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One of the most memorable bits of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle involves being down in a well, and related imagery.  This entry's a tangent off of that rather than the book itself, and is one of my intermittent half-assed philosophical ramblings that occasionally pop up in between the more usual bits.  So you may be better served by moving along to something lighter.  I suggest dogblog, to which I have absolutely no deep thoughts other than a grin (somehow the fact that the commentary is written by something like the Onion's Jim Anchower trying to tone it down a bit makes it even better).  But if you must, (much) more below the tag.

One of the lengthier sections involves the reminiscings of a soldier in WW2, who participated in some covert operation of some kind that he never did learn what was going on with, and that went horribly wrong anyway.  His long story short, the squad was captured, the one dude who did know what was going on was skinned alive (and none to soon enough, dead), and he received a hobson's choice of getting a bullet in the head right there, or throwing himself down a well.  Where, of course, he was expected to die rather more slowly for the mistake of placing blind faith in somehow surviving.

He did, mind you, no help to the broken legs from the drop and a few days dehydrating (well being bone-dry) at the bottom, as he was rescued after those few days.  The memorable bit I'm on about is the description of the darkness of it, that he learned it was true that in the bottom of a deep well, you can see stars in the tiny bit of day sky far above through the opening--and especially how he remembered noon, when the sun passed directly overhead, and simply seared down, timeless and light beyond light (Thundercats, ho!) roasting him down there, till passing past noon and bringing nearly total darkness again.

One of the points of his story is that nothing after that felt real; the only real life he felt he'd had consisted in the brief, long moments of noontime sun burning him at the well-bottom, and that everything after that was just shadow, unreal, and meaningless.

The hearing of this fellow's odd life story acts as something an inspiration to the narrating main character, who commences to climb down into an abandoned and non-working well to get some serious thinking and sorting-out accomplished, and the whole novel meanders into a surreal business of the well, or the act, or both combined acting as a sort of portal to what you can think of (if you like) as a spirit world or astral plane or twlight zone or darkside or dreamworld or Schenectady.  It's a good book, but most of it doesn't apply here.

Certain Buddhist formulations describe a person as being made up of the combination or concatenation of a bit of jargon of skandhas.  There's usually five of them, because, well, look at your hand, assuming you've not had any bad woodworking accidents with the table saw (said five usually being along the lines of body, mind, percepts, thoughts, and feelings.  Definition line-quibbling then usually ensues, entertainingly but spectacularly missing the point, but theology East or West or North or South has always been very good at doing that).  The word itself tends to get translated most often as "aggregates" which is, of course, appropriate.  I rather like Brad Warner's alternate translation of "heap", which carries much the same meaning with the benefit of being much harder to intone.  But in any case, the sense is of lots of different things, jumbled and connected together, and the connections and relationships between those many things comprising what is a larger thing.

This sort of description of what a person is usually gets mentioned in the context of standing in rather sharp contrast to more Western ideas of the soul as being something unitary and atomic, in the archaic unsplittable-apart sense.  Of course, it isn't, necessarily, it's simply that the description of people--and everything, really--as being just the collection of heaps of different aspects that come together in a particular way is about what's observable rather than what isn't, and is a more accurate description in that sense.

Brief stock of the inventory currently in what I'm aware looks like wildly different cookware on back burners of entirely different stovetops, quite possibly in separate houses, not counting the bit of roadkill the hobo has spitted over a barrel fire:

1:  Moment of noontime at the bottom of a well where one expects to die, as compellingly and fictionally described.

2:  Buddhist notion of a person's being, their suchness or isness, as being the whole set of a heap of separate qualities.

3:  The opposition of #2's notion against the notion of a person's being having a unitary core component.  Call it a definitive I AMness.

Number four is that my favorite chapter in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum is the very last chapter, which contains another of my favorite mottoes, namely, "Wisdom is naked in Malkhut."  It's a very opaque motto at the tag end, as it draws on some kabbalistic jargon, which is a whole can of worms I'm not even going to try to throw into this godawful mess boiling all over the stove.  If you can put the rock song out of your head (and if it wasn't in there to begin with, don't reverse that), you can replace "in Malkhut" with "right here, right now" and get the general idea.

Warner again.  He wrote a book name of Hardcore Zen, which is one of my favorite books on Buddhist bits.  One of the best chapters in it is one he spent on a real humdinger of a peak experience he had earlyish in his Zen career--a really spectacular vision with serious time-binding going out the window, full bore visions of joining with the universe and everything in it coming together over billions of years that passed in an instant, and so forth.  He described himself as basically being high off of it for days, until he told the dude teaching him about it, expecting to get some warm fuzzies about approaching or attaining enlightenment or such...and was promptly told something along the lines of, "that's all nonsense.  Your mind just makes stuff like that up," and was deflated so much he got briefly depressed.  He snapped out of the brief depression eating some bit of fruit one afternoon and really noticing just how great it tasted.  He told his teacher about that, and got told, "yeah.  That's Zen."  (The book itself covers it more thoroughly, but not really any more "seriously", which is one of the reasons I dug it so much.)

This is where, in theory, the stewed heap of this all comes together.

Venerable Roshi Ex-Punk Rocker In A Rubber Monster Suit's story about the mystical vision, deflation, and subsequent "damn, this is a good tangerine" re-grounding in the real, is about the time-wasting danger of peak experiences. 

There is the idea that, somehow "under" or "inside" all the things--thoughts, memories, that ache in the elbow that's been troubling you, the fuzziness of perceptual affect from not sleeping enough the night before or the sluggish vague headache of too much, that people sometimes begrudgingly admit actually are separate, separable pieces--that make a person a person, there is something Bigger or True, Indivisible and Eternal and Self Important Adjective--in other words, the soul.  (Imagine that previous sentence was rewritten into something more coherent and resembling actual grammar, instead of simply left as I wrote it down, and this'll all go more smoothly.)  I think that idea--regardless of whether it's true or not (it's non-falsifiable, and arguments about it, while fun, are as irrelevant to reality as any discussion of how many angels can freak-dance on a geometric pinpoint (which is "five" by the way))--tends to leak into other places it doesn't belong.  Such as what makes peak experiences so subtly dangerous.

The Marukami's character's well-story is, of course, a dramatic exaggeration.  As counter-intuitive as the horrific context of it was, the noontime sun blazing down the well on him seemed to him at the time to be a peak experience every bit as moving and meaningful--or Moving and Meaningful--as Zen Master Ultraman's vision of the whole of the universe coming together into a single mind splitting into a linked and loving pair which begat another universe which split apart and then came together and etcetera in, like, cycles, man.  It felt like an experience of consciousness so true--an experience of Consciousness so True--that all the ones that followed (i.e., life) felt less than, felt unreal in comparison.  And he clung tightly to that (a clinging reinforced by more wartime misfortune and foulness which followed, story-wise), and ended up an old man, waiting to die, whose high point was laying crumpled and broken at the heart of darkness, waiting for that brief flash of illumination.

The thing about it was, it was just an experience.  Pretty moving, sure.  And the problem in the end wasn't the kind of experience it was--to be sure, it had some real ugliness in the context--but more the story the character built around it afterwards.  (And while I think a good case could be made that a lot of the narrator-character's activities and down-in-his-own-well experiences which followed in the book are a sort of very-oblique way of pointing just that out, too, but don't claim it strongly here.)

I have no good way to wrap up this whole jumble-ramble, so assume it all gets tied up neatly at this point.  Because that's the Truth of it, even if ye unbelievers see it not.

Date: 2005-01-27 05:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] redsiegfried.livejournal.com
Piggybacking off this ...

That's a lot to think about and/or comment on, but after letting it digest for a few minutes, I find myself fixated on a conversation I had with orsonx about the philosophical concept of isolationism and what is truly real. We got into the whole deal regarding how we can form concepts by our perceptual experience of physical objects but we may be mistaken if we thought that the concepts that we grasp were on the same level as the things we perceive. Plato.

It made me think for quite a few days about how I guess I'm a big believer in the external reality of THINGS and STUFF and how I find it difficult to believe in those things which I can't "prove" to myself truly exist.

When I hear a story about an experience like the man at the bottom of the well, it reminds me that reality really can be different for each person and what is meaningful to one may be nothing but a feverish hallucination to another, but that by no means negates the significance of the experience for this man. So in this way, I find myself able to accept and appreciate the reality of his experience, since the experience really did happen, and it altered his life forever in a way that a simple hallucination never would.

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