At the Mall of Deadly Wares

The world believes with all its heart that enjoying pleasure from the senses is happiness.

Krishna says the world is wrong.

Contemplate for a moment the daily jostle and bustle of the billions in this huge hungry world, sweating and scheming and hustling for pleasure from the senses as though their lives depended on it. In cities and villages, in factories and fields, in offices and shops, in the first and the second and the third world, the great universal urge impels us on and on, and Krishna says that our “pleasure”—what we get for our trouble—is suffering.

My generation, coming of age in the sixties, thought itself liberated at last from past constraints; sexual license and unchecked consumption were the natural entitlements of freedom. We found incomprehensible the prohibitions and restrictions on sensual delight handed down by traditional religions and moralities. These strictures we blamed on “patriarchs,” spiteful, sour, disappointed old men, their lips frozen in a sneer of disgust, who took revenge on the world and its youth with their “Thou shalt not’s.” William Blake had told us about such spoilers:

And Priests in black gowns
were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars
my joys & desires.

So now the land is replete with perpetual gardens of delight, wide sprawling malls graced with fountains and greenery, stately pleasure domes of consumption that even Kubla Khan would envy, where multiplex cinemas and video stores place before the common gaze of consumers the copulations of the stars.

But Krishna says boycott the pleasures of the senses, for they bring only suffering. They have a beginning and an end, He says, and the wise take no delight in them.

Imagine, if you will, an old-fashioned scale, a pan balance, one side holding self-realization; the other, sense gratification. When self-realization goes up, sense gratification goes down, and vice versa.

We’ve all encountered the modern spiritual teachers who say they offer spiritual life—self-realization, enlightenment, liberation—but do not restrict sense gratification. They are cheaters. Anyone who tells us we can successfully pursue self-realization while indulging in sense gratification is misleading us. We should look for someone truthful.

The world is systematically misleading, its traps baited. A winter’s storm recently drove me into one, but it was marked openly—at least to my eyes—with the signs of mortality.

During the festive week between Christmas and New Year’s Day I was driving up I-95 from Baltimore to Philadelphia, while the all-news radio station, like an oracle in evil times, gave out ominous warnings: the first major winter storm was about to break, the recession was going to get worse, in ten years AIDS would infect twenty million, and Iraq and the United States were closing toward war.

Thinking it prudent to pick up some necessities before the snows came, I exited for the Christiana Mall, just south of Wilmington. I parked far back on a crowded lot.

The mall was pandemonium. Just within the entrance a roaring two-story geyser spread a pungent cloud of chlorine gas. My eyes stung, but lounging shoppers packed the pool- side, talking and eating, without apparent ill effect.

I weaved my way into the throng, that vortex of excited, restless consciousness. They were up. The din reached a crescendo at the food court, where local adolescents preened and courted as they dined on twenty different kinds of fast food. People everywhere stood in food lines and movie lines, talking and eating.

My nerves vibrating, I left quickly, passing through the chlorine cloud again. Gratefully, I breathed the cold air deeply and began the hike to my car. From the hubbub of the mall I had entered into a deep silence, for the moist air and the heavy, low overcast deadened all sounds.

Then I ducked instinctively as I glimpsed a gigantic black shape gliding close overhead, riding across the nacreous underbelly of the clouds. I looked up, turning.

Moving slowly and silently overhead were two huge C- 130’s, the American military’s propeller-driven troop transport. Both were painted matte black and innocent of all markings.

Looking back down the slope of the lot, I could see the entire mall before me, and beyond it a low rise of ground, which must have concealed an air base. Each plane would disappear below the rise, and then lumber up into the narrow space between the earth and the clouds, bank steeply, and circle slowly over the mall. Then it would drop behind the rise and come back up again.

In eerie silence they banked and turned again and again over the mall. They reminded me of the vultures I’d watch in India, poky and bulky, yet graceful as they glided and turned. The mall was packed with avid, happy consumers, while overhead the C-130’s rehearsed meticulously for war. Was it a portent? Would there be war? I took it, finally, as a more general—a generic—warning.

The consumers in their avidity seemed beyond reach, charmed by deadly pleasures and fatal loves. By the time I pulled up to the temple in Philadelphia, snow dusted the ground: prophecies were being fulfilled.

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