The news of the last week has put me in mind of a concept from Mayahana Buddhism (and indeed from the Judeo-Christian tradition as well) which holds that our earthly world in its present condition is “just barely tolerable” (I first heard this phase in a recent talk by Anbo Stuart Kutchins). The Buddhist term for this is “Saha world,” and it is a key element in the Buddhist understanding of suffering in human life. I will address this below, but for now, I am simply interested in the concept—that the world as we know it is “just barely tolerable.” An Italian writer named Mario Brelich has referred to a similar idea in a kind of novelized essay called The Holy Embrace. There, he writes about how humans, after being ejected by God from the bliss of Eden, had to live in another world that would be “just barely tolerable,” so long as they submitted to the divine will, that is. Whether or not Brelich knew of or had access to Buddhist philosophy is not clear, but since he wrote his book in 1972, it certainly seems possible. No matter. The takeaway here is the notion of our human world as one which is “just barely tolerable.” Anyone who has lived long enough and reflected deeply enough (Nietzsche apparently had a similar idea of his world) must surely agree that the world and life as we know it is almost, but not quite, insufferable. Intolerable. Almost, but not quite.
The way I think of this is that, considering the news of last week, those who usually thrive and rule in our world often seem bent on making the world intolerable for everyone else, especially the thinking person, the half-way compassionate person. Take the child abuse inflicted on Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States. These are people who have suffered untold misery in their home countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) from both corrupt authorities (usually enabled and supported by the United States) and out-of-control gangs. Indeed, it has been a truism for centuries that no one abandons home, relatives, neighbors, language and everything else that makes life worth living without enormous pressure either from violence or economic deprivation. So it is with people fleeing gangs in El Salvador or right-wing death squads and narco-traffickers in Guatemala or Honduras. To have even reached the Mexico/U.S. border requires an amazing odyssey that has subjected them to untold abuses. And yet, when they finally reach that dreamed-of border nearly mad with anxiety, these parents are met with the most unimaginable outrage of all: separation from their children. It is an obscenity that is all the more obscene because it is unnecessary: these are not criminals; they are refugees, asylum seekers. They want nothing more than safety for themselves and their young children. And yet, Trump and his Administration, almost gleefully (especially in describing the policy to their rabid supporters), have imposed criminal charges against them, charges of illegal entry for which they must answer in court. And this has necessitated their separation from their children. Now thousands of these children are caged and held separated without any indication of when, or whether they can ever be reunited with their parents, some of whom have already been deported. On its own, this is simply intolerable.
Then came the Supreme Court decision of June 26, which upheld the Trump administration’s third try at a travel ban against Muslims trying to immigrate. Through a transparent sleight of hand, the administration cosmeticized the original ban to include two countries that are notmajority Muslim—North Korea and Venezuela—so as to be able to claim innocence where religious animus is concerned, so as to be able to claim national security as its aim. And the conservative majority on the Supreme Court actually fell for this, or rather, has been slowly built over years to approve of such chicanery. And so they did, ruling that the President of the United States has near-unlimited authority to protect national security, though at the same time retroactively condemning the similar presidential order incarcerating Japanese Americans during WWII. It was a bravura performance of hypocrisy that would have pleased the 1857 court that wrote the Dredd-Scott decision.
But not satisfied with that, the Supremes followed that decision with two more decisions that put an exclamation mark upon their 2018 season: one reversing a Texas court’s ruling banning obviously racist gerrymandering, thus allowing racism to flourish in our voting system once again; and another granting a government-employed claimant the ‘right’ not to pay union dues, even though he benefits from union actions. This will bankrupt unions of much of the funding they need not only to protect their workers in the future, but also to help fund democratic candidates—the real point of the conservative decision. As if this were not enough, Justice Anthony Kennedy thereupon announced his retirement, thus paving the way for old Hog-Belly to nominate yet another hyper-conservative justice, this time to pollute the court for a generation, and probably dooming Roe v. Wade in the process. The triumph of vulgarity and stupidity and cruelty could not be more complete. Intolerable.
But we are assured that our world is “just barely tolerable.” Is there anything, in the face of all this horror, that makes it so? We can all count the ways. There are flowers that bloom, regardless of the hostility emanating from human poisons. There are also vegetables and trees and fish (barely holding on, it is true) and deer and rabbits and bear and mice and foxes (I just saw one scratching in my yard) and sharks and whales and hawks and coyotes that appear periodically to assure us that nature cannot be so easily suppressed, no matter how much glyphosate or fossil fuel we spray on it and over it and through it. Or how much carbon and plastic we inject into its air and oceans. And we know in our bones that once the human stain is gone from this earth, the natural world will rebound with unalloyed joy. Salmon will again thicken rivers and bears will feast on them as they journey upstream to spawn past rejuvenated forests and meadows and purefied air. Then there are our grandchildren, eager and beautiful and energetic in their innocent anticipation of growing up so they can taste the world that seems so appealing to them if only they could be adult and free. And as we watch, we can only hope that there will still be a world, “barely tolerable” though it might be, for them to fill out as we did. And then there are those courageous types everywhere who refuse to be threatened or deterred, who let their compassion and their fire drive them to relieve the suffering of those at the border or those under the boot or those fleeing global warming or those attempting to find a way to live on the streets. They are there, they are many, and they are models and inspiration for us all.
Which brings me back to the start of this essay. The Saha world is a concept made vivid in the branch of Buddhism known as Mahayana. And what it points out is that, though there are said to be other wonderful realms with names like the Pure Land or the Perfume Universe where everything is perfectly lovely (akin to Christian Heaven, perhaps), the Saha world is really best for us humans not just because it’s what we’ve got, but more precisely because of the struggle and hardship we find here. Struggle and hardship are beneficial for us, we are told; or rather, they are beneficial for those who adopt the ideal of the “bodhisattva”—the being who vows to eschew the personal liberation that he or she might obtain in favor of waiting until all beings are liberated. No thank you, says the bodhisattva when his own personal liberation is at hand; I prefer to remain here and help others. For such an ideal being, in short, the struggles and hardships and sufferings endemic to the Saha world are precisely what is needed for her development; development of the great compassion that keeps her here in the thick of things helping all others. In other words, the world just as it is seems perfectly designed for the development of that which the world itself needs to, eventually, wake up. And it becomes plain to such a being that no one, not even the most advanced of beings, can actually wake up alone. No one. Waking up is exactly that which is done together with all beings.
So, though in our more desperate moments (like now), we would, if we could, wipe out all the troubles and problems of the world by whatever means necessary to try to bring about some utopia or other, in our more comprehensive, our wiser moments, perhaps, we realize that the “just barely tolerable” world we have, doing its deluded thing as always, provides us with the right combination of horror and solace to keep us honest, and human, and, we hope, compassionate enough to never turn our backs on its “slings and arrows.” Because it is precisely those slings and arrows, along with a little bit of proper nourishment, that make us who and what we are.