Sunday, December 07, 2008

Loose Ends

If you're anything like me (although the chances are good that you aren't), you've been listening to The Clash for almost 30 years now, and when you first heard "Paper Planes" by M.I.A., a Tamil hip-hop artist, the sample upended your whole perception of their music. And once you got past the sample and the "bang, bang" hook, you were still impressed by the song and its satire on perceptions of immigrants. Which is a long way of getting around to saying that I like this song.

Re-reading yesterday's post about "A Christmas Tale," I realize that I didn't do a very good job of describing the film - it sounds perfectly dreadful from my brief description. While it does have it's dark side, however, it also has that quintessential French espirit that allows the characters to admit to awful things even while they enjoy a fine wine and go on celebrating a family feast together.

Essentially the movie is about grief and not only the effects it has on a family's life but on how those effects are transmitted. Early on, we're told (by shadow puppets) that the eldest son in the family died at age six from a childhood illness. The only hope they had for him was for a compatible blood donor to appear, and while no one in the family had the right blood, it was hoped that the child the mother was carrying would be a suitable donor and the boy's savior. When that didn't turn out to be the case, the oldest son died, and the mother resented her youngest child for not being the carrier of the right blood type, a grudge she held against him her whole life. That youngest child, then, felt inadequate and grew up to be an irresponsible cad, a burden on the rest of the family, and an agent of harm in his own right. Their daughter held her grief throughout her life, and never allowed herself to experience true happiness, while her own son ultimately became neurotic and a suicide theat. And so on.

When the mother's finally diagnosed with cancer, the irony is that her youngest child, the one she had long scorned for not having the right blood to save her first-born, is the appropriate donor for the bone-marrow transplant she needs, but he has been raised to be so self-centered and cavalier that it is not at all apparent whether he can be relied upon to submit to the procedure. And finally, this whole disfunctional clan reunites for one possibly final Christmas dinner together, where thay all achieve some level of redemption, although not in the corny, Hollywood, "Christmas Miracle" kind of way.

On a related note, my virtual friend Greensmile posted an interesting comment to Friday's entry. I had held that sanskara is memory that is not so-called declarative memory but closer to motor learning, but for the motor of the mind, not the body. Greensmile noted that the one time we have not yet accumulated any sanskara is at birth. We are born as essentailly blank slates, and as we learn to walk and talk, we begin to collect the templates for perception that are stored as sanskara.

Many Buddhists will argue this point and state that sanskara can be carried over from our prior lives into this existence. Our prior karma will determine whether the templates are useful, harmful or merely neutral, they say. I disagree with this traditional view - if the individual is like a clay vessel holding water (sanskara) and the vessel is destroyed, the water spills out and returns to the hydrosphere. If the clay is then fashioned into a new vessel, it cannot be filled again with the exact same water. Now I know there are those of you who want to argue that you can think of ways to store the water first, then pour that exact same water into the new vessel and thus prove me wrong. But first, to suppose that can be done with living beings presupposes some sort of divine intervention, a concept absent in Buddhism, and second, don't stick to this, or any, analogy so literally. Don't confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself.

There is a sort of divine intervention, though, in a child's accumulation of sanskara, and that is the parents' guidance. "Don't touch that, it's dirty," we're told, and "If you're good, Santa Claus will bring you presents." All of this creates the templates of associations and learned responses that we carry with us for the rest of our lives.

When that youngest child from "A Christmas Tale" was told that he was a failure for not having the right blood to save his older brother, that lesson in his own inadequacy, reinforced by his mother's distance, was carried throughout his life. Our initial sanskara is taught to us, some of it helpful, some of it harmful, and the karma of the parent is thus transferred to the child. And that transferrence, in turn, creates its own karma, and so the never-ending cycle continues.

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