islamic Renaissance—who adopt a humane understanding of the book and the Prophet’s sayings, and who practice a religion open to joy, open to the arts, open to music and dance (open to a religion that doesn’t consider stringed instruments to be more some sort of abomination, for one thing)—these free-spirited Muslims, actually have the weight of tradition distributed on their side of the balance.  Their interpretations are stronger—they know which sayings of the Prophet are more authentic and have a more advanced pedigree, than do the fundamentalists.  And their strength is, in large measure, provided by a spiritual respect for the Human, for the divine qualities visible in men and women, created both in the Image of God.  This gives them an edge and fuels their arguments, because it is a respect and a reverence that they share with Islam’s greatest luminaries: intellectual titans like Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi, ecstatic poets like Rumi and Hafiz, and, of course, the Prophet Muhammad himself.

To get a good idea of what this looks like in practice, you only need to read or listen to an activist like Ed Husain—himself a Sufi—his compatriot, Maajid Nawaz, or a great scholar and preacher like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (born Mark Hanson), or to look up a Youtube video of the great Sufi singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Facing the rise of fascism and communism, W.B. Yeats observed, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—but such spirits as these are not lacking in moral courage, conviction, or “passionate intensity.”  Husain frequently makes fascinating points—for example, demonstrating convincingly during a debate with the estimable critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, that the fundamentalist argument for executing apostates is actually quite weak, and can be rectified by a more thorough understanding of the tradition.  As someone who had formerly been a fundamentalist and an extremist, Husain understands the mindset of many of the young converts to such causes, and he is able to craft his arguments in ways that directly and even devastatingly undermine the fundamentalist claim to a more accurate interpretation of the scriptures—in ways that would catch the attention of someone who had initially been seduced by those claims.

Husain, Nawaz, and their cohorts see the attempt to defeat radical Islamism through violence as being ultimately counterproductive—Islamism being like the hydra that sprouts ten new heads every time you cut off one.  Obviously, the U.S. is far better off relaxing from any prospective large-scale military crusades against world Islamism—the war is primarily a war of hearts and minds, a war of intellectual attrition, a war fought with the pen, the camera, the human voice.  It may be that the most effective thing the U.S. can do to help the traditionalists, the Sufis, and the scattered Islamic rationalists would be to fund more cultural programs and schools—things we’re already doing to some extent.  But we could find more ways to use the private sector to counter the oil money that the Saudis are using to get their own noxious Wahhabist fundamentalism into American and European mosques—and countless mosques further abroad—instead funneling cash to the defenders of Renaissance.  For example, Coca-Cola funds what might be Pakistan’s most popular TV program—“Coke Studio”, a showcase of traditional religious music, most often inspired by Sufism.

The founder of psychoanalysis once said something peculiarly relevant to this struggle.  At the end of Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud predicted that “Thanatos”, the death-impulse—humanity’s urge to deface itself and its creations, as represented, in his day, by Fascism and Stalinist Communism—would find itself challenged once again by “Eros,” the impulse for life and love: “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of the communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction…And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers,’ eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary.  But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”

It remains to be seen whether Islam can defeat many of its adherents’ own death-impulses—cancerously eating away at it from within—and re-affirm its own joyful and exuberant tendencies, its native love of life and its moods of devotional ecstasy.  This question is just as up-in-the-air as it was when Freud posed it with regard to his own historical situation—and it cannot yet be answered.  The situation is, no doubt, dire—but Fascism fell, and Soviet Communism fell.  The radicals who support a perverted though widely popular version of Islam may find their own aims suddenly overturned—the tide of history astonishingly reversed.  You never know when the dying embers of a Renaissance might suddenly be re-kindled to glowing life…


Audio of Ed Husain debating Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the proper response to Islamic Fundamentalism:

Audio of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performing “Tumhen Dillagi Bhool”, a transcendent example of qawwali music:

Video of Maajid Nawaz on his experiences:

“ ‘Materialism is Fun’ ”

by Sam Buntz

One of the most difficult things for an intellectual to accept is the fact that most people are inevitably going to have primarily, or even entirely material interests.  Yet the intellectual who has trouble accepting this fact would, if he or she were subjected to scrutiny, probably turn out to have a preponderance of material concerns as well.  Since we live in a world that is, apparently, physical, it is the physical that ends up dominating our consciousness. I have friends who object, in the most strenuous terms, to certain commercials, which try to convince the average viewer that, say, owning the new Volvo will turn out to be a spiritual experience whilst offering transcendent images of fields of wheat or of a white horse galloping across a beach to help solidify the religious expectation in the viewer’s mind.  This doesn’t really bother me—except perhaps, during a few moments in the past, when I affected phony outrage for the benefit of an audience or out of boredom.

It’s the kind of thing Arthur Miller tried to say in Death of a Salesman.  While admittedly a very good play, Willy Loman’s tragedy isn’t that he bought into a false, materialistic idea of the American Dream, and that there was no wisdom available that might’ve saved him.  He did buy into a totally skewed vision of reality, but although Miller intends us to believe otherwise, Willy’s tragedy is really the tragedy of someone who never really wanted anything other than to be popular, well-liked, and affluent—to be Top Man.  We can sympathize with his predicament, but it seems absurd to state that America, despite the vast proliferation of crazy nihilistic nonsense (whether on the news, the internet, or anywhere), is a wasteland utterly bereft of any saving wisdom.  If you have even minimal access to a library or the Internet—and basically everybody does now—your curiosity will be rewarded.  A simple Google or Wikipedia search for “philosophy” or “psychology” or “religion”, will immediately yield dividends.

Yet a great many well-intentioned and very smart people have a problem with the exuberant materialism of American society—and I too have a problem with it on the level of personal principle.  But many critics want to go a step farther, attacking mass culture for brainwashing people into accepting a false set of values.  The values presented by mass culture are, from my perspective, probably pretty false overall, but I don’t believe anyone’s actually getting brainwashed, especially at a time like the present, where access to information regarding a wide variety of value systems is so widely available in America and in the Western World.  The critics usually go a step-further, proposing some sort of plan to de-program and re-educate the unwashed mob, under the guise of freeing them, which is what happens in every society where Communism has ever taken hold. Islamists and the Medieval Catholic Church also exemplify the coercive attempt to wean the supple-minded fool from his or her distractions, and even figures like Noam Chomsky make the same argument from a contemporary left-wing standpoint, attempting to argue that we’re all so hypnotized by corporate culture (which has its own conspiratorial elite running it from the shadows in some sort of supposedly unified way), that we can only be jarred out of our stupor by an anarcho-syndicalist revolt.

But all of these programs only succeed—since the self-appointed elite seeks to re-orient the attention of society towards that elite’s own interests—in creating a state of stasis, where the elite presents a new form of materialism (a mandated set of physical rituals or limited clothing-options, or forcing the collective-ownership of property or the banning of private employers) that substitutes for the numerous, conflicting material interests of the people.  Thus, we would end up living in a world where we are ordered around by stewards every bit as fallen and broken as we are, who have the arrogance to assume that their supposedly more refined version of materialism is better than the diverse versions of materialism adopted by the masses and the occasionally spiritual or truly intellectual worldview that also crops up from time to time.

It seems to me that, if someone wants to convince people to become interested in difficult pleasures—pleasures of the mind and the spirit—one needs to actually present those pleasures attractively, rather than finding a way to manage people towards them from above.  Most people are simply not going to be interested—which is legitimate—but a few people might start to pay attention.  And maybe they’ll get a few more people to pay attention.

I remember that, in college, a member of the opinion staff (of which I was another member) wrote an editorial entitled “Frats are Fun.”  At my college, a debate about the very popular frat system continually renews itself, and the opponents of the frat system often attacked it for encouraging shallow hedonism (I indulged in such attacks a couple of times—though somewhat reasonably, I think).  But the great point of “Frats are Fun”, because it was so obvious, is that people join a fraternity or a sorority because they find those things fun—not because they’re being brainwashed or coerced by campus culture, by some sort of mass delusion like in The Matrix or They Live.  The frat system there still really does have major problems, but I thought the author of “Frats are Fun” (I wish I could remember who it was) made a strong argument against the more zealous members of the anti-frat crowd.  They hadn’t provided something that could draw people’s attention the same way the Greek organizations could, and consequently they were resentful.  Of course, the article’s argument could also be used to attack people who weren’t resentful for bad reasons, and who actually had an honest beef with the rush process (I remember a overly huge amount of girls were always rejected from the Pan-Hellenic rush, for instance, and hazing was a large and persistent problem, not to mention the nationwide campus problem with sexual assault.)  But, ultimately, learning that some people find frats (or football or NASCAR or shopping for expensive purses) fun, while other people don’t, and accepting that, is one of the hallmarks of maturity.  Co-existing with that sort of materialism, while gently refusing to be seduced by it, provides a necessary challenge for the budding Sage.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s teacher, Mr. Antolini, tells him that he doesn’t want Holden to become someone who sits around in a bar, hating everyone who walks through the door and looks like they used to play football in college.  I think that intellectuals—especially, very high-class, cutting-edge social “theorists” and cultural critics—fall into this trap all too easily.  The best way to get the world to listen to your idea is to learn the basics of expressing it in an insinuatingly pleasing way, like tricking a baby into eating vegetables with ample doses of butter, or doing the “airplane” trick (where you pretend the spoon’s an airplane).  But the attempt to manage from above—whether by Marxists or by Neo-Cons—seems to be a self-defeating game.  A life led in the mind and spirit is, in my view, the ultimate end of humanity—but such a life evolves organically, pushing its stem through the dark richness of the material world, the matrix in which it grows and develops its being.

“Other People”

by Sam Buntz

Jean Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.”  This was all quite French of him, of course, but I don’t really understand what this statement means. “Other People” aren’t really at all like hell – in my experience (though they can sometimes be pretty bad).  I don’t think that I’m so excessively wrapped up in myself that I can’t enter into another person’s perspective or imagine it with a certain degree of accuracy, and I don’t feel like the judgments other people make on my own character are particularly final or hell-like (which is what Sartre meant, apparently) – but other people are, if we are willing to take them seriously, hieroglyphic and “difficult” – in the poetic sense.  It’s easy enough to relate to each other in terms of the masks we put on – and I don’t suggest that it’s wrong to put on a mask, sometimes, or even all the time if what you’ve got going on really is outright terrible – but when it comes to imagining the internal monologue of another person, we run into problems.  There are some close friends whose internal monologues, at this point, I think I can parody or occasionally channel poorly – but there is a vast hoard of acquaintances, friends and relatives out there whose inner selves remain totally mysterious to me: their outward actions provide no Rosetta Stone by which to interpret the characters etched on the tablet of the Inner Self.  And I’m not suggesting that these people are at all bad or are hiding a writhing nest of insecurities and anxieties (although, in some cases, that’s surely possible.)  It’s just that the things they say give me no idea of what they think about during the dull, vacant moments of today – which, unless you’re trying desperately to distract yourself, comprise most of the moments of the day.

I know that this problem might not be so troubling – I know that no healthy person sits around tearing out his/her hair because he/she can’t imagine someone’s internal monologue (though, I mean, it happens.)  But I know that in my vacant moments, my mind is constantly trying to figure things out, always trying to unravel the loops and tangles of thought and self, continually inter-knitting.  It’s a very Russian sort of affair, with a lot of re-circulating arguments about death and God and love.  Yet I am intrigued by the processes that must go on in a mind that is not afflicted with this near-constant need to disentangle reality.  What would it be like to let the knot of self-and-world alone, and abide between the pillars of the Mystery, watching them stretch off into shadow before and behind?   Does anyone really just think things like, “I’m going to walk my dog later and get some ice cream!  That’ll be so nice,” and not immediately follow it up with some sort of intense probing into the nature of ice cream or dogs?   Is it possible to just think in clear, vivid, declarative statements, without entertaining questions like this one, and not be bored?

Whenever I ask my little sister what she thinks about (because she puzzles me) she always says that she’s looking forward to going to the park and hanging out with her friends (or whatever) – but I don’t believe her.  No one thinks about that kind of stuff (unless, as I suggested, they do.)  I would assume that they’re actually wondering or worrying about something.  My sister seems too smart not to be internally aggravating herself with some trivial problem or titanic searching of the soul – though she’s infinitely more “well-adjusted” than I was at her age.  But, I mean, I assume it’s possible.  I’ve also considered that many people might think primarily in images – I’ve heard that this is true of autistics, for example (in some cases.)  And for a really steak-y frat bro, he might just have images of boobs flashing in front of his inner eye when he’s not trying to make some appreciative comments about Dave Matthews or or football or porn (which might just be true for the male of the species, generally).  But that seems like a vile caricature – it seems unnecessarily dismissive.  You also need to wonder what sort of material was going through your own mind as an infant or a very small child (a related question) – were you just a passive acceptor of all the information falling into you?  Or did you spit out something of your own, mentally?  I would imagine you had some process going on inside, were not just a creation of the environmental stuff getting poured into you – but I can’t say what, lacking language, that could really be.  Samuel Beckett claimed that he remembered being trapped in his mother’s womb and desiring desperately to escape – though he said he felt like he never really did escape.  So maybe there’s more going on in the infant/fetal mind than we suspect.  Maybe it thinks in Sanskrit or something.

Also, there’s this weird dysfunction that occurs when a lot of people get near a blank page or a pen or keyboard, which I think is related to my inability to determine from their speech and action what their thoughts are – their writing never has the fluency of their conversation.  I suppose we usually talk from a different and more external layer of the self, than we do when we write.  For myself, the case is the exact opposite – my conversation never has the fluency of my writing.  I think this, again, has something to do with the mysteries of the inner self, of the mind.  Whenever Lord Byron expressed himself through a character, he wrote tragically and melodramatically.  Whenever he wrote directly of and as himself, he was jocular and bemused.  But the former was the “deep” Byron, and the latter more superficial.  This is clearly related to that disjunction between the introspective part of the self and the external, expressive self that I was just discussing.  I wish that I, for one, had a more fluid connection between the two, and could speak with the same degree of ease and articulation with which I immodestly believe I write: Christopher Hitchens had this ability, and so did, say, Oscar Wilde or Samuel Johnson.  Apparently, Wilde could speak in extremely articulate compound sentences, as if composing a highly polished essay on the spot, without pause.  Yet he himself but infrequently exposed his inner self, and instead, consciously assumed a series of masks and poses – it probably would’ve been difficult to speak sincerely, from the heart of the deep self, and also remain so fluent.

Digressing, I am now considering whether the self presented in this casual essay – or in everything I’ve written – is, in fact, the real self, or but another mask.  The investigation of these other inscrutable and yet unnamed friends and acquaintances, which I’ve herein been indirectly undergoing, may apply more finely to myself.  Perhaps some sort of stable soul is implicit in what I write, but the feeling is that of simply channeling a flow of thoughts – arising from and receding into the dark uncertainties of a mind that probably does not have a unified identity (not to suggest that I have multiple-personality disorder.)  I mean, I think we’re all like this to some degree – that, aside from when the soul decides to make its appearance, we exist “on many a thousand grains that issue out of dust.”  And this returns me to the original question, which I have addressed haphazardly, as to what the inner selves of other people (specifically, of the people who prove so mysterious to me and probably appear mysterious even to the people who are those people) actually are.  Aside from that strange constancy of soul, which we sense lurking beneath the mind’s own inconstant and often contradictory yearnings and mutterings, the inner self may just be a fiction – it may simply be a dreamy flowing away, which most of us are only vaguely aware of.

The stream flows onward, but never ripples back, as it runs up against reality’s crags and stones, to reflect on itself, except in relatively infrequent cases.  I’m not suggesting that the mind’s own inner excavations are necessary in order to live a good life – in fact, the people who live good lives probably don’t have too much of this, or have shaken it off (it’s clearly more important to be good than to be smart) and retain just the ingredient of reflective consciousness necessary for making correct moral judgments – but if you are afflicted with such a mixed-blessing-curse (that of being hyper-reflective) it is perhaps relieving to realize that the self’s propensity to gnaw on its own tail is not always helpful, nor is it inevitable – that another way of knowing the self and other selves probably exists, in which the self does not know by thinking, but just by simply being and seeing.  The mind of the poet differs from the mind of the philosopher, in that the former has more of this later kind of knowledge.  Through this knowledge, one simply sees things and people as they are and appreciates them for their beloved and fatal qualities (instead of evaluating or judging them – a faculty which is more useful in navigating the business of life than in knowing others.)  Perhaps both forms of knowledge – seeking after the self and others with thought, and seeking after the self and others with direct perception/awareness – are useful and necessary, though the accent must be placed on the latter mode.  When the self fully sees and exists with what is there before it, without forcing its claims, we generally call that experience “love.”  You can see the soul not through the lens of thought but through the lens of poetic perception, of the inner eye.  And – not to get sappy and dramatically unoriginal – this needs to be the last word on what we ought to make of “other people.”  For the soul, in my humble opinion, is not what flows away, but the silver hint of something more enduring – it is not the everyday self, but the Platonic Form of the self, the Big Self.  Yet to see the soul, one must enter into that strange mode of timeless creative and spiritual perception described by William Blake: “the single pulse of the artery, in which the poet’s work is done.”