After this I suppose the dusk light dimmed and was replaced by the lights of the houses on the hills, and a firmament. I suppose I went to bed and slept.
In the mornings most days I push Rosamund down the road to her daycare in a push chair and, although the day may be different – it may be a cold day, or warm, there may be a wind, or the spring-in-your-step early-morning-baby-blue sky – but it is still Rosamund and I walking down that street. I feel like I am wearing a groove down that footpath, every morning the same, and yet – at the end of it – there will quickly come a time when I will never again do it. A time when Rosamund is five and going to school, and the days of pushing the pushchair to daycare are long behind us. How I feel about that I suppose is how I feel about being human.
Time takes and gives. It takes from and gives to the experience of being alive. It took my grandmother, my father, my friend, and it gave me my wife, my children, my friends and my students. Loss of course also enriches but it is like the bitter grounds at the bottom of the cup.
Everyone I have ever known who has taken the time to learn about Jainism has become something of a Jain
– Michael Tobias
This graph shows unemployment rates in New Zealand from 1986 to 2009. The green line is the unemployment rate for people over 19 years of age, and the blue line is the youth unemployment rate. As it happens this graph represents a very important piece of information when it comes to my life story.
When I finished high school at the end of 1990 I decided that I would get a part-time job, save some money, and then go to France. I would do this with a friend of mine, and while we were in France we would get part-time jobs, travel and I would do things like write poetry. As you can see this was a cast-iron, well thought out and totally idiot-proof plan firmly based in reality.
With the exception of right now, the worst time for a youth to look for a job in the last twenty-five years was between 1991 and 1995. In 1991 I was a fellow with no work experience, questionable fashion sense, a quiet and mumbly personality, and bursary. Consequently I did not get a job, and halfway through 1991 I went to University.
Because it was halfway through the year I took some pretty random half-year courses: Eastern Religions, World Music and Problems of Philosophy. Aside from Problems of Philosophy (the problem, I decided, was that I didn’t give a shit what would happen if I traveled back in time and killed my own father before I was born), it was wonderful few months. I remember that I had to go and get lecturers to let me into their courses, and that I found the lecturer in Eastern Religions tucked into a book-lined room, with heaters blazing and two or three young women lounging about. The lecturer was quite avuncular and told me I’d be alright because I had glasses and was called John-Paul. Some time later this chap had to leave university because it seems he had been publishing the same piece of work with different titles for years instead of doing “original research”. This seemed a shame to me because he was one of my few memorable lecturers, and – if we’re going to take a strictly Hindu view of things – what is “original” research anyway?
I can remember a surprising amount from his lectures. I remember being particularly delighted to discover the Ajivikists. A sect of bone-idle, hedonists who were wiped out in a house fire (none of them could be bothered getting up and leaving the burning building). Because I was bone-idle and 18 I decided it wouldn’t be too bad to be an Ajivikist. I even made up an Ajivikist saying: “If you have no goals you’re always achieving them.” Of course, the slacker thing was in at that time. There was a very long movie where not much happened about slackers, and there was Clerks, and there was Beck’s Loser. I seem to remember that we were going to run an Ajivikist candidate in the student elections but that we couldn’t be bothered (god, we cracked ourselves up).
I also remember the Jains. They are memorable because they have an arresting image that sticks in the mind: a person walking down the street sweeping the ground in front of them so they don’t accidentally kill any insects when they walk. This is one expression of their philosophy of non-violence. Since that single lecture in 1991 I have not spent any time thinking about the Jains. Until last week, twenty-two years later, when I was looking to wrap up a sequence of lessons on Hinduism and remembered the Jains again.
The Jains believe we have responsibility for our own souls, and should live without harming others. Others, in this sense, means life in general rather than just other people. Although humans have an extra duty of care to others because of consciousness, we are not above other forms of life.
In the documentary Around the World in 80 Faiths the presenter – an Anglican minister – comes across a Jain nun in his travels. He is moved, as it is always moving to witness love and peace in a bruising, fleet-footed world.
There are some sects of Jainism who live even without clothes. As is the way when you get down to the fundamentals it seems that the instinct to peace and anti-materialism is at least a part of all peoples and at all times. Not, unfortunately, our first impulse, but there nonetheless, and we can be recalled to it,
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
The Sermon on the Mount is very much a speech for the vulnerable, and a rejection of the material.
Francis of Assisi was another to recall us to it:
If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.
In Martin Luther King we find Jainism and Christianity joined, if we take a detour through Gandhi who was influenced by the Jains (and who influenced Martin). In general I suppose that people know Martin as the man who made the speech “I Have a Dream” and was tragically shot a few years later. Knowing how his thinking developed after the March on Washington makes his death even more tragic. He started helping people out with a bus boycott and ended realising that much of the world’s suffering is built into our unfair systems; systems of winners and losers in a race to nowhere. Think of the audacity of speaking out against the war machine and capitalism during the VIetnam War. Rage Against the Machine had an opinion on that (“they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam”) which – even if not true in fact – feels true in spirit.
“We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.”
– Martin Luther King
I’ve always wondered who this white guy was. He’s in the Eyes On the Prize documentary, and he made me realise what bravery is. He was involved in a student-led, non-violent action to desegregate lunch counters and in this still image he is a few moments away from being attacked by some angry white men. After they have pulled him off his stool, and punched and kicked him, he gets up off the ground and gets back on the stool. The men who attacked him just sort of stand there. To help them out a police officer comes and arrests the man who was attacked (for disturbing the peace I guess) and he is led away. The last time I played this clip in class I stopped the film to point this man’s bravery out. Some of the students looked at me like I was crazy. Some didn’t. For a teacher this is a good result.
As false as it sounds at first, and as much evidence as can apparently be marshaled against it, I think it is right to say that love and peace can affect great transformative change in the world, and that it is in that spirit that we should act. The idea of bombing Syria for the sake of justice is an abhorrent absurdity. The horrors in that country must be addressed, but not in that way.
As you can see there is a temptation at this point for me to write about big things but I would like to keep this small. For me at the moment Jainism has joined a group of people and ideas from the past that help me think about what kind of world I would like (a big thing), and how I should act (a small thing). At the moment some of the ideas of Jainism are increasing my mindfulness. Increased mindfulness is something we could do with more of. I am thinking more and more about what I buy, what I throw away, what I eat, and how I act. That’s plenty to think about.
After the coffee comes the bitter grinds.
Last night Rosamund fell asleep in my arms as we were sitting on the couch. There are few things as beautiful in this world as a sleeping child. I was listening to Rufus Wainwright and Cathy was in the other room on the phone. I thought about my friend and how death makes even the simple things impossible. If I saw my friend tomorrow I wouldn’t ask him about Syria, or world poverty, I would ask him if he’d heard of Rufus Wainwright, and if he said no we’d sit down and I’d put Rufus on, and we’d enjoy it together.