Sunday, May 6, 2012

la Gnosie de Renee Descartes, The Tazo, et Rebecca Black

                  "Jesus said, "Come, that I may teach you about secrets no
                    person has ever seen.  For there exists a great and boundless
                    realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen, in
                    which there is a great invisible Spirit

                         which no eye of an angel has ever seen,
                         no thought of the heart has ever comprehended,
                         and it was never called by any name."
                                                                               --The Gospel of Judas

During one of my periodic grocery store jaunts a couple weeks ago, I noticed the Tazo brand "Zen" green tea and picked it up for one of my friends. As I was handing it over to her the next day, I noticed that on the box top was this logo:
I realized that I was looking at the Gnostic cross.  The precious irony of all this is that the Zen tradition and the Gnostic tradition are just about as opposite as any other two I can think of.

As a practice, Zen is pretty unique.  While it falls under the general category of Buddhism, it only faintly resembles the Indian tradtions.  In fact, there has been a 1000+ year debate as to whether or not Japanese Buddhism is even Buddhism at all.  But I think the starkest line is drawn by the difference in their 3-D renderings of the Buddha himself.

Zen Buddhism has tremendous appeal, especially in the United States, mainly because one doesn't have to abstain from worldly possessions to pursue it.  On the contrary--one of the primary doctrines of Zen is that every morsel of life is sacred and numinous.  Even more basic to Zen is that the deepest and most universal meaning escapes intellectual pursuit.  It is found, rather, in emptiness.  According to Osho:

A haiku of Basho is The ancient pond....When you hear the haiku you have to visualize it.  It is so small that it is not a question of understanding, it is a question of entering into it....:

The ancient pond
A frog jumps in

...Basho has said so much: the ancient pond, the ancient trees, the ancient rocks....and there must be silence....and a frog jumps in.  For a moment the silence is disturbed, plop.  And again the silence is restored....What does he want to say in this haiku?  His saying, This ancient world...and your existence is just a plop, a little sound in the silence.  And then you are gone, and the silence deepens....That great silence is your very being.  Is is also the very being of the whole universe.

 The Zen practice reaches incessantly toward this understanding.  Gnosticism points in the opposite direction.  In Gnostic belief the material world is completely separate from the Ultimate.  The objective of the practitioner is to learn the sacred truths that will allow him or her to escape the material realm and enter the Heavenly domain.  Gnosticism is a treasure trove of ancient thought, in which the Phoencian-Jewish-Greco-Egyptian mythos is told and retold with interest.  In fact, the entire Christian and Islamic traditions, along with all their offshoots, cannot be really understood outside the Gnostic context.  The Gnostics recognized that their mythology was just that, a series of stories within which one could look for truth--truth more real than can be physically seen.  More importantly, they recognized that underneath all perception was a deeper, more meaningful reality that can never be seen, but must be felt and known.

It doesn't take much to realize this is the real basis of mathematical and scientific modeling and experimentation.  It's the basis of anthropology, archaeology, and most philosophy and art.  In a distillation column a gas rises to the top while a liquid falls to the bottom, and in ideal conditions there is virtually no temperature difference between the two.  In fact, you cannot measure the energy exchange between phases with a thermometer.  That which one can perceive is a mere thousandth of the activity, energy, and information exchange occurring in the column.

It's difficult to find a fusion of Zen and Gnosticism because the of their different approaches. But they are out there, sometimes as banal as the Tazo Tea logo.  For the ambitious and self-flagellant, there is the Meditations on First Philosophy.  But there's also Rebecca Black singing Friday.  The character in the video lives the life of an upper middle class American girl.  There are no special problems, no special learning, in fact, beyond the historical and global rarity of her lifestyle, there's nothing unique about her.

I had a conversation recently on Mark Thoma's blog.  The subject was higher education and it's use.  The discussion centered on the value of higher education and the quality of students.  A commenter mentioned that virtually all college students don't work, party non-stop, and generally learn nothing useful.  I can't speak to the last point.  But I had to tell the commenter that in my university experience (at the school ranked third on Playboy's party school list) virtually no one lived that way.  If I had to guess, I'd put the number of people who had the time and resources to live the Hollywood stereotype around 5% and maybe closer to 1% of the student population.  Most college students (at public universities, anyway) come from middle class homes and live a younger, more single version of their parents lifestyles.  In other words, most of their waking time is taken up by classes, studying, and working.  Most earn barely enough money to pay their bills and buy food.  "Partying" and social life are a side note to daily life, as they are for most Americans.  This is not anything to boo-hoo about.  It is just reality, and it is fine.

This leads back to Friday.  In the video, nothing is real.  The main character "wakes up" even though she was never asleep.  Her hair and makeup are already done.  She consumes breakfast without eating.  Her friends pull up without actually being in the car.  At the party scene later, a large number of people are there, and they are all the same.  There are no rejects.  Everything is fine.  The singer's voice isn't even real.  It's all image, all artifice.  How many people actually live that way?  None.  How common is the experience?  Rare, so rare there may not be anyone who has it.  What hidden knowledge is behind the work?  Nothing.  I think that's the whole point. 

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