THE NEEDIEST CASES
On Christmas Eve day, a powerful Buddhist guru pointed out how every one of us continually thinks no matter where we may be that we are the one standing right in the center of the universe. We never think that because Earth is round we’re hanging upside down on the bottom as it spins or that we’re out on some periphery. We’re sure we are the center of the world; no, make that at the top of the world—a feeling that does not necessarily leave much room for others, especially those we may not find attractive. Imagine! Every single being in the world no matter where or who they are continually thinks this very same thought: I am the center of everything. That of course makes the rest of us chopped liver--at least until the Buddhist theory of relativity kicks in and you ask yourself: where exactly is the center anyway? The bottom? The top?
We are mightily abetted in our delusion of grandeur by advertising and slick magazines full of seduction to “have it your way” which hints, of course, that nobody else matters and naturally your way is way above everybody else's. We have corporations fattened by churning out products to cater to every focus group whim: we even have cars where the temperature can be different on each side of the front seat! This helps us to think of ourselves as masters of the universe, at least until our plane is delayed. What do you think road rage is if not roiling vexation at not having it our way thanks to the equal right of every car on the road to drive at whatever speed its driver pleases? Don't we have the exclusive right to unimpeded speeding in the left lane? As Mick Jagger said: “get off of my cloud.”
We’re encouraged by a Republican hegemony that insists the word share is exclusively a noun and can’t possibly be a verb. The colorful everyday folks who actually do what’s thought of as work have to strike to get or keep whatever benefits they have in a time when pallid white guys hungrily gobble up bazillions of dollars, their financial clout rising comically in proportion to the decline of whatever physical prowess they may have had. Living like legendarily obscene Arab and Moghul potentates, they have recreated Calcutta or Dickens’ scenarios or a veritable American sultanate where they play out their lives behind walls with their own park-like gardens and spas, their own schools, their own ski resorts, their own planes, now their own right to buy their way out of security check lines, telling the rest of us to “keep out.” That means of their purses too. Not giving a damn about the jewels of sharing-- public facilities, equal opportunity--they insure the misery their miserliness causes will make them have to secure their status ever harder because the rabble they created ever more desperately wants to get out from the misery they've been shoved in. Look, the holiday message on my bank’s ATM is: “Scrooge may not have been popular but he retired early!”
History looks to be the sad story of those who have the status doing whatever it takes to defend the status quo. We have the Roman Catholic Church manipulating empirical reality by insisting the Earth is the center of the universe so it can insist it is the center of the Earth around which everything must revolve and you're dead if you don't believe it. We have Shiite Muslims killing Sunni Muslims merely because they have a different perspective of themselves as Mohammed’s heirs. We have three monotheistic religions all worshipping the same god and honoring the same prophets while ripping each others’ guts out in a vengeful sibling battle for absolute supremacy. That is a problem with monotheism: it's a kind of winner take all, as though one has to be better becauses there can be only one.
Actually we all have a little bit of King Louis “le soleil c’est moi” in us. You can see it now that we have descended from airplanes and all met each other face to face at baggage claim. Equality is so scary people are backing up at high speed into the rigid credentialing of Me Tarzan fundamentalism. There’s zero sum fighting everywhere you look to prove who’s better or more entitled. India’s Hindus are suddenly a coherent mass who don’t want to share the country with its Muslims. American Jews are becoming more intolerantly Orthodox to become more Jewish. The Turks want to jail a distinguished writer for mentioning their slaughter of Armenians. The Taliban want to be in charge because they’re deathly afraid how low they’ll be in the pecking order if somebody else is. Let’s not mention the Serbs and Slavs or the unspeakable fratricide African Muslims are so brutally engaged in. And for Buddha's sake, to avoid World War III don't dare tell those Evangelical Southern Christians that their definitive Christmas is actually a conglomeration of many ancient solstice festivities. They don't even want to accept separate but equal Happy Holidays! As Lucy says: “If everybody agreed with Me, they’d all be right.”
The Buddha says to be like a grain of sand on the beach: nothing different, nothing special, just another grain of sand joining others to form a beach. Thus the Dharma, like the weather, doesn’t give a damn about credentials or resumes. It’s like that good old Yankee joke about the yachtsman lost and foundering in high seas who keeps calling the Coast Guard screaming: “May Day! May Day!” until the beleaguered Guardsman on the receiver finally screams back: “Yes all right but what is your position? You never tell us your position.” So the yachtsman shouts back: “I am the Vice President of the Bank of Boston!”
It’s a tough trick to be a grain of sand especially in this Superbowl world devoted to fame. Robert Thurman is fond of pointing his finger and pointing out at large Buddhist assemblies that every person in the room probably entered thinking: “I’m the one, yes, I’m the special one in here.” And we’ve all seen the ugly sangha struggles to be teacher’s pet. A dharma sister has been confiding how depressed her husband has become at no longer finding himself the magnet of money, programs and status at his university where he’s been given a small office in an older building in the campus boondocks. I’ve been admitting how troubled I get being left economically behind, increasingly unable to keep up with the young nouveau riches cavalierly skyrocketing the price of things I used to easily afford. Frankly, I hate being the nouveau pauvre.
But on the other hand not needing to show off or have those things is a surprising relief. When you give up what you think makes you different, special or better, you begin to see how much you are everybody else which helps you to begin to feel less aversion to them, thus less fear and angst. When you give up trying to surpass the Joneses or be the cover of Newsweek, when in essence you give up trying to live in virtual reality and come home to unfabricated reality where you are just one body among millions all wanting to avoid pain, you free a lot of energy and focus to steer yourself toward a more satisfying way of doing that. You don’t care whether you are on top of the world or bottom or periphery because at least you’re standing. And boy what a view!
From this position, you can see the world system is like a Manhattan elevator: it constantly carries people up and down. You see just how panicky people get about the impermanence, how they fear the flow and suffer. We've made life so awful at the bottom, so glamorous at the top, everyone is either trying to freeze things to stay on top or kill things to get up from under. And yet where are they really going after all? Does anybody here know where the top truly is? An old friend of mine used to stare enviously at all the beautiful people having so much fun in Fun City in the 60s and say wistfully: “I bet they owe Bloomingdale’s money too.”
Look on the ruins of Ozymandias, despair. In the real world of the physical universe, we are all mere flashes of light. So when you become a grain of sand on the beach with those waves of suffering washing over, polishing you and leaving you peacefully in the sun, you see how we are in fact all equal in thinking ourselves the epicenter of the known world. That is of course merely the world as we know it and since everybody knows it only their way, we’re all rather like Ralph Cramden declaring himself to be the King of his house and everything in it. "What then am I?" his wife Alice asks. "Nothing! You're nothing." “Well bully for you” she retorts. “You’re the King and I’m nothing. So you’re the King of nothing!”
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