Excerpts

from Mountain Record 31.2, Winter 2013


 

 from The Disparity Between Intellect and Character 
- by Robert Coles

Over 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture at Harvard University, which he ended with the terse assertion: “Character is higher than intellect.” Even then, this prominent man of letters was worried (as many other writers and thinkers of succeeding generations would be) about the limits of knowledge and the nature of a college’s mission. The intellect can grow and grow, he knew, in a person who is smug, ungenerous, even cruel. Institutions originally founded to teach their students how to become good and decent, as well as broadly and deeply literate, may abandon the first mission to concentrate on a driven, narrow book learning—a course of study in no way intent on making a connection between ideas and theories on one hand and, on the other, our lives as we actually live them.

Students have their own way of realizing and trying to come to terms with the split that Emerson addressed. A few years ago, a sophomore student of mine came to see me in great anguish. She had arrived at Harvard from a Midwestern, working-class background. She was trying hard to work her way through college, and, in doing so, cleaned the rooms of some of her fellow students. Again and again, she encountered classmates who apparently had forgotten the meaning of please, of thank you—no matter how high their Scholastic Assessment Test scores—students who did not hesitate to be rude, even crude toward her.

One day she was not so subtly propositioned by a young man she knew to be a very bright, successful premed student and already an accomplished journalist. This was not the first time he had made such an overture, but now she had reached a breaking point. She had quit her job and was preparing to quit college in what she called “fancy, phony Cambridge.”

The student had been part of a seminar I teach, which links Raymond Carver’s fiction and poetry with Edward Hopper’s paintings and drawings—the thematic convergence of literary and artistic sensibility in exploring American loneliness, both its social and its personal aspects. As she expressed her anxiety and anger to me, she soon was sobbing hard. After her sobs quieted, we began to remember the old days of that class. But she had some weightier matters on her mind and began to give me a detailed, sardonic account of college life, as viewed by someone vulnerable and hard-pressed by it. At one point, she observed of the student who had propositioned her: “That guy gets all A’s. He tells people he’s in Group I [the top academic category]. I’ve taken two moral-reasoning courses with him, and I’m sure he’s gotten A’s in both of them—and look at how he behaves with me, and I’m sure with others.”

She stopped for a moment to let me take that in. I happened to know the young man and could only acknowledge the irony of his behavior, even as I wasn’t totally surprised by what she’d experienced. But I was at a loss to know what to say to her. A philosophy major, with a strong interest in literature, she had taken a course on the Holocaust and described for me the ironies she also saw in that tragedy—mass murder of unparalleled historical proportion in a nation hitherto known as one of the most civilized in the world, with a citizenry as well educated as that of any country at the time.

 


 

 from The Man, the Men at the Station  - by Pico Iyer

I got off the overnight train in Mandalay, Burma’s historical city of kings, and instantly there was a swarm of men around me. They were hard for me to tell apart, most of them, dressed in white shirts, with wraparound longyis around their waists, many of them wild-eyed and unshaven after spending all night in their trishaws. Like people in many countries that I’d seen, they were at once trying to arrest my attention and to avoid the attention of all the passersby or seeming passengers (or even fellow trishaw drivers) who might be making a living by giving names to the police. How to stand out, how to get by, and yet how not to attract notice: it is one of the never-ending predicaments in a country such as Burma.

I settled at last on one of them, with a straggly beard and rough, rural features, and we bargained a little on the street. Maung-Maung, as he asked me to call him, had a sign on one side of his half-broken little vehicle, “My Life,” and a sign on the other, “B.Sc. Mathematics.” I could tell that, like many of his fellows, he was bright, resourceful, well-educated, but in Burma, intelligence (in all senses) is something to be feared and can best be used by giving oneself to something other than words and ideas. I felt something of the unease that many a traveler feels in such a setting: it was as if I, through no gift of my own, had stepped down off the movie screen that Maung-Maung and his friends had been watching for most of their lives—an emissary from a land of freedom, possibility, and movement—and now they were reaching for me as if I could carry them back to my make-believe world.

 


 

 from Redeemed - by Heather King

One thing I can’t figure out is how some people have no belief in or concern about God at all and appear to get along just fine; to make their way through life way more easily and suavely than, for instance, me. I’m always asking, How crazy would I be if I wasn’t constantly consulting my spiritual director, and praying, and examining my conscience, and begging for God’s mercy? You might be thinking—I’ve thought it myself—that all that stuff is making me crazy. But you’d be wrong. I’m not nearly as crazy as I used to be, when I had to drink basically every waking moment in order to function. I’m not nearly as crazy as I was when I had tens of thousands of dollars in the bank and was picking plastic bottles off the street to refill rather than spring 79 cents for a fresh Crystal Geyser. I could just be trying to make myself feel better, but it seems to me that the very purpose of my “spiritual path,” for lack of a better term, is to bring us face-to-face with how wacked-out and unhinged we are, how desperately in need of help, how consistently we’ll pursue the wrong plan, person, way of thinking.

I’m beginning to see that the whole of Christ’s teachings can be read, or are perhaps most properly read, psychically: as a call to come awake. More and more, for example, I see I’ve walked around all these years almost completely unconscious of what drives me: of my deep agitation and unrest, of the perverse ways I sabotage myself. Driving around town like a maniac, never allowing myself enough time, knowing when I should leave but subconsciously finding something to do so I short myself ten minutes, so that for the whole trip I’m in a coma of adrenaline-charged anxiety and rage. Putting off my “happiness” until such and such happens: when I have a certain amount of money I’ll be happy, when I sell a book I’ll be happy, when I lose that last 2.38 pounds I’ll be happy. The whole panoply of unexamined assumptions that are hardwired so deeply into my nervous system and psyche I don’t even know they’re there: I’m bad, I’m guilty, I’m unworthy of love.

Being awake, in other words, really means being awake to my motives, actions, thoughts: how they lead me astray, how they keep me stuck, how I often like them to keep me stuck. As a friend of mine recently said: “All my life I thought I was open-minded. ‘I’m open-minded,’ I’d tell myself. ‘I live in a hip part of town, I have liberal politics, I’m a starving artist.’ I had no idea how closed down I was, of the sense of grievance I walked around with, of how quick I was to think I knew who you were, to judge.” He was right: I focus on other people’s defects so I don’t have to focus on mine. I resist admitting I’m loveable because then I might have to love someone else. I stay attached to my neuroses because I don’t want the responsibility of being free.

 


 

 from Covering - by Kenji Yoshino

My struggle to arrive at a gay identity occurred in three phases, which I could also trace in the lives of gay peers. In the first phase, I sought to become straight. When I went to the chapel at Oxford, I prayed not to be what I was. I will call this a desire for conversion. In the second phase, I accepted my homosexuality, but concealed it from others. I was, however, trying to hide my identity from my classmates. I will call this a desire for passing. Finally, long after I had generally come out of the closet, I still muted my orientation by not writing on gay topics or engaging in public displays of same-sex affection. This was not the same as passing, because my colleagues knew I was gay. Yet I did not know a word for this attempt to tone down my known gayness.

Then I found my word, in sociologist Erving Goffman’s book Stigma. Published in 1963, the book describes how various groups—including the disabled, the elderly, and the obese—manage their “spoiled” identities. After discussing passing, Goffman observes that “persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma ... may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” He calls this behavior “covering.” Goffman distinguishes passing from covering by noting that passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness. He relates how Franklin Roosevelt always stationed himself behind a table before his advisers came in for meetings. Roosevelt was not passing, since everyone knew he used a wheelchair. He was covering, downplaying his disability so people would focus on his more conventionally presidential qualities.

I read these passages in one of the cubicles in the Cross Campus Library. There, enclosed by walls marked with graffiti, I felt like Crusoe finding Friday’s footprint. Someone had been here. This distinction between passing and covering explained why I wasn’t done with conformity to straight norms when I came out of the closet. The demand not to write on gay subjects was not a demand to pass. It was a demand to cover.

I knew I would live with these three terms—“conversion,” “passing,” and “covering”—for some time. They described not only a set of performances on my part, but also a set of demands society had made of me to minimize my gayness. The conversion demand was the most severe, then passing, then covering. I had traversed these demands sequentially, and I believed many gay individuals had done the same.

 


 

 Floating - by Edward Abbey

Each precious moment entails every other. Each sacred place suggests the immanent presence of all places. Each man, each woman exemplifies all humans. The bright faces of my companions, here, now, on this Rio Dolores, this River of Sorrows, somewhere in the melodramatic landscape of southwest Colorado, break my heart—for in their faces, eyes, vivid bodies in action, I see the hope and joy and tragedy of humanity everywhere. Just as the hermit thrush, singing its threnody back in the piney gloom of the forest, speaks for the lost and voiceless everywhere.

What am I trying to say? The same as before—everything. Nothing more than that. Everything implied by water, motion, rivers, boats. By the flowing…

What the hell. Here we go again, down one more condemned river. Our foolish rubber rafts nose into the channel and bob on the current. Brown waves glitter in the sunlight. The long oars of the boatpeople—young women, young men—bite into the heavy water. Snow melt from the San Juan Mountains creates a river in flood, and the cold waters slide past the willows, hiss upon the gravel bars, thunder and roar among the rocks in a foaming chaos of exaltation.

Call me Jonah. I should have been a condor sailing high above the gray deserts of the Atacama. I should have stayed in Hoboken when I had the chance. Every river I touch turns to heartbreak. Floating down a portion of Rio Colorado in Utah on a rare month in spring, twenty-two years ago, a friend and I found ourselves passing through a world so beautiful it seemed and had to be—eternal. Such perfection of being, we thought—these glens of sandstone, these winding corridors of mystery, leading each to its solitary revelation—could not possibly be changed. The philosophers and the theologians have agreed, for three thousand years, that the perfect is immutable—that which cannot alter and cannot ever be altered. They were wrong. We were wrong. Glen Canyon was destroyed. Everything changes, and nothing is more vulnerable than the beautiful.

 


 

 from The Platform Sutra - Translated by Red Pine

Good friends, while I confer on you the Formless Precepts, you must all experience this for yourselves. Recite this together with me, and it will enable you to see the three-bodied buddha within you:

'I take refuge in the pure dharma-body buddha in my own material body.
I take refuge in the myriadfold transformation-body buddha in my own material body.
I take refuge in the future and perfect realization-body buddha in my own material body.’

Now recite this three times.

This material body is an inn and not a fit refuge. But the three bodies I just mentioned are your ever-present dharma nature. Everyone has them. But because people are deluded, they don’t see them. They look for the three-bodied tathagata outside themselves and don’t see the three-bodied buddha in their own material body.

Good friends, listen to this good friend of yours, and I will tell you good friends how to see within your material body the three-bodied buddha present in your dharma nature, the three-bodied buddha that arises from this nature of yours.

What do we mean by the pure dharma-body buddha? Good friends, everyone’s nature is fundamentally pure, and the ten thousand dharmas are present in this nature. If we think about doing something bad, we commit bad deeds. And if we think about doing something good, we perform good deeds. Thus, we know all dharmas are present in our nature. But our nature itself remains pure. The sun and moon are always shining. It is only due to cloud cover that there is light above but darkness below and we can’t see the sun or moon or stars. Then suddenly the wind of wisdom comes along and blows the clouds and drives the fog away, and a panorama of ten thousand images appears all at once.