Tuesday, March 29, 2011


For all of 2011, poet and arts activist E. Ethelbert Miller is pitching questions my way. From week to week I never know what he'll ask me next, but all his questions are thought-provoking, like this one:

"What are your definitions of Hope, Sin and Forgiveness? How have these ideas affected your life and work?"

 Long ago, I read that in the New Testament the Greek word for "sin" is hamartia, meaning "to miss the mark, to err." I've always been fond of this meaning because of the image it suggests,  that of an archer who tries his best to hit a target, but his arrow goes astray. Being human we are naturally prone to err, as C.S. Lewis expressed so well in his often quoted statement: " Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them---never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?"
Given our perceptual and epistemological limitations, it seems to me that we can be forgiven for occasionally "missing the mark" or falling short of whatever one might mean by "perfection." In other words, as the popular saying goes, "We all have the right to be wrong."

As for "hope," that's something every Buddhist feels every day since the Dharma makes clear that we, as individuals, create our own happiness and suffering. This is nothing more than cause and effect (or karma, if you like). With each positive, selfless action we establish the basis for future happiness. An old formula goes like this: We work to nurture the good that exists, and create new possibilities for the arising of the good in the future; we work to eliminate the evil that exists, and eliminate the conditions for the arising of future evil. And because one of the marks of existence is change or impermanence, we know that even a "bad" situation must change. And so will "good" ones, for those terms---"good" and "bad"---are relative. Thus a follower of the Dharma never feels too sad when experiencing a "bad" moment or too ecstatic when undergoing a "good" one, for neither will last for very long. Generally, though, Buddhists are happy because we know we are free---moment by moment---to change, improve, get better, and make progress on the Path.

But a few more words must be said about the relativity of "perfection" and "imperfection."
In Japanese Zen Buddhism we encounter the term wabi-sabi, i.e., art that provides a direct, intuitive insight into truth. Far different from Western theories of the beautiful, in wabi (things fresh, simple and quiet) sabi (things radiating beauty with age), which covers arts as diverse as Zen gardens, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony and poetry, we find a preference for such features as imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness (along with the idiosyncratic, modesty and humility), for these things too capture the beautiful. 

 Early in my study of Sanskrit 13 years ago, I had to translate this sentence in my workbook:
भ्रन्तिररिर्न अभवत
 The translation? “The error was not an enemy.”

Needless to say, coming on that sentence so early in my learning this language brought me a sense of relief (and laughter).

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