To Exist Is to Transgress
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. —Albert Camus
The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it. —Friedrich Nietzsche
This post was inspired by a little inspiration or duende that arose in my mind while doing walking meditation under the pavilion at Kusalakari Monastery months ago, when I was still an ordained monk. I probably even started writing it when I was still at the monastery…but a veritable onslaught of events, including my disrobing, moving to the opposite side of the continent of North America, transitioning to a new mode of life practically from scratch, and acquiring a real-life face-to-face mate, have resulted in this post remaining on the back burner until now, at which point I take it up again and finish it. It is an interesting idea (to me anyway), and it is being incorporated into my basic approach to existence now that I am no longer a monk required or expected to live up to an ideal (a more or less unrealistic one in most cases) of saintliness. I really tried to be a saint for many years, but I apparently just lacked the talent, and so now I am experimenting with unapologetic brazen rascality…in moderation, of course.
Not too long ago I read someone (I don’t remember who—maybe Bronze Age Pervert?) saying that they were reminded of some famous philosopher (maybe Schopenhauer?) saying that existence itself is a kind of transgression. It just shouldn’t happen. You’d expect that the Universe would be just an empty, unchanging Void—or rather nonexistent—if all were to be entirely proper. Why in hell should anything exist at all? For anything to exist is in a way breaking rules, deviating from propriety.
That quote that I barely remember is interesting to me because, by total karmic coincidence, shortly before that I had one of my duendes or spontaneous inspirations to the same effect. I was walking out in back of the monastery in California a few months ago and the sentence appeared in my mind, unsummoned: “To exist is to transgress.” It is an intriguing idea, so I have been considering it ever since. I really think that it very well may be true, in fact in some ways it obviously IS true.
I think that sentence would make a good meme: an eccentric but very nice artist in England sent me a portrait he had made of me, along with a twenty-pound note, requesting that the twenty quid be used to make a T-shirt with the portrait reproduced and some kind of meme…so, the monk with sunglasses and beneath the spectacled visage, TO EXIST IS TO TRANSGRESS. (I also rather like the motto PERCEPTION IS SAMSARA.)
The statement may seem an odd one, but it does have plenty of precedents. It’s mainly just a strange way of stating what to some is fairly obvious. For example the astrophysicist and mainstream guru of scientism, the late great Stephen Hawking, used to say that the Big Question for him was, why does the universe even bother to exist in the first place? Even to him it should not, or at least that is what ought to be reasonably expected. My own theory of the block of marble, discussed in some depth in my book Philosophical Dharma: Writings of an Incendiary Buddhist Monk, explains WHY we appear to exist. A virtual or potential statue contained within the nameless uncarved block of the Tao, or God, or the Dharmakāya, or Brahman, which is (virtually, potentially) complicated enough to become self-referential, creates the necessary paradox for the transgression to occur. But that theory doesn’t mention the transgressive aspect of our being here specifically, so I wish to discuss it now.
If the existence of a phenomenal universe is problematic to science, it is much more so to religion, especially some religions. Take Buddhism for example. Buddhism certainly considers individual existence to be transgressive and conducive to suffering. Samsara is based on delusion, which is an unwholesome mental state. Consequently, mere conscious (or semiconscious) existence amounts to the Buddhist equivalent of Original Sin. Existence itself, individual existence, is practically IMMORAL. From a Buddhist ethical perspective, phenomenal existence is WRONG.
Christianity also has something similar with its own notion of original sin, though not quite so radical as the Buddhists—for Christians it is at least possible to exist without breaking universal law, since after all, God Almighty decreed the world and saw that it was good. Then again, the biblical God is rather a tyrannical fool by Buddhist standards, or even modern Enlightenment ones.
So by existing, or seeming to exist, we are breaking (or seeming to break) a law that is not enforced—Thou Shalt Not Exist—and which most of us can’t stop breaking anyway. It’s as though some early Puritan law is still on the books, like “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and somehow we have all become witches.
The main point I am trying to make here is that, if we accept our existence in this samsaric universe as more or less of a done deal, then we should, by that same token, accept transgression likewise. We should, to some degree at least, transgress without shame and without compunction, maybe even defiantly. Even if we are striving to transcend or escape from Plato’s cave, the fact is that we are here within a context of transgression, and that is just the way things are at present. We can work to exit this situation, but regret (in Pali, kukkucca) just makes things worse, and we are criminals by nature.
Especially since I am no longer a monk, this is my idea: I am not going to be opposed to my own (seeming, ultimately illusory) existence, but will to some extent be a defiant rascal, and do my best to accept the karmic consequences of that with equanimity and fortitude. I will try to dance gracefully through samsara while at the same time necessarily transgressing universal law, and not feel too bad about it. I will buy and eat meat, I will occasionally even buy stuff made in freaking China, I may occasionally squish a pesky insect, I will indulge in romantic behavior (“like householders who enjoy pleasures of the senses”) with my adorably lovely mate, I may occasionally view pirated material on the Internet, I have already drunk fermented beverages (though not to the point of being quite drunk), and I may defend myself, my loved ones, and possibly even my country, with deadly force if the need arises. In other words, I will accept the idea of having imperfect morality, practically as a necessary result of living and breathing, partly out of worldly duty, and I will accept the consequences like a man.
Another consideration is that transgression also produces liminality, a disruption of established structure, which allows the paranormal, “magic” and “miracles,” to manifest (in addition to the seemingly miraculous transgressive manifestation of individual existence itself). Witches and other “dark” practitioners have known this, at least subliminally, for millennia, and have deliberately violated taboos, for example, in order to generate mana to be used for other purposes. But even “light” spiritual practitioners, even saints, transgress in certain unnatural ways (even celibacy is a kind of transgression against Nature), which generates mana of a sort.
The Holy Life of a Buddhist renunciant is an attempt to minimize serious transgression as much as humanly possible—though openly transgressing against Nature through celibacy, avoidance of one’s own kind, and so on—but it only minimizes it, and even a saint remains a criminal against the Universe. The highest level of non-transgression attainable to an individual being (a Buddhist one anyway) is nirodha, or the attainment of cessation, which itself is only a temporary state occurring before death, and applies only to the individual, with the sum total of transgression and suffering in the Universe remaining literally infinite. The sum total of transgression and suffering in the Universe will always remain infinite.
The traditional Buddhist goal is to cease to transgress by ceasing to exist in a worldly context (simply declaring the Buddha as one’s savior won’t work worth a damn); although goal-oriented Dharma is already losing one’s balance and one’s touch with reality, and it becomes even more out of kilter when one starts disapproving of one’s present state as some means of facilitating progress towards something supposed to be better. It is best to accept the present situation…which of course means accepting the fact that we are transgressing some fundamental law by being here. We are trespassers in a world that shouldn’t exist, we are criminals by birth, and so we may as well make our peace with that, and be OK with it.
As I have mentioned before, to exist is to suffer, in accordance with the First Noble Truth. Life literally requires death, and evolution requires countless deaths. Food requires death. Even vegans rely on farmers using pesticides and possibly even wearing leather shoes (let alone the child slave laborers and political prisoners in concentration camps making components for their laptops and smartphones). Thus to some degree, while we are here in this world, we need to face misery and death as simply part of the deal, and with some equanimity and fortitude in the face of its inevitability—including its inevitability in our own lives and in the lives of people we love.
This may involve a return to the stoic tough-mindedness of earlier ages. The ancients, for example, considered misery and death to be unavoidable in this world (as they still are), sometimes even something to take upon oneself as a matter of duty or honor, and so something to accept with an even mind, or sometimes even with joy, paradoxical as that may sound. Consider ancient Christians singing hymns of joy while being fed to wild animals in the arena, or Pictish warriors willingly flinging themselves onto the spears of their adversaries so that their fellows could overwhelm them more easily.
This kind of attitude may be reminiscent of someone like the notorious Bronze Age Pervert. There is a certain element of his Bronze Age Mindset in what I am trying to describe, but what I recommend is not quite so sociopathic and violent as what that book recommends. That is the trick—accepting misery and death, sometimes even participating in its continuation, without having its continuation as a motive—eating meat for example; fucking and reproducing the human species; paying taxes that allow the government to drop bombs on people in foreign countries; letting people die of starvation in some god-forsaken shithole in Africa or Asia; occasionally buying something made in China or watching pro sports and thus supporting Communist oppression; maybe even defending oneself or others, including one’s entire country. (I do intend eventually to purchase a firearm by the way, maybe two or three.) Life requires death, quite literally.
To follow ahimsa or non-harming in an uncompromisingly strict way may simply be unrealistic for a person living in a society with other persons. This is a big reason why monks are supposed to detach from society and live in seclusion. I used to know a western man who had formerly been an ordained monk, and afterward continued to follow five precepts to an uncompromising and rather saintly degree. He was married though, and had a grown stepdaughter. So one time I asked him what he would do if his wife or stepdaughter were raped or otherwise assaulted in his presence…would he use violence against the perpetrator to defend them? His answer was an amazing “Well, it would be according to their own kamma.” In other words, he would rather see his wife raped than harm the man raping her—or at least that seems to have been his meaning. No genuine man could live like this; a saint, maybe, a superhuman or subhuman being, but not a man. A man living in this world has duties, which in some cases may involve transgression of moral precepts, and which in some cases may be more obligatory than the urge to escape the entire system of Samsara. Again, even if we happen to escape from the Matrix, the amount of delusion and misery here will remain infinite, and thus the escape is largely selfish, as the Mahayanists declare. To be fair to orthodox Theravada though, one causes less suffering to others to the extent that one cures oneself of delusion: by helping ourselves we help others, and by helping others we help ourselves.
That being said, we really need to man up and accept our criminality to some degree. Fear of suffering is a bit cowardly after all, and some things, within a worldly context anyhow, are arguably worth the endurance of some pain, maybe even some practical infliction of it. Let alone some effort and inconvenience. As my dear old macho father used to say, “A little pain never hurt anyone.”
And so there must be a compromise—be a saint if you can, but you still have to be human so long as you wear that body of yours; and so long as you participate in society with others, and have duties to family, friends, community, and country, you may have the duty to transgress the requirements of saintliness. For that matter, sometimes you may just feel like transgressing, just because. Just remember that actions have consequences, and that the suffering you inflict will very probably come back on you, even though you consider the action to be justified. And your pleasures will very probably result in an equal amount of pleasure’s opposite down the road. So consider the negative effects of your actions and be prepared to face them, and move forwards with some equanimity and fortitude.