Don’t know how I went so long without reading Baldwin’s fiction.

My recent look into his essays, sparked by reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ wonderful Between the World and Me, led me to read Go Tell it on the Mountain.

What a mind-blowing novel! His characters and the intricately woven, powerful story are so captivating, and the whole impact of it just so devastating, that I don’t know why he’s not more popular. Wait. He’s a gay black guy who wrote in the 50’s. Maybe that explains it.

With such a sympathetic telling of the story of these “sanctified” (and otherwise) black people in early 20th century America that you’d swear he was one of them, rather than a lapsed saint who left the church after a spectacular beginning as a young preacher, Baldwin manages to reveal more of the psychology and sociology behind that world than could be explained in a raft of doctoral thesis papers.

Like much great literature, it manages to capture in its art many of our hard-won understandings from the patient study and analysis in the social sciences.

I’m sure he must be prominent in literature classes, as his mastery of prose is so magnificent and his finely crafted language carries multiple levels of sub-text.

He has an impeccable ear for the dialect, and I find myself carried back to my days in the Southern Baptist environment in which I grew up. Many of the phrases and the cadence of the language reflect what I heard in my youth here in the South.

But it’s the fascinating insight into the psychological and sociological realities underlying the practice of this ecstatic version of Christianity that make this book so truly astounding. With some of the most imaginative writing I’ve ever read, Baldwin carries us deep inside the psycho-sexual fantasies with which conversion experiences, “slain in the spirit” swoons, sermons and other church goings-on are richly imbued.

Though there are a few characters who stand back looking askance at all this tom-foolery, for the most part, Baldwin tells the story lovingly and uncritically – though below the surface, the implications are clear.

Of course, though also done with a light touch absent any bitterness, there is a strong social story showing the effects on the characters of the black diaspora, of the racism that pervades their lives both south and north, and the desperate lives to which so many were driven.

In addition, you see clearly the role of the church and the Christian teachings in supporting these people caught in truly abysmal social and economic circumstances – as well as their exploitation by those in seats of power.

It is a truly astounding little novel, and I highly recommend it as holiday reading! I plan to continue through his early novels and short stories in the Library of America collection I have, so I’ll share reactions to others as I feel led by the Lord… wait, as I feel motivated!

Hsin Hsin Ming

Long ago, early in my practice, I came across the line “Search not for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.” It has always held much meaning for me, though I never really knew where it came from. This past weekend, my dharma mentor, Therese, sent me this old Chan poem:

Hsin Hsin Ming, or Trust in Mind

(attributed to the Third Chán Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengcan 鑑智僧璨, from the sixth century, but scholars think the poem may be from several centuries later in the Tang)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
Then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
Is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
The mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking
And nothing is in excess.

Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
That we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
Nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views
Will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity,
Your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other,
You will never know Oneness.
Those who do not live in the single Way
Fail in both activity and passivity, assertion and denial.
To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality;
To assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.
The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking,
And there is nothing you will not be able to know.
To return to the root is to find the meaning,
But to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
At the moment of inner enlightenment,
There is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.
The changes that appear to occur in the empty world
We call real only because of our ignorance.
Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state; avoid such pursuits carefully. If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong,
The Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
Do not be attached even to this One.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
Nothing in the world can offend,
And when a thing can no longer offend,
It ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thought arises the old mind ceases to exist. When thought objects vanish, the thinking subject vanishes,
As when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the subject (mind);
The mind (subject) is such because of things (objects).
Understand the relativity of these two and the basic reality:
The unity of emptiness.
In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable,
And each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine,
You will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.
To live in the Great Way is neither easy nor difficult,
But those with limited views are fearful and irresolute:
The faster they hurry, the slower they go,
And clinging cannot be limited;
And even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. Just let things be in their own way,
And there will be neither coming nor going.
Obey the nature of things (your own nature),
And you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden,
For everything is murky and unclear, and the burdensome
Practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived from distinctions and separations?
If you wish to move in the One Way do not dislike
Even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true Enlightenment. The wise person strives to no goals
But the foolish person fetters himself.

This is one Dharma, not many;
Distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek Mind with the (discriminating) mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.
Rest and unrest derive from illusion;
With enlightenment there is no liking or disliking.
All dualities come from ignorant inference;
They are like dreams of flowers in the air: foolish to try to grasp them. Gain and loss, right and wrong:
Such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.
If the eye never sleeps, all dreams will naturally cease.
If the mind makes no discriminations,
The ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence.

To understand the mystery of the One-essence
Is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally the timeless Self-essence is reached. No comparisons or analogies are possible in this
Causeless, relationless state.
Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion,
Both movement and rest disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality no law or description applies.
For the unified mind in accord with the Way
All self-centered straining ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
Nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
With no exertion of the mind’s power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination are of no value.
In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self.
To come directly into harmony with this reality,
Just simply say when doubt arises, “Not two.”
In this “not two” nothing is separate, nothing excluded.
No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth. And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;
In it a single thought is ten thousand years.
Emptiness here, emptiness there,
But the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small; no difference,
For definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.
One thing, all things: move among and intermingle, without distinction. To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
Because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
Words! The Way is beyond language,
For in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.


Will fascism destroy us?

Just saw “The Mockingjay Pt. 2” last night!

Powerful movie, very intense and moving on many levels, and – finally! – makes the message of the Hunger Games trilogy+ clear.

Much of the impact of the first three movies seemed to be glorifying militarism and heroism and all that typical Hollywood bullshit, but in Pt. 2, it’s clear that all that heroism, all that rebellion and fighting against evil, is in vain.

For in the end, it’s just “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” One fascist is overthrown by another fascist, who is succeeded by a general, and we never see what the social results of all this are…

As someone wise once said, your means become your ends. Violence, even against ultimate evil, begets violence. The story uses a clever deus ex machina to resolve the whole thing into a happy ending, but a harder-edged, more realistic ending would have made for a stronger message.

The true message – and of course this story is an allegory of our own society, tho many seem oblivious to that – is that authoritarianism is at the heart of what is destroying the earth and its people. That impulse within some to seize power and within others to worship it as salvation is what has brought us to this sorry state in the societies of the world.

Only if we humans begin to understand and look honestly at those impulses to control and be controlled will we be able to begin to design a world that is compatible with the rest of life. The path to that understanding is not clear to me, but I feel the ideas of a “new story” as presented in the work of a number of current thinkers – such as Eisenstein’s ‘The More Beautiful World’ – point the way to next steps.

My cynical, realist side says that all that now stands may need to be destroyed for a new story to take hold. My love of the next generation makes me hope that isn’t necessary.

Looking at the rhetoric from those who posture as leaders now makes me fear that the next year may be critical in which way that goes. Trump’s parallels to Hitler are not as frightening to me as the parallels in our people to those of early 20th Century Germany. I struggle to find ways of expressing this that communicate well to people with little sense of history and understanding of human social psychology.

If we don’t come together in ways that help all our citizens see these things, I fear the results of our next elections may seal things off in ways that will make it hard to come back…