An Eerie Sunday Night in Europe

There is a thoroughly surreal feeling of calm here in a Europe on the threshold of more of the vanity and depraved selfishness of yet another pointless, looming war. You would be forgiven for not thinking that this is a continent slouching over the threshold to a horrendous bloodbath. The weather in the heart of Bavaria was warmer today, under clear, deep blue cloudless skies. The birds chirped their blissful normality. The ancient bells of this ancient city tolled their rolling sonorous Sunday rhythms, so soulfully unchanged in the wash of centuries.

And as I write this under soft lamplight, just a short flight from here there are masses huddled in fear and trepidation that their entire existence might be evaporated — beginning any minute now, really — by a torrent of Russian guided missiles trained on their targets by US-made semiconductors. The irony is too rich to describe faithfully. The cynicism is total (and might even increase shareholder value for some, after all).

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “Anyone who truly viewed the condition of this world as it is would immediately cut their hair and head to the mountains to practice.” In another context, he said, “World peace is not possible. Also, it’s not necessary.” The meaning of these words — dropped from the lips of a monk who circled the globe urging us to meditate “for world peace” — is that there is no such thing as a “war to end all wars,” as we learned was once a descriptive moniker for World War I. The Buddha came and went — there is still war. Jesus came and went — still war. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King and the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer all came and went, striving and risking it all for peace, giving up their very lives in the effort to bring peace and understanding.

Still, war.

Despite their coming, and despite their ultimate sacrifices, “world peace” hasn’t happened. Conflict seems to be our default condition, and peace — an aberration, a bug.

So what do Zen Master Seung Sahn’s stark and deceptive-seeming words mean? “World peace is not necessary” for you to find peace in the only territory you truly control: yourself. It never comes down to politicians or even noble social reformers pulling the roots of suffering out, from which all suffering blooms. We cannot “wait” for them, or even donate enough financially for their work ever to reach and cure the metastasizing cancer of the unexamined conceptual mind. In 1654, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal correctly diagnosed that root malady when he said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Zen Master Seung Sahn diagnosed with Pascal’s selfsame vision when he said “World peace is not possible.” If we stop here in his speech, and continue no further, then there is only hopelessness.

But he continued: Attaining some fictive “world peace” is not necessary for us to save ourselves from ourselves. We need only practice. As Bob Marley sang, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds.”

So now, more than ever in my lifetime, there is this almost palpable sense that, despite the stark madnesses and well-documented atrocities of the twentieth century, our species seems to be reaching the outer limit of its power to forestall being sucked existentially into the infinite black hole of its most nihilistic tendencies. This creeping realisation comes not from some sudden dark reflection on what looks like this unimaginable horror soon to be unleashed on the noble, long-suffering Ukrainians. The climate catastrophe, the clearly approaching American civil war, the rise of ignorant, manufactured, (right-wing media-driven) faux populisms, and the total inability to handle a softball pandemic (with a mortality rate hovering only around 1-2%, depending on age group and comorbidity, and a relatively benign transmissibility, this Covid-thing might not be the worst pandemic we yet face in our lifetimes), it’s really hard to keep strength and fend off hopelessness.

But we have been here before. In the ashes of “the war to end all wars,” W. B. Yeats described it in “The Second Coming” (1920) thus:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Many know these words, but few know that Yeats wrote this poem in the shadow of the 1918-19 flu pandemic. His pregnant wife had caught the virus, and faced a 70% mortality ledger for pregnant women. She was close to death for some time, and no one believed she could survive.

But she did survive, against odds that dwarf our own viral susceptibility. And we might yet survive, too.

It is now 11:49 pm. Time to leave alone the tired late-breaking news of man’s inventive inhumanity to man. Morning meditation begins at 4:30 am. Return to the cushion in darkness; return to that natural effort-free flowing movement of breath; return to that place before life-and-death ever appear.

Render unto Putin what is Putin’s, and render unto our True Nature what is our True Nature’s — it’s the only true path to peace.

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“A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…”
“The Second Coming”

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