Diane's War In Afghanistan
For Daniel S.
David Lynch's intriguing Mulholland Drive came and went in our town too fast for most of us to get a second look at it, but even a first run-through of the film was enough to appreciate his uncompromising view of the veiling properties of Maya.
Music is playing. It is the "tape recording" of conditional-world events. We, however, assume there is a live orchestra. A trumpet player comes onstage and appears to be playing a solo, but then he pulls the trumpet away from his mouth and still the horn keeps playing. A singer comes on stage to lip-sync Rebecca del Rio's haunting rendition of Crying - she will later faint during her sham performance, but in the meantime del Rio herself materializes, apparently singing along with her own recording. What are we to believe? Self-imitators or imposters, the performers are convincing, and though we want to believe in their reality, the Master of Ceremonies keeps insisting, "There is no band!" The people onstage are silent. They aren't making music at all. Their work is only that of Samsaric mimes. The audience must supply the illusionary facts.
Discriminating the real from the false, the unconditional from the conditional, is the discipline of advanced Zen practice. "Neti! Neti!" cries the alert investigator. Not this! Not this! "This" is invariably an ego's interpretation of events, its subjective and self-serving version, a version by which it absolves itself of responsibility and guilt, justifying its actions and omissions, extenuating its failures and magnifying its successes. It tells a tale, its 'history', altering the presentation to conform to its own honorific requirements. So much is colored and shaped, exaggerated and fabricated that the presented version may bear little or no resemblance to the events that inspired it. The tape plays, but there can be as many versions of the performance as there are choreographed presentations.
In Lynch's film, Diane, a stage-struck, small town girl, propelled by the win of a Jitterbug contest and the inheritance of money, lands in Hollywood to pursue an acting career. She falls hopelessly in love with Camilla, an ambitious and successful actress who enjoys the lesbian sex, accommodates it by helping Diane to get small movie parts, and then, when it becomes socially awkward for her to continue the relationship, cruelly terminates it. So much of Diane's ego- identity is invested in her faithless lover that she cannot survive the rejection. She is devastated; and, since it is the Shadow's function to protect the ego, her shadow rises violently to confront her beautiful antagonist. Only she and a few "sensitives" can detect the pheromones of this hideous bete noire… the spiritual odors linger in those precincts in which the beast was commissioned to act. Diane's cause is championed. Pandora's box is opened and the destructive evil escapes. The inherited money will pay for Camilla's murder, yet it will be a Pyrrhic satisfaction.
But this is no fit story to tell around a campfire. This tale does not do Diane's imagined image justice. It must be rewritten. She was not the one with paltry talent. No. Just like in the movies… when she got her chance to audition for the professionals, she wowed them! And how else can she account for Camilla's success but to attribute it to nefarious pressure: obviously the Mafia coerced producers and directors into hiring her. And Diane was not the dependent one. No. It was the other way around! From the outset, the now-anonymous and helpless Camilla has needed Diane's support and protection. Above all, Diane re-interprets her own character: she is the ingénue, not the pathetic, cowardly villain of the piece. She is as generous as she is blonde, as pure as she is selfless, an old fashioned girl with solid American values.
To one degree or another, we are all Dianes composing self-serving scripts, revising our character. We have an image to project - and we must conform the appearance of our actions to accord with that image, enhancing our qualities until we are in all ways admirable. We develop a convenient amnesia and strike the word "hypocrisy" from our lexicons.
We know that there are three people to whom we should never lie: our lawyer, our priest, and ourselves. It is stupid to lie to our lawyer. It is pointless to lie to our priest. But worst of all, it is self-enslavement - bondage to the material world's "bitterness and pain" that we enforce when we lie to ourselves. Sometimes the self-delusions we create to disguise us from our mirror's inspection have consequences that far exceed their intended viewing range.
Since the attacks on New York and Washington, a few outspoken American Buddhists have been publicly struggling with the problem of war. They cannot reconcile their image as ethical Buddhists with the requirements of combat - which they obviously consider unethical. They decry violence. They tell us two wrongs do not make a right and that while it was clearly wrong of Al Qaeda terrorists to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, American bombing of Afghanistan is just as wrong. Bombs are violent things, and Buddhists can have no part in making them or dropping them. Some of these Buddhists can see the wisdom in stopping terrorism but feel that we have not considered all the possible ways to do this. We need to find a better way. What to do? They wring their hands and pace. They send out emails and circulate petitions. We must find a better way than violence. Unfortunately they do not have a clue as to what that "better way" might be.
The public pronouncements of Buddhist spokespersons are weighty - not only do they influence other Buddhists, but they lead members of other religions to conclude that these opinions are representative of our entire religion's stand on an issue. Few people outside Buddhist ranks appreciate the vast and often irreconcilable differences between our three great traditions. The unfortunate result of this is that one Buddhist's opinions attain an unjustified universality. Intra or Inter Buddhist communications present no problems for us; but there is an implicit arrogance - an assumption of catholicity - when one of us makes sweeping pubic pronouncements.
Those of us who do not subscribe to the proffered views may legitimately wonder what self-image disposes the speakers to offer themselves as arbiters of "American Buddhist" morality? And worse, what ethical elitism is being demonstrated here?
Do we really think that Buddhists alone are vowed to non-violence? That we alone occupy the moral high ground and are so dedicated to Ahimsa (non-injury) that our duty as citizens must defer to those of Faith? Do we actually imagine that Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims and even atheists are not similarly enjoined by commandment or personal code from committing violent acts?
Evidently, some of us do assume such moral superiority. Occasionally a Buddhist spokesperson rises to offer a 'view from the top'. Richard Gere, for example, has outlined a complete program in a script of his own composition.
A few weeks after the attacks, casting himself as a Prince of Peace, he mounted the stage of Madison Square Garden to deliver a Sermon to an audience comprised of rescue workers, survivors, and friends and family of victims of the Al Qaeda atrocities; yet speaking as the Voice of Compassionate Buddhism, Gere pleaded for "understanding," exhorting the crowd to shun "negativity" and turn away from violence and all its "karmic" risks. He asked people to gather together all their positive love energies and send them to Afghanistan in lieu of bombs. The crowd jeered him - but- it needs to be understood - not because he was preaching peace. They were offended by the imposture. His scripted performance didn't come close to jibing with his taped record.
This was not Mahatma Gandhi preaching non-violence from an unassailable record of dedication to the principles of Ahimsa - that quality of engaged peacefulness, that universally applied and consistent 'non-combative' response to conflict, that principle which is so defined by unconditional love that it may never be compromised by convenient or selective application. Gere's voice was that of a Groupie, someone who has idolized a single man and whose prejudice in favor of a single group has limited what is supposed to be infinite.
Would Richard Gere ever have stood before an audience of Tibetans and exhorted them to turn away from violence and all its karmic consequences? Would he have advised them to dispatch all their positive love energies to Beijing? If he had done that, he might have given a more congruent performance. He has instead spent years excoriating the Chinese, war-mongering with cries to Free Tibet from Chinese rule. Where is the compassionate non-injury in this? Since China re-established its rule over the province of Tibet - a rule that had lapsed during the years of Japanese invasion and the communist civil war, thousands of Chinese families have settled that state and now, several generations later, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens consider Tibet their home. Gere might more easily seek to evict Floridians and transfer their properties to the Seminole.
Non-violence is a state of mind that precludes aggression; but it does not preclude self-defense or protecting those whose welfare is entrusted to us. Ahimsa goes farther. It is active, unrelenting pacifism. It is unafraid of death and its force is of such power that by its gentle purity, integrity, and refusal to deviate from the cause of harmlessness, it finally humbles its adversary. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Raoul Wallenberg - these are heroes of Ahimsa. Often threatened, they never deserted their principles, flocks, countrymen or even foreigners who needed them. Had any one of them spoken for non-violence at Madison Square Garden no one would have dared to jeer.
Giving the world the impression that the average Buddhist is a dedicated follower of Ahimsa is an ego-inflated exercise in hubris. The average Buddhist is as decent a human being as his religion can help him to be; but the average Buddhist is not a saint.
Buddhists know that Christians, too, are technically held to the highest level of Ahimsa. When Jesus climbed upon the Mount and addressed the multitude he, too, - and in the imperative mood - told his followers, "Ye have heard it said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. Ye have heard it said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you."
This is Ahimsa - as pure as it can get.
Yet it is Christian crosses that smother the now-silent battlefields on which American freedom was secured. (Does anybody even know what religious symbol marks the grave of a fallen Buddhist soldier?) If, despite the unequivocal orders of their Savior, Christians can risk a little hellfire in the service of that liberty which gives other Americans the right to worship other Saviors, why should such a risk be not worth taking by American Buddhists who are the beneficiaries of that hard-fought religious freedom?
Time and numbers quash issues of sovereignty. People move and governments are replaced. We may not like the justice we see in the political marketplace; but for so long as the swindling is confined 'intra-family', there is little to do but wait. Families, like countries, have borders that need to be respected. When the Taliban recently destroyed ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, we could do nothing but mourn the loss. Taliban officials, despite being rich from the immense profits of the heroin trade, have not been benevolent despots. They have tortured and executed all who oppose their bizarre tyranny - a trimmed beard is a capital offense; women are denied the right to read and write or even to receive medical treatment - a few weeks before Gere was sending warm fuzzy feelings to Al-Qaeda, government police casually shot a young mother to death for the crime of carrying her sick daughter to a hospital. The people could have no music, radio, television, movies… not even Red Corner could be seen.
Still, they did not seek our help and we did not force it upon them. But the attacks on New York and Washington were not an intra-family conflict. They were international acts of war, the first of many promised attacks by Al Qaeda. Sending kisses to Osama bin Laden is nobody's idea of a proper response.
Of course we need to consider the moral aspects of our reactions, and we have done that. Does this mean that our scripted performance will always be consonant with our taped purpose? Probably not. Ultimately we want to plow up those poppy fields. But for now, we have been attacked and are justifiably responding.
It is no shame upon Richard Gere and the other assorted Buddhist hand-wringers that they are not the equal of Gandhi, King, or Wallenberg. Few men can attain such spiritual exaltation. We can perhaps hope that Gere will one day mix a little of Zen's detachment into his Lamaism, that he be able to say Neti! Neti! when considering his own emotional responses. And that get himself a better writer.
American Buddhists are not cowards. We love and will defend our country; and we ought to resent anybody's scripted suggestion that we are so committed to non-violence that we simply have to let other 'less ethical' citizens do our fighting for us.
This is sweet Diane hiring a mercenary to do the killing for her.
But in her deluded mind, she has bravely gone to Afghanistan…. with love.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts