Keep the Change
On this New Year’s threshold of a new decade, armed with the Buddha’s warning that everything changes, it’s easy to see impermanence is still one guaranteed truth of life. On the small scale, our bodies have been handed a little more old age than we’d prefer, our mind hopefully some of the clarity we didn’t know it lacked. People have died, people have been born. Some of my socks got divorced during a visit to the washing machine, leaving me only one of the pair.
Since what goes up must come down, the 20th Century ascendancy of the United States of America has become a fast downhill slide into the 21st when the land of the free and home of brave turned into the land of fee and home of the rave. White skinned natives slowly slipped from majority to minority, and opportunity is no longer knocking because it’s been shipped to China, last century’s starving nation become this century’s superpower. Having replaced the tribe and city-state, nationalism and the nation-state have given way to the international corporate state where people identify with proud loyalty not as citizens of a country with a flag, but consumers of a brand with an icon.
We entered the year with a new leader who campaigned on change you can believe in, and exit believing nothing’s changed. Al-Qaeda is still trying to blow American airplanes out of the sky, American troops are still chasing chimeras in Asia—this time not southeast but southwest, financiers are still finagling to game the economy ‘til it tanks. After yet another ridiculous boom, we’ve had yet another great depression even if the image-makers don’t want to call it that, a Samsaric cycle spinning since the 18th Century. And, look, there’s Glenn Beck on TV as the new version of re-assuring Mr. Rogers.
The French long ago diagnosed our disorder: the more things change, the more they stay the same. The insanely popular image control program known as Photoshop is, for instance, just the latest tool for the oldest con. America is so addicted to seeing itself as pure and perfect that my just-out-of-college job in magazines in 1966 involved carefully cropping cigarettes out of all photos of the new, high wattage celebrity, Jackie Kennedy, and making sure big box office hunks kept their homosexuality to themselves by publishing only photographs of them with orgasmic looking starlets eager to pose for a shot at fame. And now we know despite all the image manipulation that Tiger Woods really couldn't hit a hole in one.
The imperfections that belie our purity have been similarly cropped out of history books. The founding of the nation has been spun into a slick, sweet and picturesque Disneyland confection: pious religious pilgrims seek sanctuary from persecution and find utopia on a rocky Massachusetts beach, launching freedom for all to do their own thing. How unpatriotic to mention that there were already at least a half dozen colonies settled in and settled down to extracting as much of New England’s natural riches as they could—fish, furs, salt, timber-- for massive corporate profit back in England.
Despite all the sanctimonious sound bites about trust in God, nobody ever did. The East coast was settled in a rush for cod, the West coast in the rush for gold and much of the land between in spurious real estate scams set up by railroad profiteers to get farms making food available along their routes. Our prophets have always been profits, so our man of the year this TIME is unsurprisingly central banker Ben Bernanke, launcher of the latest boom and bust.
We may have exchanged codpieces for neckties and schooners for SSTs, but the horrors of our still unreformed health care system come straight from 1607. That’s the year this country likes to claim it began and here’s how: discovery of massive cod schools in the Gulf of Maine uncorked such irrational exuberance in the investor class of olde England, corporate syndicates formed to finance fishing figured out they’d make way more money parking their labor onshore rather than ferrying it back every autumn, filling up ships that could be carrying income producing salted fish. So with all sorts of unctuous profit sharing promises, they recruited pioneers. The first batch, sponsored by the Plymouth Company, shipped out in spring 1607 and in late summer landed on the coast of Maine. Not realizing this Mecca was any different from that of rival East India Company, the Plymouth investors outfitted their recruits for the heat of Mumbai, and when the Maine winter killed the majority so that all hands were not onboard to fish in spring, the investors simply abandoned the few survivors to live or die on their own. They had not become "profit centers." There was no money to be made rescuing them.
Just like today’s corner office occupants at Goldman Sachs who we now learn made buckets of money betting against their own clients, the Pilgrims were only too happy to score huge personal profits by biting the hands that fed them. Those belonged to the Plymouth Company settlers on Damariscove Island off the coast of Maine, a prosperous but raucous bunch of fishermen who in 1622 took pity on that sanctimonious starving, ragtag band, freely giving them food and survival guidance. The newly strengthened Pilgrims returned the favors by returning to fish the same grounds, trade with the same Indians and get a land grant guaranteed to usurp their redeemers’ most profitable business. Then to insure their monopoly on the lucrative fur trade, the Pilgrims baldly lied about the boundaries of that land grant, telling England the mouth of the Kennebec River was the open ocean near Damariscove Island when it lay in fact fourteen miles back in Merrymeeting Bay. The sleight of hand got the Pilgrims the shipping channel they needed to bust business for Damariscove and although their chicanery was contested in pious Puritan courts for 200 years, their lie continues to be perpetuated as truth on charts and maps, because the Puritan courts would not rescind it. To say it ain't so was to admit this country was not founded on pure piety but raw greed.
We are closing in on the centennial election anniversary of the laissez faire forerunner of Ronald Reagan and George Bush whichever, Calvin Coolidge who in the mid 1920s so famously declared: “The business of America is business.” And we know what happened after that: the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, right?
Ignoring the genocide in Tibet and snubbing the Dalai Lama are just re-iterations of minding our business the way we did when “good” Germans came begging for America to help them do away with Hitler before he destroyed the world as they knew it. The same cold bottom line calculus that keeps Obama in thrall to China kept FDR—reportedly with help from his aide Felix Frankfurter, from intervening to stop the Holocaust or the bombing of Great Britain. The thinking was: if the Germans and British remained tied up in war, madly destroying each other, American corporations would have a clear playing field in the world marketplace, and thus unchallenged monopoly on its profits.
Both the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche prophesied the year coming and the one going would be part of a degenerate age. Certainly that’s easy to believe watching the entire Republican Party mistake government for a Superbowl game, going out on the Congressional field with a strategy that winning is everything so they have to hard-headedly butt block any advance by the Democrats toward any goal.
But Tai Situ Rinpoche says degenerate means the “good things” are harder to come by than they used to be. In the early days of human history, he claims, “it may have been just as difficult to come across goodness as it is now, but it was very difficult to also come across so many distractions from it. “On a superficial level the quality of life is better while on a deeper level it has become so much worse … . There are all these new things which cause people to have so much trouble inside themselves, which affect people’s emotional health to a very great extent.”
The emotions and defilements of human beings have not changed, Tai Situ Rinpoche says. Negative emotions and actions were the same in the time of the Buddha as they are now. “Whatever it took Milarepa to get enlightened, it will take us too.” Jacuzzis, first class airline tickets, HDTV and 400 thread count linens aren’t going to make it easier.
So if everything changes but everything stays the same, what is real change? Rinpoche says he sees it in immense education efforts and the increasingly rapid spread of Dharma. “Like a knife having been honed, our senses have become quite sharp nowadays, so if we gain the strength, if we have true awareness and a bit of wisdom, we can cut through negativity much more effectively than the people before us. …Worldly things are so abundant, that for many people they are no longer exciting. Having lost that sense of excitement, we can really say good-bye to all that.. .”
And Hello 2010.
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