Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.
Literature can be used to educate the whole person. Readings prompt studies of the psyche—studies of authors and characters as well as studies of ourselves. But these studies of selfhood and personhood can lead us—so long as we’re attentive enough, so long as we read carefully enough—from microcosm to macrocosm, from worldview to world. Consciousness of the cosmos and our place in it. They help us build cognitive maps, as Fredric Jameson would say. Intimations of who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, how we are. Injustices are registered, confronted, acknowledged; we contemplate demands rightly made upon us by the aggrieved across history. Those amid us who are crying, let us comfort them. The maps may have differences, they may emerge for each participant individually, revelation and awakening scaled to each person; yet this awareness is of our commonality, revealed through our interactions as fellow Beings in dialogue over shared texts. As the Western Buddhist Beats who inhabit Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums would say, we recognize operating throughout history a “Brahman”—a common consciousness or common ground of Being manifesting among the particulars of identity and historical circumstance. Taken in aggregate, these manifestations tell a story, however paratactically—a narrative history of which each of us is a part. This recognition of our relationship to history can’t be put into words, exactly, other than by declaring as Charles Olson does in his poem “The Kingfishers,” “This very thing you are” (171).
My morning reading practice leads me to reflect upon terma, various forms of hidden teachings or “treasure texts” key to Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. According to these traditions, certain forms of knowledge can be and have been hidden away by esoteric means. The idea, however, is that these occulted bodies of knowledge don’t simply disappear from history in any permanent sense. Think of them, rather, as texts temporarily buried from view, locked away in underground vaults or the depths of some sort of transhistorical collective unconscious, so as to be rediscovered at auspicious times by future generations of adepts known as “tertöns.” According to scholars, there are at least two kinds of terma: earth-treasures and mind-treasures. Earth-treasures manifest externally as texts, images, ritual instruments, and medicines, whereas mind-treasures appear (or “undergo deconcealment”) directly within the mind of the adept, as in mindstream transmission from a guru to a practitioner.
I panic, respond with a sense of claustrophobia to circumstance. How does one catalyze, how does one activate, live intentionally via will and wish? My Theravada Buddhist mentors suggest I think in terms of “dark night” and “spiritual abyss.” Is it foolishly egocentric of me to long instead for bliss and joy? Must we always obey the dictates of work and suffering? I wish to be outdoors sometimes, listening to the language of birds, dogs barking occasionally in the distance. Yet I also long for the company of Sarah. Train horns, police sirens, cellphone-chatting neighbors: no matter. Let us learn to live happily and helpfully toward others. Trust it, I tell myself. Trust the process. Trust whatever is happening — this haunting, this spell of fear. Let moments fall around us like rain.