I apologize that this blog post is arriving on the late side. I was sitting on the plane to Israel and writing this out, when it became more and more clear to me that I needed more time to process what I was writing about. In cases like this, I would usually publish something else in the meantime… but this time I had a strong voice in my head, telling me to see it through. So
I decided to give it a little more time.
The current parliament in Israel is eliminating its political competition (mostly in the form of the Supreme Court) to take full control of the country. Their agenda is the most extreme Israel has ever seen, challenging the most basic rights of anyone from women to Palestinians (yes, far more than we have seen so far). By all measures, it is following the same steps that turned countless other countries into dictatorships.
These current events bring up a recurring question: Whether to speak out, or stay neutral. Many organizations across the Jewish diaspora consider themselves “apolitical”, and prefer to stay out of the melee. Others see it as their duty to support Israel under any circumstances - even if Israel turns into an exclusive country that would no longer recognize them as Jews.
Be that as it may, the concept of taking a stand brings me back to another, maybe half-related concept: The concept of having an identity in this world. There seems to be a notion - conscious or unconscious - that identity is a bad thing. According to this view, true spirituality should be neutral. Giving in, and “letting things go”, is the right thing to do. Insistence is a sin.
Buddha seems to have had a kind of “little as possible” attitude towards identity. In a cosmology where there is “no self”, this might, at least at first glance, make a lot of sense. Monks were expected to find unwanted scraps of cloth to make their own robes, eat only what was given to them of someone else’s free will, and certainly never to pursue a romantic relationship of any kind. I will leave the literal significance of these precepts aside, but it does point rather vividly to an interesting question: Does “being enlightened” equate essentially to “not existing” in this world?
But even Buddha did not advocate for that: He spoke about a “middle way”.
And what would that mean?
Where the line is drawn between “self-indulgence” and “self-denial” has been a central dilemma in so many religions, philosophies, and spiritual cosmologies for at least the last few thousand years. It seems to me that this has been one of the biggest questions we have faced in our struggle to understand the world.
The point I want to make is that there is a line. We are not here just so we can deny ourselves, and existence as we know it is not here just so it can cease. A big part of our journey through life, as a matter of fact, is a dance around that line.
The real journey, of course, is for you to take on your own - that is where the real answers will be. But let us explore it here, just a little, as much as we can in an innocent blog post.
True, there is a lot in the “physical world” that is not really worth the fuss. If we could let go of some of the frivolous things that stress us out on a day-to-day basis, we would be more peaceful beings, indeed. But that is not to say that we would cease to exist altogether.
Even for a Buddha, strawberries still taste like strawberries. Not all people are exactly the same; we can still tell one personality from another. Are all the awakened people in the world exactly the same? Of course not: Each one has their own characteristics, regardless of their access to a “higher understanding”. As a musician, I like to think of it like a flute: Though a flute is hollow, and its value may be measured by its ability to channel wind and sound; still it is made of wood, and every piece of wood is different. Every woodwind player knows that no two flutes - even when fashioned by the very best makers - are quite alike. And to deny the basic differences is as illusory and stressful as overindulging in them. That, I hope, is clear to us by now.
On a higher level, when you peel away the onion layers of who you “are”, as the Buddhists do, you are left with something that goes beyond individual identity. People who have experienced it have called it “oneness” or “universal love”; some refer to it by whatever terms are offered by their faith, like “Spirit” or “The Virgin Mary”. Regardless of the names, this is still a force with unmistakable presence. And yes, it has passions of its own: It seeks out joy, and love, for their own sake. And to deny these is true suffering.
Out beyond these ethereal layers are others, even deeper and more subtle. But always we return to the same realization: Even when illusions are gone, existence still is. And it’s not going anywhere.
In and of itself, the Buddha’s policy of “as little as possible” had some merit: By always striving for as little as possible, practitioners would (supposedly) be left only with what was truly essential and real. As I heard a rabbi say once: “Truth is that which, when you cease to believe in it, doesn’t cease to exist”. By striving for as little as possible, there may seem to be a certain promise that whatever we are left with is the bare truth. But I wish it was that easy. The truth is that if you get into the habit and ritual of pushing everything down to the minimum, you will soon find yourself obsessed with self-denial. It is like Lao Tzu said in the Tao De Ching: Once it becomes rote, it is no longer truth.
The truth is that you just have to keep looking, all the time, and approach every situation with a fresh curiosity.
But the best way to accept one another is NOT to pretend that we are all the same. Rather, it is our ability to be ourselves in each others’ presence that allows us to show up, and to love.
And so I can be a Jew, who respects Muslims.
I can be an Israeli, who respects Palestinians.
I can be white, and respect people of other colors.
And I can be a friend, a lover, and in the words of Lea Goldberg, a person
Self-portrait by myself :)