This is a largely philosophical rumination on the transience of memory. It is an attempt to be realistic in spite of the well-established fact that one of the most powerful human motivations is the desire to make a lasting impact, or, forbidding that, to continue as a part of an eternal or sustained community. Most of the world’s largest monuments are dedicated to this proposition. Religions conceptualize it and perpetuate this as a core belief.
But down here at ground level what happens if I were simply to cease to exist? [In the following reflections “they” are various others who might be remembering us if we were to cease to exist.]
WHO WOULD BE IMPACTED
3 circles of impact:
Critical – their existence would be impossible if we suddenly ceased to exist. Most of us have no one this close or critical to us. “Siamese twins” might. Occasionally in history some personality has built a cult-following with a suicidal level of dependency on the “essential one”. But the purpose of mature parenthood is to create awareness in children of their independence. Almost none of us are so “significant” to anyone that they cannot adjust to life without us, romantic fantasies notwithstanding.
Serious – their life would be heavily changed. Grief is proof that we are connected in deeply fraught ways. We may not even be aware how deep the connections are until they are severed. But most of us will be changed if certain people in our lives were to go away. These people can be a powerful motive for us to survive “in their behalf.”
Marginal – they would need to adjust. Honestly, a majority of the people in our life would be able to get along without us. Our departure will be noticed but the impact of it would be slight in terms of their need to do things differently from now on. Indeed, it can be a great comfort for someone facing death to realize “they’ll be fine.”
WHO WOULD NOTICE
Outside of the circles of those whose lives we impact are those who merely would notice our departure.
Nearest or dearest – they would be certain and quick to notice. Some of these would be waiting to hear, or attending gatherings in anticipation of our death if it was gradual. Close family would notice immediately. In some societies neighbors would be told and would take action.
Distant – they would be certain to notice but they might not hear immediately. Our death would “register” and be remembered. It would make an impression.
Conditional – they would notice if the conditions were right. Obituaries on social media provide those conditions as never before. Disrupted or dysfunctional families tend to break those conditions down. Big funerals for “important” people are for the purpose of making sure people notice.
Random – they might eventually notice even if they were not informed of our departure at the time. Lists of deaths by associations and organizations get the word out, but it’s uncertain who will pay attention.
Doubt – they would come to wonder what has become of us. These thoughts tend to be passing, and only if there was some specific reason would they try to find out what happened to us to cause a gap in connection.
There is a general agreement over the centuries in every culture that a person’s existence is significant and that significance continues. It can be described as a ripple moving to a distant shore. It is unpredictable. Stories of people remembering the action of a teacher in the past, for example, are comforting. Heaven and reincarnation are reassuring concepts.
But it is undeniable that almost all of us will be forgotten. Even our genetic contributions (if any) to future generations will be diluted to the point of inconsequence.
There are events that remind us of the unpredictability of life. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center is such a reminder. There are also epochs in history in which death is a major topic. World War II was one of them. Even if the USA manages a full and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and ends its last war for the time being, COVID has taken center stage reminding us that we are mortal. We may not like it, but mortality trumps all.
So, what are we living for? That is, why? Ah, that is the challenge, to discover the purpose of living. No one can do it for you. For every one of us the conclusion is unique and fluid. At 18 my purpose was one thing, and at 81 it is vastly different. As I have collected life stories it is obvious no two of them are the same. It is only when meaningfulness-at-this-time ceases that motivation for living begins to fade.
Today is the gift you have been given, and the people in your life and you in theirs are where meaningfulness gestates.
ENLIGHTENMENT OF A TERRORIST
The mythic story of the terrorist who wore 999 fingers of his victims as a necklace is one of the most familiar Buddhist stories, although its meaning is subject to interpretation and the story has many variations to conform it to one or the other of these interpretations.
The story has two parts. In the first part a privileged child turns into a feared terrorist intent on killing 1000 people, keeping track by cutting on a finger from each victim and wearing them on a string. He has one to collect when his mother tries to save him from being hunted down as the terrorist he is. In his demented desperation he thinks of killing his mother to complete the quest, but then he sees the Buddha and sets off after him instead. His race toward the Self-Enlightened One is unsuccessful because he can never seem to close the gap between himself and the serene One. He calls on the Buddha to stop, but Gautama replies, “I’ve already stopped, you stop, too.” This leads to a conversation in which the terrorist, Angulimala (องคุลิมาล ) realizes that his intention could be achieved by ceasing his murderous rampage. The Buddha expounds a way of release that does not accrue horrendous kharmic consequences. Thus begins the second part of the story. Angulimala accepts this advice, gives up his quest, becomes a disciple and then an arahant (an enlightened one on the threshold of Nirvana/Nibbana). In a further episode the converted terrorist, utilizing his profound experience of pain and advice from the Buddha, assists in a childbirth, leading to his being venerated in that regard.
Scholars have written extensively on how to make coherent sense out of this myth. The popular view is that the story shows that no one is totally beyond salvation. Other scholars insist that nuances are valuable to help us see how this mythic example applies to such conundrums as Buddhist justification of violence in the name of justice. I am particularly attracted to an article by Paisarn Likhitpreechakul who argues that this mythic story is a rebuttal of “karmic determinism” that “is used to rationalize inequality and justify prejudices.”*
Above all, the Buddha was a masterful teacher. Each of his lessons was precisely designed for his intended audience. To focus on aspects of narratives about him that seem to contravene natural law is to miss the point of the metaphorical action being described. Many religious narratives contain seemingly supernatural aspects that would best be thought of as parabolic.
Christians tell the story of “Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac” (the demented man who lived among the tombs and terrorized the neighborhood). The legion of demons pleaded to be released into a flock of swine and were dispatched, setting the man free to re-enter society and be a disciple of Jesus.*
“Legion” and Angulimala have a lot in common, but it fades in comparison to what Gautama and Jesus have in common as masterful teachers of peaceful living in society.
How one gets from being an adversary to an advocate of peace, wholeness, and fulfillment depends on one’s starting point. Few of us are possessed by 5000 demons or on a quest to murder a thousand victims, but all of us have need of transformative advice before it’s too late. The best teachers are those who enter their students’ zeitgeist and discern the distorted images of God submerged within. Teachers who fail are those, like the villagers in both Gergesa and Kosala, who see no more than hopeless scoundrels causing havoc.
* Paisarn Likhitpreechakul, “Decoding Two ‘Miracles’ of the Buddha,” in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Vol. 2, May, 2012. And see my blog on the Demoniac named Legion: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/John
The US Turn to Go Home
Monday, August 16, we awoke to the news that the Taliban had taken over Kabul and the leader of Afghanistan had fled to Uzbekistan. There was panic in the streets as countless thousands tried to get to the airport to leave the city. There was chaos at the airport as US troops tried to evacuate US citizens and their Afghan supporters, translators and staff. The US Embassy was burning all the sensitive documents and equipment they could. The iconic picture was of a huge US military aircraft taking off with Afghans still clinging to it.
The Taliban leaders began to try to assure the press that the panic was unwarranted, and that human rights would be respected including the rights of women. But on the streets pickup trucks of Taliban fighters patrolled and reports began of women being harassed and taken prisoner for such infractions as wearing slippers. Reporters told of streets being deserted with no women appearing anywhere. The one road to the airport was blocked by Taliban troops with foreigners allowed through but not Afghans.
Blame began to be hurled, with the media declaring the US had been caught completely by surprise at the speed with which the Taliban had regained control of the country.
President Joe Biden responded to a storm of criticism that the USA was perpetrating an atrocity, undoing and profaning the sacrifices of generations of US troops, and failing to insure any sort of orderly end to US presence in Afghanistan. He insisted that the USA had served its purpose in securing the operations of the civilian government of Afghanistan and training a generation of military security forces, equipping them, and preparing them to lead. After 4 Presidents, 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats, had sent US troops in response to a UN resolution in 2001, he was unwilling to back-off from the negotiated arrangement his predecessor, Donald Trump, had made for US troops to leave. What had happened, he said, was that when it came to the point that the Afghan government and military needed to forcefully resist the rise of the Taliban they refused to do so. It is irrelevant to say that US military in Afghanistan knew the Afghan military would not fight without the Americans fighting with them. It is irrelevant to say the US mission, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, is a failure. It is simply time, Biden said, to end US attempts to build Afghan democracy.
Even a cursory reading of history shows that Afghanistan is an area where peace and order have always been in short supply. Moreover, the Afghans have constantly resisted foreign intervention, even when it was invited to come in (as in the case of the USSR in 1979). It has always been the lack of internal stability that has plagued the country.
The present unrest cannot be understood without careful study of the way Wahhabist Islamic sectarianism has arisen. Not all Islam is the same, and neither is all Wahhabism (reformist conservative Islam that adherents prefer to call Salafi.) The Taliban arose as this type of movement, determined to install radical monotheism through force if necessary. Their reform called for purification of heretical references and influences, restoration of patriarchy and subjugation of women, and installation of theocracy. The ruthless way in which the Taliban operated, assisted by conservative Pakistani military along the extensive border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, created international concern. The issues were human rights and also the obliteration of Afghan and regional cultural history, including destruction of vast collections in museums and libraries, and the dynamiting of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.
After the destruction of the NY World Trade Center on 9/11 2001, President Bush demanded that Afghanistan (with Taliban in control of the area near Pakistan where bin Laden was believed to be) turn over Osama bin Laden, and that was refused. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom and in December the UN authorized the International Security Assistance Force. This was to back up the administration of Hamid Karzai who was made head of an Afghan Transitional Administration in July 2002. For 20 years this UN force, composed of some 33,000 US troops of a total of 150,000 international military (on average per year; with a high of 110,000 US troops there in 2011 to a low of about 4000 last year). The US “mission” evolved from making Afghanistan secure enough to develop and “getting bin Laden” (accomplished in 2011 during the presidency of Barack Obama) to preparing and equipping the Afghan military to do the job of internal security.
Public opinion has immediately decided the US failed to accomplish anything in Afghanistan. History will either concur or disagree that as with Great Britain in the 19th century and the USSR in the 20th century, the USA in the 21st century failed in its basic tasks.
Still, it is a country with a dazzling history and potential.
I, for one, hope that this generation of Taliban has improved in its ability to value people, respect differences of opinion, and build the country.
A friend sent me a video clip of a family doctor in Indiana who told his school board that COVID vaccinations are never going to work. My friend admitted he “didn’t know who to believe?”
So, I sympathized:
“Yes, it’s hard to know whom to believe. On the one hand you have this family physician in Indiana who has scientific knowledge that is superior to the US Department of Health, the United Nations, and the governments of more than a hundred countries around the world. He argues that vaccines don’t work and are actually harmful. He learned as he was preparing to be a doctor, that vaccine worked for smallpox but will not for these types of viruses such as the common cold. Masks also don’t work and are a deception in some way causing the virus to get worse. The doctor, however, bless him, has treated 15 COVID patients with 100% success using herbs that he told his audience about. Golly! It’s so confusing!”
Meanwhile, I have been monitoring the mood of my many friends in the USA and here in Thailand, and I can see a down-turn in mental welfare. I am pretty sure it comes from a combination of circumstances, including the waves of COVID. First the virus came but would be controlled, and then it got out of control but vaccines would take care of it, and then it turned out new strains were spreading despite vaccination, and then there was a need to start over with social restrictions and new rules. People hoped we’d return to normal. But that has been postponed and a “lot” of people are rebelling. Their rebellion is most dangerous when it is obstructing the vaccination movement. That is what has pushed many of my friends and family toward the brink. I am not exaggerating when I say I’m worried about how they’re doing emotionally. They don’t sound well at the moment.
This prolonged pandemic and swirling storm of bad news is getting us down.
WHAT SHOULD EDUCATION DO?
The short answer is
EDUCATION SHOULD DEVELOP PEOPLE HOLISTICALLY.
A person is made up of 4 aspects. A person is:
People are also individuals, with differing natures and different talents.
One educational model does not fit everyone.
The goal of education cannot be the same for everyone
But formal education is practical. It must be designed to do what it can do
1. Education studies COGNITIVE REALITY
The practical purpose of education is to help us acquire accurate data and develop understanding.
Education begins before we are born. Pre-natal education is important.
Then comes discovery through having needs met.
We begin cognition by acquiring bits of information and compiling them into patterns.
Then we proceed to figure out what to do with our understanding.
Education is an on-going lifelong undertaking.
Some types of education are better done at specific stages of life.
But we learn and keep learning from before we are born until we die and beyond.
· Cognitive knowledge is the main type of information that education tries to provide.
· A large part of knowledge is genetic, intuitive or imparted through socialization.
· But there comes a point at which curiosity and necessity require more intellectual input.
· Formal education starts with training about how to access knowledge and how to hold onto it (reading, recitation, writing, counting, and remembering social rules).
· Formal education gradually becomes more refined with goals about what we ought to KNOW and SUBJECT AREAS which describe and impart essential content of that knowledge.
2. Tools and skills that are educational
As human beings we are “educated” by our genetics, intuition, and perceptions. For the most part it is only our perceptions that can be developed intentionally. So education has identified traditional areas to work on.
Necessary skill areas:
A. Language and communication
B. Math and science
C. Art and music
D. Literature and culture
These skills are inter-disciplinary. That is they are useful and sometimes essential for all sorts of activities.
MUSIC: learning to play a musical instrument involves every one of those skill areas.
SPORTS: athletics are impossible without physical, mental, emotional and cognitive practice.
COOKING: all cooking is a cultural, scientific, and highly artistic endeavor.
3. Education’s basic goals are about self-actualization
Basic formal education involves knowing one’s self, one’s society, one’s world, and one’s meaning.
TO KNOW ONESELF
Two subjects that are important for knowing one’s self are:
TO KNOW ONE’S SOCIETY
Three subjects that one must study in order to know how one fits into the wider world are:
SOCIOLOGY (including cultural anthropology)
ETHICS (including law)
HISTORY (including literature)
TO KNOW ONE’S WORLD
Two areas that are often overlooked but we now know are important are:
(environment, physical geography)
TO KNOW ONE’S MEANING
1. With regard to THE SACRED
2. With regard to THE FUTURE (what we are here for, what our legacy might be)
3. With regard to THE ETERNAL
Every educated person at the bachelor’s level should know the “essentials” about self, society, the world, and religion. A master of a field can teach others what they need to know about one of those subjects and how to acquire more knowledge about it. A doctor is one who can design, conduct and supervise research into unexplored aspects of that subject.
4. Satisfactory LEVELS OF ACHIEVEMENT
How much education is enough for now?
The idea is that if a person has initiation into these skills, the person will be able to use them to acquire knowledge independently, without direct supervision. Then the person will be functionally independent.
The decision to continue or discontinue any program of education or self-development is ultimately up to the individual. Society, however, stipulates rewards and consequences for satisfactorily acquiring various levels of achievement.
The personal issue becomes how one decides to function in society.
When we move from “basic” to “specific” education we have moved from general self-improvement to vocational training.
1. Some of us resolve to function as a member of society and contribute to the welfare of your family and/or your personal fulfillment; work is how we make this happen.
2. Others resolve to provide civic service (as military; religious, political or cultural leaders; educators or health service professionals; etc.); family and personal life fit around that.
FINALLY, PLEASE REMEMBER
No matter what role you take, you are you.
When circumstances change, you are still you.
When you make good decisions, you are you and you had help.
When you make bad decisions, you are not essentially diminished.
Your core role as a human being is to infuse every encounter in your life with
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.