Dalai Lama – Mormon missionaries

TUESDAY, 1 JUNE 2004

Self-knowledge, identity and the Dalai Lama

The “current” Dalai Lama was born Tenzin Gyatso. Six decades ago he was enthusiastically busy being just an ordinary boy when one day some monks arrived to tell him he is not who he thinks he is, but rather the umpteenth incarnation of someone else. Imagine that.

WEDNESDAY, 2 JUNE 2004

[My conversations, real or otherwise, with the Mormon missionaries go back to my first year in Taiwan when two young, well-dressed, clean-cut Americans visited my apartment every Thursday evening for a few weeks. Their visit was by invitation – I saw them one night while I was smoking a cigarette on my porch, and since there weren’t that many Westerners in the area to talk to, I seized the opportunity for a little theological chit-chat. Our discussions took the form of question and answer: I asked questions, they tried to answer, I replied with fresh questions to their answers, and when they no longer wanted to answer or when they longer had an answer, I came up with possible answers on their behalf. After a few weeks, the two decided to part ways with me.

On the particular Wednesday of this piece I was heading back to Fengshan by train when two Caucasian men entered my field of vision: young, wearing black pants, white short-sleeved shirts with name badges on the one breast, cleanly shaven, short hair. I began to wonder what I would say, were they to target me for conversation. The trip lasted only about ten minutes; the discussion would therefore have been short, and to the point.]

Conversation with Mormon missionaries on the train

(That did not take place on Wednesday, 2 June 2004)

“Hi.”

I nod.

“Are you a teacher?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Couple of years.”

“Have you heard of the Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ?”

“There’s no point in me having this conversation with you.”

“Why?”

“Because you don’t know who you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you know your names, and you know to which religious organisation you belong. But these are mostly things that you’ve been told about yourself during the first two decades of your lives. You haven’t really made any personal choices that would indicate to me that you truly know who you are.”

“We’ve chosen to follow Jesus Christ.”

“How could you have chosen something if you’ve never had any choices? Where did you grow up? Utah? Salt Lake City? If you were an Arab who grew up in a Muslim environment, with all the environmental data that would have given you an identity in that context, and you then chose the Church of Latter Day Saints above Islam … then you would have made a choice. So far you’re nothing but a human body carrying around a lot of data about yourself. These things – your physical appearance, your name, your language, where you come from, your nationality, and the fact that you are missionaries of a particular church – are all identifying marks that tell you and anyone else how you fit into your environment.

“You, sitting there, cannot tell me anything that you haven’t been told. Have you ever had an experience that could possibly undermine your beliefs? How can you know the truth about yourself or anything you believe in if you’ve never questioned the validity of the facts that you’ve been fed? What are your criteria for telling truth from a lie?

“I cannot have an intelligent conversation – about religion no less! – with someone who is nothing more than an emulator of other people in order to know how he should function as a human being.”

“How do you know what we think, or what we’ve experienced? I experience God every day …”

“Yes, you have experiences, and I’m sure you’ve been told how to interpret them. And the words you use to give expression to these experiences … are words that you did not invent, am I right?

“My station’s coming up. Listen, I cannot, in the final instance, judge the validity of your experiences. I do not claim to possess the powers of mind or spirit which would certainly be required to either confirm or refute the source of your experiences.

“If I made certain assumptions about you that are incorrect, please accept that I did so to make a point that might be applicable to your life, or it might not be. If my assumptions cannot in entirety be dismissed, then please consider it for a minute or so. Either way, have yourselves a good day.”

______________________

I know who I am, part two

FRIDAY, 28 MAY 2004

People who think I like being alone should have their minds read. But what alternative is there for a person for whom being alone is a daily reality but to confirm his value as an individual according to his own standards?

This person will try to establish his value as an individual in a society where membership in a group is one of the most prestigious awards that an individual can claim for himself.

To be one member of an intimate two-member group is however held in particularly high esteem since it implies inter alia that each of the two members is sexually attractive to at least one person. This in turn influences the esteem of these two members in the larger social group in which they move, and also in the wider community, for sexual attractiveness (and the accompanying satisfaction of another person’s need for pleasure) is one of the main factors that determine an individual’s value in the world we live in – the other being financial or economic prowess.

If you are not a valued member of a social group, and your sexual attraction is not of such a nature that people desire physical communion with you (in ways that are clear to other people), there remains but a single possible label for your person: SINGLE-LONER. (If, however, as SINGLE-LONER, you possess visible financial prowess, you will surely attract people who desire the delightful benefits your financial status entails.)

Being a SINGLE-LONER, especially one without visible financial prowess, is naturally not as enjoyable as being with another person. It also has absolutely no calming effect on any existential anxiety you might experience. It is also a condition that occasionally leads to nasty attacks on your dignity, that once again emphasize your consciousness of differentness, which diminishes your chances even further of being taken seriously in any social context.

What should one do? Jump in front of a train? Bore other people endlessly with your self-pity? What you do, is you confirm your value according to your own standards that will sometimes be in conflict with the standards of the community that view loners with suspicion and that encourage membership to social groups. A critical view of some of the community’s standards is therefore to be expected.

By the way, for whom do I make these notes? The mere possibility that it is just for myself is unbearable.

And I know where this latest piece of social criticism is coming from: It feels bad to be alone, so now I weave a whip out words with which I can punish the community (or a whip that I can crack a safe distance from the nearest picnic table – I don’t want to completely ruin any chances of some communion with other people).

I am not taking back a single word of what I said in the preceding paragraphs, but it is once again important for the sake of intellectual honesty to admit that I know what is fueling my criticism.

I am in a difficult situation. The gap between how I see myself and how the “community” views me – as manifested in the reactions of people on what I am doing with my life and on the utterances I sometimes can’t help making in polite conversation – is becoming increasingly unbridgeable.

Two possibilities: a) I have to get the recognition from the community that I believe I deserve, or b) I will continue to treat the community with increasingly vicious contempt. (It must necessarily be so – if “they” are not with me, then I am against them. And the insane asylum or the prison creeps ever closer …)

Do I hold the community responsible for my loneliness? No. I am already guilty of cynicism; I cannot afford to be stupid as well.

[…]

But as you sometimes beat the grass to startle a snake, I believe my own lack of regular intimate contact and my isolation from the community is the medium through which I gain certain insights into the position of the individual in society. The bitterness with which I sometimes write merely confirms that it is not just an interesting subject that I approach with the objectivity of an academic. I know what I am talking about.

Again, I can declare that I know who I am. Again I can ask of people who avoid time on their own as much as possible if they know who they are – apart from the combination of imitations they employ to successfully function within a particular social community.

I can also declare that who I am is not always good, and certainly not always pleasant. One also sometimes wonders what is so good about extensive self-knowledge if the result of this is that you spend your days and nights alone …

______________________

The SELF – application – identify

TUESDAY, 18 MAY 2004

The SELF.

“What is a home, the place where you feel you belong, other than a place where you know who you are?”

That was last night. Today I ask, what does it mean to “know who you are”? It means that you know your place among other people with whom you share a particular environment at a particular time. It means that you are aware of your own value in this environment. You also have a rough idea how you are viewed by others in the vicinity.

Interesting for the above definition of “home” is that I did not know five years ago who I was in context (having only recently arrived in Taiwan). I can continue and say that it has taken me about five years to know who I am in context (particularly among “others like me”, namely other South Africans in Taiwan); also that I wanted to go “home” shortly after I had developed more certainty about who I am in context. It can also be argued that I can also know who I am in context in a different place, although it will again take time.

In one word, what defines who you are? I would say, more than anything, relationships with other people.

* * *

Incidentally, Nietzsche did not believe that there is a fixed self that can be “discovered”. He wrote, “WILL a self and thou shalt BECOME a self.” [Own emphasis]

* * *

Is there such a thing as a core self that can be discovered, upon which the person who you want to be, develops? Can this core self in its earliest form be seen as pure and undefiled, something that is then corrupted by exposure to the environment outside the womb? Or is the core self something that may already be compromised in the root because of genetic composition, something that may then be damaged and corrupted even further by early experiences, years before it is “discovered” by the person?

* * *

Nietzsche, therefore, reckons that the self cannot be found but that it should be defined and then become. (What would he say about the idea of a core self that can be discovered?)

It almost seems as if I am back at the beginning: Who am I and where do I belong? Interesting thing is that Nietzsche’s view almost compels one to ask, instead: Who do I want to be? And, where do I want to belong?

How does one define the “self” (who you are/who you want to be)? And how do you define “your place” (your home/where you belong)?

(I have to remove myself from the rest of humanity and their sometimes tragic lives, and only become selectively involved.)

If the environment is such a critical factor in knowledge about the SELF (to know who you are, or what it means to be “you”), is it possible to have a universal “I”? If “I, in Fengshan City, Taiwan” am not quite the same as “I” in some industrial town in South Africa, who am “I” then? And if it changes, then it is impossible to know a universal “I”, or to be one! Then to be a functioning, particular “I” in the environment in which you find yourself at the present moment, and to be a similar person to a degree in any other environment, is the best you could ever hope for!

It follows that self-knowledge is relative to your environment. What you do have if you radically change location (Fengshan, Taiwan to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), or if your situation undergoes radical change, are reference points. You know how you acted in the other environment, or when your situation was different, or you can imagine how you would have acted. This knowledge then provides you with a frame of reference within which you can work out how you should act in the new environment or changed circumstance to remain roughly “the same person” – if it is appropriate at all that there should be consistency.

Can you ever fully know yourself? And considering the vital role that the environment plays in the “knowledge” of who you are, WHO ARE YOU REALLY?

THURSDAY, 20 MAY 2004

Application of a theory/The SELF and environment

So I don’t want to leave this place because I know who I am here. Which also means if I leave to go live in a place like Pretoria or Bronkhorstspruit and I define who I am there, I would also eventually be reluctant to leave there, for the same reason.

You won’t want to leave a place unless you are unsatisfied with who you are in that place. Dissatisfaction of this nature will result in you continuing to leave places until you find a place where you will not only know who you want to be, but where you can be who you want to be.

[The principle: If you know who you are in a particular place and you are satisfied with who you are in that place, if economic and other factors in that place are furthermore of such a nature that your chances of survival are better than in another place where you can also establish yourself in theory, it is understandable and reasonable that you will want to stay right where you are.]

TUESDAY, 25 MAY 2004

Identify your SELF – and how it is identified to you

The SELF – how the person identifies his own SELF to him- or herself, and how the person identifies his or her SELF to the community. The latter is not a one-way conversation – the language in which the individual identifies his or her SELF to the community was not invented by the individual, but is used with compliments of the community, as it were, of which the individual is a member. (Examples of language concepts that are used include “husband”, “wife”, “strong”, “smart”, “leader”, “author”, “rich”, “poor”, “intellectual”, “atheist” and “Christian”, to name a few.)

In my case, a community that consisted mainly of white Afrikaans-speakers identified my SELF to me. Currently I identify myself as an adult to another community – Asian, Chinese – using a language that I am still mastering and through other data that I have become aware of through personal experience.

______________________

I know who I am

SUNDAY, 23 MAY 2004

A creature from outer space I am not. I make this statement because rumours of my alternative cosmic origin have been persistently going around for months now in the circles in which I sometimes show face, and suspicions are regularly whispered through clenched teeth among people who have apparently never seen one like me. The response after initial contact with the strange creature is always the same: Act courteously, but treat him with suspicion – he is not “like us”.

Yet, I am not a creature from outer space. I’m a human being, same as the characters who erroneously assume they have sufficient mental ability to formulate an opinion about me. Within my body, I have intestines and organs and attached to my body arms and legs. I have hair all over my skin, teeth in my mouth, and eyes in my head, which, I admit, view the world around me in perhaps too critical a fashion.

But a creature from outer space, I am not. Like any mortal soul I have needs that must be met. I mean, do I not eat breakfast every day? Do I not yearn for the friendly touch of another human being like all mortal beings? Am I not also sometimes in need of a protective hand? After experiencing disappointment, do I not also have need for some comfort?

No, loved ones and other interested parties, I am an enlightened individual … and if not always enlightened, certainly on my way. And that, dear readers, is just as frightening to some people as a green, jelly-dripping, five-eyed creature from another universe.

But rest assured, a being from another solar system, I am not.

I know only too well we all learn to fear what we do not understand. We all learn to treat with suspicion all that are not like us. We come up with labels and hang them figuratively around necks as we whisper behind our hands, our eyes nervously darting behind a strange figure to make sure he or she does not wander in our direction.

The presence of an enlightened individual is often a frightening experience to some people. But what is an enlightened individual? It is the person who exposes our own ignorance; also our fears, and sometimes our own intellectual shortcomings. An enlightened individual breaks the unspoken agreement that exists between a meaningful percentage of adults – if I do not know (or understand) and you do not know (or understand), then we’re both okay.

Enlightened individuals possess unique self-knowledge. They understand the motivations behind most of their own actions. They understand their desires – where they come from and what they mean. They also understand their fears, and what causes them. They understand what is behind a few of the “mysteries” of life, and they know they can never know all the secrets.

Enlightened individuals recognize their own shortcomings; they recognize their own ignorance and their own fears; and they acknowledge their own mortality. They have no reason to do otherwise, and they cannot endure the thought of betraying themselves anyway.

Enlightened individuals understand the values of the community in which they were born, and/or in which they find themselves as adults – regardless of whether they accept these values as their own or not. They also understand the institutions and conventions of this community, and the expectations that will cause one person to be accepted by the community and another rejected.

Enlightened individuals understand themselves better than any other person understands them. They also understand the context in which they live their lives better than the collective understanding of a dozen unenlightened individuals.

Is the ENLIGHTENED INDIVIDUAL, therefore, a being from a planet, light years removed from our own? One can almost feel sympathy for the ENLIGHTENED ONES if they sometimes feel like they could just as well have been strange creatures exuding a foul-smelling slime the moment someone scratches their skin. And sometimes the ENLIGHTENED has empathy for the IGNORANT when he or she avoids the former as if the words they utter are poison that could cause a slow, painful death.

Can there, at the final count, ever exist anything other than hostility between the IGNORANT and the ENLIGHTENED? Can there ever be harmony between GROUP ANIMALS, on the one hand – who cling to institutions like they’re totem poles and conventions as if they are commands from God, and, on the other hand, the ENLIGHTENED INDIVIDUAL?

I know who I am and who I want to be. The question now: where do you stand on this matter?

______________________

Numbers and time – enlightened spirit

WEDNESDAY, 12 MAY 2004

Numbers and time

How does one know what is still waiting for you in life? Imagine you could know that you are now halfway to a major event in your life, two-thirds on the way to another, four-fifths of the way to something else, and so on. Everything – your whole life, sometimes feels so concentrated in the current moment.

Five years and four months may now be completed of what may eventually turn out to be a seven-year stay for me on this island. In the remaining time here I may just start some business that may eventually provide me with a decent annual income. This is month number 64 for me in Taiwan … of what may eventually be 83 months. I may just meet the love of my life in month number 71, but I don’t know it yet.

What do I know about what will happen when I am 37, and 43, and 67 …

[Fact: I met the woman who turned out to be the love of my life in month number 69.]

MONDAY, 17 MAY 2004

Enlightened spirit

Where does spiritual enlightenment fit in the range of personal development? What is spiritual enlightenment? Is it to disengage from a material existence in sole pursuit of spiritual purity, to “free the spirit” from the “cycle of birth and death”?

An interesting aspect of so-called spiritual enlightenment and detaching yourself from the world is that it is 100% selfish. You go on a mission where the rest of humanity matters even less than before … except of course if it is spiritual enlightenment not through detaching yourself from the world, but by engaging in and with the world. Is this at all a possibility?

What does intellectual enlightenment mean? It means that you free yourself from ignorance, prejudices and beliefs based on fear rather than reason. You also learn to use your mind as a tool to improve your chances of survival; also to facilitate the development of your person, including working out what you want to do with your life that goes beyond mere physical survival. It implies an understanding of yourself and humankind as a species as well as an understanding of your environment –understandings that are likely to be more advanced than views held by a majority of the population.

______________________