A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, November 29, 2009
ARJUNA’S DILEMMA: A Reflection on Killing, the Spiritual Life and the Quest for Meaning
Kishna, the great Lord of Yoga,
revealed to Arjuna his majestic,
transcendent, limitless form.
With innumerable mouths and eyes,
faces too marvelous to stare at,
dazzling ornaments, innumerable
weapons uplifted, flaming –
Crowned with fire, wrapped
in pure light, with celestial fragrance,
he stood forth as the infinite
God, composed of all wonders.
If a thousand suns were to rise
and stand in the noon sky, blazing,
such brilliance would be like the fierce
brilliance of that mighty Self.
Arjuna saw the whole universe
enfolded, with its countless billions
of life-forms, gathered together
in the body of the God of gods.
Trembling with awe, his blood chilled
The hair standing up on his flesh,
He bowed and, (joined) his palms.
(As the Lord declared)
I am death, shatter of worlds,
Annihilating all things.
— The Bhagavad Gita, adapted from Chapter 11.
Jesus is said to have spoken that phrase we all know, about “war and rumors of war.” Some take it as prophecy, about how things will be. But, of course, it’s actually about how things are. There have been no times in our human history without the organized killing of human beings happening somewhere. In this near decade since 9/11 we Americans are particularly, painfully and intimately aware of this terrible reality.
Today, let’s reflect a bit on what this endless warring, our human propensity for violence might mean. Next week we will speak of those spiritual disciplines, which allow us to navigate the currents of our lives, to live lives of dignity and courage, and to make some difference in this hurting world. I particularly hope you’ll return that afternoon, next week, for our annual Amnesty International letter writing campaign. But today, let’s look at the heart of humanity, let’s investigate the matter of violence and killing and what possible meaning we can find within it. I believe our liberal religious way has something to say about this. In fact I think our liberal spiritual perspectives open the very real possibilities we will explore practically next week.
But first how do we find ourselves in this pickle? I’ve told this story before, but I don’t believe here. Some years past when Jan & I lived in Newton, Massachusetts, I was standing on line at the Star Market. In addition to picking up some necessities and the makings for that evening’s dinner, I was purchasing some beer. While I don’t drink Jan does imbibe upon occasion, mostly wine, but when the weather is right she likes a beer. This was beer season and I take pleasure in shopping around to find designer beers for her to sample. On this trip I saw I could select from among the micro and slightly-less-than-macro offerings while still getting a single six-pack price. A mix and match deal. Hog heaven!
I got on line. It was a fair wait. Then finally at the register apparently the very young person checking the groceries hadn’t encountered this six-pack mix and match possibility. She held up one of the six bottles I’d gathered. I forget which exactly, a bottle of Three Stooges Beer or some such, and asked, "How much?" I replied, "I don’t exactly remember, but a sign said the assortment comes at a single six-pack price."
This led to calling over a manager, a brief discussion and then a trip for another pimply-faced youth to the beer department. Now the line behind me, as you might have gathered, was backing up, and people were beginning to twitch. So, I was feeling the pressure. Everything else was rung up, and we waited on that price for what seemed to be an eternity, except, actually, a bit longer.
At last the guy standing directly behind me, a fellow in a blue pin stripe suit with his tie loosened and in a hand basket a selection of Stouffer boiling bags, products with which I was myself once fairly familiar, spoke up. "Hey, this seems like a fifty cent deal. I’ll pay the damn fifty cents! Let’s get going."
I flushed with embarrassment. I turned to him and said, indignantly, "We’re just trying to find the price." He snorted derisively and looked at his wristwatch. Something big and gold, I decided it probably was a Rolex. Anyway I flushed and turned back to the checker to avoid his and everyone else’s gaze. But my mind focused on the guy with the Stouffer’s dinners. Standing there I found myself running through all sorts of scenarios, none of which seemed appropriate to either a minister or a forty year and on Zen practitioner. But here I admit it to you; violence was definitely part of my thought process.
Finally, excruciatingly, the wait came to an end. I did, indeed, find myself paying an extra fifty cents, well, fifty-two to be precise. I left the store feeling red as the proverbial beet, from my hairline right down to my collar, and, most important for us, my mind filled with murderous thoughts.
So, what’s the deal? How is it that a well-socialized, more or less good citizen, minister and Zen practitioner, find quite violent thoughts bubbling in his skull, at least one featuring a corpse with a Rolex lying in a grocery store checkout line? What’s the deal there? Let me tell you, I’ve ruminated on this scene for years. And I continue to find it troubling.
Thinking about it deeply doesn’t lead to the happiest conclusions. There’s a recent play called Hominid, produced I think at Emory University in Atlanta. It touches on the problem, as well. I heard the story on NPR earlier this week. Perhaps some here did, as well. Later I went to the web and looked it up. Emory actually provides a plot outline.
"A conniving kingmaker and his young protégé conspire to overthrow a popular king. Their plot fails, so they murder him instead. The kingmaker then installs his protégé as ruler. The young king does not properly reward his mentor, however, so the kingmaker selects a new protégé. Together, they torment the young king to the point of madness. He throws himself into the palace moat and drowns.”
The reason you can’t quite put your finger upon which of Shakespeare’s works inspired this play, is because it’s actually based upon real events that took place at a nature preserve in the 1970s. The characters are all chimpanzees. I suggest if this doesn’t bother you, you’re not paying attention. We share nearly all our DNA and most of our genes with chimps. That we humans and chimps both play out Shakespearean tragedies is important information, very important information.
Bottom line here’s the dilemma of our human condition. You may have noticed our human lives are a bundle of contradictions. That truth is hard to miss, actually. Looking at how we organize ourselves, its obvious we’re herd animals. We have a deep biological need to cooperate. And we cheat. All the time. Also, as possibly the only animal to anticipate our own deaths, we have a deep knowing that death causes cascades of hurt for many, and is in some real, visceral and terrible way wrong. And we kill. Both by our actions and by how we refrain from action, lots of killing. The important point right this moment is that our contradictory inclinations are inherent in us, part of the deal of being alive, of being human, of being an ape, of being a mammal.
Of course, we’re the reflective animal. We watch ourselves and we think about it. Human beings have wrestled with what all this means for the entirety of our existence, probably, I would say almost certainly, from the moment we first formed a sentence. For the most part we’ve done this wrestling within the frame of our religious traditions. Our visions are many. The ancient Norse saw any harmonies as fragile and predicted an inevitable decline into chaos. Most religions, however, seek reconciliation between the poles of our lives. This reconciled heart is found in different ways, some I’ve found more useful, others, less so.
But I think our liberal religious inclination to a naturalistic style; our knowing how we exist within a web of relationship informs us in a most helpful way. For me if everything isn’t included there’s a mistake, a flaw that will inevitably betray our most tightly reasoned analysis. Incomplete information does that. And there’s some good news we’ve already found, when nothing is excluded marvelous things appear.
Another feature of our way is to look wide for guidance. Here I find myself thinking of the great Hindu classic the Bhagavad Gita. I suspect you know the broad outline of the story. There’s a terrible fratricidal civil war. As the culminating battle prepares, the prince Arjuna despairs, and orders his charioteer to drive him to the open space between the gathering armies. Quickly it becomes apparent that the charioteer is in fact God. With that revelation they speak of fundamental matters.
For me the least satisfactory part of the story has Krishna telling Arjuna his fate is to fight and to win. Arjuna is told the heroes of the other side are already dead even before the first sword is raised. It is all God’s will. I have to admit, as a justification for terrible things “God’s will” has never impressed me. It’s a bit too much like the bare story of Job where it seems in the face of all the terrible things that happen, he’s told by God to shut up and submit. It’s all God’s will.
But like the story of Job, where a deeper answer can in fact be seen as something vastly more than a demand to bow down in the dust, the story of Arjuna is often seen as a call to something rather deeper than obey and kill. In both cases there is a call to presence, to not turning away, and a promise of a larger vision that can and will come out of that full presence to the moment, to this moment in which we actually live. It is a call to wisdom.
The poem tells us how “Arjuna saw the whole universe/enfolded, with its countless billions/of life-forms, gathered together/in the body of the God of gods.” It calls us to a vision where nothing is excluded. This opens us to genuine wisdom. It is an ecstatic vision, although a terrible one in the fullness of that word.
Next week we celebrate the work of mercy and justice as a spiritual practice. Today we consider what insight we share within our human condition that calls us to such a work. Stephen Batchelor who produced the version of the Bhagavad Gita we adapted for today’s reading speaks of the sage, the person who has achieved wisdom.
Stephen writes. “This portrait is among the finest in world literature. Though not as subtle as the portrait of the Master in the Tao Te Ching, it is more easily comprehensible. Though not as profound as the wild, marvelous nonfigurative image that emerges from the dialogues of the Chinese Zen masters, it is profound enough, and more obviously filled with the inestimable quality that we call ‘heart.’ In elaborate loving detail, the Gita poet describes what it is like to have grown beyond the sense of a separate self, to live centered in the deathless reality at the core of our being… the person that all of us, men and women alike, are capable of becoming because that is who we all essentially are.”
Here’s my suggestion. For just a moment, set aside the idea that our suffering is meant to educate us. Set aside the idea that death is a door to some other place. Set aside the words, all the words that tumble from us, and with them the meanings small and large, which the words give to things. Just be present. Don’t forget the hurt. Don’t forget the joy. Don’t forget the killing. Don’t forget each birth. Be present and know this moment, full, just this moment. Just for a moment.
I suggest by being fully here, not turning away, within the great roil of reality, something appears at the center of things, birthing within our hearts as a deep knowing, or perhaps it is better to call it a profound not knowing. We become open. Now, flawed or not, the words will come again. This is our human condition, to think, to wrestle with it, to find meaning of one sort or another. The words come. “Arjuna saw the whole universe/enfolded, with its countless billions/of life-forms, gathered together/in the body of the God of gods.” Here are words informed by that deathless place, that moment of not knowing, open to all. We are one within the web. We are unique and different, and we are one within the web.
With this deep knowledge of our connectedness, of our intimate relationships, with the man with the Rolex watch, with Osama bin Laden, with the chimps, with the turkey that was featured at many people’s dinner Thursday, with every blessed thing on this planet, with the killers and the killed; we notice and a door opens. We are not excused from action, in a world that is completely interdependent to where can we absent ourselves? We must make decisions. We must act. This is part of the deal. But our ancient inclination to violence will also be challenged, be informed by our deep knowing we are all related.
Know the connections and we open up, becoming as wide as the universe. With that our individual hearts turn, and our actions become something more gentle, more kind, more just. If, as the oracle tells us, we truly know ourselves, then we will walk this world with grace, chimps that have found wisdom.
This I believe.