On Thursday morning, a Facebook post from India announced the passing of Kyabje Gyalwa Trizin Rinpoche, 33d leader of the Tibetan Bon Buddhist tradition. I never met His Holiness, but the spiritual teachings of one of his senior students, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, have been of supreme importance to me. For decades I’ve been a serious student of contemplative traditions, and have found no teachings of greater benefit.
Later that Thursday, I saw a provocative post that quoted welterweight boxing champion, Floyd Mayweather, as saying that when Donald Trump spoke of grabbing pussy, “that’s the way real men speak.”
The juxtaposition of these two posts – one about a man I greatly admire, and one from a man who claims to know about “real” men, highlights our collective confusion about almost everything.
What Joseph Campbell referred to as “the social function of myth” – the stories that teach us appropriate behavior, and our place in the larger culture, have completely broken down. Collectively, we agree on nothing, including, but not limited to, what a real man, a real woman, a real government, or a real president is like.
Few men and women in recorded history have had so much choice about their station in life, or greater anxiety about it.
Much of our our nation’s appeal, from colonial days on, was the hope that here you could reinvent yourself. From those who indentured themselves for passage across the ocean, to the westward expansion, to the “Do your own thing” rallying cry of my adolescence, this promise has been a sword that cuts both ways. Psychologists tell us that too many choices can be as stressful as too few.
In the late 80’s, Joseph Campbell suggested that the mandala of a future religion might be our world seen from space. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush revived a phrase used by Woodrow Willson and Winston Churchill, to speak of a “New World Order.” At the start of the tech boom and the end of the cold war, such dreams seemed feasible.
Now the world is contracted in fear. Nationalism, fundamentalist religion, and right wing conspiracy theories about “new world orders,” have replaced any near-term hopes of a greater good. With a reality TV star in the White House, the nature of “reality” itself has been twisted in ways unimaginable even a year ago.
The crumbling of outmoded concepts to make way for the is new isn’t always bad, but it’s usually painful. Going back is never an option. At this point, it’s good to remember that ideas of “real men” and “real women” are constructs with no essential connection to lived “reality.” If you want to know what a real man or real woman looks like, go look in a mirror. Only adolescents, or adults stuck in adolescence, have time to worry about such things.
The more important question is what do I want my life to be like? What attributes do I admire, and who embodies them?
I knew a ex-prizefighter at the gym. In his 60’s, he walked with a limp and was usually in pain from a lifetime of beatings he’d taken in the ring. “You have to be an idiot to make a living like I did,” he said. Though he was a nice guy, his was never a life I aspired to! Nor would I want to be a thin-skinned rageaholic, rising in the wee hours to fire off angry tweets.
On the other hand, after a lifetime of service to all living beings, when his time had come, Gyalwa Trizin, sat in meditation and left. Left his body, left this world. Over millennia, Tibetan masters have learned how to live and die in ways that lead to ideal or even enlightened rebirths.
I have been in the presence of a few such masters – men and women, who live and act from the calm assurance that our difficulties are more like dreams than we know, and that there are paths that lead to life of service to beings, and when the time comes, a death that is free of fear. To my mind, this is something worth living for…