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Friday, December 12, 2003

Back to nornal blogging, I hope.

Sunny today and I don't have to leave the house first thing after breakfast. What occurred to me as I was scraping the bottom of the empty Marmite jar was how full of illusions we all are about:

The Descent of Man

If you spend any time on the Web, either digging through the media, the forums, the blogs, and you take the trouble to read the comments made to some of the most cogent writing you have come across, the first thing you will notice is how full of hate and anger most people are to come across any opinion which differs from their own, even and perhaps most especially if that cast-iron opinion is based on prejudice, combined with ignorance, and bolstered by hypocrisy and denial.

Then there is a bunch of people who's main purpose is to organize reparations, retribution, compensation, for suffering of their ancestors or parents in the past, recent or not, even though they themselves never experienced any of it and even though they have only recently discovered the truth of the facts.

The first thing I come to think about is the Evolution of Man. At the separation of the animal world and the plant world, the animal can move about at will within its environment, whereas the plant mainly stays close to its roots (there are, of course, exceptions, like the orchids that travel down river, planted on logs which in a sudden flood were dislodged from their anchor at riveredge). Then it is thought man and apes had a common ancestor. The differences between ape and man DNA is not so very big, an ape is 98% a man. But the ape is still stuck in his environment, the comfort zone of his forest, swinging the unfettered life from branch to branch, subject only to his instincts and the availability of a congenial habitat, even though he has organized a fairly complex social system, with rules (we can't say taboos, but I think it comes close) about mating, child rearing, the support of the weak, the acceptance of strangers, territorial ownership or guardianship, etc. (Until man comes along and swoops him up into his zoos and animal experiment labs, that is.) We don't, most of us, understand ape communication, but they do communicate, if you watch, you can observe it.

Open a parenthesis here about animal communications beyond human understanding. I used to have two grey-cheeked parakeets, Mimi and Metoo. I don't acutally know what their sex was, or their age (I bought them secondhand in a pet store), but I always thought of Mimi as the girl and Metoo as the boy. Mimi had had one of her feet broken when she was banded, it had healed twisted and dead, but she was an adventurous soul and always the first to try out anything new. Metoo wa physically perfect, but timid. He never wanted to be the first, even though it was easiest for him. When Mimi had shown the way, then he would rush forward, as if saying: "Me too! Me too!" Tha'ts how he got his name.

Grey-cheeked parakeets are not really safe out of the cage all the time, they fall behind bookcases, and they drop wet calling cards all over the place that are not much fun to clean up. So free time was always supervised free time, usually in the evening when I came home from work. One eveiinng, I fell asleep with the bird cage still open. The birds had both gone in to sleep when it got dark, and I woke up to the happy sounds they made first thing in the morning. Instead of closing their door, I decided to leave it open. I had peaches in the house, and I cut one up onto a small saucer, which I placed on top of the cage to see what would happen. The birds watched me, and Mimi made her way out, up to the top of the cage, to check it out. Metoo just stayed put, his head to one side watching her. She reached the peaches and started tucking in "Very good!" she squawked as she ate, "Come and get some of these delicious peaches." Metoo wasn't sure. Was he scared? Was he lazy? Who knows. Eventually, Mimi selected a large piece of peach, and set it down outside the saucer, direclty on top of the bars of the cage, and Metoo climbed up on the inside and ate his share through the bars. Can I be blamed if I interpreted this as communication?

"No, I don't want to come out, I just don't feel like it. Be a dear and just put a piece where I can reach it from where I am."

End of parenthesis.

To go back to the apes, one day at the beginning of time or maybe even before, some apes with more curiosity than the others set foot on the ground and abandoned their comfort zone. Maybe actually they might not have made any such choice, it was a necessity brought about by an earthquake, a climate change, a fire, a time of famine, or a sudden drought. Whatever. This curious band spread out all the way to the inhospitable extremes of the globe. Just look at the bleak daily life of the traditional eskimos, the tribes of the Kalahri desert or the outback of Australia, how primitive man's ingenuity enabled him to survive climate extremes and hardship of every kind, fighting off wild beasts, etc. When you think about it, the mere invention of agriculture is a wonder, waiting for a harvest. . . having to make sure you kept enough seeds for the next season, and didn't eat it all because you happened to be hungry now . . .

On that line of thought, the punchline is that old truism:

"Necessity is the mother of invention."

Don't belitttle it. Nowadays, we have chosen a new mantra, the profit motive, it's called, but that is not sustainable. It is nothing but a pyramid scheme where the only ones that win are the first in. Everyone else loses.

Now, let's leave aside the process of evolution in a general way, and just look at one small aspect of it, which is the incremental process of knowledge shared by all mankind.

Two hundred years ago, electricity was known to all as lightning, basically. Today, however, your two-year old kid can probably activate a light switch or press an elevator button, and he knows nothing about amps, or watts or AC/DC, or power grids, etc. That's kinda funny. It's not quite so funny when I realize that most 12-year old American kids today would know more about custom-tuning my Mozilla right now than I shall a week after installing it. Any old-fashioned parent who learnt their multiplication tables by rote in their childhood knows what it is, today, to attempt to support their kids doing new maths homework.

Bottom line of all this is that each generation does not have to reinvent the wheel, and we all benefit through inventions and discoveries made by people more brilliant than ourselves.

Now, in terms of ancestry, what is it makes any of us proud of where we came from? What made you so clever as to be born a white American, for instance, instead of a black American, descentant of slaves, or a native Sioux on some reservation, or the American-born child of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants dreading the raids of the INS?

I mean, what is it makes you own responsibility, say, for being the son or daughter of your very own parents? Did you select them, and if so, how so? Did you introduce them to each other: "Hey, the two of you should get together, you would make a terrific couple? I need you to become my parents!"

Did you somehow manage it that you were born in the best (and cheapest) clinic in town on a cold winter's night in 1937? When Hitler was about to hurl his weight about the world to achieve his dream of the 1000-year Reich? Did you choose that date because you wanted to be part of it, or because you wanted to stop it, what were your plans exactly, if you claim you had a plan, and if you didn't have a plan, what's to be proud of for a fortuitous event, and if you did have a plan, did you fulfill it, and if you didn't fulfill it, what's there to be proud of, anyway?

OK. I know who my parents were. I know about their parents: four of them. Each in turn had four of their own. New maths or old maths, within a thousand years you have more ancestors than were alive in your part of the world. Logically, you must all be related, to the blacks, the yellows, the pinkos and the greenies. Probably, to the weirdos, too. (In my case, I don't have to look far: Granma Brown, as she is called in the family, my paternal grandfather's mother, who remarried to a Mr. Brown after great-grandfather Fenn died in the poor-house in Norwich; the mother who had her 10-year old son placed in a Borstal institution because it was more convenient for her to have him out of the way, so as to make room for Mr. Brown's own children.)

There is an old Chinese story about an Emperior who liked to play chess and was accustomed to winning. One day, a beggar challenges him to a game, and the Emperor tells him: "If you win, you can ask me for whatever you want--even my daughter's hand in marriage, if you choose."

The stranger wins. The Emperor has never lost before, he's not a poor loser, however: "What is it you want?" he asks the stranger.

"I would like some rice," the stranger answers. "Just one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard; two grains on the second square; four grains on the third; sixteen on the fourth; and so on."

The Emperor is delighted: such a great chess player, but such an idiot, he could have had anything, he could have married the princess.

And so it came about that the stranger bankrupted the Emperor and his kingdom.

Our human ancestry does just that. Take a piece of paper and a pencil and try it out for yourself, it's not really funny.

In the sutra I recite on a daily basis, there is a small phrase: "Shiki ko mimi".

What it means is this: "Grinding and sifting to dust". In the words of the Buddha:

"Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya thousand-millionfold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, moving eastward, each time he passes five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkhya worlds he drops a particle of dust. He continues eastward in this way until he has finished dropping all the particles. Good men, what is your opinion? Can the total number of all these worlds be imagined or calculated?

* * *

. . . Now I will state this to you clearly. Suppose all these worlds, whether they received a particle of dust or not, are once more reduced to dust. Let one particle represent one kalpa. The time that has passed . . . surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asamkya kalpas."

This is the time our lives have been continuing. We have all been recycled incalculably many times over. We are all a part of One wondrous life. We are all connected.

Today's problem is that everyone is trying to make over other people, as opposed to looking at fixing things at home.

The Egyptians have a saying: "If you want to build a pyramid, you start from the bottom. If you want to clear a mountain, you start from the top." The fact is that trickle-down never works. You must build a society at the village level.

If the apes who left their zone of comfort evolved because they faced difficulties they had never experienced before, our civilization focussed on comfort and ease stands more in the relationship to the apes swinging in the comfort of their trees than to those who set out to become Man.

Looking at it from this angle the peoples of the West as we know it are peoples of displacement, we are the descendants of those who did not endure in other places, who pulled up their roots and went away to make a better life, to make a new start, and so they did. They conquered their new worlds (it was never uninhabited) and did not even benefit from the cultures they overtook and destroyed -- they did not assimilate them; so they only brought one sure thing, the notion of what they didn't want, the denial of their powerlessness and their inferiority. Which is probably what triggers their anger and their hate when anyone has a different point of view.

People who remain and endure eventually develop the notion of what they want. As an example one might examine, the Iraqis who live in Iraq. They have thousands of years of survival behind them, a good proportion of them under foreign occupation of one kind or another. That is their specialite, survival, and there is absolutely no doubt, they will survive.

For our part, as we lose our jobs, our children, our economy, our environment, our health, our wealth, our hope, our dreams, please tell me how are we going to zap to some other channel more likely to delight our senses and satisfy our aspirations? Are we going to survive? Are our children going to have to reinvent the wheel?

My thought for today: If the Democrats want to beat Bush out to send him back to his ranch, next year, they must focus, not on raising campaign funds so much (he'll always be way ahead on that score), but on raising consciousness and votes. If it doesn't get done this time, it will be too late for the American way of life to survive, because democracy is almost gone from America today, greed and corruption are everywhere, backed by bigotry and lies, and our Constitution is not far behind. Wotchout! Pay close attention.

Notes for the curious (Sorry, can't be clearer...):

Nayuta: A numerical unit, defined differently in different texts but clearly indicating an extremely large number.

Asamkya: An ancient Indian numberical unit, indicating an uncountably large number.

Kalpa: An extremely long period of time.
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