Many years ago, when I was editing Chick Corea’s column for Keyboard, he suggested to me that I really ought to read Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard. I wish I still had the note Chick sent; at some point along the way, I must have tossed it.
I did in fact pick up a copy of Dianetics at Chick’s suggestion. I read about 20 pages. All I remember about it, after more than 30 years, is that Hubbard started out by redefining some ordinary words to mean entirely new things. Or possibly he just started using the words in new ways without bothering to define them. Technically speaking, it was gobbledygook. Its main appeal, it seems to me, would be to people who are desperately seeking answers to life’s deeper questions but lack the critical thinking skills that would let them sort out which are the good answers and which are the nonsensical ones. Assuming there are any good answers, which I think is very questionable.
Call me a seeker. Today I’m reading Journey into Consciousness, by Charles Breaux. It purports to reveal connections between Tantra and Jungian psychology. At first glance, it seems more sensible than some books on such subjects. That’s why I brought it home from the library. But as I dig deeper, it begins to remind me of Dianetics. Not in its details, mind you, but in the fact that you’re expected to take as factual a bunch of stuff that is neither defined nor adequately explained.
According to Gautama Buddha, Breaux tells us, “All life is in flux, and trying to establish something solid and permanent leads to suffering. Feeling attached to how we would like things to be and having aversions to how things are is the cause of all this suffering.” This formulation is not new; I’ve read versions of it many times. But the fact that it’s familiar doesn’t make it any less weird if you stop and think about it.
The causes of suffering, it seems to me, are many and various. Getting old, being sick, watching your friends die, anticipating that you too will die, being poor, being badly educated, being tormented and teased and bullied as a kid, being a kid and having your parents browbeat you into thinking you’re no damn good, seeing a favorite spot in nature being bulldozed to make way for a freeway, reading about the pollution of the oceans, reading about insane politicians trying to restrict women’s rights while refusing to restrict gun owners’ supposed rights — I could add to the list, but you get the idea.
The philosophical point is this: The Buddhist view is that these are all instances of “feeling attached to how we would like things to be and having aversions to how things are.” That’s not a bad overview, but what is the Buddhist solution? To accept things exactly as they are. To cease to be attached to any idea of how we would like things to be.
The Buddhist recommendation, in other words, is, “Don’t feel. Don’t think about how it could be different, and don’t feel. Watch them bulldoze that meadow, and don’t feel a thing.”
I reject that philosophy. I reject the idea that the highest goal of human life is to cease to feel — to be able to view even the most heinous suffering with complete detachment.
On another page Breaux says that “Tantra … aims to heal the major cause of human suffering — the illusion of the ego identity.” Again, this is something we hear from Buddhists again and again, and I just plain don’t understand it. I’m pretty sure I have an ego identity. I find it pretty useful, on the whole. My ego informs me that I will feel good if I practice the piano today. My ego informs me that it would be a good idea to go to the gym three times a week, even if I don’t feel like it, because I don’t want to get disgustingly pudgy or develop coronary artery disease. My ego informs me that it’s time to do the dishes, because I want to have a clean kitchen. My ego informs me that when someone sends me an email asking for technical information about some type of music technology, it would be friendly and helpful to answer the email. My ego informs me that I should show up at orchestra rehearsal, even if it’s inconvenient, and that I should practice my parts beforehand. My ego informs me that I need to take reasonable care not to bounce checks.
How exactly is my ego the major cause of my suffering? Breaux doesn’t bother to explain that. Seems to me most of the things my ego does are about reducing suffering. (See the list above for some examples.)
“A healthy body,” Breaux informs us, “is the first step to the vast dimensions of awareness beyond the ordinary mind.” This is a charming idea, until you notice the corollary. The corollary is that sick people are doomed never to be able to move into those vast dimensions. Got lupus? Tough toenails, babe — you’ll never get anywhere near enlightenment. Breaux may not in fact be an elitist with respect to delightful physical health, but he sure comes across that way.
Like other authors who try to talk to Western readers using their own frame of reference, Breaux sometimes puts his foot in a cow patty. “The wave particles that oscillate in space to create the appearance of the physical dimension,” he informs us, “vibrate within a certain electromagnetic frequency (7.8Hz). Through the first chakra it is possible, in fact vitally necessary, to go into sympathy with the pulse of the terrestrial field.” I’m sure physicists would be surprised to learn that they’ve been entirely ignorant of such a fundamental vibration. But of course Breaux gives us no idea where or how he learned this supposed fact. Nor, for that matter, does he bother to explain how one would “go into sympathy” with it. He doesn’t even bother to explain the relationship (if there is one) between “the terrestrial field” and “the physical dimension,” which are surely not synonymous terms.
Such a farrago of gibberish soon begins to induce vertigo, but before we tiptoe away we ought to give passing mention to Breaux’s pages on sex in Tantric practice. The fact that he repeatedly misspells “prostate” as “prostrate” we will pass over lightly. It’s an easy mistake to make. What I find curious and more than a little disheartening, given that this book was published in 1989, is that Breaux devotes not a word to the realities or psychic dynamics of gay sex. The entire presumption of Tantra seems to be that men will be having sex with women and vice-versa.
And that’s the news from the Wisdom of the East.