Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, September 02, 2007


One of the least attractive elements of the ‘60s was the emphasis on being “cool.” Cool sucks. Cool means not having or at least not showing emotion. As in "cold shoulder," "cold fish," “cold-blooded.” A related term is "hung up." In the Sixties, everyone wanted to avoid getting “hung up”—especially, as I recall it, on other people.

It is not hard to trace the origin of this idea. It is from Buddhism; it is from the second noble truth. "Suffering is caused by desire." Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder picked this up from their studies of Japanese Zen Buddhism—much of what we know as the “Beat” movement was an attempt by the American WWII generation to assimilate what they had learned of Japanese culture during the war and occupation. But it has been subtly changed on the way: the usual translation of the Second Noble Truth is: “Suffering is caused by desire.” The hippies, rather than trying to overcome desire, tried instead to overcome emotion.

And there is a difference.

For example, lack of desire obviously argues against free love—as does Buddhism. But lack of emotion is what makes “free love”—indiscriminate sex—possible. A lack of concern for the other person with whom you are having sex is essential—one must not become “hung up” on them, or love is no longer “free.” There are obligations.

And one must not care what happens to any children. One must, if necessary, be prepared to abort them. Otherwise, there are obligations. Yet Buddhism condemns abortion.

Emotion, on the other hand, Buddhism does not condemn. Buddhism glorifies it; Buddhism requires it. The Bodhistattva Avalokiteshvara (aka Kwannon or Guan Yin), the most revered figure after the Buddha himself, is the very personification of compassion. He or she—a bodhisattva is a soul, which can be incarnated as either sex—eternally refuses nirvana for herself in order to help others, out of the perfect fullness of compassion. So, indeed, do all the bodhisattvas, or Buddhist saints—this is what one does to become a Buddhist saint.

One sacrifices one's own desires for the sake of compassion. One does not sacrifice compassion for the sake of one's desires. Up is not down.

Being “cool,” or emotionless, seems to be a good thing in certain situations. “Sang froid” in the face of peril seems admirable; or at least useful. Many people these days praise "EQ," which is essentially the ability to suppress one's own emotions for the sake of one's self-interest. But do not expect Buddhism (or Christianity) to support even this. There is the tale of a Zen master who was beheaded in the course of an anti-Buddhist purge. A follower criticized him for, at the moment he was about to die, screaming loudly.

He was corrected by his own master. This was no sign of lack of enlightenment. It is perfectly proper to experience fully one’s own emotions—to which one can be either attached or not attached. It is perfectly sensible to speak about desiring a particular emotion: wanting love, for example, or happiness. Hence the two are separate things. Indeed, to seek to avoid emotions is un-Buddhist, as this is itself a desire.

And so, like most good things, Buddhism has been perverted into its opposite. Hippiedom is to Buddhism more or less as Al Qaeda is to Islam.

Had the followers of Kerouac understood, the last thing they would have endorsed was free love. And, indeed, Kerouac himself, who was wiser than his followers, does not endorse it. His protagonist in Dharma Bums, as a proper Buddhist, considers it, quite accurately, “cruel.” And to Kerouac, becoming “hung up” was pretty clearly a good thing, not something to be avoided. One should, in fact, become “hung up” on whatever is there before you to be loved at every moment. This, to Kerouac, is what it is all about.

The systematic lack or suppression of emotion is in fact the technique of the con artist. It seems to me to lead, as night does day, to the sort of things Charles Manson was capable of, and capable of convincing hippies to do. Cold-bloodedness indeed.

I wonder, too, if people like Janis Joplin died, in the end, of a lack of love, from an emotional emptiness. For man does not live by sex alone.

In the end, this celebration of the “cool” marks hippiedom as a further progression of the tendency, common to the mainstream culture well before the fifties, of reducing human beings to machines or objects of detached scientific study; along the lines ofSkinner’s operant conditioning. Indeed, the poor deluded Beats embraced Zen Buddhism largely as a supposedly more “scientific” way to view the world.

It fits with their overall materialism: “love” to them was sex, and sex was love, as the phrase “free love” necessarily implies—for otherwise it is an oxymoron. And they mistook enlightenment for a chemical compound. It was all a dumb brutish blunder from which we have yet to work our way free.

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