I have for some years now harbored a secret love for Janeane Garofalo. It’s just one of those things, as Cole Porter so aptly said. When, some years into my schoolboy infatuation, she started broadcasting on ‘Air America’, the left-wing radio syndicate which her program makes tolerable, it was almost as if I could feel the silky left hand of fate beck me like a wayward child toward her bosom. I mean ‘bosom’ in the sense of ‘The security and closeness likened to being held in a warm familial embrace’ (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.), not in the sense of warm, soft breasts upthrust by the reach of her arms twining around my neck, drawing us into the thirst-quenching embrace for which we have so long yearned. Scratch that, read ‘I have so long yearned’, let’s be scrupulously clear about this thing. As far as I know, Janeane Garofalo knows not and cares not if I live or die, and for that matter she’s probably dating some golden-haired Swedish Greenpeace activist. Damn him.
But this affection is not so far-fetched as it might at first appear. I’m getting to the religion part, show some patience, you enlightenment-thirsty swine. Ms. Garofalo is a close friend of Ben Stiller, the comedic actor perhaps best known for making Luke Wilson look taller. I count myself (and this may be base flattery, but I love the man) a friend of Ben Stiller’s designated producer, Stuart Cornfeld; in the capacity of wasting Stuart’s time I have beguiled many an hour at his offices, where Mr. Stiller also can be found weekdays, reading his mail or rubbing wax into raisins, a nervous habit he shares with Zbigniew Brzezinski. Thus I met Ben Stiller. Again the hand of fate guides me, whisper-light/ toward the fearsome object of my heart’s delight. Yes, it’s rhyming couplets, I’ve got it bad. However, there’s more. Ms. Garofalo appeared in a movie you haven’t seen yclept ‘Mystery Men’; she co-starred with the estimable William H. Macy, who is perhaps best known for doing his own stunts in the motion picture ‘Fargo’. I met Mr. Macy once on the Universal Studios backlot; people on the tram tour were waving and calling and as I happened to be walking next to him, I waved and called back. We had a good laugh about that, and then he knocked me down with a rubber Oscar statuette borrowed from the prop department. There are further skeins that seem to coil about myself and the indomitable she-elf of liberal talk radio: we both shop at Trader Joe’s, we have both tried to beat traffic by cutting down San Vicente Boulevard, to no avail; we are both prone to respiratory illnesses, and we have both petted aging pugs and washed our hands afterwards to get the dog cheese off our fingers. I daresay in other ways our paths have crossed, back and forth until they are woven together like a pair of woven paths. And yet, it’s all in my head, just like my parole officer says.
It is just this way with God. Once a person gets the notion of an interested or personal god into his or her mind, evidences of the divine seem to crop up everywhere. Coincidence, such as the time I trolled the lunch buffet at an Indian restaurant on Melrose only three days before Ms. Garofalo went to the Chinese restaurant two blocks west, suddenly takes on the significance of a mystical portent. The shapes of clouds, a notice posted on the wall of the oil change place, the disappearance of a sock from a load of laundry that never for one instant left your sight: these things become abodements of a higher power coyly peeping through the Venetian blinds of reality to see if you can take a hint. Now if one were to put aside the idea of god and yet retain the occult aspect of things, one could turn easily enough to divination, otherwise known as areolation: acultomancy, cleidomancy, selenomancy and its trick cousin catoptromancy, icthyomancy, the challenging art of scatomancy, or if you have some frogs to hand, batraquomancy; but this sort of thing doesn’t let a fellow in on the Big Plan, the Divine Mystery. It’s rather like reading bits torn out of a book for free when one might read the entire thing by subscription. Either way, the idea is to find out how it ends.
Why do people need religion at all? I mean other than to get on the Creator’s good side, in case he’s got a long memory. As noted in the first part of this epic peregrination through the wilderness of faith, man or Man seeks some reassurance that there is the slightest bit of purpose or meaning to his existence. And same man, or the taller man standing to his left, wants to know whether the universe ‘just happened’ or if somebody planned the whole thing out; and if so, did he lose the instructions? That man’s wife, meanwhile, would like to know if there is life after death, and if so, will the Kirschners be there? Because she can’t stand Mrs. Kirschner. The questions we hold, the purposes we assign to religion fall into a general topic called ‘theology’ which can be broken into a few steaming chunks as follows:
Theology: the existence and nature of God
Revealed Theology: does God exist for me? And if so, how much?
Anthropology: what is man?
Soteriology: how can my soul be saved? Do I have to save the whole thing?
Thanatology: what comes after death?
Armed with these simple concepts, mankind has nearly rendered himself extinct time and time again. But it is useful to understand that the very nature of God has occupied a great deal of human thought, and as it says on the side of the box, “results may vary”.
Also in the previous installment (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s a corker for sheer word count alone) I made note of the fact that I am a Buddhist, and went on to explain in terms so simple only a child could understand them how the Buddhist notion of becoming an empty vessel into which life could flow unimpeded every moment would allow one to become, for lack of a less threadbare term, ‘one with the universe’. This one-ness, or ‘godhead’, as it is also known, was originally intended to serve a Hindu concept that Scrabble lovers call ‘panentheism’, or the existence of God through the collective nature of all things, as well as outside all things. This is otherwise known as the ‘All in God’ doctrine, or in street slang, ‘monistic theism’. For this purpose, what you need to understand (and if you do, you’re ahead of me) is that this concept places God within everything, and everything within God.
Now a Christian, even a relatively alert one, will tend to scoff at this idea. According to ‘theist’ Christian doctrine (the word ‘doctrine’ means ‘a principle or principles set forth for belief or acceptance’, from the Latin ‘doctrina’, meaning ‘horse doping’), God is just the one cat, although confusingly divided into three persons, and independent of His creation, although he takes an active interest in the doings; theism is distinct from ‘deism’, wherein God set things up and then walked away, probably in disgust, and refuses to even crack the door to see how his wee little folk are getting along. And just as well, too. We have made a hash of it. So far, so good. But mankind’s relationship with God, Gods, or whatever the Prime Mover can be said to be, is like a shattered mirror. It’s been shivered into a million little bits, each reflecting the same thing. There’s Narayana, pantheism, polytheism, henotheism (many gods, but I choose that one), dualism, its grandchild Manichaeism, the one god out of many out of one that comprise Brahman, and hundreds more variations, including good old Taoism, toward which scientific discovery seems ever to be advancing: a kind of formless metaphysical Yes and No from which come all and nothing. I said these all reflect the same thing, like bits of a broken mirror. But what is it? An immense asparagus? Cthulu? Charleton Heston? Nay. Reflected in all gods is one form: Man himself. Kapow!
Which leads me back to the delectable she-badger, Janeane Garofalo. No, sorry, Buddha. Buddha, who for the record was a relatively lean individual, probably similar in the beam to Ghandi, (the roly-poly gink with whom Buddha is associated is in fact a Buddhist monk that achieved Buddahood during the Liang Dynasty in China name of Pu-Tai) was wait, I lost the thread of my own sentence. Start again. Buddha was (okay, I’m back at the controls) not making any explicit proposition about the nature of God. This may be the primary reason that Buddhism seems to take root in such odd places, without the slightest missionary influence, similar to those Chinese doughnut shops. It’s something one happens upon, and some little valve inside the old noggin goes ‘click’ and one starts pursuing the subject, fervently or not, but pleasingly free of the threat of some cranky old bearded party hovering around behind the nearest cumulonimbus waiting to sling a thunderbolt or a blistering case of shingles or whatnot if we put a foot wrong. Buddhism is a trail of bread crumbs. And what you discover after a decade or two of following them around is it’s not so much a trail as it is an even coating, like cosmic Shake n’ Bake. Evidences of the Way are everywhere you look. Then you realize there is no trail; the answer is right where you’re standing, and it always has been, and there isn’t any answer in the first place: without ourselves, god cannot exist, subjectively speaking; nor ourselves without god, objectively speaking. The punch line here is of course that we may not exist in any case, because whatever proofs we have that we do exist, we only have because we think we exist in the first place. In other words, the whole thing may just be a terrible misunderstanding. This is catnip to a pseudointellectual like me. Buddha had the good sense not to put a dog in that fight. What is, is. What is not, is not. How the hell would you know? Best not to presume.
Quantum physics keeps working its way around to this point of view, by the way, which pleases us Buddhist types no end. The universe is really just made up of bits of energy organized into matter: hence heat, cold, mass, void, antimatter: all permutations of states of energy, or the absence thereof. But what is energy? I mean other than AA batteries and diesel fuel. It is the capacity to do work. What is work? (As if I’d know, not having held a proper job in ten years.) Work is the transfer of energy. So to put it another way, sideways in this case, tilted slightly downward at the near end, energy may be said to be the potential for something to happen. Okay, next: what does it mean to ‘happen’? To come into being. So the entire universe, from the mightiest galaxy to the lowliest crumb of earwax, is nothing more or less than the potential for beingness. If you want to get even nuttier (I swear I’m not stoned), remember that for something to come into being there are three prerequisites: a pair of states (being and not being, expressed in time) an operator (something to be or not be, expressed in space) and an observer (a medium by which both states of the operator can be known to have existed).
So Hamlet was a physicist, and Shakespeare beat Einstein and Steven Hawking by 500 years. To be, or not to be, that really is the question, or rather, the solution. That table is not a table, it’s a bunch of energy shaped like a table (how did I know there was a table? Batraquomancy). Science has proven everything is made of energy, insofar as there can be proof of anything. If you doubt the table’s existence, strike your head smartly against the leading edge of it, and call that proof sufficient to our purpose. Some energy is harder than other energy, but it is all energy: fire, Jupiter (the planet, not the god), cast-iron lawn jockeys, the blood running freely out of the gash on your head, even the Pia Zadora movie ‘Butterfly’ is made of energy, although not much of it. The entire universe, from stem to stern (a tremendous distance if we take infinity into account, which also explains the wait times for a table at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, a function of the mechanics of Relativity) is a bunch of potential for beingness, which means at any given moment (you need a really good watch with a hacking second feature for this) the universe both is, and isn’t, depending upon the state all that energy happens to be (or not be) in at that moment. Buddha sorted this out after a few weeks sitting under a tree, although he didn’t put in quite these terms. I, on the other hand, haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m talking about, despite the benefit of 2,500 years of further consideration on the subject. Slãinte!
Which leads me back, like a bull with a ring through his nose, to Janeane Garofalo. It is to her that the bread crumbs lead. After all, she’s made of energy just like everything else. And how. Buddha said, or at least left to assumption (we’re back to him again), in a Hindu kind of way that we are all inherently suffused with god, although God is also god, not merely the sum of us parts; but what with birth, death, the demands of physical existence (picking up the dry cleaning, choosing a good college, finding a Dick Francis novel you haven’t read yet to take on the flight to Miami, and so forth) we lose touch with that inner godness (or godhead, if the term doesn’t make you blush). But it doesn’t go away, as did the Christian pre-Original Sin state of innocence, although godhead could be said to be analogous to it (the Garden of Eden as a metaphor for a time before knowledge, before ‘I am’ took the place of ‘is’, before undergarments were invented); rather we are always already holy beings, requiring only to stop knowing or not knowing and instead simply be, at which instant there is no knowing or not knowing, there is only what there is, and there’s Vishnu, or YWH, or Gaia, or Cihuacoatl, or whatever essential god inflates your balloon, already there. Then you may live or die with equanimity, because your essential being, which is and is not throughout eternity, cannot be unmade, only obscured. On the other hand, try getting your driver’s license in that condition.
So what have we learned here? Theology is the study of god and man together, just as mixology is the study of alcohol and man together. The author of this piece is a Buddhist. The original Buddha was not a fat guy. Therefore, the author of this piece is not a fat guy. And the existence a priori of god or God requires the existence of man or Man in order to be observed (hence to exist, because the state of being observed is not just the effect but the cause of beingness), but is subjectively inobservable, or at least recondite to a fault, unproven or proven depending upon the observer’s interpretation of phenomena that might equally evidence or confute God; or otherwise ontological reasoning, through which logic is applied to the problem (i.e. St. Anselm’s proposition of a being than which no greater can be conceived, which can be proven by pure argument, or Plato’s dialogue proving the existence of the eternal soul based upon his ‘Doctrine of Opposites’, assuming you buy the analogy he uses that soul and body are opposites like heat and cold; one merely has to watch an early Raquel Welch movie to realize they’re all the same thing) and proofs tendered. In other words, God does exist, as well as the eternal soul of man, and I can prove it to me, which ought to prove it to you, but unfortunately this is impossible so instead I will mount a Crusade and kill you and all of your relatives and burn down your city.
The Bible, which this humble author has read three times right through, including the entire genealogical progression, the laws (Leviticus explains why so many Fundamentalists are blockheads: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard”) and Revelations, which seems to have been written by Clive Barker on methamphetamine, and which he (this author, not Mr. Barker) has read (in case you forgot where this sentence started I repeated the part about me having read) yet again in bits and pieces for research purposes over the course of two score years, is not a bad book, all told. It is in fact the Good Book. Another excellent book, which the author has only read twice, on each occasion to his profit (insert prophet joke here, I will not cheapen myself) is the Koran, or as it is lately styled, ‘the Quran’, to remind us that it is favored by the terrorist group al Qaeda. Then again you could not ask for a better summer beach read than the Jewish Talmud, although I never finished that one. It’s not violent enough. Also, it is divided into the Mishnah and the Gemara, and I should warn interested readers that once you get through the Mishnah, if you think it’s going to be about a giant Japanese fire-breathing turtle monster after that, you will be sorely disappointed. The turtle’s name is Gamera.
Then there’s the 4 Vedas of Hindu antiquity, which I read at college under the misapprehension that there were dirty parts, the Upanishads in general, which take mental concentration that would tax Lex Luthor to absorb properly, but are the root of my good old Buddhism (shout out to Yajnavalk, neti-neti!); the list of sacred texts goes on and on. The reason I mention these books (no offense to the thousands of other essential works not specifically denigrated here, from the Tao te-Ching through the Songs of Odin) is because there is a wealth of material the eager student of the divine can explore, and if you explore enough of it, you soon begin to suspect that everybody is fooling themselves. There’s lots of good history (and terrible history, but some fine tall tales) and rich philosophy and explorations of moral and legal precepts without which civilization could never have been developed; who knows, someday it might even happen. But the religious ideas people keep killing each other about, the things they so vehemently disagree on, all have one thing in common: they are divergent interpretations of a shared, previous idea.
Thus Christians give it to the Jews with both barrels, their only point of agreement being that the Muslims must all be killed; the Muslim and the Jew go at it hammer and tongs even in the absence of Christian on-egging. This is because they are all children of the exact same God. The Hindu and the Sikh just can’t stop setting fire to each other because their religions spring from the same root. And so on, all around the globe. Buddhists, being Buddhists, don’t usually start wars on religious grounds; instead they engage in ferocious infighting to determine who is the most enlightened. Sutras and sutures. But every religion has somebody to loathe, and it’s pretty much always the dudes with the closest variation on the same theme. Not everybody that subscribes to every religion is this way, please make note. Just the ones with persecution complexes that lead uptight, rigid, judgmental little lives dedicated to making other people wrong. You may even have met such people yourself.
So maybe the atheist has it right. If the cultural role of religion is to establish a benchmark for right behavior, a moral standard upheld by the promise of a red-hot pitchfork up your bottom for all eternity if you don’t observe the rules, well and good. But right behavior predicated on the simple notion that this life is all any of us has, so every life ought to be treated with respect: that’s just as valid an approach, no heaven or hell required. If the spiritual role of religion is to help us know the nature of our souls, the possibility of eternal being and redemption, and to illuminate the nature of the Prime Mover or God, that’s dandy too. But as the last 10,000 years of religion have demonstrated, nobody knows a blind thing whatsoever. How dare we presume to know what cannot be known? This is why men won’t ask the way at a filling station when they get lost on the I-87 right around Exit 7 where it connects with the Cross Bronx Expressway: although it is unknowable, yet they believe it has been revealed, if not to them, then to the guy they got the directions from before they left. It comes down to choosing your favorite anecdote about the person that God revealed himself to in private (Zeus visits the maiden Leda kitted out as a swan, begetting the Dioscuri; YWH appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush, begetting the diaspora, and so forth) and then damning anybody that won’t go along with it. The atheist, meanwhile, sees a lot of metaphors with similar moral underpinnings, except, unlike for example Perrault’s Fairy Tales or Tolkein’s Ring Trilogy, people kill each other over them.
And I’m not just being obtuse. I’d like to think that there is a god or group of gods out there that are responsible for this incomprehensible madhouse we collectively call ‘existence’, and that there is a plan in place, however poorly it might be going, and furthermore that it’s such a clever plan that the appearance of utter chaos is in fact evidence of a superstructure of order so complex, so infinite in its grandeur and subtlety, that we puny humans couldn’t comprehend it even if we all joined our brains together with a good quality speaker wire such as Monster Cable and thought about nothing else for a billion years. I’d like to think that when I die, if I lived a fairly decent life and didn’t engage in baby-eating or personally extinct any major species of owl, I will be embraced by the Creator, welcomed back to the nourishing bosom of Janeane Garofalo (sorry, the nourishing bosom of Eternal Love, I meant to say) as if I were a beloved child gone out in my rubber boots and slicker for a splash in the mud puddles on a rainstormy afternoon, now returned for cocoa and a nap by the radiator.
Nothing would please me more than that. I’d get to see all my dead friends again, including my Aunt Ada, and my best dead friend of all, Bear the German Shepherd, who I still miss terribly though he went away to hunt the sky bunnies years ago; and I’d always have time to visit with everybody no matter what time they called or what I was supposed to be doing instead, and once I was dead I could learn an instrument and get good at playing ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, because there is. Preferably the tenor saxophone part. I really would like to think that. But unless the Divine Personage Himself, Herself, Itself, or Unself comes along and taps me on the shoulder and hands me a written, signed, and notarized proof that is undeniable and in which no human agency has intervened, I’m fresh out of luck.
Then again, I cannot presume to say none of this is so, because God, like Death, is inherently inscrutable to the mortal scrutinizing apparatus with which we are equipped. I can only say that I do not know. It could turn out that some animist cult during the Pleistocene Era had it all right, and the rest of us have been completely off-base ever since. Anubis might even now be getting miffed at the sharp fall-off in numbers of his devotees and in a few months we will all get a dose of celestial whupass for not holding scarab beetles sacred. I do not know. Which is what I like about Buddhism. You can believe what you can believe: whatever the Truth is, it’s right there inside of you, it always has been, and it always will be, and you will know it when you find it, but it’s okay if you never find it, because it can’t be expressed in human terms anyway. So one more time with feeling:
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
BEN TRIPP is an independent filmmaker and all-around swine. His book, Square In The Nuts, may be purchased here, with other outlets to follow: http://www.lulu.com/Squareinthenuts . Swag is available as always from http://www.cafeshops/tarantulabros . And Mr. Tripp may be reached at email@example.com.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH
We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).
Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.
As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.
We are pleased to clarify the position.
August 17, 2005