“NO, we can think, say and do whatever we want” most people say, adding, (if they feel kind) “Bread is 60 bucks a pop, grandpa, ya can take it or leave it”.
This is shallow, casual and anarchic thinking that has washed over the world like a plague. So much so that each time I have thought “there cannot be anything more vicious than that”, “there cannot be anything more terrible than that”, “there cannot be anything more disgusting than that” I have been forced to recalibrate lower. In every new time, clime and social sub-stratum I traversed, I saw people standing on their rights to what they want, screwing themselves, screwing the world and assailing me with new and improved versions of human viciousness. Clobbering me with bigger and better versions of human failure. Horror in human thought, word and deed was a bottomless pit I concluded. These days, be it politics, religion, education, ethnicity, medicine, finance, art, fashion, war; there are few men and fewer matters that can elicit more than an amused smile and casual shake of my head. Mildly tragic perhaps, but nothing really surprises me anymore. But one.
Quality surprises me. Nay. The presence of quality in people, ideas and things shocks the living bejesus outta me. And I was surprised to say the least when I came across it in an article by Gamini Akmeemana titled “Math, Idiocy and All Those Sums Which Don’t Add Up”. He and I both seem to share a mutual regard for Robert Pirsig and his book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. He and I both seem to share a mutual regard for Robert Pirsig. He says a few nice things about stuff I’d written earlier but that was not the reason why I think he is a quality human being. Not as a reciprocal patting of backs but rather as a statement of fact, he did three things in that article that set him way apart from the raff that I deal with on a daily basis. In it, he said a beautiful thing, he did a beautiful thing, he triggered a beautiful thing. Any one of those is kinda rare but to be at the receiving end of all three at a single sitting is indeed an event. Let me take a few paragraphs to explain because I feel that will give me a nice Segway into the topic and an opportunity to present eventually, a comparative example.
First, even before I read the piece, I saw his strapline where he says that books are not mentioned anymore. With that statement he indicated a love of books and a nostalgia for their true worth as precious and valuable creatures, pets even, that can, as Pirsig says “edify” and not merely inform. To be read, reread, caressed, dog-eared, underlined, annotated, mulled over, discussed. Giving them relationships with their readers that are unique and personal and pretty much impossible with your Kindle versions of them. In an age and day where the time between thought formation, thought consolidation and thought dissemination is zero, where knowledge acquisition has been completely subsumed by information interchange and information overload, where harried people hurry through their own experiences and those of others, where, as Gamini says, “today’s big becomes tomorrow’s trivia” it indicates an uncommonly even keeled person. When I saw that, I fondly remembered the greatest love strong ever written about the love of books: Helene Hanff’s “84, Charring Cross Street” and I silently saluted Gamini for bringing those memories flooding back.
Next, he excellently outlined the gist of a very complicated read with a tapestry of images veined with the thread of all of those sums that cannot possibly add up through any rubric known to modern man. As I was writing my previous piece, the thought had crossed my mind that I should speak in greater detail of Pirsig’s brilliant defense of Sophism and rhetoric and his deviously clever strategy to sweep the church of reason and dialectics into the intellectual dustbin. But that task is no longer required. Gamini has executed it very well.
Finally, he took me back to the meat of the book itself and Pirsig’s tortuous route to understanding the meaning of quality. Those memories also put in sharp relief, its most lasting takeaway for me. It is when Pirsig, towards the end of the book, in what I consider to be its most powerful and dramatic chapter, finally ties his real self “Phaedrus” to a Platonic dialogue of the same name and says “What is good, Phaedrus and what is not good, need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”. This is both the apex question and the rhetoric answer to the question “what is quality?” where this quality in described in terms of the Greek word araté meaning moral value. It triggered in me the thought that I should write about that at some future date and with that thought came another one. That the man making me think all of this was a man of quality.
It is tempting to leave this question in the realm of Sophism and rhetoric where Pirsig left it. I would be justified in walking away with a vague sense of easy unease that the question was completely and fully answered - not through the convenient method of actually answering it but rather, by expanding the potency of the question-answer matrix to the point where any dialectic answer would be the silly indulgence of the church of reason and its henchwoman – rationality. Yet, we have moved on from a hundred years ago when guys like Pirsig was battling these issues. More importantly, we, as easterners, know that our dharma licked this problem of quality yonks ago through ways of seeing (dharshana or philosophy) that the west (Pirsig included) found difficult to understand. We used a whole body of material generally described by such words as sathdharma, saarachiththa, sathguna, sathyakriya to explain moral value. Rather than delve into the complex intricacies of these terms, I will give an idea of araté through a comparison of how the meaning of a set of key social tasks and those assigned to execute them have changed over time. Those that I choose for this example are the ones associated with protection and the reason I choose them is that they are the foundation upon whose strength all societies and all nations either fly or fall.
The things that protect us and make us safe, we value over all else. The people that protect us and make us safe, we revere above all others. There are four ways in which we are protected and there are four types of people who use them for our protection.
We are protected by knowledge, we are protected by truth, we are protected by medicine and we are protected by the material requisites of food, clothing, shelter and security from physical attack. Until quite recent, these factors, also known as the four societal shields against disaster, were deemed so critical that they were provided to all for free. The first was provided by teachers, the second by the renunciates, the third by healers and the fourth by the kings.
Gurukama, pavidikama, vedakama and rakajama as we used to call them protected us. I use the past tense here on purpose. Not too far back, kings thought, spoke and acted in accordance with the kingly virtues and disciplines (raaja dharma, raaja vinaya) and similarly, written edicts of virtue and discipline governed the way in which the other shield bearers engaged society. The basis for those codes of conduct were simple: they were put in place to make sure that every thought, word and deed of the societal shields served to protect and succor the people and make their lives more content, more even, more stable, more sober. Therefore, they were callings, often thrust upon people because of proven ability and never considered to be livelihoods. Their practitioners were the “aristo” or the best, as Pirsig notes. Their conduct increased, every day, the trust and love that the people had for them. For that they were revered.
Now, instead of kings we have leaders. Instead of healers we have doctors. Instead of teachers we have educators and instead of monks we have clergy. The difference between these is devastating. Whereas the earlier crop had these vested upon them to protect society, the present crop take these labels on simply to protect themselves. They set themselves out to become leaders or doctors or teachers or clergy and quite apart from being shields for society, they want society to protect them. Through that very desire they prove that they are the worst. The filth. The slime. The dregs of society. Defaulting to conduct that lacks both value and morality. All the while, they also insist that their self-serving hollowness is given the same status as that of the protectors of yore and that they too are similarly worshiped. Compounding the insults they heap upon society, they also insist that everything reduces to money and therefore they are merely cat’s paws of those who have it. They damage. They destroy. They give us, day by day, increasingly more terrible examples of human mediocrity and failure. Sucking almost all people into their horrifying vortex of disaster, they wipe out whatever goodness remains in them. Their conduct continuously increases the doubt, suspicion, anger and hatred people have for them. For that they are reviled.
Taking the above comparative example folks, as Asians, steeped in our dharmic tradition, cocooned in our dharmic ethos, we do not need to be told what is good. We know. But that knowledge has been subsumed, marginalized, ridiculed and finally eliminated from societal ordering by a set of shield bearers that sit, not upon thrones of honor but rather, upon their brains. Let us therefore resolve to redeem ourselves and reclaim our knowledge. Our heritage. Our legacy. Let us, my friends, resolve to blow away the clouds of ignorance and webs of deceit that have trammeled our vision for decades and see our true worth. Our true quality. Our true araté .