Death of an Ape

I don’t know if it will be one of those days that years later people will remember where they were when they heard the news, or if any flags will be flying at half-mast, but – hope you’re sitting down – Cheetah has died.

Unfortunately, Cheetah suffered from a chronic case of Monkey Mind

Yes, Cheetah, one of the chimps who played opposite Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) in the old MGM Tarzan series from the 1930s and 40s, passed away from kidney failure or liver failure (I’ve seen both cited). Personally, I am devastated. In fact, I’m surprised I can even pull it together to write this post.

Now, I should add this caveat, which is that it is claimed this chimp was one of Tarzan’s co-stars (a number of different chimps were used during the series) by Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida, who had cared for the monkey since receiving him back in 1960, apparently from Weismuller’s estate. I guess there is no way to prove this one is a bona fide Cheeta (the name in the movies) or not.

It’s estimated that this Cheetah was 80 years old. But Dr. Steve Ross, assistant director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, has his doubts. “To live into your 70s is really pushing the limits of chimp biology. Eighty is tough to swallow,” he says.

Well, there will always be doubters. And conspiracy theorists. Was this chimp the real Cheetah? Was there a switch? Did Cheetah die of natural causes as reported? Time will tell if we get answers to these pressing questions.

Well, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, in 2011 I was able to watch once again all the talking (as opposed to silent) Tarzan movies made up to 1969, save for two independent features. Needless to say, in spite of the fact that I’d probably seen each more times than I can count, I enjoyed every celluloid minute. In fact, I’m saving two movies starring Weismuller that I recorded via DVR for sometime when I feel the need to have a Tarzan fix. Maybe tonight, in memory of Cheetah . . .

Tarzan wasn't the only guy to go ape over Maureen O'Sullivan

As far as I’m concerned, Tarzan was one cool dude, even if the premise was entirely unbelievable. You know, raised by apes, etc. In the books, as a teenager Tarzan taught himself how to read and speak English. Equally unbelievable. How was he able to do that? It was because he was a white man and thus possessed a superior intelligence. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan’s creator, subscribed to a sort of warped social Darwinism, where everyone was equal in terms of society but whites possessed superior capabilities. I don’t remember the books being overly racist, but this idea that whites are just a little more equal than everyone else wouldn’t fly today. Jack London had similar notions.

There was an interesting moral context to the MGM Tarzan films (1932-1941). Tarzan never directly caused the death of any person until the 7th Tarzan film (made at RKO). Before then, bad guys were dispatched by elephants, natives or by their own petard. In Tarzan Triumphs, the King of the Jungle single-handedly slays a whole bunch of bad guys. But they were Nazi’s and deserved it. Also according to this moral code, any character who kills an animal or another person white or black, or contributes or stands by and lets it happen, must die by the end of the picture.

Surprisingly, not everyone loved Cheetah. Mia Farrow, Maureen O’Sullivan’s daughter, tweeted: “Cheetah the chimp in Tarzan movies died this week at 80. My mom, who played Jane, invariably referred to Cheetah as ‘that bastard.’” Farrow also notes that “he bit her at every opportunity.” Yeah, but I bet those were love bites.

Cheeta vs The Nazis

from Tarzan Triumphs (RKO, 1942)

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little tree

I have a somewhat unusual relationship with December 25th, the day we all know as Christmas – it’s my birthday. Fortunately, I had parents who went out of their way to make sure I didn’t feel slighted, as has been the case with other Christmas babies I’ve met. We had Christmas in the morning and my birthday in the afternoon. When everyone else had already unwrapped all their presents and getting that “is that all there is?” feeling, I still had more presents coming my way. So, I can’t say that I have ever resented sharing my birthday with Jesus, even though he was actually born sometime in April.

As an adult, I could easily do without both Christmas and a birthday. Neither mean what they once meant to me. Obviously since I am neither Jewish or Christian, the season has no religious significance for me, and I still reject the over-commercialization of the season but have come to live with it. It’s bigger than me, so no matter how much I gripe, it ain’t going away.

As everyone should know by now, the celebration of Christmas originated from the Winter Solstice festivals. And I think that fact gives those of us who have nothing invested in the religious aspect of the holidays an excuse to go ahead and celebrate. Now, while I usually start out like a Scrooge, by the time the day rolls around I’ve got a couple of Christmas movies under my belt and I’m ready to get into the mood with some secular holiday tunes like Brenda Lee’s Jingle Bell Rock, or perhaps something more poignant like John and Yoko’s Happy Christmas (“War is over, if you want it”).

This year is different. I have the specter of cancer hanging over my head. And as well, serious health issues facing other members of my family. Stuff like death tends to put a pall on things, if you know what I mean.

Despite all that, I am trying to keep my heart light and hope that by next year all our troubles will be out of sight, to paraphrase the song (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas) that Judy Garland sang in 1944, which expressed the sentiment of so many people at that time when the world was at war.

Therefore, in that spirit, let me present you with a little poem by e.e. cummings. It is by no mean one of his major poems, but anything by cummings is just all right with me. Accompanying the poem is a painting by the poet himself. You can actually purchase the original here, if you can pony up $12,500.

According to Random House, “In a warm and touching poem, e.e. cummings describes the wonder and excitement of a young brother and sister who find a little tree on a city sidewalk and carry it home, where they adorn it with Christmas finery.”

little tree

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look     the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

“little tree” was originally published in The Dial Vol. LXVIII, No. 1 (Jan. 1920). New York: The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.

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Self-reliance is the key

Time Magazine’s article for their choice as the 2011 Person of the Year begins:

A year after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself ablaze, dissent has spread across the Middle East, reaching Europe and the U.S., reshaping global politics and redefining people power.”

This year Time’s Person of the Year is The Protester, which is an interesting choice. The Protester beat out Adm. William McRaven (Commander of the bin Laden raid), Ai Weiwei (an Chinese artist who as a political activist might be covered under Protester), Kate Middleton (she got married, which to the people at Time must be a really awesome achievement), and Congressman Paul Ryan (whom Time calls “The Prophet”; I have some names for Ryan myself, but some other time). Frankly, these last two runner-ups are a bit bizarre.

But as far as The Protester goes, I say more people power to them all. Time’s choice reflects a wave of global revolution. But curiously, the cover story by Kurt Anderson does not once mention either Tibet, where this year ten Buddhist monks set themselves ablaze, or Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released after spending nearly half her adult life in silent protest while under house arrest. So much for the global part of the revolution . . .

Gene Sharp

Now someone I think would have been far more fitting for inclusion into the runner-up field is Gene Sharp, the subject of a documentary showing on Current TV right now entitled, How To Start A Revolution. Sharp, whose nonviolent tactics for toppling despots have been employed by protesters in Egypt and Eastern Europe, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His Wikipedia entry goes into some detail about his “influence on struggles worldwide.” Sharp is also the author of a number of works, including From Dictatorship to Democracy A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, which is available as a pdf from The Albert Einstein Institution.

Sharp’s argument for nonviolent resistance is both rational and convincing. He writes,

Understandably, reacting to the brutalities, torture, disappearances, and killings, people often have concluded that only violence can end a dictatorship. Angry victims have sometimes organized to fight the brutal dictators with whatever violent and military capacity they could muster, despite the odds being against them. These people have often fought bravely, at great cost in suffering and lives. Their accomplishments have sometimes been remarkable, but they rarely have won freedom. Violent rebellions can trigger brutal repression that frequently leaves the populace more helpless than before.

Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority. The dictators are equipped to apply violence overwhelmingly. However long or briefly these democrats can continue, eventually the harsh military realities usually become inescapable. The dictators almost always have superiority in military hardware, ammunition, transportation, and the size of military forces. Despite bravery, the democrats are (almost always) no match.”

What’s the alternative? Sharp says,

The conclusion is a hard one. When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

• One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;

• One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;

• One must create a powerful internal resistance force; and

• One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.

A liberation struggle is a time for self-reliance and internal strengthening of the struggle group.”

Although it might be a stretch, this reminds me of a story told in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta. King Ajatshatru of Magadha sends a messager to the Buddha seeking his advice on a plan to attack the Vajjians, whose territory was north of Magadha. The message from Ajatshatru states, “I will destroy these Vajjians, I will bring them to utter ruin!” I’m not quite sure what Ajatshatru’s beef was with the Vajjians, but the Buddha’s reply is that “so long as the Vajjians continue to observe their traditions properely, and meet regularly in their republican assembly, seeking agreement in all matters, and so on, their prosperity is assured.”

After this, the Buddha turns to his followers and repeats this advice word for word. Basically, he is telling the Sangha the same thing Sharp says above, that as long as the Sangha remains self-reliant and internally strong, it will continue to prosper.

I think this applies to individuals as well. If a corporation can be a person, then I suppose a person can be a group, since after all, we are a heap of aggregates, a collection of groups of cells.

Self-reliance is one of the key messages of Buddhism. It is what really separates Buddha-dharma from any other spiritual philosophy. Buddhism is a philosophy about jiriki, “self-power.” When it crosses the line into tariki or “other-power”, then it really no longer Buddhism, but something else based on Buddha-dharma. There are those who would disagree with this and suggest that it’s a dualistic view, but I think they are just rationalizing their own tendency to want to seek something outside of their lives for “the answer” or “salvation.”

Sharp notes that,

Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves. The cases of successful political defiance — or nonviolent struggle for political ends — cited above indicate that the means do exist for populations to free themselves, but that option has remained undeveloped.”

In the same way, in the universal struggle against the dictatorship of suffering, the individual’s power to liberate his or her self remains undeveloped, and this is what Buddhism seeks to rectify.

Furthermore, Sharp writes,

Many people now suffering under a brutal dictatorship, or who have gone into exile to escape its immediate grasp, do not believe that the oppressed can liberate themselves. They expect that their people can only be saved by the actions of others. These people place their confidence in external forces. They believe that only international help can be strong enough to bring down the dictators.”

Of course, when we talk about self-reliance the “self” we speak of is not the same “self” that we are also trying to overthrow, the self of “no-self.” However, people get confused about this, and in general, confidence in one’s self-power can be a hard thing to cultivate. At the same time, we also talk about bodhisattvas saving people, and this too can be confusing, because in the end we are the only ones who can save ourselves.

This point may be, quoting the Lotus Sutra, “the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand.” A Japanese priest commenting on the sutra, once wrote, “We common mortals can see neither our own eyebrows, which are so close, nor heaven in the distance. Likewise, we do not see that the Buddha exists in our own hearts.”

The Buddha in our own hearts is a metaphor for the positive potential that exists within each human being – the potential for happiness, wisdom, liberation. We also call it Buddha-nature. It is the inner-power that is difficult to believe in and difficult to harness, especially when we are so busy looking for something outside of ourselves to come and save us.

You yourself must make the effort. Buddhas only point the way.”

– The Dhammapada

 

 

 

Waiting for someone or something else to save you is a childish, selfish way to live. We are not here to suffer, we are here to enjoy. If you do suffer, you have to face yourself, look within and examine what it is in you that’s suffering. External conditions have their roles to play, but only in setting the stage. In most cases, there is no one or nothing that can make you suffer. Suffering can only happen inside you, and that is the only place where liberation for suffering can be found.

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21st Century Faith

The Dalai Lama is currently in Karnataka, India giving teachings on the Commentary on the Five Stages by Nagarjuna at Gyudmed Tantric University. According to the Tibet Post he told the audience that one should strive to become a 21st century Buddhist with both traditional values and a modern education.

He also commented on the subject of faith, saying

I always say that study and practice are both very important, but they must go hand in hand. “Not merely belief – faith alone is not sufficient . . . Faith needs to be supported by reason. Whatever we learn from study we need to apply sincerely in our daily lives.”

Xinxin, the Chinese characters for "faith"

The Post reports that he pointed out that the Buddha’s teachings should not only be the object of prayer and prostration, but that we should also pursue study and analysis of the teachings, as opposed to simply relying on faith.

Buddhists had different ideas regarding faith. Personally, I reject the notion that faith in Buddhism is akin to the Western notion, which Merriam-Webster’s defines in part as “allegiance to duty or a person; belief and trust in and loyalty to God; firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”

I do believe that Buddhist faith involves trust – trust in the teachings (after some study and critical analysis) and that it is “something that is believed especially with strong conviction.” Without some trust and conviction in the teachings, and without a determination to put the teachings into practice, what would be the point?

Now, from what I understand the Commentary on the Five Stages by Nagarjuna was written by Panchen Lobsang Choegyan and that the Nagarjuna in question is not the one we all know and love but rather the “Siddha N?g?rjuna,” a Tantric master and holder of the Mahamudra-Lineage. The two have often been confused.

The original Nagarjuna (assuming he was an actual historical person) wrote:

Because one has faith, one partakes of the dharma;
Because one has wisdom, one truly understands.
Of these two, wisdom is foremost,
But faith is the one that must come first.

So this kind of trust, this sort of conviction or confidence that there is something in the teachings which is extremely valuable and powerful, this kind of belief in the possibilities of the dharma, is a prerequisite. In the long run, though, as the Dalai Lama has noted, in commenting of the above verse, faith in Buddhism is not blind faith:

[A] flawed way is where you approach the path or practice purely on the basis of blind faith. You understand nothing, it’s just simple faith that is totally blind. It is again a flawed way of pursuing the path. By drawing contrast to these four wrong ways of going about one’s practice, [Nagarjuna] defines what is the true sense of faith.

Here Nagarjuna defines that someone who’s faith in the path . . . is grounded in a personal understanding and knowledge—such a person is someone who is said to possess the right kind of faith, the right kind of competence to engage in the path.

The kind of understanding that is referred to here, upon which one must ground one’s faith, is a fundamental understanding [the Buddha’s teachings] . . .  and though this understanding one can develop a deep conviction . . . Thus one will be able to engage in a dharmic life, and live according to a life-style that is with the bounds of an ethical and disciplined way of life. Such a person, whose faith and conviction in dharma is grounded in such an understanding, is said to be the ideal practitioner.

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