Saturday, September 7, 2013

Cynicism (Especially the Old-Fashioned Kind)

"True happiness is regarded as the goal and final aim in the philosophy of the Cynics, as well as in every other philosophy. But this happiness consists in our living according to nature, and not according to the opinions of the crowd."—(Julian "The Apostate," the last Pagan emperor of Rome)

     A few months ago a fellow paid me a strange compliment—he said he had always liked Diogenes and the Greek Cynic philosophers, and that I was the closest thing on the Internet, that he knew of, to "Diogenes incarnate." This was kind of flattering considering that when I was a teenager, before discovering Ram Dass and Eastern philosophy, Diogenes the Cynic was one of my heroes and role models. I didn't know that much about him, and hadn't studied classical Cynicism much, and still haven't, but there's not much to study anyway. Not a single treatise written by an ancient Cynic philosopher survived the book burnings of the Christianized late Roman Empire and the collapse of Western civilization that followed it. But upon reflection, it does seem to me that since returning to America in 2011 I have been drifting more and more toward resembling an ancient Cynic, and less and less toward resembling a classical Theravada Buddhist bhikkhu. This has not been deliberate, or complete, but it has happened.
     This is not entirely a bad thing. The Cynics were about as close to wandering Buddhist samanas as Western classical antiquity ever saw; and besides, Diogenes was an interesting guy. According to the historian Will Durant, he was the second most famous man in Greece in his day—only Alexander the Great was more of a celebrity. But that was in a very different culture than ours.
     For those of you who received an education which omitted premodern thought, Diogenes, according to the tales of him, began his career as a banker in the Greek colony city of Sinope (now Sinop, on the Black Sea coast of Turkey), and was run out of town because he allegedly was criminally minting coins of inferior quality. When upbraided for this in later years he would calmly reply that it was this that resulted in his embracing philosophy in the first place. He moved to Athens and allegedly became a follower of Antisthenes, considered by tradition to be the first Cynic philosopher, who was in turn a disciple of Socrates. According to legend Antisthenes drove Diogenes away with blows, but he kept coming back for more till the beatings finally ceased. Diogenes lived in a derelict tub on the outskirts of a temple compound, owned almost nothing, went barefoot even in winter, and begged for his food in the streets. He also taught there, and did pretty much everything else there. One of the most famous stories about him is that he walked through the streets of Athens with a lit lamp in broad daylight, looking, he said, for a true man—a genuine human being. At one point he was captured by pirates at sea and sold as a slave. While he was at the auction block he pointed out a rich Corinthian man walking by and said to his vendor, "Sell me to that man; he looks like he needs a master." The rich man bought him and put him in charge of educating his children. While he was thus living in Corinth, Alexander the Great, who enjoyed hanging out with philosophers, came to visit him. Diogenes was lying on the ground sunning himself at the time. After some conversation Alexander was impressed by the philosopher and offered him anything he wanted: Diogenes simply replied, "Stand out of my light," as Alexander was blocking his sun. As Alexander walked away he is said to have said, "If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."
     It is said that the Cynics got their name because people considered them to resemble dogs (κύων, kyon, is the old Greek word for "dog"); although their behavior was rather different from the canine ascetics described in the ancient Buddhist texts. The fundamental premise of Cynic philosophy was that the greatest happiness results from living in harmony with nature—but for the Western "canine" philosophers this did not mean going around naked on all fours, eating and drinking without the aid of their hands, and refraining from human speech, as was reportedly the situation in India. Nature for them meant human nature, which included walking upright, wearing clothes, speaking, and also exercising reason. It also included sexuality, since this is obviously a very basic aspect of human nature. Despite their austerity in most respects, the Cynics considered sexuality to be a fundamental natural urge, much like the urge for food or sleep. It is said that Laïs, one of the most beautiful and renowned hetairas in Greece (a hetaira being a high-class courtesan) rented her charms to Diogenes for a very much-reduced fee, largely because she liked the idea of such a famous sage bowing down at her altar to the Goddess of Love, so to speak.
     A concise synopsis of the Cynical situation, one aspect of it at least, may be found in this extract from an essay by Jules Evans:
     "Diogenes claimed that civilised values make us sick. They make us excessively anxious about what other people think of us. As a result, we put all our energy into tending our public masks or personae, while hiding away any parts of us that might be deemed shameful or ugly, even if they’re perfectly natural. Civilisation demands we scrub and prune out any wilder bits of our nature. But we end up becoming false, inauthentic beings, china dolls rather than whole persons.  
     "Diogenes attacked and defaced this false morality of appearances. He broke down the wall between the public and private selves, and insisted that anything we are happy to do in private we should be happy to do in public as well. Diogenes lived in public, in his barrel. He slept in public, ate in public, defecated in public, even masturbated in public. This was an aggressive assertion of his freedom from civilised conventions and his preference for a life ‘in accordance with nature’ rather than with false civilised values. These animal antics earned him the name Diogenes Kynikos, or Diogenes the Dog-like."          
As the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe (who may be somewhat of a Cynic himself) has said, once we submit to living according to other people's conditions, we enslave ourselves to their neuroses. This is true in a relationship of two people or in a neurotic society at large.

Raphael's Diogenes

       Although the Cynics could hardly be said to have a school, as each of them was a nonconformist individual, a basic outline of their position could include the "three alphas": autarkeia τάρκεια, or independence); askēsis (σκησις, or ascetic discipline); and anaideia (ναίδεια, or shamelessness). This absence of shame, especially when combined with the acceptance of natural sexuality aforementioned, was occasionally taken to some strange extremes. The Cynic philosopher Crates is said to have had sex with his wife Hipparchia (a Cynic philosopher in her own right) in public; and on one occasion when Diogenes was rebuked for unconcealed masturbating, he calmly observed that it was a pity that he couldn't relieve his feelings of hunger similarly, by rubbing his belly.
     Another fundamental of classical Cynicism was parrhēsia (παῤῥησία), free and frank speech. According to the anecdotes, once when someone asked Diogenes "What is the most excellent thing among men?" his answer was "Parrhēsia." 
     This free and frank speech, naturally, was a vehicle for biting social commentary, as well as some plain old smart-assery. One time Diogenes was orating in a public place, but nobody was attending, so he began whistling. When a crowd started gathering around him to gawk, he reproached them for ignoring philosophy but being attracted to silliness. Once, upon being rebuked for drinking in a tavern, he replied that he also got his hair cut in a barbershop. Encountering a very unskillful archer doing target practice, he sat down right next to the target, saying that he wanted to be out of harm's way. He occasionally begged from statues, and when asked why, he said it was in order to grow used to being refused. One day when he was eating in the marketplace (which was socially unacceptable in ancient Athens) some bystanders repeatedly called him Dog, whereupon he said, "It is you who are the dogs, who stand around me while I am at dinner." And once when someone asked him why people give alms to ordinary beggars but not to mendicant philosophers, he answered, "Because they think they might one day become lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy."
     William Blake once wrote, "Always be willing to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you." Actually, pretty much everybody will avoid you. Free and frank speech is frowned upon in civilized society; but the usual alternatives are phoniness and damn lies. Returning to the wisdom of Paul Lowe, he once observed that if everyone suddenly began saying what they really felt, the whole world would explode into chaos…but after a couple of weeks, when the fallout had settled a bit, society would find itself at a higher level of consciousness. But most people fear this higher level, this most excellent thing, and don't want it. That includes most Buddhists.
     Anyway, as has already been mentioned, I have been leaning in a Cynical direction. Who knows, maybe in a previous life I leaned more officially that way. However, I am still a Buddhist, and do not live entirely in harmony with nature; for example I still eat only once a day, between dawn and noon. Actually, it seems to me that nature hasn't intended for us to be happy. Pain and suffering are tools Mother Nature uses to compel us to do her bidding, i.e. to remain alive long enough to reproduce our DNA sequences. But even the ancient Cynics realized this to some degree: they considered the natural life, with few possessions and comforts, to be more happy than an unnatural one, but they didn't even hope for a complete end to suffering, unless maybe it occurred at death. As Arthur Schopenhauer said of them:
     "Thus they started from the insight that the motions into which the will is put by the objects that stimulate and stir it, and the laborious and often frustrated efforts to attain them, or the fear of losing them when they are attained, and finally also the loss itself, produce far greater pains and sorrows than the want of all these objects ever can."
     When I was young and Diogenes was my hero, I rebelled against society. I no longer rebel against it; now I'm content just to renounce it, more or less. It seems madness and futility to rebel against 99.99% of the human race. I'm willing to let society be. I don't really rebel against the Bhikkhu Sangha either, although I renounced that institution also, more or less, when I was still a young monk, still not at my peak of strictness, after realizing that more than 95% of bhikkhus don't seriously practice Dhamma or Vinaya (and that is not an exaggeration). For years I avoided the company of other monks whenever it was convenient to do so. But now, in my less fanatical maturity perhaps, I'm willing to let the Bhikkhu Sangha be also, and am more willing to associate with my colleagues in that organization, whether or not they are willing to associate with me.
     But there is one institution that I still consider worth my while to rebel against: and that is what many (but certainly not all) people in America are pleased to call "Theravada Buddhism"—a movement in which laypeople who may not take three refuges or keep five precepts call themselves "Sangha," and if they do take refuge in the Sangha, take refuge in themselves; in which the members believe more deeply in scientific materialism and politically correct humanism than in Dhamma; in which even many teachers do not believe in fundamental principles of Buddhism, even Nibbana, because scientific materialism cannot explain it; in which the members sew new patches onto old cloth, and are essentially worldly materialists with a little Buddhist flavoring added; in which the possibility of miracles is rejected out of hand; in which monks are required to be politically correct, smiling politicians, or saints, in order to be considered the equals of the lay community; in which a monk must prove himself worthy of even receiving a bowl of food every day; in which many of the teachers are more ignorant of the Buddhist texts than a typical Burmese villager with a grade school education; in which most of Theravada Buddhism is rejected or ignored, with the system reduced to little more than a few elementary meditation techniques, being a pale shadow of a mutilated fragment of Dhamma; in which complacent lukewarmness is standard, with anything more than that being considered extreme, unnecessary, or "cultish"; in which truth is covered up with phony politeness for the sake of not ruffling feathers, or threatening people's fragile self-esteem; in which true renunciation is scorned; in which austerity is pretty much a nonstarter, with luxury and wimpiness being virtually mandatory (with the Goenka folks not culpable of this one); in which "sacred" is regarded as a superstitious word; in which Liberation in this very life has been replaced by enhancing the quality of their mental prisons, because the members are unwilling to go beyond a very casual and elementary level of commitment; in which a radical way of life designed for enlightenment has been rejected in favor of watered-down, soft, easy, convenient, comfortable, non-threatening, politically correct fluff designed to help them stay more comfortably asleep—THAT I rebel against. I lift my lower robes and fart in its general direction. And if that implies that I rebel against many or even most Western people who consider themselves to be Theravada Buddhists, then so be it. I'm not in this for popularity. A handy rule of thumb, which is especially applicable in spiritual matters, is The Majority Is Always Wrong. I'm wrong too of course, but at least it's my own wrongness, and not the wrongness of other people that I'm slavishly parroting through moral weakness and herd instinct. 
     Long live parrhēsia. And may the gods and goddesses have mercy on all of us.     



  1. You're quite critical of American Theravada-- the movement deserves some sympathy. The institution simply doesn't exist to allow for monastics in the West to genuinely strive for enlightenment, and the only way in which such an institution can begin to exist is if Theravada remains appealing enough for Americans to give substantial long-term support. Gaining such acceptance and support requires a presentation of the religion which does not offend core American values. If Theravada affronted the [capitalist, world-affirming] values which Americans regard so highly, it would simply not be successful. The existence of even this soft form of Buddhism is at least a positive influence-- it's better than Americans not engaging with Buddhism at all.

    1. I'm not unsympathetic toward ALL American Buddhism, just to that portion of it which fits the description of the "in which" clauses in the long sentence toward the end. Partly this post is to lend some perspective to the mob of good Buddhists who have been indulging in some very unsympathetic hostility themselves, some of which can be seen in the comments sections of a few previous posts.

      There is the big question of whether a spiritual system should be modified to fit a spiritually bankrupt culture. The best way in the past has been to renounce society. If enough people renounce the bankrupt society, a new society is formed which, initially at least, is an improvement on the old one. By changing the system to make it agreeable to, say, consumerism, the spirit is pretty much ruined. At the very least I would like to see a better alternative to Spirit Rockism.

      Could you specify what are the core American values that are not to be offended? I assume that freedom and equality would be two of them, or at least equality.

    2. Equality, absolutely-- I was also thinking consumerism, democracy, 'family values,' striving for financial and career success, material overabundance and egotistical 'self-improvement.' A successful American Buddhism will not attack such ideas, because potential adherents would feel personally threatened.

    3. Don't you think that the really essential members of a "successful American Buddhism" would be those who are totally fed up with much of this stuff, and are ready to leave it behind? A Buddhism that is successful *socially* may be a miserable failure *spiritually*. But yeah, threatening the people's cherished privileges is usually a bad idea.

    4. While I realize that my input may not be needed on this, I do feel compelled to mention that I wouldn't be interested in Buddhism at all if it didn't challenge the notions of "consumerism, democracy, 'family values,' striving for financial and career success, material overabundance and egotistical 'self-improvement." as specified by Mark.

      I'm not sure what it would take for a fully supported "western" monastic Sangha to emerge, but if it ever does I it is better that it be on the basis of the Buddha's intended teaching (or closer to it) than something that has been filtered or distilled into something that barely resembles Dhamma.

    5. Glad to have your input, Hickersonia. Absolutely-- that challenge is the very essence of Buddhist philosophy, and I'm not saying that it shouldn't challenge people. The problem I see is the fact that any monastery or meditation centre requires the financial support of laypeople. Those laypeople, who are in the world making a living, trying to be successful, are going to feel alienated by an institution which says the pride they have for their success is ultimately in error-- that the values they hold are the wrong ones. In Southeast Asia, they have the concept of 'merit' to convince laypeople that despite not being able to realize the dhamma fully for themselves, they are still contributing to their own spiritual welfare through the support of the institution. Such a belief, I don't think, would be as viable the Protestant West, which would be able to see the parallel between merit and paying for Catholic indulgences. So, the puzzle is to find a model which works-- and what seems to work so far is the slow development of a symbiotic relationship with laypeople, offering retreats, teaching and talks which are directed toward their lifestyle-- 'reducing stress' instead of 'escaping the cycle or birth and death.'

  2. Mr. Gillis, thanks for being so honest about your assessment of how the Thera tradition needs to cater to the U.S. landscape. However, seeing what distinct strains of "Western Dharma" have turned into in the past 30-50 years of pandering to the "needs" of American consumerists, I find it impossible to believe that this is a good idea.

    Spiritual tradition should not "cater" to its adherents, potential or otherwise. It should be the opposite.

    It doesn't mean that authentic tradition shouldn't be oriented to the culture in which it is placed. This is essential. However, appealing to creature comforts feeds the issue, and does nothing to resolve it. You don't treat atrophied muscles by letting them atrophy further. You work them, which is uncomfortable. There is a reason one doesn't charge money for dharma.

    As for merit in the East, one could argue that this is one of the main hurdles that "Buddhists" have to overcome here. I have encountered few people in Myanmar who are practicing for enlightenment in this lifetime--many of those focused on merit are hoping not to be reborn as a street dog.

    (And since it is related to the discussion at hand, many people in Myanmar hold the opinion that U.S. Americans must have done incredible acts of merit in order to be reborn in such a prosperous culture. And by "prosperous" they often mean blue jeans, Coke, and proverbial streets paved in gold.)

    1. The main point, it seems to me, is not that most Buddhists are not willing and able to strive dedicatedly for enlightenment. That is the case everywhere, even in the most devoutly Buddhist cultures, and may always be the case. Most people just are not "ripe," including most monastics.

      The main point is that in the East, lay Buddhists honor and support those who may be willing and able to strive dedicatedly, even though their faith may be somewhat naive. In America, on the other hand, many laypeople disdain monks and even resent them, or at least view them with suspicion, partly as a result of politically correct ideas of equality—monks are seen as separating themselves from the rest out of some kind of assumed superiority. Shortly after my ordination in the early 90's I read that there had been a kind of Buddhist convention (maybe the American Buddhist Congress, ABC, although I don't remember now) in which one of the speakers, a knowledgeable academic type, declared that one of the top priorities for American Buddhism was to abolish monasticism altogether. This would practically guarantee that a system designed for radical detachment from Samsara and enlightenment in this very life is practically capped at a level suitable for beginners, a spiritual bunny slope.

      A Protestant Christian ethic pervading American values is also a key factor in this attitude. Of course one of the first things Protestantism accomplished was abolishing Christian monasticism, and thus helping to guarantee that Christianity would be in the world and of it, a thoroughly samsaric system. And we see the result in the West: superchurches with ATM's and Starbuck's Coffee in the lobbies, and BMW's and Lexuses (Lexi?) in the parking lots. And the closest thing Theravada has to one of these superchurches is Spirit Rock, which is an inspiration and guiding star for many meditation societies throughout the USA.

      It may be that a viable alternative to this would be a Cynical one (in the classical sense), with renunciants adopting a more "Dharma Bum" way of life in which they can associate with householders more easily. Any true spiritual movement is very likely to be countercultural at the very least; by following the values of the mainstream, it dies.

    2. Though I admit I am actually quite ignorant of the topic at hand, I hope you can still entertain my enthusiasm for it a bit:

      The difficulty I see is that a 'Dharma Bum' lifestyle doesn't provide the stable conditions from which one can make a genuine attempt at enlightenment within this lifetime. If an individual is feeling persecuted by and is rebelling against the culture in which they are embedded, they are handicapped by worldly concern. Actively rejecting worldliness, and identifying with that act of rejection, further enmeshes the individual within the world. One becomes at all times in conflict with those around them. This is why I see the existence of a proper Sangha to be such an important element to progress: through the support of the Sangha, the individual does not need to reject anything, they do not need to continually question and justify their beliefs, they no longer have to define themselves, they do not have to worry about food or lodgings or other people-- they can just focus on the deepening of their practice. My naive intution says such stability is essential. An American who is out in his shack in the woods, or migrating aimlessly, is a suspicious outsider, is an eccentric not worthy of respect-- such an individual would know how he is being percieved, and the perception of others becomes his concern. The pursuant must be absolutely convinced, must have absolute faith, that his lifestyle is the most appropriate-- and living in spite of others makes such faith difficult, if not impossible.

      (Does this sound true?)

    3. Well, how do you think the original bhikkhus lived who were led by the Buddha himself? They were homeless, vagrant wanderers living in a violent and dangerous world. It is written that the Buddha's chief disciple Maha Moggallana was literally beaten to a pulp by a gang of hostile non-Buddhists; and the Buddha himself is said to have had several attempts made on his life, not all of them by Devadatta. The main reason given why monks are not allowed to be ordained before the age of 20 is that before then they lack the emotional maturity to endure the jeers and curses of non-Buddhist antagonists. A renunciant or a true Dharma warrior must have some courage and TOUGHNESS.

      Security is practically the opposite of freedom. I consider this security, and its resultant lack of trials and challenges, to be one of the main weaknesses of traditional monasticism, as I've mentioned in other articles. Going out there and getting knocked around is one of the most powerful tools for awakening there is, if one is able to manage it with awareness.

      I think conformists are more likely to be "handicapped by worldly concern." And spiritual seekers SHOULD "continually question [but not justify] their beliefs." As Chuang Tzu wrote, "The sage seeks insight from chaos and doubt."

      And monastics don't need to reject anything? How about money? How about women! Ha Ha!

      Anyway, the Dharma Bum approach wouldn't necessarily consist mainly of monks. A guy walking down the road with blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and a backpack probably would be less objectionable to the masses than a bhikkhu in orange Thai monastic robes. He could interact with people at their own level, not having archaic rules designed for ancient India getting in the way.

      I'm sorry to disagree with you so much as this. I suppose the best way is to try both approaches, or many approaches, so if one fails another may succeed. Let's not put all our eggs in one basket.

    4. Never knew the bit about why younger monks weren't allowed to fully ordain-- that's quite fascinating.

      I mostly agree with you, actually-- and I meant a monastic does 'not have to reject anything' to mean that a monastic within a stable Sangha doesn't have to constantly defend their ideological position. I agree that those who conform are likely to be caught up in worldliness, but one can also be overinvested in the reaction against such conformity.

      You have a good point regarding the value of chaos, though; Sometimes we need external circumstances to point out attachments and the suffering such attachment guarantees. I'm sure there's a balance that needs to be had here also: enough chaos and it'd incur on practice.

      I agree that there should be many means available for achieving enlightenment-- being a 'warrior' shouldn't be a necessary prerequisite.

      I'm glad you disagree with me, otherwise I'd learn nothing. Thanks for putting up with my babble.

  3. Yes Bhante, but you must remember that in the Buddha's time and culture and even the ancient greeks the act of renunciation and searching for the answers to the problems in life was a respected livelihood.

    Kings, merchants everyone had respect for the pursuit of spiritual endeavour.
    I still have it, but our western societies have less of it. The pursuit of the spiritual is not a high scorer on internet search engines.

    Because we are enslaved to a consumer system it does not tolerate those who dare to point out that maybe there is another form of happiness outside sense pleasures.

    yours respectfully

    1. I can't help but think that there have to be enough people out there with enough strength of spirit to walk away from spiritually bankrupt consumerism. It has happened before. That's how Christianity began—as a countercultural movement inspired largely by dissatisfaction with superficial, materialistic Roman culture (as well as by a fair amount of plain old despair). The hippie movement of the 60's also was leaning in that direction, until it was absorbed into the mainstream and turned into the "me generation" of the 70's. One cannot have deep satisfaction from living a shallow life, and SOME people have to have the wisdom to see this. Don't they?