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The Kali Machine and the Stem of the Lotus

The Seven Points – 

Each day my wife visits the Kali machine at UCLA. The techs lay her down on a metal pallet and bolt to her head a hard white plastic mesh that’s been molded to fit her face. The linear accelerators of the IMRT (Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy) device, big as a small car, start up. Seven beams of X-ray radiation target the zone beneath her right ear where the parotid gland used to be. This gland, the largest of the salivary glands, was surgically removed in January, along with the malignancy that had grown within it. Any cancer cells that lingered in the wound would eventually sprout into new tumors, so they need to be destroyed. Each day the X-rays of the Kali machine tear into the exposed DNA of cells in the process of replicating. Since cancer cells do almost nothing but replicate the X-rays kill them off with great efficiency, leaving the delicate surrounding tissues damaged but capable of regeneration. The Kali machine hums and hovers around Jenny’s head for about fifteen minutes and then the techs unbolt her and we drive back East toward Silver Lake.

Merciless and potent, tongue protruding, Kali dances with a belt of skulls dangling from her waist below her many blue arms. The destructive aspect of the divine feminine, Kali takes away what currently exists in order to open a space for what will come. She dissolves form to reveal an underlying “emptiness” full of potential. Cancer cells, meanwhile, with their blind, obsessive self-copying, strike me as the ultimate triumph of “form.” A single note tapped over and over, cancer replicates with endless uniformity, confronting us with the monomania of the death instinct in its purest manifestation. By ending death’s sovereignty Kali, paradoxically, is a bringer of life.

When I first heard about the seven beams of IMRT my mind immediately turned to the Seven Points of Mind Training, the Tibetan meditation sequence that has been a part of my sitting practice for half a decade now (a good translation is important). First brought to Tibet in the 11th Century by Lord Atisha and written down in the 12th century by the Kadampa master Chekawa, Mind Training turns the engine of the self into reverse, amplifying the experience of compassion and presence. The idea is that we cut ourselves off from fully experiencing our lives by pushing away the things we don’t like and by clutching the things we do like too tightly. This pattern of aversion and attachment becomes a fixed and rooted structure of separation, a false self progressively alienated from authenticity. With Mind Training you practice the opposite: giving away what you’re attached to and taking in what you don’t want. Counter-intuitively the result is an energized presence that reminds us of our innate freedom, a rising up out of the meaningless struggles of samsara. Deceptively pithy, the adages of the Seven Points interconnect with a subtle logic, like a complex and beautiful score one can only begin to appreciate after long exposure.

In the waiting room I sometimes unpack the parallels between the seven beams and the Seven Points. Implied in the comparison is the notion that the emotional patterns and self-images composing the reactive ego echo the replicating monomania of cancer cells. In left-brain thinking mode we impose a single interpretive straightjacket over all our experience – must be this! Can’t be that! We view ourselves as separate and apart and continuous in time, blinding ourselves to the imbalances and dysfunction we create in the world around us. The path of practice involves a steady engagement with the retreating forces of the ego, which sprout everywhere, cancer-like, distorting the energy of the awakened aspects of mind. In this view the purpose of practices like the Seven Points is to search out every hiding place of the reactive self – paging Sidhattha Gotama, head oncologist.

Opinion is divided on the extent to which the current prevalence of carcinoma is the result of environmental degradation, but everyone knows toxicity plays a role. On my iPhone as we make the trip across the LA basin I tap into satellite imagery of the globe as it appears from outer space. The healthy greens and blues are shot through now with the necrotic tissue of asphalt and concrete, the socio-economic carcinoma of 21st century human development. On a geological time frame this burst of growth is abrupt, beginning back only three hundred spins around our small star. The black spot would have started in the mill towns of Southern England and spread quickly East and South before jumping the blue Atlantic (on trade ships loaded with textiles and slaves) to metastasize in the fertile tissue of the resource-rich Americas.

And yet tonglen, the Seven Points, and all the other Asian imports (Zen, Theravada, Tantric practices of all kinds) come to us via the era of unprecedented wealth and plenty created by that same fire. The oil fat post-War American consumer paradise generated enough light to crack open the fortress of the Western mind. In its pragmatic materialism liberal democracy produced a sustained experience of what the Buddhists mean by the “Human Realm.” One of the six “realms” of samsaric existence, the Human Realm is defined by the pursuit of mundane material satisfactions. The satisfactions may be real enough…but so is the disappointment as time continues on, sweeping us along. As sure a recipe for suffering as the other five realms, the Human Realm is different in one regard – in classical depictions it’s where the stem of the lotus of Nirvana – non-dual awareness – finds its roots. The Human Realm is where we enter “the way,” in other words.

It’s important to understand this today because the stem of the lotus is delicate and under attack. The neocons and other proto-fascists, whose moment was the presidency of George W. Bush, are devoted to shifting our political realities in the direction of the lower realms. Descendents of Thomas Hobbes, who viewed humans as inherently evil and life as a war of all against all, the neocons embrace the solid feeling that comes when the self is under attack. They are denizens of the Hell Realm, in other words. What makes them particularly dangerous is that they recognize the utility of scarcity. Scarcity propels us into our brain stems toward reptile mode where we are easily controlled. The neocons have an advantage in that scarcity is easier to generate than abundance, and the coming short fall in oil reserves, to choose just one example, will provide them with a wealth of opportunity.

Hobbes counterweight on the left would be Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau’s ideas took a hard hit in the mid 20th century as the idealistic revolutions in Eastern Europe and China gave rise to totalitarian forms of state socialism. As a result, the emotional reserves of the left are in much worse shape than the last time Capitalism faced a crisis like ours – the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. But Rousseau’s ideas seem less foolish when viewed from the perspective of non-dual thinking. The concept of private property, to choose one example, stops making so much sense when we abandon our determination to separate from the underlying contingency of our lives. If you give a man a way of relating to this aspect of experience, that man will stop wasting precious time amassing a huge fund of private property and then rigging the game to protect it. Great private wealth is famously useless in the end, a false promise that has seduced many lives into a compromised existence.

To me it seems clear that Western political thought, aided now by advances in brain science, is knocking on the door of the non-dual. Empirically speaking there really is no world separate from what we experience in the here and now. There is great mystery in that – how could this vast world exist non-separately from my experience, and also from your experience? Not to mention non-separately from the experiences of the multitude of other souls breathing right now? How can we begin to make sense of a paradox like that? I certainly can’t…but maybe it’s possible to live with that mystery instead of needing to resolve it. Mystery and paradox, after all, define the material world down to its quantized roots.

My hope is that a new mode of thought will emerge to help us ride out the assorted crises confronting us. A series of questions announce themselves: how could the bedrock of laws be modified to retain all the creativity and energy of a capitalist economy but in a more balanced way? What socio-political practices would allow us to mitigate the trashing of the planet? My sense is that the shadows created by the harshly analytical Western mind may yet conceal solutions to the complex of interlocking crises on the horizon. The empirical traditions of Western science remain a potent tool for correcting the imbalances we have created. I write this as a man who feels as grateful right now for the medical technology of the Seven Beams of IMRT as I have felt for the transformative power of the Seven Points.

Comments

  1. Peggy Dobreer says:

    Always enjoy your perspective. Love the “necrotic tissue of asphalt and concrete, the socio-economic carcinoma of 21st century human development.” A powerful metaphor.

    Asato ma sad gamaya. Om shanti. Sending love and light to you both. There is only one of us here. Shanti, shanti, Om.

  2. john steppling says:

    another really great piece, Guy.
    My only thought, and you saw this coming, regards Mao and the USSR and for that matter Cuba. It is exactly at this juncture, this intersect, between need (scarcity) and compassion, and progress and all those linear Enlightenment notions of advancing along that line toward…..what? Well, before we get to that, one has to eat and I suppose a correction was in order in the almost sub feudal china that Mao led into food and education. And Fidel……….has managed to remain one of the only voices of sanity regarding a whole host of topics on the geo-political front. That said……….the other plane on which a juncture appears is that of technology and emptiness. We are seeing the energy of movements such as the Tiny House movement, and all the home gardens popping up. The wisdom of small, of letting go, and of open-ness…….of space…….. appearing like a weird flower amidst the toxins of advanced capital and commodification of everything. The cultural aspect (artistic) is fascinating………..david harvey’s recent book is a smart example………..or andreas Huyssen’s work……..as they analyse exactly what are the forces of the post modern moment.

    And in all, one cannot escape the links between the economic and the cultural. The forces that brought us the Kali machine, also brought us barbi dolls and freeway overpasses and oil spills.

    So how does that work?

    It complex…….obviously……….but that space, that fissure created in the great wall of repetition and repression that is western capital and thought, by art, is part of the solution. If not a large part.

    The real challanges for accepting that opening are almost too hard for any of us. They are. For we face not just death, but loss. Your confronation with jenny’s illness is such an intersect. The Kali machine is a brilliant metaphor in that respect. We trade off daily as we move along in our discretion and judgments……….i will kill these weeds to plant these radishes……………and some bugs die too.

    Did you ever see Buneul’s Robinson Crusoe? One of the great telling moments in the film is as robinson is found and being taken home to england……..he glances back at the island and hears the barking of his long dead dog. Twenty years dead. Its one of the most painful moments in cinema.

    but I think this is an excellent piece, and again, i only fear that capitalism, being based on exploitation, will have to disappear before these new energies are allowed to bounce around and find their natural home.

  3. kirk wilson says:

    Thanks Guy. Between your piece and the comment by John Steppling I feel like I’m sitting in on a master class. Wonderful work. Gracias.

  4. tatiana says:

    Great piece. Thanks.

  5. Sophie Boller says:

    Thank you for sharing this intimate and vulnerable path you are on. It takes courage to face life in its fullest like this.
    Much love your way,
    Sophie

  6. Roxanne Rogers says:

    Guy. And John. This is very timely insight at this moment. Really skillful help in navigating some of the overwhelm that is today.
    Thank you both. And ditto to Kirk. Definitely Master Class. Roxanne

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