Karma: I am not a Buddhist

Recently, I finished reading Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, Why It Matters, by Traleg Kyabgon. Because reading for grad school has apparently endowed me with reading superpowers, I was able to complete the book in two nights. This encourages me to question whether I would be better off using library services.

Another book, What Makes You Not A Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, I tried to read several years ago, but I lost interest — largely because of the stance of its author, which reads to me as at least intending to challenge and change the reader, if not outright manipulating them. That is, I am wary of the (apparently) unspoken message, “if you want to be a real Buddhist, then you’ll do what I say,” which doesn’t strike me as an argument in my best interest.

(It’s been a while since I looked at this book; I must say that at the time I looked into it, it read as so hostile that I didn’t want to continue. Then again, Karma also read to me initially, like the author had an attitude; which I was able to set aside for a couple of nights in order to process anything beneficial to me that he had to communicate.)

There’s a limit to how far one can take identity politics; I, for one, would much rather maintain my intellectual integrity and take interest in Buddhism without feeling pressure to buy into it. At a certain point, I also believe that having and maintaining an identity as “Buddhist” goes against the ideal of letting go of clinging to compounded things. But that only really matters if you buy into the idea that clinging to compounded things instigates suffering, and that suffering is best avoided (on a grand scale).

There’s that, and the fact that I really don’t think I’m Buddhist in the first place (I take more interest in culture and folklore which arose in the same milieus influenced by Buddhism, having an East Asian ethnic background and having been included in U.S. mainland Asian-American culture, which is relatively inclusive [I hear and read that it isn’t the same way in other locales like Hawaii, where ethnic groups don’t have a shared identity as much]), so the book obviously isn’t targeted at me.

This is another time that my study of Marketing gives me some relief: I’m not in Khyentse’s target market, so it doesn’t really matter what I feel about it.

My reading of Karma stems off of having restarted The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice Flaherty, and Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by Kay Redfield Jamison. (Sometimes it’s easier to read about creativity, than it is to be creative.) Flaherty’s book was relatively new when I got it, having a copyright date of 2004. It’s basically been sitting around here collecting dust — probably due to the fact that it opens with an explanation of the functions of different brain regions, which isn’t the most engaging material.

Underlying all of this is the uncertainty I have at this point in my life, of how central to my identity my creativity is, or should be, or can be. There’s also the obvious (to me) fact that I’ve been watching Dragon Ball Super (don’t laugh), and there is an obvious trope of transformation in that anime.

For those who don’t know anything about Dragon Ball, it’s basically a fantasy martial-arts animated series. The main character has a consistent habit of getting nearly beaten to death and then coming back stronger, faster, etc., and discovering new heights of power which were inaccessible before he was pushed to the point where he had to break through his own limitations (or, at least the limitations he and everyone else thought he had).

On the surface, the Dragon Ball saga looks like an encouragement to youth to try hard at whatever they’re doing and not to believe that they can’t ascend to whatever height they aspire to (and beyond, to levels they can’t fathom upon beginning). I mention this because the difference in message between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, we analyzed in an undergrad class I took on Japanese Pop Culture; Dragon Ball Super follows from Dragon Ball Z (and I guess we’re just going to forget Dragon Ball GT ever happened).

On a different level, I’m thinking that the idea of transformation is deeper than just a pop-culture reference. I have not, however, read deeply into literary references in Dragon Ball, mostly because that’s a question I would have to find an answer to on the Web, and because I’ve grown enough to know that information on pop-culture isn’t always the safest thing to access with a computer that I want to function later.

In Karma, I’ve read Kyabgon to essentially state that breaking free of karma is to do what is not expected; to have freedom of motion that essentially breaks the script. Remaining in samsara is to remain in our ingrained habits (which inevitably coincide with pain or unsatisfactoriness [duhkha], this being kind of the definition of samsara), while the possibility of liberation lies in the ability to assume any form at any time, depending on need. This is possible because we are seen not to be inherently self-arising (there is no inherent identity), thus we depend on causes and conditions, thus when those causes and conditions change, we change.

By “form,” I’m particularly looking at the idea of the Six Lower Realms, though “form” can also be used in different contexts (for example, the “form body” and “formless body”, which I don’t really know about at this point, and which is likely not relevant to me at this point). The Six Lower realms are the Hell realm (anger), the Preta realm (greed), the Animal realm (ignorance), the Human realm (desire), the Asura realm (jealousy), the God realm (pride). Thank you, Joseph Campbell.

Each Lower Realm has a Poison, or klesha (if I’m correct in assigning that term), associated with it, which follow parenthetically from the name of each realm I’ve placed above. These Poisons are primarily responsible for suffering in each realm. Metaphorically, each person can be in predominantly one realm or another, and this can change at different times and in different situations.

There are also Higher Realms, beyond that of a God (getting into the worlds of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, etc.), but they’re mostly inconsequential to a regular person. I have seen some of this belief in action in Pure Land Buddhism…but I’m not really into Pure Land Buddhism, at this point.

Sometimes faith is comforting, though, even if dangerous: those who subscribe to this form of Buddhism (the most common in the U.S.), are said to believe that through faith and mantra, they can be reborn into a Heaven ruled by an awakened being, in which it is easy to become liberated in one lifetime, oneself. (Apologies if I’ve got that wrong.) Over most of Buddhism, it’s accepted that it takes many lifetimes to achieve liberation, the exceptions that I know of being Vajrayana Buddhism (Lightning/Diamond Vehicle), which is a family of Buddhisms more than a school; and Zen (which aims for satori, or an instantaneous experience of nirvana).

In any case, I in particular am dealing with some issues of transformation. I now have my clearing to be employed as an information professional. While I was essentially an artist and writer in my youth, I find that the treatment I need for a serious and ongoing condition, in effect, dampens the amount of creativity that I observe within myself. (Of course, I’m biased: my memories of illness are in fact tainted by that illness.)

It’s fairly apparent that my mental space shifted markedly towards logic and rationality, when I began one medication in particular. I’ve now been on that medication for about 15 years. As I said before, I’m not sure if what I’m dealing with is simply not being forced to be creative, and being out of practice at being creative, or whether something within me has actually changed.

If something within me has changed, that means that I need to find something new around which to base my identity. That’s not easy, especially when in my youth, my reason to continue to survive was to create. Who am I without my creativity? Or, maybe that’s the wrong question to ask; maybe I still have my creativity, and it’s just harder to recognize, because it’s more subtle, and less forced.

Given that, even: I’m also moving more fully into my adult years, which is…kind of mind-blowing in itself.

Maybe the point right now is that I have a choice between being primarily an artist-writer, and being primarily something else that is not the same. It is, actually, like the person I was 15 years ago and the person I am now, are two different people with a continuity of memory — which is exactly the type of “rebirth” Buddhism suggests.

Of course, I also have the possibility, ill-advised though it is, to revert to my previous form by stopping medication. This would expose me to the full brunt of my illness, which — from what I’ve been told on all fronts — would only be likely to worsen in intensity over the rest of my lifetime. Given that in my twenties, I didn’t expect to make it to thirty…that’s not attractive.

The active states can be painful; or be a waste of time because of lack of clarity; or distort my judgment. A balance has to be drawn between wellness, and any benefit (like a subjective notion of my own creative productivity) my illness may happen to confer upon me.

For that matter, treatment itself confers great advantages to me that I didn’t have, outside of childhood. There are two negatives to it: one is the fact that unless I do something to counter it, I will gain weight. That’s a concern because of heart disease and diabetes. The other negative is that it changes the way I function, and I wasn’t told about or prepared for this when I began treatment.

Also, before treatment, I didn’t realize fully that I was painting and writing and drawing because I wasn’t connecting with the real world, but instead self-generating a world. That is, I had a very deep inner experience which I could only share with others through writing and art.

15 years after the publication of The Midnight Disease, it seems the Internet is finally starting to catch up with Flaherty’s insights. Particularly, she mentions Geschwind Syndrome, a cluster of symptoms associated with at least three families of illness which have changes in the temporal lobe as a common factor. Just to anchor me, here, Geschwind syndrome is characterized by…

…a cluster of five personality traits (…) : hypergraphia; a deepened emotional life sometimes described as hyperphilosophical or hyperreligious (…) ; emotional volatility, including aggressive outbursts; altered sexuality (usually decreased sexual activity); and overinclusiveness, an extreme talkativeness caused by excessive attention to detail. (p. 24)

Alice W. Flaherty, (2004), The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.

Notably, at least at one time, I fit the profile for the syndrome (though I was, thankfully, able to avoid aggressive outbursts…mostly). Right now it’s just an unexplained observation; I have no clue as to whether this has been investigated in myself.

In any case, reading about Geschwind Syndrome made me feel that it was okay for me to embrace my own potential Geschwind Syndrome, which is partially why I broke back into the Buddhism reading. Not to mention that I am in the midst of transformation (or at least the potential for transformation), on many levels.

The thought has occurred to me that maybe I need to embrace the person I’ve become, instead of mourning and grasping at the person I have been. I’ve also realized that the person I used to be, could not take care of themselves. At this point, I’m much closer to independence, and being able to more powerfully interact with and help my communit(ies). So the potential for change that I can effect is greater, now, than it used to be. I can be a positive force rather than someone who has to be taken care of, and I’ll be a better force because I know what it’s like to have experienced this.

That’s worth it, right? That’s worth the medication, and it’s worth staying alive for. I’ve even heard from others that the loss of mandatory creativity is okay, if it means I function better.

I have just not seen writing on this topic, though I might not be looking hard enough, or maybe I don’t know where to look.

Last night I was able to engage in the design process again. I did surprise myself, because I was able to do it. Maybe my working methods are different, now; though I can still see remnants of what I used to experience while drawing (“seeing” what I need to draw, before my mark hits the page, though it isn’t a hallucination). I found that out while trying to design a new linocut that turned into a regular drawing… 😉

Yeah, maybe that’s not so bad… 🙂 I might just need to make being creative a priority in my life. I’ve found that a big drive toward creativity is not being able to stand my world unless I cause some change within it; some piece of jewelry, or a bit of writing, or a painting. I’m not entirely sure what causes this, either…but it calms me to look at what I’ve done, and it excites me to do more.

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