One of the least recognized sources of spiritual wisdom is our literary heritage. My favorite source in this regard is the Czechoslovakian author Milan Kundera. I first encountered Kundera through his novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (on which more in the second part of this post). I next read his “Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” which cost Kundera his Czechoslovakian citizenship and from which the following excerpt is taken:
“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque
palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was
a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or
twice a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold,
and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on
The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony
where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the
history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in
schoolbooks and museums.
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately
made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on
the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but
the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.
The brevity of blog posts is not conducive to history lessons, so suffice it to say that in 1950 Clementis was forced to resign his government post on the grounds that he was a “deviationist.” He was later convicted of the crime of being a “bourgeois nationalist” and participating in a Trotskyite conspiracy, then subsequently hanged.
There are a number of lessons to be drawn from Kundera’s “Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” preeminent among them, I believe, is that we must remember how easy it is to forget… or to be made to forget… I will let the reader extrapolate from here…
Another take away from my reading of Kundera comes from his “Unbearable Lightness of Being,” a fantastic book and a great film (my favorite). The story is set in the late 60s – early 70s, when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in order to support its communist government, by quelling a rising liberal political movement supported by mass protests by the Czech people.
In one particular scene, Tomáš, a doctor who later finds himself in trouble with the communist authorities, posses the question of the moral culpability of the Russian invaders, by invoking Oedipus (see clip immediately below).
"These men don't even know if they're scoundrels or not... I've been thinking about Oedipus... When Oedipus realized that he had killed
his father - unknowingly, unknowingly killed his father and was sleeping with his mother - and that because of his crimes plagues
were ravaging the city, he couldn't bear the site of what he'd done. He plucked out his own eyes and left. He did not feel innocent. He felt
he had to punish himself. But our leaders, unlike Oedipus, they felt they were innocent. And when the atrocities of the Stalinist
period became known, they cried, 'We didn't know! We weren't aware of what was going on! Our conscience is clear!' But the difference
is, the importance difference... they stayed in power... All I'm saying is that morality has changed since Oedipus."
This scene contains many possible topics to explore - and many debates to be had as a result! As to my purpose in this blog post, I feel that this scene does an excellent job of raising the question of culpability when one is ignorant of one's "crime." In other words, per Tomáš, does a scoundrel necessarily know that s/he is a scoundrel?
Now follow me on this transition... When one begins a spiritual journey, one begins as a scoundrel. This is another way of saying that each of us is a conditioned creature, biologically and psychologically, and that we each take our conditioning (to the extent that one has even considered it, and most have not) as normative. That is, one has not taken stock of the reality of who one is in the world (like the Russian invaders). Hence, throughout one's life one remains unaware of one's conditioning, blindly serving the ego rather than consciously living according to spiritual principles and expressing one's spiritual nature. From the spiritual vantage point then, one begins one's spiritual journey as a scoundrel - whether one knows it or not.
This raises at least two questions. First, is one to blame for being a scoundrel? Second, what is one to do once one realizes that one is a scoundrel?
Regarding the first question, despite the theological trappings of Fundamentalist Christian ministers (i.e., original sin), one is not responsible for being a scoundrel. The scoundrel that one is, the conditioning that one represents, began to shape one's character literally at conception (one's genetically predetermined biological traits) and continued perforce into adulthood - all unbeknownst to one. Culpability, the doctrine of original sin notwithstanding, is therefore lacking. This innocence in one's conditioning has been understood by history's great religious exemplars, from Jesus to the Buddha, and is why such figures ground their spiritual teaching in notions such as compassion and agape (unconditional love), respectively. They fully understood the human condition.
That said, it is sometimes the sudden realization that one is a scoundrel that brings one to the spiritual journey ("Something's gotta give! Maybe the spiritual life is just what I need."). Or, if the sudden realization that one is a scoundrel is not what brings one to the spiritual journey, the realization that one is a scoundrel is one of the first things one will discover if one's path is legitimate. Any spiritual teaching worth its salt will begin with the fact that one is a scoundrel, that one is conditioned, since the ego is the impediment that one must manage if one's spiritual journey is to bear fruit. This brings us to an answer to the second question posed above, namely, what is one to do once one realizes that one is a scoundrel?
The answer to this question lies in a story from Jesus' ministry. One morning, while Jesus was teaching in the temple, the scribes and Pharisees brought him a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. Wanting to test Jesus, they pronounced that the Law of Moses commands that the woman be stoned. "What say ye?" they asked Jesus (Meaning, "If you are a legitimate teacher, follow the Law of Moses and commence the stoning!"). Jesus responded brilliantly: "Let whoever among you that is without sin caste the first stone at her." In other words, "Who is worthy to render judgment, given that we are all scoundrels?" Hearing this, the scribes and Pharisees took leave, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus then said to the woman, "Where are those who accuse you?" to which the woman responded, "There are none, Lord." "Neither do I accuse you," said Jesus, adding, "Go your way and sin no more."
Typically this story is held up as an example of forgiveness, while it never seems to be remarked that it is also an exhortation that the one forgiven (the scoundrel in us) is to "sin no more." This is the answer to the question, what is one to do once one realizes that one is a scoundrel?
Does the exhortation to sin no more mean that we must become saints? It would be easy to interpret it in this way but that would be inconsistent with Jesus' understanding of human nature. Given that Jesus understood that each of us is a scoundrel (hence agape), he certainly would not have expected us to be able to become saints simply because he exhorted us to "sin no more." Indeed, if saintliness were so easily achieved, agape would not have been so central to Jesus' ministry. Simply put, agape is predicated upon the fact that each of us is a scoundrel!
While becoming saintly is a wonderful aspiration, it is no mean feat, as Jesus surely knew and as anyone who has ever tried to embody the Divine qualities of saintliness can testify. This fact reminds me of a story about one of the Desert Fathers, which will serve as the jumping off point for my next post.
Despite his great efforts toward saintliness, one of the monks kept falling into sin. In his distress, the monk
went to seek advice from one of the elders. After listening to the monk reveal his struggles, the elder
explained that this is the nature of the spiritual life. Said the elder, “I fall down. I get up. I fall down. I get up.
I fall down. I get up…”
Namaste my friends (The scoundrel in me recognizes the scoundrel in you...),