“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
The communist philosophy and aesthetic (all those ugly buildings and drab uniforms) have never appealed to me, personally. But Karl Marx pretty much hit the nail on the head for me with this famous 1834 quote. Jamaica has the highest density of churches per square mile in the world, and a crippling crime rate, as we all know. Maybe the drug is wearing off, or the populace has become resistant to it. But Jamaican keep on taking it in ever larger doses, in the hopes that it will eventually work. There are “crusades” at high schools, the evangelistic churches “bawl out” for divine help, and there are prayers before every meeting, large and small.
Having said that, I am personally fascinated by the rituals and trappings of organized religion. The announcement of the new Pope this week is a case in point. Who did not feel the slightest little shiver down their spine at the sight of the adoring, happy masses, waving flags and singing; the candles, the marble buildings, the light at the window, the opening of the net curtains on the balcony? It was almost magical. Aha, yes – magic, indeed; but I do know that magic isn’t real.
Recently, I met a man who, with a great deal of modesty, described himself as a “reluctant author.” We were at our lovely neighborhood bookstore in Kingston, Bookophilia, which I highly recommend). It was a nice, cozy evening with a group of uptown Jamaicans, mostly women (I find that middle-class Kingston ladies are the most enthusiastic explorers of what one might call “alternative spirituality”).
Mr. Chungliang Al Huang is the founder and president of the Living Tao Foundation, on the beautiful, wild coast of Oregon in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He also founded the International Lan Ting Institute, a conference which takes place in China. Although he was brought to Jamaica under the auspices of the University of the West Indies‘ Confucius Institute (set up with Chinese Government funding) he has actually lived in the United States since 1955 and has traveled widely. His family fled from communist mainland China to Taiwan – a country disapproved of by both the People’s Republic and Jamaica. Be that as it may, here he was. And he’s really very famous, described as “a sage for the modern age.”
Now, the sixties were heady times, in more ways than one. In those hippie days, we embraced various religions (mostly of the eastern variety) one after the other; at times we got them all mixed up together. I was a university student then, meditated like crazy, and was pretty good at chanting, too. It was my early fascination with Zen Buddhism that led me to take up studying Japanese.
Of course, when Mr. Al Huang moved to Big Sur, California in the sixties (almost the coolest place in the Universe at that time), he became an “instant guru,” he told us, with a wry smile. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he added cheerfully. A groovy, far out Tai Ji master, in a red jumpsuit. But let me be fair: He had already had a very solid upbringing in the classic scholarly Chinese arts – not only Tai Ji but also kung fu and calligraphy, in particular. He knew his stuff. But because of the times, he also became a celebrity. And he was a dancer; he knew Sammy Davis, Jr. and Fred Astaire.
At this point, the name-dropping began – for which he kept apologizing. But the names of his various collaborators over the decades kept on slipping out. The Chicago Bulls basketball coach, Phil Jackson; the zany British comedian John Cleese of Monty Python fame; the Dalai Lama (who, he said, once committed the sinful act of killing a mosquito when he met him in Bali); and Jane Goodall, the extraordinary naturalist, anthropologist and activist, who is a close friend. He also hung out with the fashionable New Age philosophers Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers; the brilliant violinist Yehudi Menuhin; the awesome jazz man Charles Lloyd; and singers John Denver and Joan Baez. Among others. He loves jazz and rock and classical music, and musicians. I vaguely wondered what he would make of dancehall, then dismissed the thought…
I have started dipping into the book which I purchased that evening, “Tao Mentoring.” I have learnt that, according to Tao, “all existence is circular,” and that there is no “either/or” scenario. In my youth, I had an enamel Yin and Yang pendant that I was very fond of, so all this sounded familiar. Emptiness has negative connotations in the Western world, Mr. Al Huang told us; but in Taoism, it signifies humility. You are a humble receptacle, ready to be filled (hopefully, with wisdom and enlightenment). So the “half-full, half-empty” cliché doesn’t work for him. I can certainly see that.
And he talked about crisis, which he described as “danger and opportunity” co-existing – it’s all circular, remember. Let’s remember this when dealing with the IMF. Mr. Al Huang’s book “Quantum Soup” ( play on words – won ton soup, get it?) is sub-titled “Fortune Cookies in Crisis.” Also recommended is his most famous book – despite the reluctance he claims, he has written quite a few – “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind.” Again, that buoyancy of thought – a spiritual dancer, so to speak.
I asked him about enlightenment. One thing I loved about Zen was the concept of “satori” – the Japanese word meaning a kind of sudden, intuitive understanding: you “see the light,” so to speak. But you don’t get satori just like that. It only occurs after years of rigorous discipline, meditation and lots of koans (these are sort of spiritual riddles that you have to solve, like the famous one about “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) It’s really tough going, indeed.
But no, said Chungliang; the Chinese aren’t like the Japanese (how many times have I heard that before?) The Japanese are austere, rigid; they have lots of tests and levels of spirituality, like the various belts in aikido, judo and karate. The Chinese aren’t like that, he informed me; they are big and rowdy, and often impatient, and they laugh more. So they don’t worry about such things. If you are ready to be taught, then you are ready. No need for all those tests.
OK, but I kind of like austere.
But I liked Mr. Al Huang’s self-deprecating humor, too. He smiled most of the time, with a lightness of spirit that was most endearing, as he sat with his hands on his knees in front of the children’s book section (which is very good, by the way). People make hell out of their own lives, he said, reminding me of that Bob Marley line,“think you’re in heaven but you’re living in hell.” He used the vivid analogy of a banquet. Those feasting happily at the banquet are feeding each other, smiling. Those who are in hell are the ones with such tiny mouths that they cannot eat the delicious food. It was a macabre image that nevertheless made us all laugh. And he demonstrated the wink of the “Third Eye” which he always uses when teaching, if his students are getting too serious. It brings a smile to their faces, as it did ours. Profundity and humor make a delightful mix.
I must mention another popular modern-day guru (the word, by the way, is Sanskrit for “teacher” or “master”). His name is Dr. Deepak Chopra, and he has a huge following. Born in New Delhi, he is the founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California. He is a medical doctor who has written some 65 books (how is that even possible?) My favorite is “Perfect Health.” I follow Dr. Chopra on Twitter. I wrap my mind around his regular articles for the Huffington Post, on everything from perception to depression, from climate change to consciousness. And there is a Daily Deepak, available on iPhone and iPad. So you need never be without him. And I, for one, wouldn’t want to be. I think he understands me.
And then there are Dr. Chopra’s 21-day meditation courses. If you have not meditated, you should definitely take that trip. The current set – three weeks of free guided meditation online, with the relevant mantras and thoughts for the day – is a collaboration with that super-famous Renaissance woman, Oprah Winfrey (and if you haven’t heard of Deepak, you must have heard of Oprah). You will find it hard not to get hooked on the combination of hypnotic chill out music and Dr. Chopra’s soft, deep voice guiding you along the way.
There is scientific proof now, I understand, that meditation is mind-altering, in the best possible way. Brain scans of meditators done at Harvard University last year suggest that meditation “may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.” I think we already knew that, really.
A few days ago, we had to meditate on the mantra “Yum.” I know it is a real Sanskrit word, but I found this a tricky one, especially as one had to keep repeating it, mentally: “Yum…Yum…Yum…” Visions of a banquet – a Chinese one, perhaps – floated in front of me. I tried to dispel the images, but food kept rising to the surface. I was glad when we returned a couple of days later to the good old familiar “Om.” I think Mr. Al Huang would have found “Yum” amusing, too.
Seriously, now, try a little meditation. Tune in, turn on, drop out. And you can do it without the use of any drugs at all.
Who needs that opium?
https://www.livingtao.org/home/ Living Tao Foundation website
http://www.esalen.org Esalen Institute, Big Sur
http://www.deepakchopra.com Deepak Chopra website
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/ Deepak Chopra on Huffington Post
http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/11/meditations-positive-residual-effects/ Meditation’s positive residual effects: Harvard Science
https://petchary.wordpress.com/book-review/the-banquet-bug-by-geling-yan/ The Banquet Bug by Geling Yan: Book Review by Petchary
5 Things Deepak Chopra Can Teach You About Leadership & Marketing (rohitbhargava.com)