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Archive for March, 2011

 Now that the internet has come to affect how all of us live, we have become accustomed to thinking of all human information exchange as one hyper-connected world-wide web.

On-line search engines like Google and Bing function like an extension of the neurons firing in our brains when we ask them questions in the form of key words that instantaneously connect us to the corresponding answers.  The entire web is like a cat’s cradle of connectivity, or as I often visualize it, like the flight pattern maps that one gazes at in airline magazines.  A web of information and connectivity is a good description of civilization itself, for what is a civilization if not a pattern of organized social connections that is protected militarily from outside attack or disintegration? 

But there is not just a single world-wide web, shared by all people.  Actually, each person is the center of a web of social interaction that is as much an expression of his or her particular identity as his or her fingerprint.  When I invite friends or loved ones to a party or celebration, I am asserting the identity and unique composition of my very own web of civilization.  I am like a stone skipping on a pond, with the ripples of my social interactions extending outwards from my immediate family and best friends to the wider orbit of my casual acquaintance.  Each of us creates our own unique civilization with this personal web or network.  Thus it is that when a person dies, a unique civilization dies with him.  The people in the dead man’s network remain alive, of course, but never again will they be connected in the same exact pattern.  Of course, the spouse, brother, sister or best friend of the deceased may have a roughly similar range of acquaintance, but it will not be identical.  Even if it were composed of exactly the same list of people, the differing emotional ties of the dead man and the survivor will be sufficient to amount to a different pattern. Perhaps only the internet has allowed us to realize this truth fully. That is why we all have our own Facebook pages!

I was thinking about this because just this week a man died who was my mentor and in some ways my soul-mate.  Bill Talley was a wonderful man, beloved and befriended by many, many people who generally shared his kindliness, sharp and compassionate psychological insight, sense of humor and most of all, his love of social celebration.  Bill’s network of friends, family and loved ones amounts to a civilization that continued to rise as he flourished and that now will inevitably fall in decline because he is gone. 

The purpose of a memorial service is to validate an individual by validating his personal world-wide web, his unique civilization, simply by gathering the group together one more time.  People are meant to acknowledge and toast that specific group even as they celebrate the life of the deceased one who has brought them together.  After the memorial is over, rare indeed are the instances when that particular group can manage to plan and hold a future reunion.  Even if the reunion were successfully scheduled and attended, the civilization would no longer truly exist due to its missing leader, its director, its centerpiece.  We are all like suns and our network of friends and loved ones is like a solar system of planets revolving around us.  All of our overlapping civilizations, each one centered around a single person, are like parallel universes.  Each one is its own particular web of life, a unique world-wide web.

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The Hinduism so beautifully personified by Paramahansa Yogananda in “Autobiography of a Yogi” is full of devotion to a God who is inside and outside us all at once.  In fact, Yogananda describes himself as being devotional by nature, ever since his childhood: devotion being one of Hinduism’s three basic paths to God.  Of course Hinduism stresses that we must each look inwards to find understanding.  We all have a Higher Self, and gazing inwards to find this Higher Self is the key to finding God.  Blissful union with God is called “samadhi” in the yogic tradition.

At first glance, Buddhism appears very similar to a Westerner.  One gazes inward in meditation to uncover the dharma, or right path.  Many of the basic terms of Buddhism, such as karma and dharma, come straight from Hinduism.  After all, the Buddha arose in a Hindu culture just as Jesus was born into Judaism.  Nirvana, the blissful state to which the Buddha ultimately awakened, is essentially akin to samadhi.  Compassion is a key ingredient in the teachings of both religions, and indeed of Christianity as well.

But there is an important respect with which Buddhism differs from Hinduism.  Buddhists generally don’t speak of God at all.  Whereas the Hindu God is manifested in so many different forms, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, in Buddhism there is nothing at all to manifest.  This is not to say that Buddhism is atheist, but neither is it theist.  One might say that while Hinduism celebrates union with the Divine Presence, Buddhists seek awakening to the (divine) Absence.  To Hindus, God is the Oneness that encompasses, enfolds and transcends all the spiritual and worldly forms of Being.  To Buddhists, a divine Nothingness is the core Reality into which all worldly forms dissolve.  What Hindus call God, Buddhists simply call Mindfulness, and it is to be found entirely within.

Mindfulness is the opposite of multi-tasking.  Mindfulness is an open, vibrating, still and peaceful awareness of ourselves, the world around us, our thoughts and our actions.  Multi-tasking breaks up and fractures the screen of mindfulness into thousands of tiny fragments, like shattering a sheet of glass into myriads of sharp, blood-drawing crystals.  It is unfortunate and at times even tragic that our modern culture leads us so inexorably away from mindfulness and into the fragmented, stressful, interrupted vortex of our high technology-dependent lives.  Where is inner peace when the mental space we inhabit is shared and dominated by computers, smart phones and television, all vying for our attention at once?  As Adam Gopnik puts it in “The Information – How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” an article in the February 14-February 21, 2011 issue of “The New Yorker” magazine, “It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us.”  He adds, “Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.”  That would be the “very little self” of Hinduism, in contrast to the Higher Self of Mindfulness that is our true soul.

The great strength of Buddhism is its simplicity:  its turning away from the barbarism of India’s caste system and its embrace of the untouchables, which is so similar to Christ’s embrace of social outcasts, including prostitutes and the destitute.  As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in his excellent book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” “Taking refuge in the Sangha (Buddhist community) is not a matter of devotion.  It is a matter of practice.”  In Buddhism, practice is everything.  If in Hinduism, devotion leads one to practice meditation and to live the dharma, in Buddhism, practice leads one to devotion.  But the object of one’s devotion, when it comes, is not God.  The object of devotion is the practice itself.

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