Saturday, November 29, 2008

Terrorism in Mumbai: Is Bollywood the answer?

What a striking example of delusion in today’s New York Times, “What They Hate About Mumbai.” The author, Suketu Mehta, argues that Mumbai “stands for lucre, profane dreams and an indiscriminate openness.” It is “a mass dream” comparable to Bollywood, and hated by religious extremists, “a pleasure-loving city, a sensual city.” His solution is to defy the extremists by flying to Mumbai, where he intends to enjoy food and drink and watch a movie. He will Show Them that we will not be deterred from our pursuit of pleasure.

I was struck by the dualism of this response. Just like the “religious extremists” Mehta sees the world as divided into two camps, them and us. They hate pleasure, we love it. And by God, they’re not going to stop us. How can we not be reminded of the drunk who staggers about insisting on more?

It is remarkably like the issue the Buddha addressed in his first sermon. His old friends, the ascetics, were appalled that he had abandoned their lifestyle and eaten a gift of rice pudding that is sometimes described as very luxurious, made with heavy cream. From their point of view, he has gone over to the other side. They are sure enlightenment is found in extreme self-denial.

The Buddha explains a wholly different way. This is not, according to professor Jeff Shore, a way that steers between two extremes. Following the “Middle way” does not mean walking a boundary line between wretched excess and self-denial; it means living from our centers. It is a way that deals with actual reality, in which action proceeds from our core, not from abstract ideas of purity, and not from childish revolt against those ideas.

This is not just an issue for governments, but one that we are constantly faced with in our daily lives. The Western tradition represents it in the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Live for today or abandon all joy and live for tomorrow. Wrong. That there is drunkenness doesn’t mean we should not enjoy a glass of wine. That there is gluttony does not mean we have to eat stark, unappetizing food merely to fuel the body. Working for a peaceful, secure future does not have to be joyless.

And the fact that there is a huge banquet laid out does not mean we have to gorge ourselves to the point of feeling ill, and ignore the hungry people knocking on the door. Just because there is a mass dream, represented by the opulent Indian cinema called Bollywood, doesn’t mean we have to live in a dream.

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