The Art of Escape

Like many young teenage boys, I took Karate class for a while. At the beginning of each session, our instructor would say: “You boys are here to learn Karate, but not to beat up anyone. You should have the strength to beat your enemy, but also the power to not do it. If you happen to get in a fight, know that you can beat him, but then accept to be beaten up. This is the ultimate power”.

You see this thought in many different forms. The whole idea of Karma in Buddhism is the same thing: it doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong; if you beat someone up you’re just adding to your karmic debt. Gandhi says “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Taoism tells you not to fight back: just keep your balance and accept things. In Christianity, they say: “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). Earlier in the same chapter, we have “Blessed [are] the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5). Ahmad Shamlou uses this phrase (خوشا به حال فروتنان، چرا که اینان کاشفان زمین‌اند) to name his work (strange enough, about the revolution, revolutionaries, and fighting) “کاشفان فروتن شوکران” (The meek discoverers of hemlock).

It took me years to master the technique of fighting (back), not just fighting people, but fighting life. It didn’t matter what life would bring to me, I could and I would fight it back; from declaring my financial independency at the age of 15, to living on my own at 18, to starting and selling my own business at 24. I remember having a conversation with The Guru, when I was in my early 20s. He asked me “where do you want to be in a couple of years?”, and I answered “having my own business, and showing to people, especially to my father, that I am capable… capable of doing whatever I want”. And I did that. But now when I think about it, I can see that more than a statement, it was a declaration of war; a war against life, against the Gods. And I was foolish enough to think that I was the winner, just because I did whatever I said I wanted to do. I was just working on my “strength”.

Tired of all the fighting, little by little I started to think about the Ultimate Power, the power of acceptance, getting beaten up and not fighting back, the ultimate fight, a real Fight Club. This new power made me happy (not really having it, just practicing it). Now I could join the club. I could look at some people in the eyes, people that I admired and had looked up to for a long time. Now I could see others, smiling and thinking “I hope you too grow up someday”! But remember the rules of Fight Club? Rule number 1: “You don’t talk about Fight!” Tao Te Ching says the same thing: “The more you use it, the more it produces; the more you talk of it, the less you understand” (Sutra #5). You just have to stay quiet, take the pain inside, and hope to be enlightened one day: “Blessed [are] they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4); or as Hafez says:

با دل خونین لب خندان بیاور همچو جام
نی گرت زخمی رسد آيی چو چنگ اندر خروش

(can anyone translate this for me, please? I can’t!)

But recently, I’ve started to question this Ultimate Power. Not that I want to fight back again, I’ve already passed that stage of my life. But I can’t really figure out why one should stay quiet, take all the pain, and smile? I remember even though everybody loved the “Fight Club” movie, I was disgusted by it, and by the idea of it. What makes life different? Recently I have the same feeling about this “ultimate power”; the whole “shall be comforted”, or “inheriting the earth”. The idea of heaven (the religious version) or enlightenment (the philosophical version) seems to be an overly simplified way to comfort us and to justify the suffering. I don’t want to make anyone suffer, including me! Why should I suffer? To pay my karmic debt?! Which debt? To learn and to grow? Learn what, and grow where? Hafez says:

طبیب عشق مسیحا دم است و مشفق لیک
چو درد در تو نبیند که را دوا بکند

So, the idea is having pain, hoping that at some point Jesus as love comes to you to cure your pains by his breath, so you could enjoy your life without pain? What a theory!

The Guru was telling me a couple of days ago that this is a turning point, choosing between the Buddhist approach (Enlightenment with eyes closed: All is an illusion, let it go) and the Taoist approach (Enlightenment with eyes open: All is in order, let it come). But at this point one can make another turn too:

I hesitate,
standing at a fork in the road,
the only way I know is the way of return

– Abbas Kiarostami, Wolf Lying

Why not just turning back, and quitting the road? Enlightenment seems to be yet another story to justify suffering. Yes, I agree that it takes a lot of power, the ultimate power, to stay in the fight club. But after all, why would one want to be powerful and strong? Maybe there is a smarter ways to deal with it: just quitting the club, stopping the power game, and escaping from it all together. Recently I feel like the Ultimate power is to know the game, but not to participate in it. People can think you’re scared, people can think you’re not capable, you’re weak, you’re timid. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not; in the end, who really cares?

What difference between yes and no?
   What difference between success and failure?

Must you value what others value,
   avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
   as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care,
   I alone am expressionless,
   like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need;
   I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
   like someone without a home.

I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright;
   I alone am dark.

Other people are sharp;
   I alone am dull.

Other people have a purpose;
   I alone don’t know.

I drift like a wave on the ocean,
   I blow as aimless as the wind.
I am different from ordinary people.

– Tao Te Ching, Sutra #20.

The Guru says let it come, and I’m thinking maybe he’s just too bright to understand the art of escape, the ultimate art.

——————————

San Francisco

Apr 10, 2006- English, blog, Notes
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  1. It’s a strange coincidence to read your essay today. From Kiosk’s IRIB song, somehow I ended up here for the first time. I am surprised as I spent most of my morning thinking about same stuff. I went to dinner with my Karate classmates and the Sensei after our class last night. I had a long discussion with the Sensei sitting in front of me, trying to explain why I don’t believe in God and still read Persian poetry every single night. Anyhow, the discussion itself is another story, but somehow his words affected me deeply. I kept thinking and thinking (instead of fulfilling my “important” research responsibilities towards the world of academia). I always say that for us humans it is impossible to explain the world because we are part of it. To explain and model a system we need to be out of that system and observe it without changing it by our observation. It occurred to me this morning that being outside is similar to being a human looking at a society of ants. Imagine those ants working so hard, so absorbed in their daily quest for food. Some of them much better in collecting food and moving much faster than others, … whom are considered successful, praised by others, … But they all die sooner or later. Their worries, passions, pains, … all look so trivial from outside. Which one is happier or better? the poor one who ate his “noon o maast”, or the sharp hardworking one who had his laptop and blackberry with him every where? No one can say!

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