Rick Fields, Ram Dass, Ramakrishna, and TRICYCLE
Some Thoughts on
Rick Fields, Ram Dass,
Ramakrishna, and
Tricycle Magazine

 

he final 100 pages of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by "M" are a wonder. Most of the book is a rather staid Bengali Life of Johnson. It only begins to go strange at the end.

Ramakrishna is dying of throat cancer, and his whole system (physical, mental, social, organizational) falls apart as he falls apart.

The unthinkable is happening: the magic guru master, this simple man of the soil, is not only sick, but dying. Since his followers know him to be divine, they are convinced that it won't happen. After all, Masters are not supposed to die in ugly pain, least of all with throat cancer.

This Master has the power, say his followers, to cure himself, despite the fact that they hear him saying to Mahendra, his loyal disciple (and transcriber of The Gospel), "Ask the doctor if he can cure me."

At this point, the play (for The Gospel is in part a play --- the characters are given lines to speak, parts to act) comes to remind us of Beckett, or Harold Pinter. The simple guru master begins, as all of us begin, when our bodies start to go out on us, to be less than holy towards those around him.

Who could be a more convenient target for his ire than the kindly attending physician, Dr. Sarkar? Ramakrishna says to him at one point that he is such a cold person that he will be reincarnated "as a brick-bat." Then the Master compares Sarker to an egg: "When a thing is boiled, it becomes soft. At first he was very hard. Now he is softening inside."

Ramakrishna: You see, you have love for this [pointing to his body]. You told me you loved me.

Sarkar: You are a child of nature. That is why I tell you all this. It hurts me to see people salute you by touching your feet. I say to myself, 'They are spoiling such a good man.' Kenshab Sen [another guru] was spoiled that way by his devotees. Listen to me...

Ramakrishna: Listen to you! You are greedy, lustful, and egotistic...

Sarkar: If you talk that way, I shall only examine your throat and go away. Perhaps that is what you want. In that case, we should not talk about anything else. But if you want discussion, then I shall say what I think to be right. [All remain silent.]

§     §     §

n David Brown's recent interview in Tricycle, he asks Ram Dass"What have you learned from your stroke?"

Dass replies, "One of the things my guru said is that when he suffers, it brings him closer to God. I have found this, too. The stroke is benevolent because the suffering is bringing me closer to God. It's the guru's grace, and his blessing is the stroke."

The article is titled, with a mordant pun, Stroked by the Guru. Thus, we have to ask befrore we even begin --- did the Guru award Dass with a stroke, thus making it a painful but necessary lesson in humility?

Ram Dass, among others, was instrumental in making it possible for me to begin to try to start on the path. His Be Here Now gave me a logical foundation for the illogical process of attempting to find the divine in myself, and in others. For that I praise him, and thank him, and honor him.

But that phrase "suffering is good for you" doesn't belong --- either in his brain, nor in his heart, nor in Tricycle. I suspect that it doesn't come from Buddhism, nor Hindusim --- but from the gory world of Christianity, or traditional Judaism.

Buddhists would know better than to say something like that. They might say, "Suffering may start you on the path." They might say, "Suffering can help to build in you compassion for others." But I doubt that they would say, "Suffering is good for you."

Suffering is but one part of the complex process of losing the body. The key is what it does to mind and soul. Those of us who have been in the world of body-loss for some time have figured out that most of the clichés --- Keep a stiff upper lip or You're very brave or Suffering is good for you are just that: clichés. One writer, describing her six-year-old son and the cancer that swept through his child's body, said We are brave only when there are choices.

Our misapprehension may come from those articles and interviews that turn up on radio, and television, in the newspapers and magazines: an interview with one who has just broken his or her spine, or come down with cancer, or lived through some disfiguring catastrophe. In all these, the we hear, repeated endlessly, that the loss need not be futile; that there is a brighter side; that the path is up.

Tricycle seems to have fallen in the trap of hope-in-the-face-of-death but in an awkwardly dispassionate way. And not just with this interview. I first ran into it in the interview with Rick Fields.

Like Ram Dass, Fields has been one of my heroes. How the Swans Come to the Lake is a fine tale of Buddhism in America, told with wit and verve. It reads like a novel --- and like a good novel, it is bold and irreverent, revelatory, fun to real.

Tricycle's interview with Fields (literally, on his deathbed) was sad, very sad. The sadness was not in what the disease was doing to Field's body, although that was grievous enough. The tragedy came from what he was not permitted (or perhaps, not encouraged) to say. Awful diseases, leading to death, are scary; they can be mad-making; they hurt; they can make us wise and wistful but also angry and sullen --- all at the same time. None of that was acknowledged in the interview.

Instead, we got icy, and, in the circumstances, almost impertinent questions. When you were first told that you had cancer what did you do? What are your fantasies about the end of your life? What do you do with self-pity?

Cancer, polio, stroke, the debility of old age, impending death --- whether viewed through the lens of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, or any other religion --- twist the psyche and spook the soul, no matter the depth of our religious faith and religious experience. We can be brave, we can be wise, we can be thoughtful, we can even be inspired; but that was, is, and always will be only half of the story.

I suspect the interviewers --- Helen Tworkov with Rick Field, David Brown with Ram Dass --- missed the truth because, like all of us, they are overwhelmed with what Doestevsky saw as the sheer waste of dying. No matter what our religious pretensions, this knowledge hits us in spades when we see a good person on the edge of the abyss. For Doestevsky, it was represented by a painting of Christ's body after it had been brought down from the cross --- a picture of the man god broken, and twisted, and bloody, and ugly.

I lost eighty percent of my body in one of the last polio epidemics in 1952, just before the coming of the Salk vaccine. In the almost fifty years since, I have learned some things --- some wonderful, some ghastly --- that I suspect neither Field nor Dass had the time to learn. Some of my insights didn't come until many years after the fact. Thus, for the two of them, I suspect the error of the interviews is but one of timing. A "victim" is being questioned long before he knows what he is dealing with.

Your magazine is not the only one to miss the point. It turns up constantly in the interviews with Christopher Reeve, and those of us who have been there before are forced to grieve not only for a freak accident that deprived a good and sweet man of his mobility, but, as well, to wring our hands over the words he is forced to speak long before the truth of his new body has had time to sink in.

We survive the first few months and years of disaster with denial. Denial is built into our souls for a very good reason: it make it possible to survive an overwhelming fact of life and the body (we're going to lose it) without going under. As with Oedipus, however, the truth can only be hidden for just so long. Ram Dass, like Reeve, is media wise, but neither of them are yet body-wise. They cannot let anyone --- the readers of Tricycle, you, me, the public, themselves --- know the truth. Because they've not had time to discover it.

A significant study in Finland came out 30 years ago --- one of the first on the psychology of the spinal-cord injured --- and it found that most suicides or attempted suicides of quadriplegics and paraplegics did not occur in the first few months after the accident, but, rather, in the sixth or seventh year.

For as I and my fellow cripples all know --- it is always years after the fact that the real tests begin. Hopes and dreams and thoughts of miracle cures (and blanket statements about suffering) run us for the first few years. Then true learning starts. To question Dass or Fields or Reeve so early on not only denies them their tears and their angers --- but ignores a new wisdom that has yet to overturn their hearts and their souls.

§     §     §

uddhism teaches us that all of life is a royal pain; that the pain is brought on by ignorance; and there is a way out of this pain and ignorance. Even having that wonderful knowledge does not, for most of us, in the short-term, diminish the hurt that comes with physical (or mental) disability. Our faith teaches us that with enough practice, sooner or later we will be able to rise up from our wheelchairs and fly (as long as we don't want to). Meanwhile, the inability to fly, or walk, or even get to the bathroom alone, can be very, very painful.

Not long ago, Phyliss York was interviewed in New Mobility, and described her feelings about her recent spinal cord injury:

    Q: Did it open up a new, wonderful world for you?

    A: A new world, yes. Wonderful? No. Would I prefer not to know what I know being disabled? Yes, I would prefer not to know.

She then tells us the worst advice she ever got: Cheer up! God wouldn't give you anything you couldn't handle.

Her response:

    I don't know what to say to people who are newly injured. The whole thing is a pain in the ass, what can I tell them? It's really a goddamn pain in the ass.

And one of my gurus tells a story of a master who developed prostate cancer in his seventieth year, and one day, one of his students found him in tears. He asked "Why master, what's wrong?"

"I'm dying," said the old man.

"Yes, but of all people, you with your wisdom..." The sentence was left unfinished, but if completed, would have been, in the vulgar mode: "With all your smarts, howcum you're so sad?"

The master replied, as all of us must reply some day, "I'm crying because it hurts."


--- L. W. Milam


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