Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Day 67 "In the trenches" (honoring the Elders edition)

One of the more sobering--but more enlightening--things about getting older is that you realize just how temporary, and how brief, both life, work, and friendships are. In the history of the universe, or of homo sapiens, or even of institutions, individuals' contributions can seem remarkably, even heart-breakingly, brief. As you age, and you go through this cycles again and again, that brevity really sinks in.

Yesterday, it was helping kids, many going through these cycles for the first time, through that most painful--because least familiar--realization: that Time is Short. That no, none of us is going to live forever; that choices made 2 months (or 2 minutes) ago will have inevitable consequences, and that some portion of those consequences (a much larger proportion than most kids realize) will be irredeemable. That no, life mostly isn't going to give you if you want to have even a prayer of making any kind of success of your life, your job, or your relationships, you damned sure better recognize that moment-by-moment choices are crucial. So FUCKING PAY ATTENTION (wonderful half-remembered quote from a Zen teacher "Pay attention! Pay attention! Because your life is passing very very fast!").

That quality of moment-by-moment (the Zen teachers call it "One-Pointed") attention to one's life, work, and human contacts is at the very heart both Buddhist awareness and the craft of being a teacher. Recognizing that this human contact, this moment of crisis (and thus by definition, of opportunity), this conversation, this administrative decision, this choice is crucial, and that it will have untold, unknowable, and unavoidable impact upon the entire web of creation (Indra's net of interpenetration between all things), is what is meant--and typically misunderstood, in the West--by "karma". "Karma" does not mean that you are doomed by past choices, or past lives' choices (one thing Buddhism teaches is present responsibility). The concept rather arises from the fundamental realization that choices have consequences, that those consequences are permanent (even if, sometimes, remediable), and that therefore choices matter. Do bad things, and they will rebound to cause pain--Somewhere. Do good things, and the will rebound to relieve suffering--Somewhere. Maybe not here, or now, or for us, or in ways visible to us.

The Buddhists, who prefer to avoid dichotomies as distorting and misleading about the interpenetration between all phenomena, also prefer to avoid opposing "good" with a concomitant/opposite "evil." To a Buddhist, with any degree of theological understanding, the opposite of "good" is not "sin"; the opposite of "good" (or, to use their preferred term, "compassion") is ignorance. This is why Buddhism is not, at its heart, a theology. It does not ask you to believe in a spiritual path about the hereafter; it asks you to believe something observable, demonstrable, and also intuitively human: that failing to understand the long-term permanent impacts of good and bad deeds is ignorant, and betrays a fundamental lack of virtually scientific probability.

This is the quality of moment-by-moment attention which, as a Buddhist and as a teacher, I ought to manifest: I need to listen to colleagues, students, and every other human (every other being) I interact with, because it is ignorant to presume that some interactions don't matter. If all beings matter, then all beings deserve compassion; if all beings deserve compassion, then all interactions with other beings (humans, animals, trees, flowers, books, bags of recycled materials, even the monsters of the Bush administration) also matter.

A teacher--of anything: Buddhist theology or soil science, fractal geometry or ceramics, child-rearing or compassionate killing--needs to pay this kind of one-pointed attention: to the lecture, the seminar, the question, the answer, the debate, the experience, the crisis, the resolution. Failing to do that is my failure as a teacher and a Buddhist.

Fortunately, I've had good models: great and revered teachers ("they were Giants on the Earth in those days"), admired friends and role models, dedicated students and poor almost-hopeless fuck-ups. Every one has provided, at the very least, the opportunity to work on paying attention. Because attention is what makes compassion possible--how can you be kind if you can't even register the suffering of the beings in front of your nose?

Compassion--attention, and the simple kindness and human connection that emerges from attention--has been demonstrated for me, as I say, by great and revered teachers over the past 30 years. But more recently, for the past seven-and-a-half, by an admired senior colleague, mentor, and friend. You can read about him (a small, modest bio that was all he'd allow us), but let me tell you about him:

When I interviewed here--my heart sinking because I realized it was a great gig, well-suited to my talents, in a place of such "geographical oddity" that it was five hours from everywhere--he and his wife were the first people I met. He met me at the airport, drove me to the graduate dorms (where they were putting me up because all the hotels were full with some damned Athletics Department event, and about the impression given by such lodgings I'm sure he wasn't happy), took me to dinner, picked me up in the morning, hoicked me around the campus for that One Long Day of Deans and Directors and meetings and guest teaching and research presentations and exit interviews which every candidate knows, took me to dinner again, and generally shepherded the process with great though discreet attention.

As he was schlepping me back to the airport on the Saturday departure, he said, "well, we really need someone who can remake this department and kind of bring it up to date." Then, as I was getting out of the car, thanking him for his attention, he handed me a small, half-sized copy of the local Yellow Pages and said, "Here. You might need this."

And I knew, right then--no hubris or arrogance involved--that they were going to offer me this gig. And I knew, reluctantly and very much against my imagined future scenarios, that I should and would take it. Because I knew, on the basis of this man's kindness, calm, focus, attention to detail, that not only did he mean it when he talked about "remaking the department"--that, unlike 90% of the administrative suits who mouth lip-service to "Change" and "Renewal" [tm], this man was going to actually follow through by helping make it real.

And he did. We could not have accomplished what we've accomplished without him--which was, as I said when writing-up the nomination letter for the Distinguished Teaching Award that is very rightly serving as his valedictory honor, as follows:

complete revision and modernization of the undergraduate curriculum, the same for the graduate curriculum, the (current) finalized revision of Music Appreciation suite of courses, the expansion of the Tenure Track musicology faculty, the expansion of the Musicology graduate program's enrollment, development of a practicum by which senior graduate students move into teaching-assistantships and adjunct positions, placement of undergraduate and graduate musicology students in top-notch graduate programs and very competitive job situations, development of the MUBA in Vernacular Music, the Vernacular Music Center and its attendant Scholarship, and even the very renaming of our department from "Music History and Literature" to the much more apposite and relevant "Musicology."
Wayne Hobbs made this happen. He's been my elder and my mentor and a fierce (quiet, modest, understated, gentle, statesmanlike, but nevertheless fierce) advocate for what I've done here for the past seven years. We couldn't have done it without him.

Up here on the South Plains, we Honor the Elders. Wi'bdhahaN, Uncle!

Below the jump: roses, primroses, and irises: bloomin' Spring on the South Plains!

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

Beautiful post.