Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nükhesel / Conditions

One of the good things about traveling away from your usual home is both the absence of usual reading materials, and the presence of long periods of waiting. Without the diversion of books or internet and passing the long spaces on train, cars, or airplanes, you have a lot of time to think, to get to the bottom of things. And for me these thoughts will revolve around a single idea or concept: this trip, the concept was nükhesel (Buriat, from Mongolian nökhtsel) or conditions.

The concept was introduced to me by the top Buddhist lama in Russia, the Khamba Lama (chief abbot) Damba Ayusheev (that's his picture, presenting an award at a traditional sports match). In a mesmerizing rant of one hour, this burly lama, alternating shrewd insight with deliberate provocation and sly humor, repeatedly returned to the theme of nükhesel or conditions. Christians believe in a Creator, he said, and so they believe people can be changed, converted, remade. But we Buddhists do not, he insisted; we believe in nükhesel. People can't be changed, but they can be brought up as children to follow the right path.

He said much more, but that concept came back again and again to me, as I struggled with the temptations of travelling away from my family, my church, and my accustomed routines. For anyone who has travelled in China, Mongolia, or Russia, you will know that drunkenness is a great temptation that any one not rigidly teetotalling will experience. In America, in the bosom of my family, a glass of wine with dinner will end there. But in Russia or Mongolia, a friend screwing the cap off a bottle of vodka with a smile must end with the bottle empty -- and quite likely one or two more on top of that.

In 1221, a Chinese envoy to the Mongols wrote:

Whenever the Mongols see a foreign guest talk uproariously, make noise, and act rude in a drunken state, or else vomit or fall asleep, then they are very happy and say, "The guest gets drunk, so his heart is one with ours, without any difference."

"And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit" -- this is most certainly true. And yet I also speak from experience that drinking together, before it leads to such painful and disgusting scenes, leads to a greater intimacy and understanding. In the mild exhiliration of moderate drinking, I spoke much more confidently about my deepest feelings -- among them for my God -- than I did in cold sobriety. And in my teetotalling Presbyterian days, I often passed up the bottle, only to ridicule and slander absent people in "friendly" conversation. But several times -- four or five, depending on how you count -- my inebriation passed beyond any possible limit. Why was it so easy to be sober at home and so hard abroad? Nükhesel, of course.

I believe in my Creator and I believe in the recreation of hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom I grieved. But I think the abbot's insistence on nükhesel is not a strange thought to the Christian tradition. What is it saying, but the impotence of the Law? I know drunkenness is wrong, but somehow I did it anyway. So I learned something: I learned that my heart wants someone else's approval more than it wants God's approval. I learned that I am weak. If no great shame or transgression happened to me, it is no credit to me but only to God's watching over me in His providence and in His kind compliance with the prayers of the faithful.

Historians have often written about the internalization of the Protestant ethic as the transformation from a shame culture to a guilt culture. So instead of veiling women and locking them away from men as found in cultures not transformed by the Gospel, the sexes would be allowed to mix in the confident expectation that a mature, Christian inner direction would prevent the occurrence of evil. This is a glorious hope -- but a hope that is rarely fulfilled without nükhesel.

Children from perfectly decent families go to college and live lives of drunkenness and debauchery before marrying and leading respectable lives. (As this article in a magazine left on the set next to me on the shuttle bus from the airport illustrated.) Why? Because the nükhesel are different. Why? Because college administrators believed (or at least said they believed) that mature judgment is a better protector than parietal laws and all the external apparatus of social rules to protect youth from acting out what's in their hearts.

So I've learned something from waking up with a hangover too many times. That I am weak. That people can do bad things, even knowing they're bad. That I need to try harder to live according to my beliefs. That absent weekly worship and Holy Communion the Word of the Lord can lose its due power on our souls. That I depend on other people to prop up the tottering house of my sanctification -- and that others depend on that from me. That I should have sympathy with those ambushed by sins they abhor. That social rules and conventions that prevent our undisciplined desires from coming to fruition are good things, despised only by the arrogant. That we really are donkeys, ridden by God or by the devil, and that there's a reason that "lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil" is the conclusion of our best prayer.