Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hungry Ghosts

 The real power of the faculty of attention, unknown to modern science, is one of the indispensable and most central measures of humanness -- of the being of a man or woman -- and has been so understood, in many forms and symbols, at the heart of all the great spiritual teachings of the world. The effects of advancing technology, for all the material promise they offer the world (along with the dangers, of course) is but the most recent wave in a civilization that, without recognizing what it was doing, has placed the satisfaction of desire above the cultivation of being. The deep meaning of many rules of conduct and moral principles of the past -- so many of which have been abandoned without our understanding their real roots in human nature -- involved the cultivation and development of the uniquely human power of attention, its action in the body, heart and mind of man. To be present, truly present, is to have conscious attention. This capacity is the key to what it means to be human.

It is not, therefore, the rapidity of change as such that is the source of our problem of time. It is the metaphysical fact that the being of man is diminishing. In the world, as in oneself, time is vanishing because we have lost the practice of consciously inhabiting our life, the practice of bringing conscious attention to ourselves as we go about our lives. All the cliches about "be here, now" aside, the fundamental fact is that, in ways we cannot imagine, the key to living the values we prize -- freedom, moral will, compassion, common sense and far-seeing wisdom -- depend on the exercise and development of the uniquely human capacity to free our attention from its "capture" by the impulses of the body and the imaginings and automatisms of the mind and emotions. In the world as in oneself, everything depends on the presence of humanness -- in oneself it depends on the presence, even if only to a relative degree, of the Self, the real I am -- and in the life of the world it depends on the presence of people who have and can manifest this capacity to be, or even only who wish for it and who come together to learn from each other and to help each other for that purpose.

Where are the people?

To ask where are the people is to ask where is the soul of the whole of humanity? Where are the men and women of being and genuine honor? The metaphysical fact -- and such facts exist; they are properly called cosmic laws -- is that the vanishing of time in our lives is the result of the progressive diminishing of the inner life of people, not only our individual inner lives, but the inner life of humankind as a whole. Where are the people? That is, in the whole of contemporary life, where are the men and women who understand how to search for what is objectively good and true and who understand how to call the rest of us to that search and that way of life? Just as I am not present in my body and my life, so authentic humanness seems to be disappearing from the body and the life of humankind as a whole. Where are the people?

Some years ago I was walking in downtown San Fransisco -- in the financial district -- with a great friend, a learned Tibetan scholar who was helping me translate one of the most beloved sacred texts of Tibetan Buddhism, The Life of Milarepa. My friend had lived a long time in North America and was a frequent visitor to the United States. He was a layman, married and a father; he did not hold religious office and was not materially supported by a religious community. He had to make his way in the same world as the rest of us; he wore neither the robes nor the social "armor" of a lama or a guru. One sensed in him the depth of Asian wisdom uniquely joined to the raw experience of the conditions of modern, Western culture with all its shocks and temptations, all its psychological, social and financial pressures, its tempo, its brilliance and its darkness. He was outwardly and inwardly a man who lived in and between two worlds -- one an ancient, spiritually determined society and the other our own culture with its progressively diminishing understanding of the being of man.

We were discussing the Buddhist idea of what it means to be a human. One of the most compelling expressions of the Buddhist notion of humanness concerns the rarity of the event of being born into the world of human form, in contrast to the other forms of existence that Buddhism recognizes: animals, plants, denizens of hell, "gods", "goddesses", "angels" and "demons" of all kinds. In the symbolic realism of the Tibetan tradition human beings occupy a uniquely center place in the whole cosmic scheme, precisely intermediate between the "gods" (who themselves are victims of "higher" illusions) and the ghosts and denizens of the lower worlds. In this central cosmic place, containing within himself all the impulses and forces of all the worlds, man alone has the possibility of working to escape from samsara, theendlessly turning cycle of illusion and suffering.

I was asking my friend about one of the most striking ways that the Tibetans express the uniqueness of the human condition. Imagine, they say, that deep in the vast ocean there swims a great and ancient turtle who surfaces for air only once every hundred years. Imagine further that floating somewhere in the ocean is a single ox-yoke carried here and there by the random waves and currents. What are the chances that when the turtle surfaces, his head will happen to emerge precisely through the center of the ox-yoke? That is how rare it is to be born as a human being!

In the middle of our conversation, I pointed to the crowds of men and women rushing by on the street and I gestured in a way to indicate not only them, but all the thousands and millions of people rushing around in the world. "Tell me, Lobsang," I said, "if it is so rare to be born a human being, how come there are so many people in the world?" 

My friend slowed his pace and then stopped. He waited for a moment, taking in my question. I remember suddenly being able to hear, as though for the first time, the loud and frenetic traffic all around us. He looked at me and very quietly replied, "How many human beings do you see?"

In a flash, I understood the meaning of the story and the idea. Most of the people I was seeing, in the inner state they were in at the moment, were not really people at all. Most were what the Tibetans call "hungry ghosts". They did not really exist. They were not really there. They were busy, they were in a hurry. They -- like all of us -- were obsessed with doing things right away. But right away is the opposite of now -- the opposite of the lived present moment in which the passing of time no longer tyrannizes us. The hungry ghosts are starved for "more" time; but the more time we hungry ghosts get, the more time we "save", the hungrier we become, the less we actually live. And I understood that it is not exactly more time, more days and years, that we are starved for, it is the present moment. Through our increasing absorption in busyness, we have lost the present moment. "Right away" is not now. What a toxic illusion! 

It is clear that there is less and less in our culture to help us remember what it means to be a human self, to have being in our presence -- inwardly to allow another, immeasurably finer sensitivity, another Self to "arrive" within and behind our thoughts, feelings and actions. To ask where are the people is to ask where are the influences, the reminders that can call us back to what we are meant to be inwardly -- to remind us that without inner presence our life in time will pass us by as though we never existed. Where are the ideas, the art, the literature, the science, the religion that can call meaningful time back into our lives? Above all, where are the people who can carry to us such ideas, such art, literature, science and religion, people who show us by the quality of their own lives, by their actions and "emanations", that it is possible to live a fully human life within the life we are obliged to live in this era with all its demands and constant change? Where are the people who demonstrate the metaphysical meaning of virtue and honor and love -- that is to say, their roots in the level of our being, rather than only in words and purported rules of conduct?

From the Introduction to, Time and the Soul: Where Has All the Meaningful Time Gone -- 
                                                                 and Can We Get It Back?, pgs. 6-11

By ~ Jacob Needleman, PH.D., Foreword by John Cleese (yes, THE John Cleese)


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Idries Shah's classic 1969 BBC documentary on Human thought and behavior.
Painting, Dreamwalkers, oil on linen canvas, by Sally Clark


Monday, October 17, 2011

The Magician and His Sheep

There are a thousand things which prevent a man from awakening, which keep him in the power of his dreams. In order to act consciously with the intention of awakening, it is necessary to know the nature of the forces which keep man in a state of sleep.

First of all it must be realized that the sleep in which man exists is not normal but hypnotic sleep. Man is hypnotized and this hypnotic state is continually maintained and strengthened in him. One would think that there are forces for whom it is useful and profitable to keep man in a hypnotic state and prevent him from seeing the truth and understanding his position.

There is an Eastern tale which speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. But at the same time this magician was very mean. He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence about the pasture where his sheep were grazing. The sheep consequently often wandered into the forest, fell into ravines, and so on, and above all they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and skins and this they did not like.

At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them first of all that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested that if anything at all were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it.

Further the magician suggested to his sheep that they were not sheep at all; to some he suggested that they were lions, to others that they were eagles, to others that they were men, and to others that they were magicians.

And after this all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away but quietly waited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.

This tale is a very good illustration of man's position.

Gurdjieff in Ouspenky's, In Search of the Miraculous, pg. 219

Below is Idries Shah's version of the same "tale".

The Magician's Dinner Party

There was once a Magician who built a house near a large and prosperous village.

One day he invited all the people of the village to dinner. "Before we eat", he said, "we have some entertainments."

Everyone was pleased, and the Magician provided a first-class conjuring show, with rabbits coming out of hats, flags appearing from nowhere, and one thing turning into another. The people were delighted.

Then the Magician asked, "Would you like dinner now, or more entertainments?"

Everyone called for more entertainments, for they had never seen anything like it before; at home there was food, but never such excitement as this.

So the Magician changed himself into a pidgeon, then into a hawk, and finally into a dragon. The people went wild with excitement.

He asked them again, and they wanted more. And they got it.

Then he asked them if they wanted to eat, and they said that they did.

So the Magician made them feel that they were eating, diverting their attention with a number of tricks, through his magical powers.

The imaginary eating and entertainments went on all night. When it was dawn, some of the people said, "We must go to work."

So the Magician made those people imagine that they went home, got ready for work, and actually did a day's work.

In short, whenever anyone said that he had to do something, the Magician made him think first that he was going to do it, then, that he had done it, and finally that he had come back to the Magician's house.

Finally the Magician had woven such spells over the people of the village that they worked only for him while they thought that they were carrying on with their ordinary lives. Whenever they felt a little restless, he made them think that they were back at dinner at his house, and this gave them pleasure and made them forget.

And what happened to the Magician and his people, in the end?

Do you know, I cannot tell you, because he is still busily doing it, and the people are still largely under his spell.

From ~ Seeker After Truth, pgs. 54-55 (The Magician's Dinner)
By ~ Idries Shah