Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ruthless, Monstrous Compassion

     During February I experienced another strange "attack" of great pain, like a glimpse of the agony of the world, gushing through my chest. It felt like a brief ayahuasca flashback. In February in upper Burma, though still the "cold" season, the weather is starting to become hot again, getting well above 90°F (32°C) in the afternoon. I apparently spent too much time outside in the heat, and after I entered the cool cave I began to feel sick. I lay on my wooden pallet feeling lousy, when that feeling of universal hurt started surging in me again. I was in no mood to say Yes to it and let it gush; I just wanted it to stop, to go away. I couldn't help but feel, very vividly and intensely, that there are an infinite number of beings in this universe wallowing in a shoreless ocean of agony, horror, fear, and misery, with an infinite number of them being hopelessly stuck in it, seeing no way out, like denizens of hell. I tried to think my way out of this state by reminding myself that suffering is a samsaric illusion and is ultimately unreal, along with the beings that seem to be stuck in it; but the fact that it seems real is bad enough, and the feeling wouldn't go away. After about ten desperate minutes of this, a verse of the Salla Sutta arose in my mind, to the effect that if suffering arises in the mind of a sage, he simply blows it away, like the wind blows a tuft of cotton. So I began repeating, like a mantra, "Blow it away…Blow it away…" and before long it passed. The sea of samsaric agony and misery and horror pervades the world and is infinite, and will always be infinite, but a wise person learns not to wallow in it. Even so, experiences like this help to remind me of the pain of the world, and help me to realize the priceless value and extreme importance of compassion.
     However, as some of you may easily imagine, I am occasionally admonished for lacking compassion, especially with regard to what I write. When I am speaking to another person, I generally have enough sensitivity and enough ability to feel into the interpersonal dynamic to sense whether I'm bothering or uplifting that person. Sometimes if I'm giving a Dharma talk, and there are enough people listening who can appreciate what I'm talking about, then a kind of positive feedback loop is created, and the vibration of the energy in the room goes up and up until it feels like I'm no longer the one giving the talk; I'm just as surprised as anyone else at what's coming out of my mouth, and it's usually better than anything I could have thought up beforehand. But when I write an article, I'm not consciously interacting with anybody, and receive no immediate feedback. I'm simply dealing with symbols on paper or on a screen, just expressing ideas that I consider to be interesting or useful or important. And I especially like to challenge points of view, including my own. With regard to some things I have written, I can easily see how some people could feel that I was not compassionate. On the other hand, sometimes I am surprised by what others consider harsh and hurtful language. Sometimes all I have to do is to present an alternative point of view which isn't goading or attacking anybody in particular. For example, I have been led to understand that the article "Burmese Women" could be seen as disturbing, even upsetting. Yet mainly all I did was to point out the interesting, and to me relatively obvious, fact that the average Burmese woman, especially the average Burmese village woman, is clearly less emotionally challenged and less unhappy than the average American woman, despite the fact that she has lived under a repressive military dictatorship, lives well below the poverty level by American standards, and furthermore lives in a culture that, traditionally at least, considers women to be inferior to men. But despite all this, there are American people who feel that Burmese women should become more like American women, presumably for their own good. I find that interesting. But if some statement challenges others' point of view, they may consider it offensive, and thereby lacking in compassion.
     One time a Dharma teacher of sorts took the trouble of sending me some quotes from the Pali texts saying that Right Speech must be pleasant, that one should not say anything that is not pleasant. On the other hand, there are also quotes from the Pali texts in which the Buddha himself says things which are decidedly unpleasant. One classic example is in the Māgandiya Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, in which a Brahmin offers his nubile daughter to the Buddha, considering him to be a worthy husband for her, and the Buddha replies, "What is this full of urine and dung? I wouldn't want to touch it even with my foot." According to the commentaries, the sheer shock value of what the Buddha said jolted the girl's parents into a major perceptual shift that awakened them to Dhamma. However, the girl, not surprisingly, hated his guts afterward.
     In American "dharmic" society there seems to have arisen an idea of compassion that it must be soft and gentle, and not threatening to anyone's self-esteem; it must not disturb anyone, at least not anyone toward whom it is directed. Compassion must therefore be "nice," and maybe even politically correct besides. I consider this, to some degree, to be an erroneous view, based in large part upon consumeristic Western culture which trains people to believe that their happiness and unhappiness are determined by what is outside of them, and not by their own attitude. Compassion is not necessarily nice, and may even appear very harsh, even perhaps ruthless and monstrous. I will give two rather extreme examples.
     In the old movie Gone with the Wind there is a scene in which a man has his leg amputated without anesthesia. He cries and pleads with the surgeons not to do it, but they hold him down and cut off his leg anyway, despite his screams, without painkiller. My father could never sit through that scene. He would get choked up and have to leave the room, as he had been a combat medic in WWII and had had to do that kind of stuff himself. He was the biggest medic in the outfit, so it was his job to sit on the thrashing, begging, screaming man while his arm, or leg, or whatever, was cut off. Such things probably still happen, now and then, in this world. So, is this a case of cruelty, or compassion? Obviously, they are inflicting searing agony on another person, regardless of his desperate pleas for them not to do it. True, they are inflicting agony on him for a short time, but if they don't he will die, possibly with even greater suffering. So it may appear cruel in the short run, but it appears to be compassionate in the long run. They are saving his life.
     The next example may come a little closer to home. It is a religious example—it involves the origins of the Christian Methodist Church. Methodism was founded during the mid 18th century, mainly in England, by a man named John Wesley. He had a very powerful, confrontational method of preaching that had very powerful results. In his sermons he would hammer away at the idea, using the testimony of the Bible as irrefutable proof, that those of his hearers who would not repent of their worldly ways and dedicatedly live their lives in Christ, would burn in hell forever and ever. He would dwell on this point with great emphasis, and in such a way that Christian people from the countrysides of 18th century England could not deny it—and he usually avoided preaching in big cities where the people were sophisticated enough to doubt the authority of the Bible. Then he would describe in grisly, graphic detail the endless, excruciating torments of hell. Naturally, people living worldly lives did not want to believe what he was saying, yet they simply were incapable of denying that it was true; so it drove them into a state of intense emotional crisis. During Wesley's sermons people would literally fling themselves to the ground, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. They would shriek in agony, as though already in hell, and eventually collapse into unconsciousness. The following is a typical example, recorded by Wesley himself in his journal:  
While I was speaking one before me dropped down as dead, and presently a second and a third. Five others sunk down in half an hour, most of whom were in violent agonies. The "pains" as "of hell came about them, the snares of death overtook them." In their trouble we called upon the Lord, and He gave us an answer of peace. One indeed continued an hour in strong pain, and one or two more for three days; but the rest were greatly comforted in that hour, and went away rejoicing and praising God.
At some of his sermons dozens or even hundreds of people would succumb to this sort of hysterical onslaught. Yet upon awakening from their climactic fainting fit, with the help of some careful spiritual guidance, they would experience "sanctification"; they would be Reborn. Their intense crisis would serve as a catharsis, or, in psychological jargon, an abreaction, which would slam them out of a life-long rut of lukewarm, worldly semi-morality and into a much more profoundly spiritual life. They weren't simply brainwashed into a mere superstition; life-long unskillful habits dropped away, a grossly worldly attitude dropped away, and they subsequently lived cleaner, purer, more deeply happy lives. Probably the overwhelming majority of them not only forgave Wesley for the agony he put them through, but positively rejoiced at it. They had become better people for it. And as far as John Wesley was concerned, he was not being harsh and hurtful, he was saving souls from eternal damnation.
     Recently I actually considered cooking up a Buddhist equivalent of this kind of evangelical sermon. A few moments' thought, though, was sufficient for me to realize that appealing to Pali texts wasn't going to prove anything to Western Buddhists. They don't have enough faith for that; they're too "sophisticated." I would have to appeal to their real religion, which is Materialism. So in my Wesleyan sermon I'd hammer away at the gruesome inevitability of terminal illness and death, including juicy morsels like, "Every one of you in this room is going to die. All of you. After you die your body will rot. Even if they cremate you the very day after your death, your body, which you cherish so much, will already have started decomposing before they burn it like garbage. The bodies of some of you will start rotting even before you die. Many of you will get cancer, maybe in your guts, maybe in your breast, maybe in your brain. Some of you will undergo painful therapies for it, and in some it will postpone death temporarily, but in others of you it will fail and just make you sicker, till tumors spread through your body and it becomes so broken that it won't function any more. Many of you in this room will have strokes; and for some of you it will bring death quickly and painlessly, but for others it will render you half-paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair or to bed, your mouth drooling, one eye staring, your mind mutilated. And some of you, before death, will have dementia; you'll become mindless vegetables unable even to wipe your own mouth or behind. These things will certainly happen, and there's nothing you can do to stop it…." with much more of the like, maybe with a slideshow of photographs illustrating those inevitable tumors and icky diseases, plus plenty of decomposing corpses. And after the audience is thoroughly disturbed and freaked out, if any remained in the room, I would then point out that their greatest hope of salvation from this fate is to dedicate their lives—not lukewarmly, or conforming it to worldliness, or as a hobby—but really to dedicate their lives wholeheartedly to understanding and practicing Dharma. I think such an approach might produce some positive results, although I doubt that I am the orator for the job. I think it might take someone with flashing eyes, a rich, engaging voice, and a flair for thundering histrionics really to make it effective.

     Still, my experiences indicate that soft, gentle, "nice" Dharma talks almost never work, at least not with hardheaded, lukewarm Western Theravada Buddhists. Maybe with New Age people it would work better, for all I know, but the average American Vipassana meditator is rigidly set in his or her ways, resists significant change, and practically needs to be jolted out of his or her rut, possibly even kicking and screaming. "Nice" keeps people comfortable, and being comfortable is much more conducive to staying asleep than to waking up. As Eckhart Tolle says, it's easier to wake up from a bad dream than from a good one. 
     I can feel the bland futility of most Dharma instruction, either my own or others'. Most attempts are little more than exercises in futility. Any Dharma talk which leaves people calm and relatively unmoved, after which they say, "That was pretty interesting," was a miserable failure—if, that is, helping people to wake up is the point of a Dharma talk. Furthermore, any Dharma talk which leaves people smiling and glowy afterwards, so that they say things like, "That was lovely…that was wonderful," was also in all probability a miserable failure. Smiling and glowy is comfortable, and comfortable is asleep. Beware of "feelgood" Dharma.
     So an effective Dharma talk should stir people up; it should disrupt the equilibrium of their unenlightenment. It should challenge their point of view, their attitude, the mental and emotional rut that they are entrenched in. Thus it may nudge them out of that rut, or if necessary jolt them out of it, or if necessary even slam them out of it; because so long as they stay in it, they stay asleep. If Dharma stirs them up positively, with excitement, inspiration, and enthusiasm, then that would be ideal. That would be wonderful. But Western Buddhists tend to be a bit too jaded, skeptical, and lukewarm to be easily inspired to the extent likely to result in awakening or significant evolution. So most enlightening jolts are likely to be unpleasant at first. At the very least people should walk away from a Dharma talk challenged and unsettled. 
     One obvious example from my own experience involves my interactions with the Bellingham Insight Meditation Society. Probably the only time that I ever communicated to them that resulted in significantly positive effects on the group was when I sent my first open letter to them at the end of 2011. I alluded to the fact that the only Theravada Buddhist monk in town received very little support from the only ostensibly Theravada Buddhist group in town (not amounting even to a daily bowl of food), and pointed out that I had probably received more cool disdain within their own Dharma hall than outside it on the streets of Bellingham. I was told that this letter upset people, but the language was not harsh. What it did was challenge people's image of themselves as good Buddhists, and of their group as a spiritual or dharmic organization, and it resulted in a mild uproar, which further resulted in a kind of emergency "what to do about the monk" meeting; and the upshot of it was that the following year I had more friends, and more support. But subsequently my communications became friendlier, and more polite, and more "nice," which didn't stir up anybody, and the group returned to its complacent slumbers, and I wound up being practically starved out of Bellingham. I have occasionally considered that if I had continued to challenge their beliefs about themselves as Buddhists, and about their group as a dharmic society, while taking care to do it skillfully, I might have really done some good, plus inspired more support. Then again, I might simply have gotten myself excommunicated from their sangha several months before it actually happened. We'll never know. The point is, though, that in order really to get the point across and make a significant difference, it helps to knock the other person off balance. Neem Karoli Baba did it by performing miracles which would turn people's view of reality upside down and completely blow their mind. It was very effective. But I'm not very talented at performing miracles. (I do know a few good card tricks though.)
     We as human beings very naturally do not like or want discomfort, and those of us who have spent our lives in a culture saturated with consumerism, and which practically equates luxury with happiness, may see voluntary discomfort as sheer abomination. And even if we do accept austerity as part of our spiritual practice, as Theravada Buddhist texts (and many other spiritual texts besides) clearly instruct us to do, choosing the discomfort on our own terms usually brings very limited results, because we usually choose discomfort that we feel "comfortable with." One who isn't much attached to food anyway may choose to eat only once a day, with everything stirred together into glop. One who isn't much attached to sleep may choose to sleep only a few hours per night, and in a sitting position. This is one potential advantage of participating in an ayahuasca ceremony—it may fling us into discomfort that we are totally unprepared for. This is also one potential spiritual advantage of Disasters. The trick is to appreciate discomfort, and even to be grateful for it; and if one is a teacher, to find fault, and to yank the rug out from under people, with positive mental states, without cruelty. But again, refraining from ruffling people's feathers for the sake of politeness, gentleness, and gaining their approval simply keeps them comfortably asleep. 
     The whole situation is a delicate one. What do we do if we see someone running toward the edge of a cliff? Do we gently say, "Um, excuse me, I don't want to demean your dignity, and I realize that you are at least as wise as I am, but even so, don't you think it would be good to consider changing your direction slightly?" Not very likely. It's more probable that we would yell, "Stop! Stop! You're running toward a freaking cliff!!" And if the person is American, she might then lift her nose and say, "That sounded like an insult." Then off the cliff she goes. Or if someone is asleep in a burning building, do we tiptoe around so as not to disturb them, or tuck them in better and softly croon lullabies, with the idea that the more comfortably they sleep, and the better their dreams are, the sooner they'll wake up? Again, not likely. We may shake them vigorously, or yell at them; we may even yank them out of bed by an arm or a leg, or kick their feet (although I freely admit that kicking them in the head would be too much). But what do we do if the person refuses to get up, and refuses to acknowledge that the building is on fire? In cases like that, the best we can do is leave them and save ourselves, and let the devil take the hindmost. One complication is that according to Dharma the building, our world, really is on fire. Probably many ecologists and economists nowadays would agree with that.
     Buddhist ethics are almost entirely psychological; so whether I speak or write compassionately or not depends NOT on whether people get upset (especially in such a fussy place as America), but upon my own mental states. Consequently, it is my duty to take care of my own volitions. But there is practically no such thing as a purely skillful mental state or action. For example, even the belief that I exist and am doing something is tainted with Self View and delusion. Similarly, to feel compassion with the idea that there really are beings to feel compassion for is also tainted with Self View and delusion. So the best we can do is just to keep unskillful states to a minimum. In my own writing, if I perceive that indignation or desire to put someone "in their place" is gaining the upper hand, then I put the pen down and walk away, or maybe write about something abstract. Positive mental states produce positive actions which produce positive effects, and negative mental states produce negative actions which produce negative effects. My main motives for choosing topics to write about are love of truth and desire for freedom—not only my own freedom, but yours also. I realize that most people don't really want freedom, that even most people who call themselves "Sangha" don't want it (regardless of whether they wear monastic robes or blue jeans), not even if they were born in the so-called "Land of the Free" and have "Liberty" printed on their money. That's OK too. Nobody is required to read this against their will, as far as I know. If you, dear reader, are being forced to read this against your will, I feel compassion for you.
     Meanwhile, the fire has reached the room next door, with smoke coming under the door. Furthermore, your leg is becoming a bit gangrenous. So don't be surprised if I come at you with an axe, for your own welfare of course.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Dharma Politician

"Let awkward, ungraceful, inelegant, and dull fellows say what they will in behalf of their solid matter and strong reasonings, and let them despise all those graces and ornaments, which engage the senses and captivate the heart; they will find (though they will possibly wonder why) that their rough unpolished matter, and their unadorned, coarse, but strong arguments, will neither please nor persuade, but, on the contrary, will tire our attention and excite disgust. We are so made, we love to be pleased better than to be informed; information is, in a certain degree, mortifying, as it implies our previous ignorance; it must be sweetened to be palatable."
(—Lord Chesterfield)
"I never give them hell. I just tell the truth, and they think it's hell." (—Harry S. Truman)
     It should be no great surprise to anyone to read that, as a general rule, politicians are pretty phony. It may even be proverbial, in America at least, that politicians are downright dishonest. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt though, and to assume that most Western politicians are not bald-faced liars (although some certainly are); but still it's evident that they tend to be pretty hypocritical—using New Age jargon, they are not "authentic." For example, they seem to specialize in talking a lot while actually saying as little as possible. They are careful to appear as though all their personal thoughts and feelings are popular and politically correct. They project an artificial image. They are more like actors and actresses on stage than like genuine human beings going about the genuine business of living genuine lives. It may be that, not only would most adult Americans agree with this observation, but that they would also disapprove of the situation. Hey, we're being governed by actors! We're being governed by plastic people! Or at least by people wearing plastic smiles and giving plastic speeches.
     Just a little more thought naturally leads to the question: Well, why are they this way? Why are most politicians phony? Everything has its reasons, and so there must be sufficient, compelling reasons why most politicians are acting the roles of people that, deep down, they are not. Obviously, if it were not to their advantage, they wouldn't be like this—not unless being phony is simply human nature, and thus they have little or no choice in the matter, which is a possibility I'll return to eventually. But let's assume, hypothetically, that it is possible for most politicians, theoretically at least, to be really authentic human beings, even in public.
     Well then, the evident, plain, ugly reason is that the public, generally without realizing it, practically insists that politicians be fake. Insists. First of all, they generate an unrealistic ideal about how their leaders and representatives ought to be, an ideal that they themselves may be unable to live up to, and which may be in stark contrast with fundamental human nature. It may be laudable, in a way, that people have high standards and expectations with regard to their leaders and representatives, but most politicians, being human, cannot live up to them; so if they cannot fake it convincingly enough, then they are rejected and replaced by someone more adept at bullshitting (beguiling) the populace. In a political system that is not democratic, and is not even necessarily supported by popular approval, a politician may be quite candidly himself or herself. For example, Roman Emperors like Caligula or Diocletian could afford to be authentically human (if egomaniacal sociopaths can be called "human") while, ironically, declaring themselves to be gods. But democracy, despite its many virtues, practically guarantees "dramatocracy"—rule by actors—with the late Ronald Reagan being one of the most blatantly obvious examples of this.
     Second of all, it is human nature that we refuse to hear what we do not want to hear. We do not want to be told what is unpleasant, or damned inconvenient. We do not want to hear what makes us feel bad, or scares us, and we often push away those who tell us this stuff. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of politicians take care not to speak unpleasant truths, unless they find it absolutely necessary to do so. And thus regarding an unpleasant situation, they may find themselves mentioning the subject as little as possible, or even covering it up and pretending that it doesn't exist. From the point of view of politics, honesty is not always the best policy, especially if it loses votes for the candidate, or for the Party.
     Consider what would happen if someone running for President of the United States were to announce publicly: "Look, the US government is more than 20 trillion dollars in debt, and sinking deeper as I speak. It is simple arithmetic that if the government does not start earning more money than it spends, then national bankruptcy and economic ruin are inevitable. Consequently, the Republicans must stop blocking tax increases, and the Democrats must stop blocking drastic reductions in government spending, and we must all be willing to toughen ourselves, to lower our standard of living and endure considerable inconvenience, until our financial situation is rectified." Well, it's not very likely that he or she would be elected. In all probability, American consumers trained since infancy to abhor inconvenience would vote for his or her opponent, the guy with the plastic smile stuck on his face saying, "No worries! No inconvenience for anybody! Just keep buying more stuff and everything will be fine—increased consumption is the answer. Just keep doing what you've been doing, but do it more." And this regardless of apparent facts, or even simple arithmetic. (Maybe the opponent is right, though; after all, I'm no economist. But that's not the point.)
     This isn't a political science blog, so here's the thing: This kind of scenario appears not only in Western politics, but in Western spirituality as well. The public's more or less unrealistic expectations and/or demands, combined with their refusal to tolerate an excess of truth, results in most Dharma teachers in the West also being performance artists, and fakes. This is not to say that most of them are flat-out charlatans, any more than most politicians are completely unqualified bunglers and frauds. It simply means that they are not "authentic"; and in Dharma, much more than in politics, that is poison.
     Interestingly, it appears that the American public does not set significantly higher standards for Dharma teachers than for politicians—both groups are expected to conform to the same ideal of a kind of extraverted social saint with compassion for everybody. In this regard the spiritual guides may have a better go of it, as many of them cultivate social saintliness and universal compassion in their formal practice, and in their life's work, much more deeply so than do most career politicians. On the other hand, the sky's the limit with regard to the claims Dharma teachers can make (like Daniel Ingram openly advertising himself to be an Arahant, for example, or all the guys calling themselves Maitreya). So the majority of plastic-smiled and/or plastic-attainmented Dharma teachers may not have as high of a percentage as the majority of phony politicians, but it is still very probably a great majority.
     This is especially true of those who make a living as Dharma teachers, and of those who are trying to promulgate a "Party line," i.e. missionaries. The former group, the professionals, are clearly similar to politicians who cannot afford to lose votes. If a Dharma teacher does not conform to the politically correct ideal, or if she or he says things that people don't want to hear and thereby ruffles feathers, then that teacher loses popularity and money. Fewer people buy her/his books; fewer people pay to attend her/his retreats and workshops; and she/he's got bills to pay. (This is one good reason why Dharma should not be sold for money.) I assume there are a fortunate minority who naturally are so socially oriented, compassionate, and gentle that they may be 100% genuinely themselves and still be politically correct. For example, Ammachi may be like this. Also, some of the missionaries happen to be very authentic people. For instance, there is a type of monk who renounces worldly life not so much out of strength of spirit as almost its opposite: they are too sensitive and gentle and introverted to thrive in a harsh world, or to rough it in forests of tropical Asia, so they retire into a nice, comfortable, quiet monastery in the West and practice Dharma there, serving as missionaries to the modern Babylonians. My somewhat limited experience with this breed of monk seems to suggest that they often fail to make deep progress through lack of fortitude, but they are conscientious and devout; and though their sermons may be rather bland and unimaginative, they are wholesome and straightforward, and perfect for many Westerners. Yet even so, almost all Dharma teachers, especially in the West, have worldly politics thrust upon them, and they are pressured mightily to conform to an unenlightened system. To some degree this is just plain unavoidable.

     Imagine that there is a Christian man who reads the Bible carefully, and sees plainly enough that voluntary poverty and renunciation of worldliness are fundamental to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Really, this should be obvious to anyone who reads the New Testament. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Gather not up your treasures upon the earth. The whole New Testament is packed with this kind of exhortation. Even Paul of Tarsus, who practically reinvented Christianity from scratch, agrees with Jesus on this point. You must be dead to the world to be alive in Christ. Greed is a form of idolatry. So this Christian man, sincerely wanting to follow the teachings of Jesus rightly, renounces worldliness as best he can and lives a life of voluntary poverty.
     After years of this, being relatively well qualified for the job, he volunteers to be a Christian minister. And seeing the worldliness of his congregation, and being painfully aware that, according to Jesus and the Christian Bible, worldliness is the road to hell, he exhorts them repeatedly to sell what they don't really need, to give the money to the poor, to take up their crosses, and to try to live Christlike lives. But of course—of course—consumeristic Western Christians have no use for this. Renunciation is damned inconvenient. They prefer worldliness to salvation—or rather, they change the rules so that they can be saved while still following the road to hell. Their minister, in his continual admonishments, explains to them that such changing of rules doesn't work. "Friendship with the world is enmity with God." So, naturally, the congregation feels uncomfortable, then resentful, and eventually some of them become downright hostile.
     At one point, responding to complaints he has heard, another minister comes to remonstrate with our stubborn radical. He says, "You should have more compassion for these people. They do not have the strength to renounce the world. They are too caught up in it, too entangled. You should teach them what they are able to accept, so that you can be of some solace and help to them. You should have compassion."
     The other replies, "Pandering to their weakness is not going to save them. Humoring their worldliness, helping them to feel good about themselves while at the same time leading them to hell, is not compassion. You know what the Bible says. You know how narrow the gate to salvation is, and how hard it is to enter. It is better to try my utmost to save one or two than to sell out, pretend that they're all going to heaven, and let them all fall into hell. I'm not going to pervert the words of Jesus, and pervert my own honesty, and pretend that worldliness is a road to salvation." He doesn't budge. The remonstrating visitor starts feeling uncomfortable though, glances at his gold Rolex, remarks that he'd better get going, gets into his new BMW, and drives away.
     So, what can we expect for such a stubborn, uncompromising spiritual teacher? In the modern West it is unlikely that he would be martyred directly, although it is extremely likely that he would lose his entire congregation (leaving the chance of an indirect martyrdom through starvation or hypothermia). He could sell out to some extent and go back to making a living by frying hamburgers, or making tents, or some such. Or maybe he could go away, maybe to a less worldly place than America, in search of a Christian community that can accept more of the teachings of Christianity, and makes some serious endeavor to follow them. OR, and this might be the ideal scenario, he might actually find a few people, maybe even just one or two, who can accept what he says, who can appreciate the truth in it, and who value it—a few kindred spirits, so to speak. Maybe they would be people who had naively followed along with the majority, not knowing of other options, but not being satisfied with that. And maybe they could form a small spiritual community, and live in a state of mutual honesty, respect, care, and gratitude, and really create something beautiful, helping each other on the Path. That would be lovely.

     Anyway, I wasn't attempting to create a perfect analogy (isomorphism) of myself with that Christian fellow, although I admit there are some parallels. One way in which we are not parallel is that I don't hammer away so much at renunciation when I talk. It is true, though, that it is approximately as fundamental to scriptural Theravada as it is to scriptural Christianity; according to the Pali texts, if one intends to strive for enlightenment in this very life, then renouncing the world is practically Step One. Thus most Westerners who call themselves Sangha do not get as far as Step One. However, I don't consider ordained homeless wandering, or retreat into a cloister, to be so necessary as that. Renunciation, like everything else in Buddhist ethics, is primarily psychological; with the scriptural emphasis on forest asceticism certainly not being bad advice, but nevertheless being largely an artifact of ancient Indian spiritual culture. But even if one doesn't physically renounce the world, one should at least be psychologically able to renounce it. If Awakening is one's top priority in life, then such an ability comes pretty easily. Also, it helps to bear in mind that everything we have is loaned to us temporarily, and we're going to lose all of it sooner or later anyway, including our own body, including our own thinking, feeling mind. So it's good not to be too attached to this stuff, and to give it away if that would be for the greater good.
     Another non-parallel with the radical Christian is that Buddhism is not so black-or-white as Christianity is. Thus from a more Indian point of view, worldliness is not necessarily the road to hell, but more likely just the road to the cemetery and another round of Samsara. On the other hand, many people are already in hell, even without having to die to go there.
     But there are similarities between my situation and the aforementioned Christian predicament. One striking one is that the average American Buddhist, in ethical conduct and overall belief system, clearly more closely resembles the average American Christian than, say, a Burmese or Indian Buddhist. (That is ultimately neither positive or negative, but is remarkable.) Another similarity is that, like the radical minister, I am totally unwilling to compromise on certain issues, even if it prevents me from existing in Western society, or on the outskirts of it. For example, I insist on being free, as well as I can manage it (a Buddhist Cool Hand Luke, sort of). And the ideal is still to live in the West, if I can do it spiritually, possibly in a like-minded community or "tribe," without having to sell out to political correctness. Fuck political correctness. 
     Long ago a tree-dwelling hermit paid me the great compliment of saying, "I like you because you cut through the bullshit." In fact cutting through bullshit seems to be one of my specialties in life, and if I do say so myself, I've gotten relatively good at it (if doing something that people don't like can be called "good"). Almost everything I write tries to cut through bullshit of some sort or another—or, to put it more mildly, to challenge the status quo. It's more than just an experiment, or even a career choice: it's more a vocation, a "calling." Cutting through bullshit is my sacred purpose in life.
     Tearing down is at least as important as building up. From a dharmic perspective it's probably more important. It is good to challenge the status quo, to question authority and dogma. Furthermore, I'm no politician with an election and votes to worry about (although I have fantasized about being an egomaniacal Roman Emperor). I don't make a living as a Dharma teacher, and have no money to lose, and no bills to pay. Also, as conservative Theravadins may notice, I'm not much invested in upholding a Party line. I can afford to be unpopular, and am not afraid to be unpopular. So if I don't say what people don't want to hear, who will?
     I've been admonished more than once that I ought to be more compassionate; that many people who turn to Dharma are struggling just to keep their head above water. This is true; although it is also true that much of what they're floundering in is a flood of their own worldliness, and they do not want that worldliness to be challenged. We want to be told that what we are doing is right, that we are on the right path. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton described our whole situation well in "A Midsummer Diary for M." (an extremely long letter that he wrote to his secret girlfriend as part of the process of breaking up with her, at the vehement insistence of his abbot):
What does the lonely and absurd man have to teach others? Simply that being alone and absurd are not things to be feared. But these are precisely the two things that everybody fears: they spend all their time reassuring themselves that they make sense, that they are not ridiculous, that they are acceptable, desirable, valuable and that they will never have to regard themselves as really alone. In other words, they plunge into the reassuring stream of illusions that is created by all the other people like themselves. A great common work, a liturgy in which everyone agrees publicly to say that in these terms everything is real and makes sense. The terms are not, however, satisfactory. Everybody remains secretly absurd and alone. Only no one dares face the fact. Yet facing this fact is the absolutely essential requirement for beginning to live freely.
Or as the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe says (and I really like this), the one thing that we can know for sure doesn't work, is what we've already been doing—because we've already been doing it, and we're not enlightened. Or in the words of Albert Einstein, "Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results."
     So, since I do not wish to be a phony politician or to betray my "sacred purpose," I suppose the trick is to say things that people don't like, while at the same time having love in my heart. It can be done. Here is a famous precedent, in the more or less Christian vein of this whole discourse, or tirade:
As Jesus was starting on his way again, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked him. "No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; do not cheat; respect your father and your mother.'" "Teacher," the man said, "ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments." Jesus looked straight at him with love and said, "You need only one thing. Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me." When the man heard this, gloom spread over his face, and he went away sad, because he was very rich. Jesus looked around at his disciples and said to them, "How hard it will be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God!" (—Mark 10:17-23, Today's English Version, my emphasis)
     Still, it can be very difficult, and very tricky, to know when we're being fake. It really may be biological human nature to be hypocritical. Children learn to lie very early, as dishonesty helps to keep them out of trouble, more or less. (They even learn to fake crying before they can talk, as a way of getting what they want.) In "civilized society," insincerity runs rampant, and is practically mandatory. (Remember this the next time you tell someone that you're on your way to get a haircut, or to have a cup of coffee, or to buy some eggs, and they gush, "Awesome!") Phoniness may be a valuable biological survival skill, and it may be bred right into our DNA. Furthermore, some people may spend their entire lives trying to act in accordance with an unrealistic self image, thereby bringing the hypocrisy to a deeper and more subconscious level.
     Then there is the consideration that it is the duty of Dharma teachers to uplift their hearers, and thus they should be on their best behavior and act spiritual, whether they're feeling it or not. There are even some teachers out there who positively endorse the doctrine of "Fake it till you make it"—a forced smile and some hokey talk about kindness and love is still better that an honest snarl that just brings everyone down. I can see the pros and cons of both sides of this issue, and am not inclined to insist one way or the other; but I can't help but feel that Krishnamurti was right when he said that trying to live up to an ideal, even the ideal of Goodness, breeds hypocrisy and untruth. "Fake it till you make it" is still fake. It may be that an honest jerk is more beneficial overall than a gentle, conscientious hypocrite. But I don't absolutely insist on that. I will go so far as to say, though, that if one's "Fake it till you make it" is so unmindful that the perpetrator is unaware that he/she is indeed faking it, just playing a role; or, possibly worse yet, if the faker deliberately deceives people into believing that she/he is not faking, and even worries that they may find out the truth, then "Fake it till you make it" has degenerated into plain fraud.
     As a hypothesis, I will venture to suggest that if another person is not ready, willing, or able to strive for enlightenment (and, after all, this appears to be the overwhelming majority), then it may be best to withhold the unpleasant truth and nurture this person with hugs and kindness; but if the person is on the path to enlightenment, then better too much truth than not enough. A main purpose of this blog is somehow to help you out there to Wake Up; and I'm not backing anyone against the wall with it (as far as I know, nobody is required to read it against their will); so a sword and fire often seem preferable to soft, gentle nurturing.
     Out of a desire to be honest and "authentic," I keep feeling a deep urge to say troublesome things about myself. I cuss sometimes—fuck shit piss damn hell. (Partly as a result of associating with Australians, I sometimes even use the word "bloody.") I think about sex an awful lot; although I dare say I think about Dharma and the nature of Reality even more. Reserving the right to strike out in self defense, I often kill parasitic insects when they attack me, especially in Asia where parasitic insects abound. I'm still very capable of experiencing resentment, indignation, disgust, etc., and of acting with them as motives; although I'm pretty good at doing it with some semblance of mindfulness. In fact when I first sat down on the bamboo mat to start writing this, I considered that maybe I should write something more upbeat, since my harping away on the corruptions of Western Dharma may be getting tiresome for many of you, and I can't deny that some (but certainly not all) of my motive for writing it is a hearty sense of frustration arising from my recent experiences in the West; but then I felt that this is how "the spirit" moves me to write, and how I really feel, and writing about something else would have felt slightly hypocritical. I'll write about something else next time. I kicked a dog a few weeks ago, because he was snarling at his own mother. And in accordance with my perhaps perverse urge to expose myself, as soon as I have sufficient access to electricity again, I intend to type up and publish, in unabridged form, a journal I kept in the year 2000, when I was living alone and cabinless in a forest. Hopefully a rather graphic description of a bowel movement toward the beginning will not turn away all readers. During that time I recorded every dream I remembered, including several pornographic ones. (I don't remember now, but it may include a rather bizarre one I had in which I masturbated a cub scout.) But worst of all, I guess, I describe what goes through the mind of a head-oriented, alienated, cool-hearted American guy who doesn't know how to be appreciative, who goes out into a remote forest and tries to live like an ancient Indian ascetic, wrestling with the devil in the wilderness, and getting his clocks cleaned. I would like to think that I've evolved since then. Hopefully I'll have it on the website by July.
     So anyway, if anything I write inspires and uplifts you, then I am very gratified. If it somehow helps even just one or two of you to Wake Up, then it is all well worth it. On the other hand, if it simply bores you, if it leaves you completely unmoved, then obviously it has nothing to say to you. BUT, if it bothers you, if it triggers unease, or outrage, or the like, then it does have something to say to you, because it's showing you ways in which you are still attached, still stuck. If we don't have attachment, we don't feel bothered. So if you have the stomach for it, you can read the blog and, before jumping to write an anonymous comment, examine why and how, subjectively, it bothers you. How does it feel? This is a kind of renunciation and austerity that even worldly people can practice. 
     Since I started with Lord Chesterfield, I'll end with him—a smooth politician if there ever was one.
In order to judge of the inside of others, study your own; for men in general are very much alike; and though one has one prevailing passion, and another has another, yet their operations are much the same; and whatever engages or disgusts, pleases or offends you in others, will, mutatis mutandis, engage, disgust, please, or offend others in you. Observe, with the utmost attention, all the operations of your own mind, the nature of your own passions, and the various motives that determine your will; and you may, in a great degree, know all mankind. For instance, do you find yourself hurt and mortified, when another makes you feel his superiority, and your own inferiority, in knowledge, parts, rank, or fortune? You will certainly take great care not to make a person whose goodwill, good word, interest, esteem, or friendship, you would gain, feel that superiority in you, in case you have it. If disagreeable insinuations, sly sneers, or repeated contradictions tease and irritate you, would you use them where you wished to engage or please? Surely not; and I hope you wish to engage, and please, almost universally. The temptation of saying a smart and witty thing, or bon mot, and the malicious applause with which it is commonly received, has made people who can say them, and, still oftener, people who think they can, but cannot, but yet try, more enemies, and implacable ones too, than any one other thing that I know of. When such things, then, shall happen to be said at your expense (as sometimes they certainly will), reflect seriously upon the sentiments of uneasiness, anger, and resentment, which they excite in you; and consider whether it can be prudent, by the same means, to excite the same sentiments in others against you. It is a decided folly, to lose a friend for a jest; but, in my mind, it is not a much less degree of folly, to make an enemy of an indifferent and neutral person for the sake of a bon mot. When things of this kind happen to be said of you, the most prudent way is to seem not to suppose that they are meant at you, but to dissemble and conceal whatever degree of anger you may feel inwardly; and, should they be so plain, that you cannot be supposed ignorant of their meaning, to join in the laugh of the company against yourself; acknowledge the hit to be a fair one, and the jest a good one, and play off the whole thing in seeming good humour; but by no means reply in the same way; which only shows that you are hurt, and publishes the victory which you might have concealed. Should the thing said, indeed, injure your honour, or moral character, there is but one proper reply; which I hope you never will have occasion to make. (—dated 22 May 1749)        


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Jumping the Shark: A Return to the Uncarved Block

     "Though the uncarved block is small
     No one in the world dare claim its allegiance."
          (—Tao Te Ching, section 32, D. C. Lau's translation)

     I've been intending to write this post for about a year. But it's metaphysics; and metaphysics is served best with a clear head and, ideally, a quiet heart; and the past year, for the most part, was a rough one. So I kept putting it off. But now I'm sitting on a bamboo mat in front of a cave in a remote Burmese forest, and my meditation and overall mindfulness are making a comeback, and furthermore I've started reading a magnificent book on metaphysics—Appearance and Reality, by F. H. Bradley—which has helped to put me in the mood. So I'm writing about one of my true loves, the Goddess of Ultimate Reality, as opposed to mere appearance (as though Ultimate Reality could be opposed to anything).
     This post is a sequel, or followup, or continuation, of the post "The Simile of the Block of Marble," published 5 January 2013. That post elicited few remarks, and one person even observed that I had "jumped the shark" by publishing it. I didn't know what that meant, so I was sent a link to a Wikipedia article explaining that jumping the shark means something like, doing something so over the top that one becomes a caricature of oneself. (The origin of the term comes from an episode of the old TV show "Happy Days," in which a character called Fonzie goes waterskiing for the first time in his life and expertly jumps over a large shark, signaling an early stage in his metamorphosis into a sort of demigod with superhuman powers, which became more and more ridiculous as the TV series progressed.) This remark struck me as somewhat ironic, as it is easily one of the oldest things I had written and published on the blog, being essentially plagiarized from a letter written several years previously. It is true, though, that I never had it copied and distributed as an article because I figured Theravada Buddhists might consider it too "far out."
     But as I've said before, I consider that one post to be, in a way, the most important post on this here blog, the axle around which everything else revolves. It's a kind of theoretical foundation upon which my philosophical perspective rests, my Theory of Everything, and people will often misunderstand what I write, "where I'm coming from," if they don't take it into consideration. It's one of my few contributions to philosophy, despite the fact that serious metaphysics is an endangered species in the West since the advent of the barbarous intellectual monoculture of Scientism, and also despite the fact that it's not exactly original—the Taoists and Mahayana Buddhists, at least, came up with very similar ideas. Mainly I just reinvented the wheel, or rather the axle. But each reinvention will have its own unique qualities. And besides, although it obviously has less specific predictive strength than science (for example, it could hardly be used to develop new pharmaceuticals or rocket fuels), it is more comprehensive (for example, it explains why the Universe bothers to exist in the first place), and, in my honest opinion, is more logically valid as an explanation of Reality than is Scientism. And it does make some predictions: like the possibility of miracles, or violations of the scientific "laws of nature," and the possibility of spiritual transcendence of any phenomenal system. The block of marble contains within it all that is conceivable; and so it contains science also, but extends infinitely beyond it.
     Before discussing a few weird philosophical implications of the theory, I'll explain how the idea occurred to me in the first place. 
     Back around 1998 or so, I was living in a large forest about 80 km northwest of the small one where I am now, and one day I was standing by a pond, washing my bowl, when suddenly, unbidden, the sentence arose in my mind, "The entire Universe is contained within a single point which has no dimensions." I was intrigued by this, partly because the thought just popped into my mind when I wasn't even philosophizing, and partly just because it was an interesting, weird idea. So, as a kind of thought experiment, or mind game, I took it as a hypothesis and tried to work out some of its implications. 
     One of the first things to occur to me was, owing to its ultimate zero-dimensionality, that the Universe would resemble Leibniz's monads, except all superimposed one on top of the other. (If you are familiar with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his Monadology, then that's fine. Never mind. If you are not familiar, which would be completely understandable, then you will find I've included a semi-explanatory Appendix below to avoid a bigger digression than this one is.) Also, since there would be no space or time separating them, they would be all merged together into a single "meta-monad," with the distinctness of each individual monad being maintained entirely by its own internal self-consistency. Also, each individual monad would have to be conscious in order to generate the illusions of space, time, and/or distinct individuality. And since it's all merged together, consciousness would permeate the system (that is, if a single point can be called a "system").
     It occurred to me that once you have a certain number of superimposed monads, a kind of "critical mass," then there may as well be an infinite number of them, since they are all merged together anyway, with nothing separating them, and thus are all sharing the same unthinkable essence, whatever it is. So the meta-monad became an Absolute, containing an infinitude of phenomenal qualities.
     One image that arose early on, as a means of helping me wrap my head around the whole idea, was a sheet of paper completely covered with black ink (with maybe a little insignificant white left around the margins). Contained on that one sheet would be every printed page ever printed, and every printed page that ever could be printed. By simply ignoring the extraneous black, one would find each and every page in the complete works of Shakespeare, every section of every scroll in the library of Alexandria before it burned down, every page in the Library of Congress. That one page would contain, in virtual or potential form but still really there, literally infinite information. But a two-dimensional page seemed unsatisfactory as a metaphor for our Universe, so before long I upped it slightly to the block of marble. Infinite information, infinite variety, and infinite consciousness contained within a sizeless point.
     As I've already mentioned, one implication of the theory, assuming just for fun that the hypothesis is true, is that virtually anything is possible, including the modification of the rules of our "internal self-consistency," and including transcending it altogether, and thus merging consciously with the existent/nonexistent Absolute meta-monad which in Buddhism is called Nirvana. So one incidental advantage of the theory is that it helps one to be open-minded. It may also help one to be weird, which is also good.
     Another implication, a rather strange one, is that cause and effect, or causality, would be ultimately unreal. Philosophically, this is not a new idea at all, and should not be seen as a manifest invalidation of the whole hypothesis. For example David Hume, possibly the greatest philosopher to write in the English language, pointed out, or rather hammered away at, the idea that we cannot really know the existence of causality, or of causal force. All we really know, at best, is that we consistently observe A followed by B; therefore we say that A causes B. But we really do not experience that causation, not externally, not even in our own mind; it is merely an inference, and not necessarily a correct one. We may consistently feel the urge to move a finger, followed by that finger moving, but we do not feel or know any actual causative force, any more than we know it in a falling axehead followed by splitting wood. What would pure causation feel like anyway? What would it taste like? (If you would like to read a longer and more persuasive argument along these lines, I recommend Hume's An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which is relatively easy to read, and not very long.) Also, as I've pointed out in a previous article, orthodox Theravada, as represented in the Abhidhamma philosophy, also suggests that temporal cause and effect would be impossible, considering 1) that the past and future are considered not to exist, but only the present, and 2) that one moment of existence is not contiguous with the next, but completely passes away before the next arises. So if A (say, a particle in one's unmoving finger) arises and passes away, giving rise to B (say, the seeming continuation of that same particle), then the result B has arisen from a nonexistent cause; and what arises from a nonexistent cause arises from no cause whatsoever. Thus it wold seem that in Abhidhamma the only valid form of causality would be some kind of sahajāta paccayo—a causal condition in which the cause and effect are simultaneous. Science may have similar difficulties for all I know. For instance, if Einstein was right, and time is a dimension essentially like the dimensions of space, then to say that the falling axe causes the splitting wood might be as meaningless as to say that our forearm causes our wrist. It simply follows in succession. But in the block of marble, there is no space or time; only Here and Now is real, if anything at all.
     Resorting to the simile itself may help to illustrate the situation: Just as the uncarved block of marble contains within itself, in virtual form, an infinite number and variety of static statues, it also contains an infinite number and variety of walking, running, jumping, and dancing statues. None of them could ever be carved, but they're in there just the same; each molecule of each moment of their behavior is already there, already in the right position, with only the extraneous rock to be taken away, or rather ignored. So, let's imagine a virtual statue virtually chopping virtual firewood inside the block of marble. Well, what causes the virtual firewood to split apart? It's not really the virtual swinging axe; really, it is just the power of our imagination that does it. The block of marble, as it really is, doesn't change at all. Likewise, in our phenomenal universe, according to the hypothesis, causality would be artificially generated by the power of imagination, sort of, in accordance with ultimately arbitrary rules of "internal self-consistency" that we have chosen, or that have somehow been thrust upon us, for the sake of maintaining a viable and stable virtual reality. Really, the only connective condition between one moment and the next would be some kind of similarity, and that chosen out of necessity for maintaining a stable continuum and a conscious individuality, and out of our own peculiar idiosyncrasies. The appearance of causality is simply an arbitrary way that happens to work for us. But within the sizeless meta-monad there would be an infinite variety of kinds of worlds, not all of them governed by apparent causality, but presumably with some kind of similarity relation holding them together. If it's at all possible, then it exists. Virtually.
     One implication of the theory, which I consider to be a magnificent improvement on Leibniz, is that, going with the standard simile, not only does the uncarved block contain individual statues, but also group statues (like Laocoön and his sons being constricted by snakes, to give just one example). Every single possible assemblage of particles or qualities, or conscious beings, or whatever, is necessarily contained as its own image, its own monad. Every possible configuration is in there. Let's say that three people are interacting: A, B, and C (Ahab, Bathsheba, and Cornelius). Setting aside an infinite number of virtual monads containing them, or parts of them, in addition to the monads, or images, representing the individual consciousnesses of A, B, and C, there would also be individual monads representing the group consciousness of AB, BC, CA, and ABC. Each one of these group monads would be distinct from the individual monads representing A, B, and C, and each group monad would necessarily be more conscious than any of the conscious beings represented within it. It wouldn't simply be a collection of distinct consciousnesses either, since ultimately there would be absolutely no time or space separating them, not even the thickness of two skulls. Assuming the hypothesis is true, then we tend to be oblivious of these "individual group beings" because they are, in a sense, as distinct from each one of us as are any other individual beings (AB is as distinct from A as X, Y, or A' is from A); and because they are more conscious than we are anyway, and we cannot comprehend what is beyond our level of consciousness. Presumably this kind of group consciousness was more familiar to premodern civilizations than it is to us in the alienated, modern West. In some cultures the family consciousness, or the clan consciousness, or the tribe consciousness may have taken precedence over the personal consciousness. As Rollo May says in his book The Cry for Myth:
Americans cling to the myth of individualism as though it were the only normal way to live, unaware that it was unknown in the Middle Ages and would have been considered psychotic in classical Greece.
But even some fortunate, alienated modern Westerners may transcend their individual (semi-) conscious monad and merge into a higher (yet still virtual) group consciousness—the experience of deep love may be a case in point. True love transcends individuality; and universal love, love of everyone and everything in the entire Universe, may transcend the whole system of virtual images and merge with the Absolute. Although the evidence suggests that this may not be the only way of going about getting enlightened. The potential for limited transcendence through love for another is always ripe, since versions of us are already included in an infinite number of group monads (an infinite number of them even being wise, loving versions of us); and of course the potential for absolute transcendence is also ripe, considering that every version of us is contained within the block of marble in only virtual form. Limited transcendence is still an illusion, since everything except the pristine total is an illusion.
     Anyway, hypothetical group monads may help to explain why mental states are so contagious, why simply being in the presence of a sage can uplift us, and why being in the mere presence of a raging fool can bring us down. It may also help to explain apparent "group karma," like the chronic violence of the Middle East which has prevailed since prehistoric times, and to explain why we all conform to pretty much the same rules of "internal self-consistency" in the form of "laws of science," and so on.
     It's a good thing I waited a year to write this, since the (hypothetical) spiritual significance of conscious group monads has really struck me only very recently. Alienated hermits don't have much use for that sort of thing, and I'm slowly transcending the myth of individualism. But then again, anything that can be believed is a myth.  

APPENDIX: Leibniz and His Monadology

     (I'm writing this in front of a cave in a forest, with no access to a research library and no Internet, so if it seems very sketchy or even slightly inaccurate, please forgive.)
     Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was one of the most towering intellectuals in history. Possibly his main claim to fame was that, independently of Isaac Newton and at around the same time as him, he invented mathematical calculus. Even to understand calculus requires a good brain, so a person who could invent it from scratch would be so intelligent as to be a little scary. 
     In addition to being a mathematician Leibniz was many other things, including a philosopher and a courtier. Unfortunately, he combined philosophy with politics and cooked up a system called the Theodicy, or "God's Justice," apparently for the purpose of pleasing his rich, powerful, and even royal patrons. According to the theory, God is infinitely good and powerful, and thus would not create an inferior or second-rate world; consequently, the world we live in must be the best of all possible worlds, and to change anything about it would ultimately increase the amount of badness and suffering there is. It was a logical triumph for optimistic conservatism. It may be that the ridicule of the Theodicy is more famous than the philosophy itself. As F. H. Bradley ironically observed, in the best of all possible worlds, everything in it is a necessary evil. Arthur Schopenhauer turned the system on its head, declaring, with some reason, that this is designed to be the worst of all possible worlds: any changes made to the design would decrease the total suffering. He also claimed that Leibniz's greatest contribution to literature was his serving as the model for the ludicrously optimistic Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's satirical novel Candide. Towards the beginning of the story the good Doctor asserts that it is a sign of God's infinite goodness that he gave us noses to hold up our spectacles. By the end of the story his nose has rotted off with syphilis.
     Another of Leibniz's philosophical theories, his Monadology, has fared better, and has been taken seriously by many philosophers and intellectuals since his day. Even if they haven't believed it, they still have had to take it seriously, because Leibniz was also a logician, and was certainly no idiot, and the Monadology is very logical. (I've read it, but it was years ago, and I don't remember it very well. Again, please forgive.)
     According to Leibniz, everything in the Universe is composed of tiny, atom-like structures which he called monads. If I remember correctly, the entire Universe is completely filled with them (a "plenum"), even in what appears to be empty space; and they are not infinitely small, like geometric points, presumably due to the problem of their having to fill space. At least some of them are conscious, and the monad containing our personality—our soul monad, essentially—is located somewhere in the mass of monads constituting our body. (If he followed Descartes, maybe he located it in the pineal gland, near the center of the brain.) The interesting thing about monads is that, although they seemingly interact, more or less like atoms or molecules, they are completely self-contained. As the saying goes, a monad has no windows. In other words, all monads except one could totally vanish, and the single remaining monad would be completely oblivious to this fact, and would continue to function as though everything was fine. Each monad mirrors everything else in the entire Universe, and seems to be affected by it, but is effectively solipsistic, completely alienated. Logically, each monad's condition is entirely its own, somewhat as in Buddhism we are taught that our karma is entirely our own. Thus it would seem that Leibniz, being an extremely top-heavy intellectual and believing in such a world of solipsism and total alienation, was deep down a very lonely person.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Buyer's Market for Dharma

     Blind Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
     Young Kwai Chang Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
     Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
     Caine: No.
     Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
     Caine (looking down at the grasshopper, which he hadn't noticed): Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
     Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

     When I was a boy one of my favorite television shows was "Kung Fu," about a half-Chinese, half-American Shao Lin Buddhist monk who lives in the Wild West of America during the mid-1800's, as a consequence of fleeing China after killing the Emperor's nephew (on the full moon of May, no less), as a consequence of said "Royal Nephew" killing said monk's beloved Master Po. (This in turn was a consequence of said Master Po delivering a beating to some of the Royal Nephew's violent attendants, which was a consequence of…but one must break the chain of cause and effect somewhere, so here seems appropriate.)
     Anyway, in the pilot episode of the "Kung Fu" series—which is well worth watching, despite some outstandingly bad acting by the supporting cast—there are flashbacks showing how Kwai Chang Caine became a Buddhist monk in the first place. After his parents and grandparents had all died, he went and presented himself outside the Shao Lin temple gate as a candidate for ordination. The monks didn't simply invite him in and have him sign papers, however: He was required to wait doggedly outside the gate, rain or sun, for more than a week. Any young candidates who would seek the shelter of a tree during a rainstorm would be sent away, as would any seen goofing around and playing out of boredom during the long wait outside the walls. After more than a week, Kwai Chang and a few other boys were finally called inside the temple compound.
     But still they were given no papers for signing up. Upon being admitted inside, they were invited to drink tea with the venerable abbot. Upon being given the tea, all the boys except young Kwai Chang drank it; he sat motionless behind his cup of tea. The other boys were sent home, and Master Kan, the abbot, asked Kwai Chang, "Why did you not drink?" Kwai Chang replied, "After you, Honorable Sir." Then the abbot drank, and only then Kwai Chang respectfully drank.
     Thus the old Shao Lin temple tested its prospective disciples to ensure that they had the dedication and the respect for the teacher to make them worthy of being true disciples. And, not surprisingly, only a small fraction of the prospective candidates were accepted—in this case, Kwai Chang was the only one.

"Snatch the pebble from my hand."

     In Western culture, on the other hand, the situation is somewhat the reverse: It is the disciples who test the teachers to see if the teachers are worthy of teaching them. To some degree it's a matter of supply and demand, with a great supply of teachers competing for a limited number of disciples. This is one reason why Vipassana teachers often cultivate a smooth, soft, gentle tone of voice and smile so much of the time, and why Zen masters rarely beat anyone with a stick anymore. 
     This critical, skeptical approach toward teachers and teachings is certainly not bad or wrong, and I, being a Westerner at heart, follow it also to some extent. But this approach, like anything else, does have consequences; and one big consequence is a loss of reverence, and of a sense of sacredness.
     The almost stereotypical American attitude that nothing is sacred has many causes. One of them is our Protestant Christian cultural conditioning. The English-speaking nations are so pervasively culturally conditioned by Protestant Christianity that even those of us who are not Protestant Christians still think like them, and have adopted Protestant values. And the Protestants, many of them at least, have secularized religion, and made it something not particularly of the spirit. But that topic is worthy of an article all to itself.
     Another reason for the loss of the sacred and a loss of reverence is the modern notion that there's a scientific explanation for everything, and what can be explained scientifically is ipso facto non-sacred. It is natural, even mundane.
     Still another reason is that people of the modern West are generally not very good at appreciating profundity. The society in general has become too fast and too superficial for that; and besides, we humans tend not to grasp abstractions well, with or without a mass-produced semiliterate education. With a fistfight it is pretty easy to distinguish between the winner and the loser: The winner is the one who isn't lying on the ground bleeding. In a chess game also, although it's rather more subtle, the winner is usually uncontroverted. But the more abstract and non-physical the game becomes, the less grasp we have of the situation; for example, how many verbal disputes have there been when both sides walk away believing that they won the argument? And when we get to something even more ethereal, like wisdom, then all bets are off. Sacredness is profound, and without an appreciation of profundity, sacredness drops by the wayside. 
     Still another reason, and an important one I think, for spiritual lukewarmness in the West is that here, nowadays, we live in the Too Much Information (TMI) Age. Just about anything we want to know, we can find out. Ancient texts that in ancient times may have required years of preparatory purification before one was worthy to be exposed to such teachings, one can now buy on for $49.95. We read these texts, then put them on a shelf and pick up Eckhart Tolle's new book, then one on an integration of quantum physics with the neurophysiology of the brain, then a pulpy novel, then…who knows. "Well, I've read that; what's next?" The Diamond Cutter Sutra asserts that any place that possesses a copy of it should be venerated as a shrine; but most copies out there in the West nowadays are probably in unshrinelike places and not venerated much more than the interesting new book by that academic scholar who applies modern literary criticism to the Upanishads. 
     Ancient wisdom no longer requires years of training and purification in order to find it; and it is no longer priceless, as it can easily be purchased online with a credit card. It is now a mercantile commodity, and big business besides.
     Obviously, having the great world spiritual traditions, as well as the teachings of a myriad of living spiritual teachers, at our fingertips is not a bad thing. It has its good points too, of course. We are no longer like medieval Roman Catholics who had to choose between The One True Faith and damnable heresy, or like traditional South Asians who have had to choose between dogmatic Right View and…what? No religion at all? (True, both Roman Catholicism and South Asian Buddhism have profound enlightenment traditions, but one size does not fit all, and not all people thrive in the same system.) But still, the spiritual TMI Age has pretty serious disadvantages too. Practically no sacredness, for example. The attitude that nothing is sacred actually causes nothing to be sacred. That's the world we create for ourselves.
     We are exposed to so many points of view, spiritual and otherwise, that none of them has much of an effect on us. We're overstimulated and jaded. Plus the culture looks askance at deep reverence; there is some respect, but everyone gets the standard minimum requirement: Please, Thank You, You're Welcome, I'm Sorry, Excuse Me, etc. etc., whether it's sincere or not. However, reserving special reverence for one person, or class of persons, or thing, or whatever, is not really encouraged nowadays. If the followers of a spiritual tradition feel deeply and strongly about their teacher, or what they're doing, they're called "cultish." It seems that under the circumstances of society the best we can do is to cultivate philosophical detachment.
     Philosophical detachment is an excellent thing, and most people would do well to cultivate some amount of it, if possible. But this whole ideal of keeping a skeptical balance leads to a great spiritual dilemma: Detached lukewarmness is insufficient to make a true saint out of anybody. Saints tend to have at least a tincture of wild-eyed fanaticism about them. They dedicate their lives wholeheartedly to what they consider to be sacred, and it is this deep conviction that gives them the motivation to try so hard to become pure, or worthy, or whatever it is that they're trying for. Saints are more religious than philosophical. 
     And so it appears that the West must find a new way. Religion as a vehicle for liberation is fading into obsolescence, yet armchair philosophical inquiry, with maybe a meditation retreat every now and then, is too lukewarm to amount to much, that is, to inspire much development. At present, many spiritual seekers have read everything there is to read and still haven't woken up, so they turn to sincere spiritual seeking out of despair, or maybe sheer boredom.
     Fortunately for us Westerners, a saint and a sage are not necessarily the same person. A saint has stainless steel conviction that he or she must do what is right, with a deep sense of sacredness and reverence on which to base that conviction; but a sage may be more like what Chuang Tzu says:   
There is right because of wrong, and wrong because of right. Thus, the sage does not bother with these distinctions but seeks enlightenment from heaven.
But even the detached philosophical sage has to be moved to do whatever it takes to Wake Up. There still must be a deep yearning for wisdom, or freedom, or bliss, or whatever the metaphor of choice happens to be. Intention is karma, and whatever we incline our mind toward, that do we become.
     (Written back around July, when I was still in Bellingham)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

"But Hindus Believe in Self"

     This article will be very similar to the previous one. Philosophically it's just a minor variation on it. I considered combining the two into one, but then decided not to. One long quote that I had intended to include in the last post, upon reflection, appeared more appropriate for this one. The two articles are similar, but not exactly the same—hence I'm writing this instead of just copying the last one over again. I'm in a groove. Please be patient. 
     I can't remember a Western Buddhist ever mentioning the subject to me, but several times now, in Myanmar and Bali, Asian Buddhists, upon the topic of Hinduism coming up, have told me, essentially, "Oh, the Hindus believe in self; they have atta-diṭṭhi." They say it rather dismissively, as though implying that Hinduism may be nice and all that, it may be wise and admirable in certain respects, but nevertheless it endorses this wrong view that prevents its adherents from really understanding the Truth. Thus, it is a limited system.
     However, the word "self" is never actually defined by anyone making these statements to me; and undefined terms are rarely, if ever, conducive to clear thinking, or even to reasonable disagreement. The only ways the judgement "Hindus believe in self, and thus are following a deficient system" could be true would be if 1) any belief is indicative of a deficient system, which apparently is not intended, as Buddhists have beliefs also, or 2) self is false regardless of its definition—which actually seems to be the implication. "Self," no matter how it is defined, is wrong; while other terms, such as "view," "formation," "consciousness," etc., may be valid and right. That seems to be the attitude. 
     But what if we define "self" as, say, consciousness, or Nirvana? Then if consciousness or Nirvana exists, self also exists. But the Buddhists say that neither consciousness nor Nirvana can possibly be a self. In fact, nothing at all can be a self. "Self" seems necessarily to imply a sheer impossibility, a kind of self-contradiction, regardless of how it is interpreted. Or else the Buddhists insist that "self" has to mean whatever they say it means, with any other interpretation of the word being invalid and wrong. If this latter scenario applies, then the Buddhists, particularly the Theravada ones, would be somewhat like premodern geometers who insist that parallel lines can never meet, due to the necessary qualities of points, lines, and planes. Then some wiseguy Vedantist geometer heretic comes along who says that planes are spherical, that a single point is located in two positions, on opposite sides of such a sphere, and that lines are great circles—and thus parallel lines necessarily meet. The Euclidean Buddhists say No, that's impossible, because points, lines, and planes aren't defined like that at all—but definitions of terms are decided by human minds, not by some metaphysical necessity.
     I acquired some insight into the troubles of using ill-defined terms from my desire to wear brown robes in Burma. According to English-Burmese dictionaries, the Burmese word for brown is "anyo"; and according to Burmese-English dictionaries, the English word for anyo is "brown." It took me years fully to appreciate the fact that, although they mostly overlap, brown and anyo do not represent exactly the same range of colors. Finally I developed to the point where I could point at something the color of a raspberry, something in the neighborhood of magenta, and say, "OK, I grant that that's anyo, even though it's not brown." But if a Burmese person who spoke some English were present he might retort, "Oh no, that's brown all right." Because, of course, "brown" means anyo. Supposedly. I've argued the other way, too, trying to tell a Burmese person who grew up with his language since infancy that a certain shade of cranberry-purple was not anyo. But he knew full well that it was anyo. It just wasn't brown; and I was hung up on the idea that anyo is brown, always, in all cases. Similar issues may arise with attā, atman, and "self."
     Without wading through various possible definitions of the word that Hindus believe in but Buddhists don't, I will point out that the usual definition of the term, somewhat along the lines of "a distinct, separate, individual being," is disbelieved by Hindus at least as much as by Buddhists. The Buddhists and Hindus are in harmonious agreement that what most people call "self" does not exist.
     But at this point I suppose I should define the term "Hindu" for the purpose of this essay (or "article," or "post," or "hogwash," or whatever term one prefers to apply to it). Hinduism encompasses many different schools teaching very divergent philosophies, with one of the most profound and advanced of them, in my opinion, being Vedanta, and especially Advaita Vedanta; and since this school of Hinduism is also probably the one I am most familiar with, for the sake of convenience I will be using "Vedanta" pretty much interchangeably with "Hinduism." Vedanta, the End of the Veda, is a kind of culmination, or "highest teaching." 
     Vedanta is based primarily upon the Upanishads; and one of the central themes of the Upanishads is that our world, and every possible world, is a manifestation of an absolute, formless Ultimate Reality called Brahman, and furthermore that what we truly are in the deepest and truest sense—our self—is this very same Brahman. Tat tvam asi: "Thou art That." So what these Hindus are saying is that what we are in the truest sense is a nondualistic Ultimate Reality, and that every being in the entire Universe shares this same "self." And so, in a sense, the Vedantists could be said to have less "self view" than orthodox Theravadins, considering that orthodox Theravada endorses Abhidhamma, the third Pitaka, which is pluralistic and posits the ultimately real existence of infinitely many separated individualities. Each quantum of earth element, for example, would be a separate individuality, a tiny, ephemeral "self." (But the Theravadins would assert that that kind of distinct individuality is not a self.)
     Reading the Upanishads, it is very easy for me to assume that what the ancient Hindu sages were calling Brahman is the same unthinkable Absolute or Void that the ancient Buddhist sages were calling Nibbāna or Nirvana. However, ancient Buddhist theorists made special efforts to debunk such an identification of the two. For example, the Great Mahā-Brahma, the deified personification of Ultimate Reality, was converted by the Buddhists into a not particularly great being occupying a heaven realm more than halfway down from the top, with the mystical state required for the attainment of his realm being only first jhāna, a state beyond what most meditators attain yet still not very exalted. Also, texts like the Alagaddūpama Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M22) list six kinds of self view: the first five being one's false identification with with any of the five aggregates of which "we" are composed (form, feeling, perception, volition, cognition), with the last apparently aimed at followers of the Upanishads—the view that "As the world, so the self (so loko, so attā); after death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I will exist for as long as eternity." Clinging to this view leads to suffering; although of course clinging to any view leads to suffering, including the view of no-self, and including so-called Right View.
     The Buddhist approximation to an Upanishadic view of self quoted above appears not to be a particularly accurate approximation of what Vedanta really teaches, and it represents, as ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has pointed out, "a full-fledged eternalist view." But atman/Brahman, like Nibbāna or Nirvana, is not eternal, but timeless. There is a difference. Brahman, like Nirvana, is completely Off the Scale; it is not contained within the context of Māya/Samsāra, and thus is not within the context of time and space. Time and space as we perceive them are relative constructs, and are not ultimately real. So atman, Brahman, and Nirvana are not eternal, but timeless in the sense that, if we can say anything of them at all, then they are in a constant state of NOW. 
     If atman is defined as a nondualistic Absolute, then to say that it doesn't exist is just as wrong as to say that it does! It's like the question in Buddhist logic, "Does an enlightened being exist after death?" To say "yes" is invalid; to say "no" is invalid; to say "yes and no" is invalid; and to say "neither yes nor no" is also invalid. So we'd do well not to pick on a wise Hindu's atman. Or his God either, for that matter. They're untouchable (and not in a Hindu sense).
     OK, here is a quote that I chose not to include in last week's post. It's from Nāgārjuna's Philosophy, by K. Venkata Ramanan (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1993):
     The distinction of saguabrahman and nirguabrahman is basic to the philosophy of Śakara. Saguabrahman, brahman with māyā, which is his own power of creation, is the ground of the universe. This brahman is spoken of in terms of a personal god, Īśvara. He is the creator of the universe; he is its material, as well as its efficient cause. He is the all-knowing, all-powerful, the free, eternal being. The entire world proceeds from Him. Although Śakara does accept a personal god, Īśvara, as the lord and creator of the universe, the culmination of his thought did not lie there. For him the account of creation was only a means of realizing the ultimate reality, the brahman, as the true nature of all beings as well as of the entire world. Ātman is brahman; but by this "ātman" he did not mean the ātman of the Vaiśeikas and the Mīmāsakas or even of the Sākhyas; for him it meant the true nature, the essential nature (pāramārthikasvarūpa) of the individual.
     Here we have the meeting point of the Mādhyamika [Mahayana Buddhists] and the Advaita Vedānta [Hindus], viz., in regard to the ultimate truth, not only in regard to its being devoid of all determinations but in being the very real, essential, nature, the ultimately true nature of all things and of all individuals. The Mādhyamika as well as the Advaita Vedānta speaks of the immanence of the real in man as well as of its transcendence. In regard to the ultimacy of the unconditioned, which is the basic conception of absolutism, there is hardly any difference between the two. In this regard, one can say that the one accepts or denies ātman as much as the other; both deny ātman as a separate substantial entity inhabiting the body of each individual, and both accept ātman in the sense of the essential nature, the svarūpa or the svabhāva, of the individual as well as of all things. There should be no difficulty in appreciating this, provided one makes a deference for the differences in the traditional usage of these terms. So in regard to the ultimacy of the unconditioned, which is what even the equation, ātman=brahman means, there is hardly any difference between the two. (pp.319-20)
Here is a little more, from the next paragraph:
Silence is the highest truth. Nāgārjuna does not give us a system of constructive metaphysics; but he lays bare the possibility of different formulations of the basic truth, each of which could function as a basis for a specific conceptual system.
That last quote hints at the idea that any attempt to explain Reality in words and concepts is bound to be free-floating and without an ultimate foundation—which I admit is really pushing it for modern people who cling to the views of Scientism as their form of enlightenment. Oh well.