One of my favorite authors is Richard Brautigan. I like him so much that in addition to reading his novels and poetry, I’ve also read memoirs about him (I normally do not enjoy memoirs and biographies). In two of these, Downstream From Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan, by his long time friend, Keith Abbot, and You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir, by his daughter, Ianthe, I encountered a true ghost story. I was pleased by the discovery because I’ve also recently become interested in ghost stories (both true and fictional accounts). Both authors had contact with this ghost, and provide accounts that are both close enough and different enough that I can accept them as true. I’ve included both here so that you can judge for yourselves.
In the early 1970s, Richard Brautigan bought a house in Bolinas, California (along the coast north of San Francisco), and asked friend Keith Abbot, who owned a truck, to help him move in. Abbot gives the following account of his first day in the house.
While I was having a look around, I wandered upstairs and found three bedrooms and a bath. The last place I looked in was the east bedroom. Set in a corner of the house, it was quite small and filled with junk, bed frames and such. As I was leaving, I turned and had the strong sensation that someone was there. In my mind’s eye, almost like a slide being placed in a projector, I saw a girl in a white nightgown. I didn’t think much of it; it was so fleeting. I assumed it was just a mild hallucination.
That night when Richard arrived, I made a joke about “Who’s the girl in the corner bedroom?”
Richard blanched. “You S-s-saw her?” he stuttered.
“Sorta, I didn’t really see, I only had a sensation,” I said, “Who is she?”
“I don’t know,” Richard said. “But you are fourth person who has seen her upstairs. You don’t know the other three who saw her, so I’ve got to believe you.”
It seemed comically right to me that there should be a ghost in the corner bedroom of Richard’s new house. . . . I thought a ghost was the perfect companion for his Northwest Gothic sensibilities to mull over. His daughter told me less benign stories about the ghost, how it would walk up and down the stairs at night and scare the hell out of her. Richard didn’t seem terribly bothered by the ghost. He was more curious than spooked by her. Later he researched the history of the house and discovered that a young girl had died there at the turn of the century. She was buried in the backyard.
Richard once offered the Bolinas house to his friend Don Carpenter, after Don’s apartment had been damaged in a fire. I helped Don collect any useable stuff from his place in San Francisco and drove him to Bolinas. I was busy unloading, when Don went into the house. He came right back out and told me to pack it up again. He refused to stay there, maintaining that the joint was haunted. (pp. 73-74)
Brautigan’s daughter, Ianthe, gives a slight different account of the same ghost in You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir.
Candence [Ianthe’s long-time friend] has believed the Bolinas house haunted since the first time she saw it. We were twelve years old. She took one look at the three-story Arts and Craft-style house, which was set back in a steep hillside, and quickly came to her decision. . . . She refused to go into the house. . . .
Not long after, I found out that there was a real ghost. A Chinese woman who had worked as a servant for the original owners of the house had killed herself, and some people said her spirit frequented the house. (p. 52)
She also wrote of being afraid of the ghost throughout her early teen years, but reports nothing specific.
Tragically, Richard Brautigan took his own life in this house in 1984.
When the Buddha appeared in the 6th century BCE, He encountered wide-spread materialism among the wealthy and miserable poverty among the less fortunate, thus explaining His emphasis on detachment, suffering, and compassion. Buddha’s teachings were also of course influenced by long-standing Indian religious traditions, in some cases dating to before the arrival of the Aryans1 (His emphasis on compassion can be linked to Dravidian beliefs), but my purpose here is to address His focus on suffering.
Buddha’s first noble truth, shortened in Buddhist nomenclature to dukkha or dukha2 is often translated as ‘Life is Suffering’. I believe this to be a gross simplification. What Buddha actually taught was that the realization of the transitory nature of life causes a vague dissatisfaction with living that leads to suffering. Perhaps a closer simplification would be “Life involves suffering.”
I think that we can all agree that life actually involves many things, suffering being one of them, but, as I have noted, the historical and cultural milieu in which Buddha lived and taught lead Him to focus on this particular feature of human life.
Buddha then went on to develop the remaining three corners of His doctrine, called collectively The Four Noble Truths.
1) Life involves suffering
2) Suffering stems from desire
3) Suffering can be defeated by eliminating desire
4) This can be accomplished by living a disciplined life conducted according to the Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Way, is essentially a prescription for leading a moderate and balanced life. Walking the Middle Way entails turning away from devotion to luxury and extreme covetousness, while rejecting as well regimes of extreme asceticism, such as Buddha practiced before His enlightenment.
Specifically, the Noble Eightfold Path calls upon individuals to choose correct belief, correct resolve, correct speech, correct behavior, correct occupation, correct effort, correct contemplation, and correct meditation. Or more simply and succinctly, correct choice.
And what is life if not choice. An individual life moves in one direction—forward. The only thing one can do about yesterday’s bad decision is to make a better decision today. On the most basic level, free will is the least illusionary aspects of human life. With the exception of autonomous body functions (breathing, blood circulation, and so on), everything I do must be chosen; that my own past, or society, or whatever, compels me to chose this or that, does not negate my need to choose. Even if all choices are bad, one chooses. If you know of a circumstance that negates free will as I’m here defining it, I’d like to hear of it.
Yes, we are bound in a web of societal, cultural, and national constraints, we are bound by job pressures, family pressures, the need to eat and sleep, the need to care for the individuals around us, by all sorts of expectations. One could even argue that these various duties and expectations, to life, society, and humanity functionally negate choice.
Such obligations spring from religion and other belief systems (the idea of duty to society is secular as well as religious), and I personally accept many such obligations. This is also a choice, one I choose freely; I’m equally free to not follow this path. Duties, obligations, and constraints certainly exist, but these are all external forces, while the will to choose whether or not to comply is entirely internal. That duties and obligations can be neglected demonstrates that compliance (or non-compliance) is an act of will.
And so, while we are indeed bound by various circumstances, I still see these as nonetheless illusionary because, as Buddha noted, since life is transitory it is also illusionary, a functional illusion to be sure, but an illusion nonetheless. More importantly, while many certainly feel as if life is not within our control, how we respond is because one’s response is always a matter of choice (that we may be ill-equipped to make these choices is irrelevant).
Plus, that suffering can be overcome tells me that it is optional. Take for example a man who dies in battle, his death unbeknownst to his wife until she is informed. Baring fantastic examples of precognition, she cannot grieve (and suffer) until she knows that her husband is dead. The grief therefore is a choice. I’m not saying it’s the wrong choice (or the right choice); only that it is a choice. One might argue that said grief is a natural reaction, and I’m not ready to argue against this, but that grieving follows knowledge points to something important in my mind.
It is also entirely possible that choice itself is also illusionary, but this may depend on which choices are under discussion.
My point about ‘choice’ is that one must choose, every moment of everyday; you cannot put one foot in front of the other without choosing to do so. Once you get to more complex levels of ‘making choices’, and because we undergo a dreadful amount of conditioning before we even know free will exists, the conditioning kicks in (maybe) and subsequently, what one can/will choose becomes more limited. And since access to all possible options is nearly impossible, the idea that we have ‘choices’ is functionally problematic. Still, even when one is hemmed in by circumstances, one must still choose, leading me to believe that the exercise of free will is inescapable; that we must choose to do or to not do, to respond or to not respond, and how, no human can escape.
The idea of eliminating desire is Buddhist doctrine at its most basic level; Buddha’s point was primarily about attachment and detachment. Freedom from desire would perhaps be an ideal state, but were we to live in an ideal state, there would be no need for us to be here in the first place. The purpose of life is to go out into the world and to grow by testing ourselves; we were never meant to remain in the Garden. If we look at it from the perspective of the Eden metaphor, God’s ‘kicking us out of the garden’ was an act of Love. Baha’u’llah wrote, ‘Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants.’ But why test us at all? Because with no tests, there is no growth; if a plant is to bear fruit, it first must struggle to emerge from the seed. We might be ‘better off’ had we remained in the Garden but we would not be truly human.
A Secondary Consideration
It is quite possible that the acquisitiveness Buddha, and that fact, Christ in His time, witnessed, and that we can see today in our own society, is to some degree inescapable, part of our biological survival imperative. We have, after all, spent thousands of millennia just surviving; we’re wired for it. To choose to switch it off may require an act of will, but it is nonetheless a worthy choice.
1By about 1500 BCE, the Harappan civilization of the Indus River valley, India’s first civilization, was on the verge of collapse. At about this same time, a pastoral Indo-European people we call now called the ‘Aryans’ migrated into the Indus Valley and eventually what is now northern India and Pakistan. Color distinctions between the smaller, darker Dravidian peoples (who had created the Indus Valley civilization), and the lighter-skinned Caucasian Aryans became the foundation of the Indian caste system (while the caste system persists, the color distinction is no longer apparent).
Aryan society was tribal and warlike, but by 1000 BCE, they had developed iron metallurgy, with their iron axes and other tools, they opened new regions to cultivation, particularly the jungle-covered Ganges valley. These newly cleared lands yielded large harvests, leading to agricultural surpluses that could support regional states, and eventually empires.
These surpluses also encouraged the emergence of towns, the growth of trade, and further development of the caste system. By the 7th century BCE, even the lower caste farmers, artisans, merchants, and landless peasants and serfs, were becoming wealthy, and thus challenging the prevailing order. The development of wealth also led to the growth of its antecedent, poverty, and its attendant suffering
2Dukkha (Pāli दुक्ख; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha; according to grammatical tradition derived from dus-kha “uneasy”, but according to Monier-Williams more likely a Prakritized form of dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted”) is a Pali term roughly corresponding to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. Source: wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha
In this near-future dystopian world, Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit, ‘dispensable’ people (those who are not ‘needed’ by anyone, i.e. children, and those who are childless and can no long produce children, i.e. women 50 and older; men 60 and older) enter reserve bank unit for biological material where they live comfortable, even luxurious, lives while also being subjected to ‘humane’ medical experiments and serve as organ donors for ‘needed’ people in ‘the community’ where one’s importance is gauged by one’s economic contribution to society (as if ‘society’ and ‘economy’ is a thing separate from people). The staff members at ‘The Unit’ are all disturbingly friendly and sympathetic, and life there is mundane. Until it is not. The novel’s tone is so mundane, so matter-of-fact, that you don’t at first realize how dystopian this world is.
The Unit also provides an excellent metaphor for how easily we’ve slipped into this situation where we place ‘society’ and ‘economy’ ahead of our common humanity, and are all now actively working against our own self-interests, themes I will no doubt return to.
From the preamble of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The United States was founded on the highest ideals of the Enlightenment, that we the people would and could govern ourselves, with the reins of government firmly in our own hands, guaranteeing Life and Liberty, and the God-given right of every individual the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential for the good of all and the glory of the nation. That this ‘franchise’ has expanded from white men of a certain class to including virtually all is a testament that the nation was founded on the proper principles; that all are not yet included therein points to work yet to be done.
The United States is, and always was meant to be, a work in progress. It seems now that this work has stalled, and everyone has an option as to why. The Liberals will tell you that the Conservatives are to blame, while the Conservatives will point back at the Liberals. In truth, if we don’t stop demonizing each other, and don’t start talking to each other, don’t begin to treat each other with the respect and dignity that all deserve, we cannot solve our nation’s, nor our world’s, many problems.
Against terrible odds, the citizens of the newly created American republic fought and won a long and bloody war for independence. Then, against also equally long odds, Liberals and Conservatives among the founding generation sat down, hammered out their differences, and forged a nation that likes of which the world has never seen—that of a people ruled by their own governance.
Now, over two centuries later, we can look out across world and see many democratically elected governments where before there were none, and in seeing this we cannot doubt the importance of the American Revolution. This is the clear legacy of 1776, but both Liberals and Conservatives from across the nation and across the globe, can also see that there is still much to be done. While it is true that with regards to many pressing issues, we do not see eye-to-eye, but rather than let such conflicts divide us, can we not consider that from this clash of differing opinions, the true and proper path will reveal itself?
The founding generation of the United Stated embarked on a great experiment that laid the foundation for human happiness and the fulfillment of human potential. Can we not now come together and make ourselves worthy of this legacy?
“As technology grows, the need for humans in the force will continually be diminished. This creates a serious clash that proves the falsity of the monetary-based labor system.” ~ from the movie Zeitgeist: Addendum.
And yet, the point of technology has always been to free us from labor. But free us to do what? In a monetary-based labor system, it frees us to starve. And yet, the enemy is not the machine, but the system that requires labor for money.
I had previously thought that the quote from 1 Timothy 6:10 (For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.) was simply a bit of religion hyperbole, but I see now that this is the case.
More from Zeitgeist: “In the United States, the most privatized, capitalist country on the planet, it should come as no surprise that it also has the largest prison population in the world [including prisons run for profit!], and growing every year. . . . as long as we have an economic system which prefers, and in fact creates, scarcity and depravation, crime will never go away.”