Whenever I see an article or blogpost called “The Zen of…” or “The Buddhist Take On…” I quickly look for something else to read. (James Ure’s Buddhist Blog is a rare exception to this rule.) Lost, Twin Peaks, Star Wars—they’ve all been scoured for possible dharma references, but it’s hard to say why. Do we think there are hidden messages or codes here? Do we think nuggets of dharma have been dropped in by accident? Are we simply projecting Buddhist notions onto things that we like and care about? I think the answer is more likely that Buddhism and whatever piece of art we’re looking at are both fingers pointing at the same moon, and so there’s not much reason to lay Buddhism side by side with anything and try to say what they have in common. It’s just this life, and our understanding of it, that they share, and that we all share. Nevertheless!—I finished reading Anna Karenina this weekend (actually re-reading, but I didn’t remember much) and was struck by the character Konstantin Levin’s enlightenment experience at the end of the book. Anna Karenina is, or was, Oprah’s Book Club pick, which means good things for the translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They have a great thing going, and deservedly so, dusting off Russian classics in translations that those who know say are highly accurate. Levin is a thoughtful, philosophical man (Tolstoy without the talent, Tolstoy’s wife is quoted as saying in the introduction) who is nonbeliever throughout most of the book. Near the book’s end (page 794 of 817 in my version) he has an encounter with a peasant who explains that while most men live for themselves, to fill their own bellies, a certain neighbor of Levin’s “lives for the soul” and “remembers God.” This sends Levin spinning:
We’re all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good. I and all people have only one firm, unquestionable clear knowledge, and this knowledge cannot be explained by reason—it is outside it, and has no causes, and can have no consequences. If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.
He then asks, “Is it possible I’ve found the solution to everything, and that my sufferings are now over?” He heads off alone into the woods to think it over:
‘I haven’t discovered anything. I’ve only found out what I know. I’ve understood that power which not only gave me life in the past but is giving me life now. I am freed from deception, I have found the master.’ … Understanding clearly then for the first time that for every man and for himself nothing lay ahead but suffering, death, and eternal oblivion, he decided that it was impossible to live that way, that he had either to explain his life so that it did not look like the wicked mockery of some devil, or shoot himself. … ‘I sought an answer to my question. But the answer to my question could not come from thought, which is incommensurable to the question. The answer was given by life itself, in my knowledge of what is good and what is bad. And I did not acquire that knowledge through anything, it was given to me as it is given to everyone, given because I could not take it from anywhere.
It goes on, very beautifully. Levin’s revelation or epiphany is specifically Christian, but he considers the other religions and wonders why Christianity alone would have been given the truth. When he decides why that is the case (because it is his context, essentially) It’s a very moving passage.
You can say there’s nothing remarkable in any of this—epiphanies or enlightenment experiences across religions use similar words and metaphors because language is inadequate to describe these experiences. Any time we look deeply into a religion we discover the sacred is not some distant abstract thing, but just the here and now, the very ordinariness of things, and I believe it’s worth reminding ourselves of this every day. There are actual Buddhists in Russia, of course: the Kalmyks. Kalmykia is the only Buddhist-majority region in the whole of Europe—we might say, the whole of the Western world. We’ve covered them extremely briefly on this blog before, but we’ll do something more substantive soon. [Pictured at left: A photograph of a portrait painting of Lama Mönke Bormanshinov (1855-1919), the Head Lama of the Don Kalmyks (Buzava) from 1903 until his death in 1919, by Alexander Burtschinow. Lama Bormanshinov is wearing the traditional yellow hat and medals given to him by the Tsar Nicholas II. Upon completion of the portrait, Mr. Burtschinow gave it to Soki Abushinov as an expression of his respect for Mr. Abushinov’s status as the eldest living person from the Bokshorgankna aimak (clan.) Mr. Abushinov passed on the portrait to his son, Basir, who then donated it to the Saksyusn Sune Monastery in the Republic of Kalmykia upon his death.]
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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