Charles Johnson is a scholar and writer whose philosophical works often address black life in America. At 72, he has written more than 35 books, including the National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage. His latest book, GRAND: A Grandparent’s Wisdom for a Happy Life, seeks to share the advice gleaned from his career and Buddhist practice with his grandson, Emery, as well as his readers. The following is an excerpt from chapter 3, “Tat Tvam Asi.”
When Emery first encounters the Sanskrit saying that serves as the title for this chapter, he may feel confused. It translates as “You are that,” and it’s certainly not something he will hear every day.
In fact, he might feel such a saying is counterintuitive, given all the divisions and tribalism that he sees today in our society. Almost everyone he encounters, and certainly what he is exposed to in media, will encourage him to see himself as different. However, I want my grandson to one day realize that Whatever it is, it’s you. That whatever he is experiencing, whether it be a person, place, or thing, he is in one way or another meaningfully connected to it. He can start probing this connection between himself and others with science. Specifically, he should begin with a revelation concerning how all of us can never be more distantly related than fiftieth cousins in Guy Murchie’s The Seven Mysteries of Life, a work one of my students once described as feeling like an entire college education between the covers of a single book.
“Your own ancestors,” Murchie tells us, “whoever you are, include not only some blacks, some Chinese and some Arabs, but all the blacks, Chinese, Arabs, Malays, Latins, Eskimos, and every other possible ancestor who lived on Earth around AD 700.”
I’ve pondered for a long time now Murchie’s fascinating claim that we need only go back to the year AD 700 to discover that no one in the human species can be less closely related than fiftieth cousins. Our genes, he points out, circulate throughout the human species in such a manner that we are joined to everyone once in every fifty generations. And Murchie cautions us: “If therefore your appetite disdains any kind of man, shake not your family tree. For its fruits appear in every color, in every stage of ripeness or rot, and its branches encompass the earth.”
If Emery needs a more immediate demonstration of his connectedness to others, and if he reads this book by his grandfather, Murchie would hip him to how the book he is holding in his hands was made possible by paper invented in China, by ink created long ago in India, by the invention of type by Germans who used Roman symbols they took from the Greeks who borrowed their letter concepts from Phoenicians who adapted them from Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Science will also introduce Emery to mirror neurons, discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese. While research into this area is still very new, and often controversial, I think a thesis worth exploring is advanced by one of its champions, V. S. Ramachandran, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, who posits that mirror neurons are “the starting point for empathy.”
In the prefrontal lobes of monkey brains, and presumably in our own brains, the same cells that are activated when we perform an action are also activated when we watch someone else perform the same action. If Emery sees someone in pain, the anterior cingulate neurons in his brain will cause him to recognize such pain in others and understand it to be like his own experiences of pain. Although not yet empirically proven, I suspect that mirror neurons, which are a subset of motor neurons, not only help us “feel” the pain of others in a kind of virtual reality simulation in ourselves but also their happiness, love, joy, and other emotions. How many times have you listened to someone, a friend or even a stranger, describe in detail their experience of suffering and found tears welling in your own eyes? Or been moved, as Aristotle says in the Poetics, by “pity and fear” in a drama onstage? Or felt such fear when watching a horror movie that you had to avert your eyes? Or felt a powerful emotion sweep over you when listening to the lyrics of a love song? (My own recent favorite is Miten and Premal’s “Till I Was Loved by You.”)
We all know this experience, because it is what draws us so powerfully to art. “We have never lived enough,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes in Love’s Knowledge. “Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial.” All Emery will need to do to understand the truth in this is consider what takes place when he reads.
That experience will be similar to what author Zadie Smith describes in her recent essay “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction.” Of books, she writes, “I lived in them and felt them living in me. I felt I was Jane Eyre and Celie and Mr. Biswas and David Copperfield . . . I found myself feeling with these imaginary strangers: feeling with them, for them, alongside them and through them, extrapolating from my own emotions, which, though strikingly minor when compared to the high dramas of fiction, still bore some relation to them, as all human feelings do.”
Open any novel (or this book in your hands). What is there? Black marks—signs—on white paper. First, they are silent. They are lifeless marks, lacking signification until the consciousness of the reader imbues them with meaning, allowing a fictitious character like Huckleberry Finn, for example, to emerge from the monotonous rows of ebony type. Once this magical act takes place in the mind of the reader, an entire world appears in consciousness: “a vivid and continuous dream,” as novelist John Gardner once called this experience, one that so ensorcells us that we forget the room we’re sitting in or fail to hear the telephone ringing. In other words, the world experienced within any book is transcendent. It exists for consciousness alone. Jean-Paul Sartre says in his book What is Literature? that the rare experience found in books is the “conjoint effort of author and reader.” While the writer creates their “world” in words, their work requires an attentive reader who will “put himself from the very beginning and almost without a guide at the height of this silence” of signs. Reading, Sartre tells us, is directed creation. For each book—each novel or story— requires that a reader exercise their freedom for the “world” and theater of meaning embodied on its pages to be. As readers, we invest the cold signs on the pages of Richard Wright’s Native Son with our own emotions, our understanding of poverty, oppression, and fear. Then, in what is almost an act of thaumaturgy, the powerful figures and tropes Wright has created reward us richly by returning our subjective feelings to us transformed, refined, and alchemized by language into a new vision with the capacity to change our lives forever.
I’m painting, I suppose, a portrait of our interwoven lives that some cynics might feel is too idealistic. Very well, then. I confess to being an idealist. All my life I’ve wondered what it would be like to live in a culture where, instead of men and women insulting and tearing down one another, people in their social relations, and even in the smallest ways, held the highest intellectual, moral, creative, and spiritual expectations for one another.
Since our social world is not that way, an idealist must get used to disappointment, especially at this hour in America’s culture history when we appear to be obsessed with “otherness.” By otherness Emery will come to understand the term is frequently used to refer to him, to LGBT people, to women, Jewish people and people of color and virtually everyone who is not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cisgender heterosexual male.
Straight WASP males, it is often argued, are the recipient of white male privilege, and in this country are the universal human standard against which all others are consciously or unconsciously measured. The glaring absurdity of this notion is evident when we consider that people of color make up between 70 and 83 percent of the world’s population while whites account for between 17 and 30 percent. I cannot deny, and have no interest in denying, that until quite recently this very racist propaganda, which was subtly and sometimes blatantly promoted in American and European societies from at least the 18th century, was a lie that could be found everywhere. It is behind the spurious justifications for slavery, racial segregation, colonialism, and the terrible treatment of everyone who in any way differed from cisgender white men.
He will recognize, even with limitations, his connectedness to everything supposedly “other,” and that nothing can be a stranger or alien to him.
At this writing, the agonies associated with otherness have polarized Americans in a way perhaps impossible to repair. The phrase E pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one,” can today seem like a cruel joke. The pain caused by our obsession with racial, gender, and sexual other-ness, in the past and present, has fueled various forms of tribalism, ideologies based on difference, and led to the sickening mass killings of black Americans in churches and Jews in synagogues.
My hope is that Emery will remember a story I read in my teens, which I will share with him, about D. T. Suzuki, the major interpreter of Zen Buddhism in the middle of the 20th century.
As the story goes, Dr. Suzuki was giving a lecture, and during the Q&A, a member of the audience asked him, “Dr. Suzuki, what about the Other?” Suzuki became quiet. He thought long and hard about the question, there at the podium. After a time, he put his head down on his folded arms, and only after a few minutes did he lift it. He looked at the person who’d asked him the question and replied, “What Other?”
In Buddhism, there is no dualism between self and Other. Indeed, there is no self—that is an illusion, a social construct—and there is no “Other” either. Science also denies the existence of such an entity as a substance—rather, we are simply consciousness, thoughts without a “thinker.” Suzuki paused and thought for so long because in Buddha Dharma the question simply made no sense.
As he grows in maturity, I think my grandson in his inevitable acceptance of the reality that nothing is personal, permanent, or perfect, will also ideally grow in humility and compassion. He will understand our limitations as C. S. Lewis described them: “Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?”
But he will recognize, even with these limitations, his connectedness to everything supposedly “other,” and that nothing can be a stranger or alien to him.
“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space,” Albert Einstein once wrote. “He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
May our grandchildren break free of the “prison” Einstein spoke of and rise to the occasion of the task he placed before us.
From GRAND: A Grandparent’s Wisdom for a Happy Life by Charles Johnson © 2020. Reprinted with permission of Hanover Square Press.
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