Thursday, October 27, 2005

Western Spirit

We are out of truly useful Western empirical facts, the building blocks of science and technology, when confronted with pain, death and the need to change.

A common recourse is to seek out the East.

Life, the Vedas say, is a spiritual existence that undergoes a series of birth and death cycles until reaching a high consciousness and salvation. To live means to suffer, stemming from craving and clinging; freedom from want is Nirvana, says Buddha, and it can be achieved though an eightfold path. Everything exists within a grand cosmic harmony, Lao Tsu tells us, the Great Tao. We must conform to "Li," or honesty in relationships, Confucius teaches.

We fall into a new Manichean error in thinking everything Eastern is spiritual and everything Western material.

In 1832, John Henry Newman was crossing a tempest-tossed English channel and from his fear, in the distance he saw a light:

"Lead, Kindly Light,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me."

And around the year 500 an anonymous Carthusian monk in England who chose the pen name Dionysius the Areopagite, wrote in his Cloud of Unknowing that "in the time of this word all the creatures that ever have been, be now, or ever shall be, and all the works of those same creatures, should be hid under the cloud of forgetting."

Yet if our own William Butler Yeats fretted in his 20th century poem that "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," from long ago Julian of Norwich in her calming voice reassures us: "All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well."

We may be out of useful facts, but not of hopeful wisdom.
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