On August 8 of this year, 2001, I drove from our place in the Adirondacks to Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss a possible future Dispatch with a Shamar Rinpoche, a high lama of the kagiu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and an American practitioner whom I have known since childhood. The drive across New England took five hours in my old pickup, which has no air conditioning, and it just happened to be the hottest day of the year, the second day of a four-day heat wave. As the sun sank into the Pacific, ending the day for the U.S.A., the entire country carded a mean high of 95 degrees. Something felt very wrong about it– the way the whole continent had suddenly just turned into a blast furnace. It didn’t seem at all normal or natural. Massive fronts of extreme weather, spikes of often unseasonal heat, have become noticeably more common in the last ten or fifteen years as we continue to obliviously spew hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Elsewhere in the world, huge dense clouds of humidity, are building in size and turbulence and crackling with electric energy under the heat-trapping layer of COD, which is why we are seeing more floods tornados, and record-breaking temperatures. Many plants and animals can’t keep up with the sudden change in the climate and are going under because their survival kit, finely tuned to certain conditions that have remained relatively stable since the last Ice Age, is now worthless. They can’t adapt or migrate poleward fast enough, or there is nowhere for them to go because they are on islands surrounded by salt water or human sprawl. The sugar maples are being pushed north out of Vermont. There won’t be any in New England if this keeps up. Such jolly thoughts occupied my mind as I drove along, contributing however many pounds of particulate carbon to the problem, doing my own bit.
I was pretty wiped out by the time I reached the Charles Hotel, where the three of us had agreed to meet for dinner at eight. The courtyard, where there were some outdoor tables, was still like an oven, so we decided to eat inside. But the dining room was way too air-conditioned, too frigid for my body, whose every pore was open, passing heat, to adjust to so quickly. By the time dessert came, I could feel the beginning of a sore throat.
The second-highest tulku or officially recognized reincarnation of the Buddha in the kagiu hierarchy, Shamar Rinpoche, who is also known as the Shamarpa [and the Kagyu], is one of the major players in a controversy that has been rocking Tibetan Buddhism—the controversy over the seventeenth reincarnation of the Karmapa. The Karmapa is the number one boddhistava of the kagiu lineage, its equivalent of the Dalai Lama (who heads the gelug lineage). The assets attached to the Karmaship worldwide are considerable, and there are two rival reincarnations, two claimants, rather like the two Popes, the one in Rome and the one in Avignon, in the fourteenth century, or the various Anastasias that surfaced after the Russian Revolution (none of whom appear to have been real in the end. According to the latest DNA evidence from the Romanoff massacre site in Ekaterinburg the melancholy eighteen-year- old princess did not escape the firing squad).
The Shamarpa is one of the four regents who were in charge of finding the next Karmapa after the death of the sixteenth in l981, and of looking after the boy until he reached his majority. Twelve passed, and there was no Karmapa. The kagyu were growing impatient. Finally in l992 another of the regents, Situ Rinpoche, produced a letter that he claimed had been written by the late Sixteenth. It gave instructions as to where and how his next reincarnation could be found.
This requirement—there must always be a letter—is a feature of the Karmapa succession. Whether it is peculiar to the karmaship, or other tulku searches also require a letter, I don’t know.
Situ went to Tibet and following the instructions found the boy, whose name was Urgyen Thinlay. Or it was the other way around, as his detractors allege: he had already found the boy and then written the letter himself. A third regent, Jonghum Khontrol Rinpoche, set out for Tibet from India to see the boy for himself and en route was killed when his car either swerved off the road to avoid killing some birds, or, as Shamarpa’s detractors allege, was blown up with a bomb commissioned by the Shamarpa. This precipitated Situ to announce publicly that the seventeenth Karmapa had been found, and that he was Urgyen Thinlay. The Shamarpa was furious because Situ had broken a pact the four regents had made to make no public statements until they met again in the fall, and because he was engaged in his own search and following clues that led him to a boy in Lhasa named Taye Dorje, whom he announced to be the true Karmapa two years later.
I had met both “soul boys,” as the Chinese call tulkus, or officially recognized reincarnations of Buddha, in l995: Taye Dorje is now seventeen, and Urgyen Thinlay fifteen. Both are now in India. I had been twice to Tshurphu, the monastery three hours outside of Lhasa that is the seat of the Karmapa. Tsurphu is perched at 16,000 feet, at the head of a spectacular valley plugged by a hanging glacier. In the cave-riddled cliffs above the monastery, aspiring monks were undergoing their three-year, three-month-three-day retreat during which they were not allowed to speak to anyone or to lie down and sleep, and had to keep themselves warm solely by tum-mo heat meditation. This was in l995. I gave a katha, the traditional offering of a white scarf, to Urgyen Thinlay, who had been recognized as the Karmapa by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese. He was surrounded by Chinese bodyguards and was reading a comic book. I was forbidden to speak with him. As I backed out the door, Urgyen Thinlay winked at me. It was not an ordinary wink, but a very powerful one that zapped me the same way I was zapped when the Dalai Lama gave my beard a playful tug seven years earlier. The effects of that tug took a month to wear off.
I had also known the sixteenth Karmapa. My older brother had been attracted to Buddhism and Tibet in his teens in the fifties, and in l960 he had roomed at Oxford with Trogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, another high kagiu tulku who had just arrived in the West and would later become the guru of Alan Ginsberg. In the early seventies my brother converted his house in Katonah, New York, into the first karma kagyu meditation center and the Karmapa came and did a Black Hat ceremony. The sight of him placing his black hat on his head is said to be a very powerful transmission.
I had also written (in the August, l996 issue of Vanity Fair) about the kidnapping of the present, eleventh Panchen Lama by the Chinese. He had been secretly recognized in Tibet by the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese had replaced by a “soul boy” of their own choosing. His whereabouts, or whether he is even still alive, are still unknown So I have a more than passing interest in controversy over the seventeenth Karmapa, which has bitterly divided the kagius. I am not in either camp. I am not even a practicing Buddhist. I have never “taken refuge,” committed myself to living by the precepts of the Buddha. But many of them I have found very useful in understanding the nature of existence, particularly his breakdown of the basic causes of suffering. My own life has brought me to many of the same conclusions. I had already realized, for instance, from 30 years as a journalist, that there is no such thing as absolute truth. There are only versions, often wildly divergent ones. In places with particularly active rumor mills like central Africa, Brazil, India, Nepal, and Tibet— places I have spent much of my career to writing about—I have had to content myself with collecting versions, with being a “total-immersion version journalist,” as I called myself. The Karmapa controversy was already shaping up as one of these assignments where “the truth” was going to be very hard to establish, if not impossible.
Starting out with the premise that tulkus reincarnate when they die (or even before they die, in some cases like the tenth Panchen) as some boy somewhere in Tibet who has to be found and identified (traditionally the tulkus have been Tibetan, but now as more Westerners take refuge in Tibetan Buddhism, a French boy, and a Spanish one, have been recognized as reincarnations). The tulku recognition system was started by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193).
Its original intent was egalitarian. It was designed to prevent the buildup of hereditary spiritual power in families or clans. (There was an aristocracy in old Tibet, but their power was worldly.)
Any Tibetan family, even the lowliest drokhpa or nomads, could produce the next Karmapa or Dalai Lama. But because of the manipulation of regents and other adults, the system has been subject to all kinds of abuse. Only two of the six Dalai Lamas in the nineteenth century, for, made it to the age of twenty. The rest were done in by palace intrigues.
By now there are more than 600 tulkus. Even Steven Segal, the action-movie star, has been recognized as a rinpoche, a title of adoration bestowed on tulkus and other holy men, by Penor Rinpoche, a leading lama of the nyingma lineage—a matter of some embarrassment to Buddhists around the world. The Shamarpa told us that in his opinion the situation had gotten out of hand and the whole institution should be curtailed if not abolished altogether because it “creates religious dukedoms” and “is infectious.” Only the Dalai Lama should continue to be recognized in the traditional way. Otherwise he would not be the Dalai Lama. Tibetans would not accept him.
The Dalai Lama himself has declared that his next reincarnation should be only a religious leader, and that his political functions should be transferred to someone else who is democratically elected, so the entire tulku system is threatened, not least by the Chinese who see it as medieval feudal religious mumbo jumbo that is keeping the Tibetans from progressing (which hasn’t stopped them from using it for their own purposes of control and influence). And this Florentine imbroglio over the seventeenth Karmapa wasn’t helping the situation. “It exposes the dark side of Tibetan Buddhism,” as my sister, who is a kagiu practitioner, put it.
A group of Americans interested in Tibet—especially its ecological problems— were contributing to the site. They were also interested in help to heal the sectarian rift among the kagiu, and had approached me about writing a Dispatch on the Karmapa controversy – conducting an independent, in-depth investigation of twenty or thirty thousand words or so that would lay out everyone’s side of the story and perhaps thus pave the way toward some sort of a resolution. The report would be posted on Dispatches From the Vanishing World and excerpted in one of the American general-interest or Buddhist magazines and maybe even published as a short book.
The subject was certainly right for the Dispatches. I already knew what I was going the dispatch was going to be called: “The Future of Reincarnation.” The tulku recognition system was clearly an endangered “meme,” to use a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. A meme, I explained to the Shamarpa, is any unit of transmissible cultural information. In the world today memes and species, habitats, languages, entire cultures and ecosystems, and other elements of the world’s biological and culture diversity, are disappearing at a rate unprecedented in recorded history. Not since the massive extinctions of the Pleistocene, which took out the wooly mammoth and mastodon, the giant sloth and the saber-toothed tiger, has there been anything comparable. The difference between sixth extinction, as E.O.Wilson calls it and the earlier global-scale ones (meteor strikes or cataclysmic volcanic eruptions that wiped out up to eighty percent of the life on earth) is that it has been precipitated by us, by our phenomenal success as a species. Although Folsom and Clovis man and their cousins may have played a major role in wiping out the big Pleistocene mammals.
The main agents of this extinction event are human population growth and “the cancer of modern life,” as Simon Elegant, a journalist for Time Asia, has called it, which takes many forms: hundreds of millions of car exhausts, rapacious capitalism, chainsaws, bulldozers, toxic waste, the effect of the Spice Girls on Brazilian samba, of tuolomene fumes the Vietnamese children who work in Adidas factories inhale as they are gluing together sneakers. The list goes on for pages. The Dispatches, I explained, will be devoted to fleshing it out.
It will be a great loss if there are no more tulkus, I said, and if this mystical succession system dies out, because there is nothing like it in the world. The recognition of the present Dalai Lama, for instance, the fourteenth, has an almost fairy-tale like quality. The search committee had to hike up to a 18,000-foot lake on whose surface they saw a vision that led them, after a country-wide search, to a house with a blue-tiled roof near the China border where there lived an extraordinary two-and-a half-year-old boy named Tenzin Gyatso who was presented with a collection of ritual paraphernalia and unhesitatingly picked out the ones that had belonged to the thirteenth Dalai Lama. By this and other tests the boy was confirmed as his reincarnation.
Whether there is anything to the entire process depends, of course, on whether you believe that reincarnation is what happens after death. I hadn’t made that leap of faith, but I wasn’t prepared to dismiss it, either, having had intimations on several occasions that it could be have some basis—a sudden sense of interconnectedness with the other, unseen forms of life when walking in the woods—and having spent times in cultures that are much more attuned to this sort of thing like the Yanomamo, Tikuna, and Cayapo Indians of the Amazon and the Malgasies of all the archipelago’s ethnic groups.
I told Shamar that I would do the Dispatch as long as it was understood that I would be absolutely nonpartisan. If he was expecting me to advocate his position, he would have to find someone else. I may find out things he wasn’t going to like. Shamar was confident that “the facts” would speak for themselves. He just wanted to make sure I had them. “The past will reveal the present,” he assured me.
I explained what the dispatches were all about, how I had gotten the idea of doing them last year, when I spent three weeks in the eastern, rebel-held part of the civil-war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo for short (formerly Zaire), doing a report for Ted Turner’s United Foundation. The UNF is supporting four national parks that are the home of some of the crown jewels of the animal kingdom—mountain and lowland gorillas, okapis, Congo peacocks. These animals are being decimated by deserters, bandits, genocidal Rwandans, and various other bands of desperate, psychotic individuals who are holed up in four national parks and living off the game. The UNF is contributing several million dollars to the heroic effort to keep them from being completely poached out. Most of it is going to keeping the guards paid and motivated to go out on their patrols.
In the course of my investigation I discovered that a lot of the poaching is being done by or for miners of a rare mineral called coltan, whose exceptional stability, high melting point, and conductivity make it the ideal material for capacitors and numerous other high-tech applications. Every cellphone, laptop, satellite, ballistic missile, jet plane’s nose cone, car ignition system, solid state electronic appliance, prosthetic device, and SONY game boy contains coltan. But few people have ever heard about this substance or are aware that forest elephants, gorillas and okapis are being slaughtered, roasted and eaten by its miners, so that the modern world can be supplied with it.
My report to the UNF, I explained to Shamar, ran 26,000 words. It needs to be extensively updated and amplified as a lot has happened and has come out since my trip. The new version will be on posted as Dispatch 2 sometime in the fall, and I have worked up a 6,000-word excerpt that has been bought by Rolling Stone magazine. So the word is being gotten out about the terrible cost of this mineral, and the UNF has gotten an independent assessment of its program and publicity for it and the little-known heroes, Congolese and expatriates, who are risking their lives to keep these magnificent animals from being poached. The experience made me realize that I could perform a service by starting a site that exposed the horrendous things that are happening in remote parts of the world and recognized the people who are trying to do something about them.
The site, I had been thinking, should have a discussion up front that put the loss of the planet’s natural and cultural diversity in the context of loss in general. I was just beginning to gather my thoughts about this subject. Perhaps Rinpoche could help me. These were the points I had thought about so far:
Loss is as universal and unavoidable a part of the human experience as life and death. The death of a loved one, your children growing up and leaving the nest, the loss of property that has special meaning (like my childhood stamp collection, which I was separated from at the age of 12 and dreamed about particular stamps for years afterwards, like the two cent 1862 Jefferson with the carmine sunburst cancellation that I had found in the Prestons’ attic and traded with their son Seymour for). The heartbreaking end of a relationship that you thought was it, that takes years to get over, that you never really get over (I’ve gone through several of those), the loss of your mind and memory and marbles from Alzheimer’s (from which my mother suffered during the last eight years of her life)or senile dementia. Half the children in America live in broken homes, with one parent or the other or being shuttled between the two. There are courses in our schools on substance abuse and safe sex, but none that I am aware of that deal with how to cope with the explosion of your family, or the many other kinds of loss which a child may already be experiencing or is inevitably going to experience sooner or later. There are no seminars on “impermanence management.” The German writer Gerhard Köpf creates in his novel, There is No Borges, a despairing professor of “Lusitanics,” or the science of loss (from the Lusitania, an ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, l915), but this is not a discipline that is recognized by any hall of learning, even though loss in its many forms is such a basic and inevitable fact of life, and learning how to process it, “becoming real,” as a Navajo friend puts it, is the great lesson of life, perhaps the most crucial survival skill. What is history but the record of loss—the rise and fall of states, cultures, and individuals? Life is not really about winning or being “number one,” which American culture puts such a premium on. It is about losing. It is, by definition, a losing proposition.
How is the loss of species and memes and bio- and cultural diversity different from other kinds of loss? Let’s take the case of Shoumatoff’s hairstreak, a small irridescent blue butterfly in the enormous Lycaenidae family that Vladimir Nabokov specializied in. My father caught the first specimens known to science in l933 on the island of Jamaica when he was 15 years old. (LINK TO “MY FATHER’S BUTTERFLY” ) and it was named for him by two taxonomists at the American Museum of Natural History, William P. Comstock and E. Irving Huntington. They classified it as a subspecies, Thecla celida shoumatoffii but later, as the taxonomy of the Lycaenidae became more refined, the genus Thecla was broken up into more than 100 genera, and in l991 it was reclassified by Kurt Johnson as a species, Nesiostrymon shoumatoffii. It differs from Thecla celida celida of Cuba in having a small, wholly black tailspot on the underside of its hindwing, but inspection of its genitalia reveal it to be closer to Nesiostrymon celona, which ranges from Mexico to Argentina but is not easily seen because it is local and elusive. The last known specimen of Shoumatoff’s hairstreak was captured in l974. The species may be extinct, or the lack of a recent capture may simply reflect that not many lepidopterists have been running around Jamaica with their butterfly nets since the island turned violent in the late seventies.
If it is extinct, no one has noticed its absence. I only know about the “bot,” as Jamaicans call butterflies in their Afrocarribean patois, and am concerned about its status, because it bears the family name, and I feel a certain responsibility for it. I have gone twice to Jamaica in unsuccessful attempts to find one in the wild. The only Shoumatoff’s hairstreaks I’ve ever seen are on pins, at the Jamaica Institute in Kingston and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (which has the type specimens). If there are no more of them in the wild, Jamaica’s plants and other insects seem to have made adjustments. Their contribution to the overall ecology of Jamaica is probably neglible.
Species and subspecies are disappearing all the time as part of the natural process of evolution. (See William Drury’s book, Chance and Change). For every organism that has successfully established a niche for itself, usually after countless generations of evolutionary refinement, thousands of others have fallen by the wayside. This is clear from the fossil record and from paleobotany and other sciences that reconstruct the flora and fauna of the past.
Bill McKibben makes the point in The End of Nature that humankind’s (my son who majored in anthropology tells me that mankind is no longer pc) eradication of the flora and fauna is one type of loss that is avoidable. But in many cases we are oblivious to the species we are exterminating and to what is happening in remote parts of the planet that most of us have never been to and have no personal knowledge of or burning interest in. The most tragic type of extinction is known as sentinelan extinction, in which forms of life are wiped out before they are even discovered or identified, so that there is no knowledge or record of their having even existed.
The arguments for why the loss of species is so lamentable are scientific, aesthetic, and religious. Each species has a role to play, a place in the order of things, a “niche” in “the ecology.” For a quantification of the “ecological services” that plants and animals perform, see Nature’s Services: Societal Dependance on Natural Ecosystems, ed. Gretchen Daily, Island Press, 1997. Scientists need species and subspecies and other forms of life so they can study how they have adapted and are adapting to change, and for the insights they provide into the process of natural selection. Some species like frogs are “indicator” species. Their decline is an indicator of the deteriorating health of the overall ecosystem. Artists have been inspired by the perfection of the design and “the beauty” of flowers and butterflies. Indeed the entire notion of “beauty” (I am talking about the modern Western one, which doesn’t exist in places like Madagascar), arises from nature. Most religions have an injunction like Tibetan Buddhism’s against harming our fellow “sentient beings.” As a Christian might put it, If you start playing God and messing around with “the creation,” deciding which species go and which stay, you are going to go down. If you are willing to let Shoumatoff’s hairstreak disappear, where does it end? The logical extension of this attitude is genocide. What does a Jew here, a gypsy there, matter in the big picture? We are upset when humans are liquidated, but what about the other animals?
(The points touched on in this paragraph need a lot more fleshing out. Please communicate any thoughts on them to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com)
The people who are best informed about what we are doing to “the creation,” or “the environment,” are extremely worried. As Wren Wirth, a veteran of the environmental wars of the last twenty years, whose Winslow Foundation has provided a start-up grant for the Dispatches, told me several years ago, “None of the long-term indicators are positive. Basically, we just aren’t moving fast enough. Nothing works. Local doesn’t work, global doesn’t work. Everything has a red flag on it. The big thing now is compromise. The timber industry wants to compromise with the environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest. But how can you compromise, when only 5% of the old-growth forest is left? ” Wren rattled off some horrific stats: “Humankind is presently using 40% of the plant matter made by photosynthesis and 52% of the fresh water, and our population is about to double, at which time mathematically we will need more than twice the plant matter and fresh water. So we are headed for certain catastrophe.”
“But even our horrific realization of the destruction underlying the modern world, the terrible cost of all this, is projection and illusion,” my old friend argued, like a good Buddhist. “But this doesn’t give us license to harm, either. Harm goes on, and for those who suffer it it is absolutely real and awful, but harm itself is relative, so it’s delicate.”
This was a good point. I am beginning to realize that the very notion of ‘nature’ as something distinct from man, which man is destroying, is a construct that dates to the nineteenth century, as the English and American countryside was being visibly altered by industrialism and settlement. Its main proponents were Thoreau and John Muir.
This led to a discussion about the core belief of Buddhism in shunyata, or emptiness. How nothing really exists in itself, but is a projection of the mind. It is not total illusion, but “like illusion.” According to the most extreme, “Mind Only” School, that chair over there doesn’t even exist, it’s all in your mind. Heizenberg’s principle of uncertainty, that “chairness” will fall short every nth copy, lends some support to the effort to diminish its physical reality, but how helpful is this really? Recall how Burke responded to Hume who was trying to make the same mind-only argument: he kicked a rock as hard as he could and said, “I refute you, thus!”
I recounted a conversation I had had with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in l988. I told his Holiness how the night before I had gotten up in my hotel room to go to the bathroom and had tripped on my suitcase, which I’d left in the middle of the room, and fallen flat on my face. “You can’t say the suitcase was all in my mind, because I had completely forgotten it was there,” I said. The Dalai Lama laughed his deep, slow, hearty laugh and asked,
“What is a suitcase? You can spend your entire life describing that suitcase—its size, shape, materials, and so forth—but there will always be something about it that you failed to describe. And furthermore, if you had been a subatomic particle, you would have passed right through the suitcase. Therefore, neither you nor the suitcase exist—independently.”
“This is Madiamika-School interdependence type of thinking,” explained the Shamarpa. “Anything that depends on something else does not exist. Left does not exist. This is what the Dalai Lama was talking about. The Mahamudra school, which says that the mind itself is a mirage, takes the whole business even further.”
So horror at the disappearance of species and memes, at the destruction of the planet, is a mental attitude. It is elective. Most people, indeed, hardly give it a second thought. You could even look at it as an attachment, one of the six causes of suffering according to Buddhism, related to nostalgia, which is attachment to the past– a particularly futile and painful frame of mind. “The longing to return,” which is what nostalgia means literally, particularly afflicts exiles and refugees and other stateless people who have lost their country and been severed from the culture and natural environments in which they and their forefathers first learned to frame the world. This attachment to the world that was is a great source of pain that can continue for generations, losing fifty percent of its penetrance each generation like a gene.
I know about this pain because I suffer twinges of it myself. All four of my grandparents were White Russian émigrés. I was born in New York and so was my father, and yet I still long for the family’s big columned house in the Ukraine which was part of Russian until the breakup of the Soviet Union. There a fabulous collection of art that disappeared after my paternal grandparents and great uncle had to flee in l917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Kerensky government and started to liquidate the aristocracy. The house no longer exists. It was blown to smithereens in the ensuing civil war. And yet I still have vague longings for that house, and the world it was part of (“remorseful, hospitable, racemosa-blossing,” in Nabokov’s words), which no longer exists, either. For a Russia that no longer exists, where my people had lived for a thousand years.
Isn’t there a contradiction between the Buddhist precept of nonattachment and the Tibetan exiles’ longing for their beautiful culture and their country, which is disintegrating before their eyes, much of which is already gone? I asked the Shamarpa.
“The attachment to Tibet is purely a nationalistic, political stand against China, and like everyone’s politics, Tibetan politics is full of envy, treachery, and hunger for power,” he said. The Shamarpa is a complete realist, which I find refreshing. “Enough information has made it out of the country so that the spiritual practice will continue, and the practice in the country is still very strong [despite China’s effort to suppress it, it is practiced in secret, the way the Pueblos kept their religion going while paying lip service to the Spanish missionaries.]
Tibetan culture is not Buddhist, anyway,” the Shamarpa added. “It is Bön [the indigenous animism].”
Robert Thurman, the Columbia professor who is one of America’s foremost Tibetan scholars and the father of Uma, the actress, whom I often consult on Buddhist and who is much more of an idealist about Tibet and its struggle to survive (which is equally valid and complements the Shamarpa’s realism), said, “Yes, there is a contradiction. But Tibet is a culture that teaches nonattachment and compassion, so the compassionate thing to do for mankind is to try to save it. Here the concept of caretaking comes in. It must be done without attachment and with compassion. We do not hate the Chinese who are destroying it, we do not want to kill them. We are like detached martial artists, who throw the negativity of our opponent back on itself. ”
Shamar took exception to this. “We would kill them if we could,” he said, “and we tried to in the sixties, when we had guerillas supported by the CIA, who in the end decided it was in their best interest to abandon us.”
I am by this time woozing off. All this mind is mirage talk is starting to act on me. It is not hard to believe that nothing is real in this restaurant, a generic upscale American eatery that could be anywhere in the country. Only some quilts hanging on the walls give is an ersatz New England flavor.
People at the other tables are downing the heaping portions of food that we Americans are accustomed to eat. 40 million of us are obese—by far the greatest percentage of any country. Two billion people on the earth today suffer from negative malnutrition, and another two billion suffer from positive malnutrition. The latter is going to be the big health problem of the 21st century for the developed. It is part of the larger American pattern of overconsumption. Big helpings, big cars, big everything. A serving of pasta, according to a segment on our burgeoning obesity on the CBS evenings news, is supposed to be no bigger than a tennis ball, but the usual portion in America is more like a can of tennis balls. According to Jeremy Revkin, Americans, who are 4% of the world’s population, are consuming 66% of its resources. This obviously can’t go on.
Suddenly in my semi-hallucinal state the blah samsara of the dining room sort of dissolves, and I have the sensation that I am seeing behind it to what is really going on, to the underlying processes, the transmuted raw materials that are making this visual display possible, and the effects its having on the rest of the world. This sensation, which is extremely unsettling, begins with an unsettling epiphany: that the air conditioning , besides giving me a sore throat, is contributing significantly to the very problem it is trying to combat, and from there it proceeds to other disquieting and discombobulating epiphanies. A man at another table is talking into a cellphone, the waitress is entering orders on her computer. Neither of them is aware of the gorilla-cellphone connection. No one in the room is, probably. My eyes go around the room, cataloguing the energy that is being used to heat or chill or illuminate or to produce this vinyl, this plastic, this petroleum product, which long ago was trees. This is my culture, but my organism is physically rejecting it. I feel very alone, like a complete misfit, almost nauseous. Like Sylvia Plath whose suburban anomie and existential disconnect became so unbearable in the early sixties that she ended up sticking her head in the oven and gasing herself. This isn’t the first seizure of this type that I’ve had, and I expect it won’t be the last. It was so strong that I felt myself breaking into a sweat and shivering in the air-conditioning.
I got a grip on myself. Neither the Shamarpa nor my old friend had noticed that anything was amiss with me. I had one more point to make: that not all loss is not necessarily bad, either. I told them about a recent conservation I had with a neurophysiologist named Scott Schwarzenwelder, who says that forgetting is as vital for humans to function as remembering is. By the end of the day, we have accumulated so many sensory impressions, so many thoughts have occurred to us, most of which are useless, that we could not function unless there was a mechanism for deleting the from the mind had the capability of deleting them, which it does while we are sleeping and explains why we spend a third of our lives asleep. While we are bagging z’s, our minds are jettisoning useless information. Michael Pollan has a section on the importance of forgetting in his new book, The Botany of Desire, pp. 160ff.
Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do when you are meditating? I asked the Sharmarpa. Clear your mind of extraneous and irrelevant thoughts? This is what many of us had tried to do in the sixties with the help psychotropic drugs: to “blow our minds.” I made strenuous efforts to do away with the part of me that watches and judges and catalogues and compares and to just “be here now,” as Baba Ram Das urged, but to no avail. My superego wouldn’t go away. This was why I have never had much luck meditating. Thoughts are constantly coursing in and out of my mind, unbidden. I have been in the habit for years of carrying around a notebook to write the good ones down. Particularly when I’m in church or a shrine room, sitting in lotus position, these pesky thoughts really plague me. Often they have an erotic cast. I find myself admiring the back of the neck of the woman in front of me.
Thurman says that there is one form of meditation that focuses on clearing your mind of all thought, but Shamar said, “You can never rid the mind of thoughts. The mind is like an ocean, and thoughts are like waves. The best you can do is calm them.”
These were my preliminary thoughts on loss, at this point only an unsorted collection of stray ideas, a casting of the net as widely as possible at a huge subject, which could be a book itself, which perhaps I should take on after I finish the multigenerational saga of my wife’s family by the end of the year. (Which is itself a story of inconceivable loss, including the disintegration of a culture—old Rwanda, the slaughter of close to a million Rwandans in the space of 100 days seven years ago, and exile and the exquisite pain that is peculiar to it.) Before I proceed—the entire framework in which I had thinking about loss was about to be exploded—I would again like to throw the floor open to discussion. Please communicate any thoughts on loss, about why we should care about the disappearance of species and cultures, or any other reactions to or suggestions for the Dispatches, to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com or discuss them in the Loss section of the Discussion Board here on DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.Com