Sunday, 19 April 2015

No Self and Death

Bond of Union - M. C. Escher
The question arises: Does becoming aware of the absence of a self make us more comfortable with the knowledge that we will one day die?

Shaun Nichols, a philosophy professor at the University of Arizona. has done research on the matter of how having a diminished (or absent) sense of self may impact how people think and what decisions they make. He was recently interviewed for an episode of the podcast series Philosophy Bites to discuss the result of some of his work as a leading experimental philosopher — that is, an expert who makes clever use of surveys to better understanding the underlying psychological processes of regular people and — in one case, that we will get to — the thinking of a group of Tibetan Buddhist meditators.

But first, definition of a term. “No self” [aka, anatta] is controversial among Buddhists and others. If you go to the Wikipedia page for anatta, you find a 1500-word article where there is a preface that says: “This article has multiple issues.” The article has undergone continual revisions by competing graduate students and other rather-expert persons, insistent that their understanding of the concept prevails and the thinking of others is wrongheaded. A 6600-word “talk” document, to thrash out the issues is ancillary to the primary Wikipedia page.

I think a rather straightforward definition of “no self” can be found at the old Access to Insight website. But, hey, I don't know anything! Follow me down this rabbit hole at your own risk! At Access to Insight, “no self” is defined, in part, thus:
Identification with whatever it is that we do and whatever it is that we have, be it possessions or people, is, so we believe, needed for our survival. "Self" survival. If we don't identify with this or that, we feel as if we are in limbo. ... 
Happiness, too, may be an identification. "I am happy." "I am unhappy." Because we are so keen on survival, we have got to keep on identifying. When this identification becomes a matter of the life or death of the ego, which it usually is, then the fear of loss becomes so great that we can be in a constant state of fear. Constantly afraid to lose either the possessions that make us what we are, or the people that make us what we are. ... Not a very peaceful state of living and what is it due to? Only one thing: ego, the craving to be. 
This identification results, of course, in craving for possessing. And this possessing results in attachment. ... That attachment, that clinging, makes it extremely difficult to have a free and open viewpoint. This kind of clinging, whatever it may be that we cling to — it may not be clinging to motor cars and houses, it may not even be clinging to people — but we certainly cling to views and opinions. We cling to our world view. ... Whatever it is we cling to, even how the government should run the country, all of that makes it extremely difficult to see things as they really are: To be open-minded. And it is only an open mind which can take in new ideas and understanding. 
Lord Buddha compared listeners to four different kinds of clay vessels. The first clay vessel is one that has holes at the bottom. If you pour water into it, it runs right out. In other words, whatever you teach that person is useless. The second clay vessel he compared to one that had cracks in it. If you pour water into it, the water seeps out. These people cannot remember. Cannot put two and two together. Cracks in the understanding. The third listener he compared to a vessel that was completely full. Water cannot be poured in for it's full to the brim. Such a person, so full of views he can't learn anything new! But hopefully, we are the fourth kind. The empty vessels without any holes or cracks. Completely empty. 
I dare say we are not. But may be empty enough to take in enough. To be empty like that, of views and opinions, means a lack of clinging. ... What is truly reality is completely fulfilling. If we aren't completely fulfilled, we aren't seeing complete reality. So, any view that we may have is either wrong or it is partial. 
Because it is wrong or partial, and bounded by the ego, we must look at it with suspicion. Anything we cling to keeps us bound to it. If I cling to a table-leg, I can't possibly get out the door. There is no way I can move. I am stuck. Not until I let go will I have the opportunity to get out. Any identification, any possession that is clung to, is what stops us from reaching transcendental reality. ... And for that seeing we need a fair bit of empty space apart from views and opinions.
There is also the view, by Christians and others, that there is some sort of substantial thing — a soul, or something consistent that is OURSELF through time — that tells us we are a "self" that has a catalogue of particulars that separates us as unique from other beings.

The podcast interviewer, David Edmonds, tells us that from the work of Philosophers David Hume and Derek Parfit "that if (one) comes to realize that the self is not an enduring thing, that you might actually change the way you navigate the world."

Shaun Nichols responds, enthusiastically, "This is suppose to have revolutionary implications. It's very clear in Buddhism. And it's also clear in Parfit, who starts out in [his book] "Reasons and Persons" [to say] he's a revisionary philosopher ..., it's suppose to make a difference."

Nichols explains the difference it makes in knowing there is no self from what is found in Buddhism and Parfit: "It should make you more generous towards other people, at least in the future, because you think that I'm not going to be the same in the future, so my self-interest should be diminished [since I won't be the me that I was]." One possibility for this, says Nichols, is that the gap between "me' and others narrows. Another possibility, he says, is that knowing the "me in the future" is not the me of today allows me to shift my compassion to others, right away, since I no longer envision myself as always-unique, apart from the mob.

Another element, here, has to do with responsibility. Knowing you're not the same person that you were a year ago, say, you gain the knowledge that you aren't really (fully?) responsible for things this "old, prior" you did.

And, finally, there is the issue of one's relationship with the prospect of one's own death. For Parfit, thinking that he might die in, say, twenty years, gives him the "comfort" of knowing that this future fellow who will die is distinctly different from the manifestation of himself that he experiences presently. Thus, the physical death that will occur is effectively experienced by someone else.

Nichols's experiments consisted, in part, in convincing groups of regular people that they either are a continuing self OR that the self is an illusion and then exploring their decision-making under those conditions. The experiments affirmed the thinking of Buddhists and Parfit that feeling there was no set, continuing self allows people to be more compassionate toward others AND it allows them to feel less responsible for their past actions.

Shaun Nichols
Feelings about Death, however, didn't change. People maintained their fears about dying.

The Tibetan monks, who easily and absolutely believe in the non-existence of self, much to Shaun Nichols's surprise, have a great fear of death — more than the ordinary people he surveyed.

Nichols's theory about why fear of death is not diminished by realization that there is no self? "When you're thinking about death, you're actually not thinking about your traits at all. You're projecting yourself into the future, in a kind of episodic way. You're just imagining 'I am in the future' and I'm going to die."

Why do the Tibetan monks have a heightened fear of death? Nichols guesses it may be because they are conditioned to think about death a lot. Thus, it is something that stays with them.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

De profundis Inferni

Poetry. De profundis inferni is "from the depths of the underworld" in Latin.

Christ in the Abyss statue
Prayer prayer prayer. So on so on so on. Shame shame shame. So on so on so on so on.

Freedom? Maybe in a little while, but not for now...not for now.

Misery? That much misery? No. Containment is more the word. 

Of what? Not quite sure, hence the strange reactions all around.

Sh. Sh. Sh.

Do you hear that noise? No, actually I don't. Sometimes a clink, never anything worthy.

So what is the concealment? Anger? No, I don't think it's anger. 

Pain? How does one conceal pain? Repression and all things that are "concealing" and "repressing" pain are painful. It is not that way. It is not that way.

Are those semantics?
I don't think so. I don't think so.
What is it then. What is it then!?

Anguish. Anguish. Anguish, not pain, beyond pain but not numbness. Think melodramatic; think melodramatic.

Violence? Yes-never against the living, ever. But a bad day? Never against the living, never against the living.

What does not live?
Hate does not live, anguish never lives they are the dying and the sore infection of love list, gone, destroyed or never nourished.

Your philosophy. Your philosophy. So what anguish?

My honesty, my entire story heard and thought through, brought forth and weighed against nature, against all of Being. An absolute confession, awakening, illumination, of finally overcoming everything.


Of everything, of everything. 
Containment of anguish and then illumination? Why fear....why fear.

Have you ever lived, it is good, but that is with the bad. Can you give up everything just like that? To nature, not to ideas. I cannot. Alas-the underworld exists still and so illumination must be only from the moment chaos-complete abandonment, emptying of completeness-of moments past
Moments now
Moments later.

Philosophy again.
Forgive me, i know words will never suffice.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Is Virtue Ethics a basis for 21st Century Progressive Buddhist Ethics?

Philosophy Bites' online logo
I subscribe to a British podcast series called Philosophy Bites that has episodes I usually greatly enjoy. The discussions are short – bite sized – lasting about fifteen minutes each. They explore the surface of a wide variety of philosophical matters in interviews with leading philosophers of our day.

One recent topic didn’t seem of interest to me. The topic was Virtue Ethics. It’s not that I’m opposed to virtue, so long as it’s spelled in all lowercase letters and uttered sotto voce. It is just that Virtue, standing tall, reminds me of Puritans putting the heads of penitents in stockades.
Prof. Annas's
most-recent book
My interest diminished further when I inquired online about the philosopher being interviewed, Julia Annas. All her books seemed to have ancient Greek people lounging about on the book covers. I’m not much interested in the dusty words of Aristotle or Socrates. I like my philosophy fresh, hot and tasty, damn it.

But, hey. Fifteen minutes I am willing to spend on just about anything. Sexual intercourse. Flower arranging. Meditation. Super Bowl halftime shows. You name it.

As it turned out I’m turned on by Virtue Ethics and think it a proper sensibility for modern-day Buddhists like us. And it seems I’m not the first person to think so. A googling of "Virtue Ethics Buddhist Ethics" turns up a big pile of links.

So. Let's dig into it. What is Virtue Ethics? 
First, let us set the landscape. We’re told by interviewer David Edmonds that there are three normative moral theories. Consequentialists judge an action purely by its consequences (which might be, for example, maximizing happiness). Deontologists judge the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. Virtue ethics – according to Wikipedia – emphasizes the role of one's character and the virtues that one's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior.

Julia Annas provides a very palatable explanation of 'Virtue Ethics in practice' that makes it enticing to me.

So, let us run through this, using mostly the words [or the thinking, at least] of Prof. Annas from the podcast – which, by the way, can be heard in full from a link found here.
Annas tells us that the “central concepts” of Virtue Ethics are two ideas:
·        VIRTUE described as a disposition you acquire, to learn from experience to form reasons for actions AND to conform you emotions such that you go along with those reasons.
·        EUDAEMONIA described as living a good life that harbors a feeling of satisfaction. [Aristotle’s description of this element is “happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason.” ]
Examples given of virtue (as a character trait) can be courage, or being a good parent,  or honesty, or being dependable.
In pursuing this manner of ethics, we are each left with the task of determining what virtuousness is for ourself. We learn by seeing the excellent behaviors of people we admire. And then, as a result of witnessing the actions of great, good people, we aspire to be excellent in a somewhat similar way. And then, throughout our life, we hope always to do good and to find means to best meet our aspirations to perform nobly.
One way to improve our actions can be to read self-help books, which could well include books by Buddhist teachers.
Julia Annas explains that acquiring virtuousness is rather easy; it’s second nature for us to use others as our teachers for being GOOD; of doing the right (and sometimes courageous) thing.  Annas quotes Aristotle, “In general, people act ‘for the good’ and not in doing just what their parents did.”
Basically, virtuousness becomes a skill that you acquire but you make use of it in a way that is indelibly your own. But with this learned skill, you gain appreciation and an eye to see virtue practiced in a great variety of ways across cultures. An example Annas gives is that one may see courage practiced by both samurai warriors and Quakers, yet despite the seeming diametric difference, take equal pleasure in witnessing the actions of each group.
A vital late point that Annas makes is that none of all this has anything to do with becoming sanctimonious or thinking that you’ve come to breathe a richer grade of oxygenated air than the hoi polloi.
What happens is that you rationally mold your actions toward what’s GOOD; you’re not engaged in a task of becoming ALL THAT. Annas’s example here is one of ‘wanting to be a good parent.’ You don’t aspire to be the best parent of any living in your neighborhood; you resolutely engage in just doing what’s best for your children. The action is what counts, not ego-boosting or other  hoo-ha that might surround it.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Tomorrow's the 22nd Anniversary of THE GREATEST Buddhist movie! Yep, GROUNDHOG DAY!

There are two types of people in this world: those that love Groundhog Day, and those that can't appreciate it. Our job is to exterminate the latter group.
-- Adum Miller, webmaster GHD Home Page

[Beware!! This article is chockablock with spoilers. Any reader who has not seen the film Groundhog Day recently should stop now, click an iTunes icon, rent the film, watch the film, shutdown the computer, take a shower, eat a peach, turn the computer back on, get online, find this article and then -- and only then -- read it.]
A still from the motion picture Groundhog Day
Rita [Andie MacDowell] and
Phil [Bill Murray] dancing.
"Groundhog Day," the 1993 Bill Murray comedy, is a curiously crafted film. It is peopled by many minor characters who are artificial in the way that situation-comedy characters are -- yet the film is ambitious (and rises to its ambitions) with a keen sensitivity to the dynamic of change to the central character.

At the very beginning of the film there is something very interesting for a Buddhist audience.  We are introduced to the Murray character (Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors) as he gives his report in front of a bluescreen.  He is there gesticulating with essentially nothing behind him [signifying the true emptiness of Self], talking about the nation's weather.  He is grandly overdressed, in a black three-piece suit (like no other weatherman I have ever seen), befitting the egocentricity of the character as we quickly come to know him.  As we see him on a TV monitor (with the "blank" bluescreen now substituted for a satellite-view of the day's weather) he acts as if he is blowing a mass of cold air eastwardly toward the Pittsburgh area.  European paintings, a millenium or more ago, used to depict the air being blown by God or cherubim to explain the cause of weather in just this way. [Fifteen minutes later in the movie, Connors will deny a blizzard starting to flurrying all about him (which he had predicted would miss western Pennsylvania) in a conversation with a policeman:  "What blizzard?" he says "I make the weather!"]

In sharp contrast to the Connors character, Rita the TV producer (played by Andie MacDowell) is introduced to us as she plays in front of the bluescreen after the broadcast, wearing a plain blue coat.  On the monitor, she essentially disappears against this backdrop.  The qualities of Rita, as we come to know her, fit this depiction: she is not ego-attached.  Later in the movie she will say "I just like to go with the flow (and) see where it leads me."

Phil, Rita and cameraman Larry (played by Chris Elliott) drive to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities that centers on a groundhog named Phil, who, according to legend, predicts six more weeks of bad wintery weather if the sun is out on the morning of February 2.

Everything in the first fifteen minutes of the movie sets up the character differences between Phil and Rita.  In addition to displays of vanity--calling himself "The Talent," his unwillingness to stay in the largest hotel which he considers "a fleabag," etc.--we hear Phil ridicule people, calling them morons, making fun of people in ways they cannot be aware of, and we also are privy to some of Phil's internal monolog [When he talks to the landlady of the bed & breakfast on the first Groundhog Day, he mutters "you can't even spell espresso" just under her ability to hear him, meaning that he thinks she's a fool.]  Phil is certainly vainglorious, but he is also a tortured man.  Though he sees job advancement in his future, it is life inself in its untidiness that tortures him.  Before the movie's gimmick of the Groundhog Day holiday repeating thousands of times, Phil is trapped--in a pattern of thinking that saps him of the ability to learn from and enjoy the life he has.  Phil is classically Unaware.

After the situation has been set up -- Phil has given the first news report on the holiday activities and we have seen Phil's first reaction to a dozen of Punxsutawney's citizens -- the film's gimmick comes into effect and we witness the evolution of his relationship with the people in his small universe and the changes that come over him. The films's gimmick has become rather spectacularly famous: It is that Phil, for reasons wholely unexplained, is stuck in this one Groundhog Day, having to repeat it thousands upon thousands of times until he finds the key to move on to February 3 -- where he can then emerge whole, as a compassionate being.

Phil the Weatherman by no means undergoes a complete transformation to Enlightenment or Cosmic Consciousness, but the stages of change that Phil experiences is not uncoincidentally similar to the marks of the Cosmic Sense, as listed in Dr. Bucke's classic study in 1901, Cosmic Consciousness:  A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.  In an early chapter, "From Self to Cosmic Consciousness," Bucke lists the signs that this sense is present in an individual. Bucke wrote,
"...briefly and explicitly, the marks of the Cosmic Sense...are:
    1. The subjective light.
    2. The moral elevation.
    3. The intellectual illumination.
    4. The sense of immortality.
    5. The loss of the fear of death.
    6. The loss of the sense of sin.
    7. The suddenness, instantaneousness, of the awakening.
    8. The previous character of the man--intellectual, moral and physical.
    9. The age of illumination.
    10. The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) strongly attracted to the person.
    11. The transfiguration of the subject of the changes as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present.
Most of the book is devoted to documentable instances of persons with the Cosmic Sense.  The first person discussed is Buddha, which is not surprising, for the book is a work of zen (whatever the author may have intended), looking at manifestations from the vantage of a detached third party.  Most of the eleven marks that Bucke deliniates are touched on in Phil's ascent to higher consciousness.

When Phil awakens on the first repeating Groundhog Day, he is ill, disoriented and stunned.  He quickly becomes aware that his is more that a simple instance of deja vu.  The world has been rocked off its axis; the impossible is happening; all the comforts of a predictable universe where his habits of thought had succor have vanished.  The second repeating day is much the same, with Phil a little angrier.  He continues to be dismissive toward others and exhibits the same old patterns of being cruel and sarcastic. On the third day he explores a medical fix to his situation, consulting a physician and a psychiatrist, and sees that there is no escape from the trap he finds himself in.

On the next day depicted in the movie, Phil sees that there are no consequences to his actions.  At this point, Phil drives on railroad tracks and smashes into a line of parked cars.  The fact that any day is repeated means that the prior experience of a day is undone -- thus his arrest by the police is obviated by a new dawn.  Here Phil begins to experience joy in having his life disconnected from others (and have no meaning).  "I'm not going to live by their rules any more." he says.

He's freed of all responsibility.  We see him on a subsequent day smoking and stuffing himself with fattening foods.  He tells Rita "I don't even have to floss."  Here, Rita recites a famous Sir Walter Scott poem with the lines "doubly dying will go down; unwept, unaltered and unsung."  On subsequent days he seduces a resident named Nancy, telling her he will marry her, steals a bag of money, and indulges his fantasies.  (He has one woman wear a short maid's dress and insists that she call him "Bronco.")  And with each new day, everything is erased.

At this point, Phil begins a long sequence of days where he attempts to seduce Rita.  As he learns more and more about her, and corrects his errors, he is able eventually to get her up into his room before she slaps him and runs off.  But the artifice to his effort is something Rita sees through and he cannot succeed in establishing a close relationship with her.  Essentially, Phil is unchanged; he continues to treat others as objects that he either ridicules or manipulates.  In his pre-Groundhog Day life, his "habits of being" worked for him; but stuck in a day that loops every 24 hours, he can only struggle to expand the depth (or meaning) of the period of time--and he is not yet able to bring forth that ability from within himself.

Phil falls into a depression and commits suicide, repeatedly ["doubly dying"], but still awakens again and again for more Groundhog Days in Punxsutawney.  Phil, with the knowledge he has of all his (24-hour) lives, comes to know that he is "an immortal; a god."  ("I've killed my self so many times, I don't exist anymore," he says.) At this point, Phil has undergone a change which results in an honest conversation with Rita in the coffee shop. He and Rita are now able to have a real relationship, but it, too, ends with the cycle of another, new day.

But having found his "emptiness of self" Phil begins a different experience of existence, a new pattern of thinking.  He begins reading, learning to play the piano and ice sculpt--and to care about people.

On the last Groundhog Day, Phil and Rita become acquainted late in the evening, but it is enough time for them to come to have a close personal relationship.  And with a new dawn -- on February 3 -- they begin a life together as what we well suppose are mated loving partners.

Is Phil Enlightened?  No.  But much of what happens in the way of Phil's spiritual maturity matches the marks of Bucke's Cosmic Sense.  Phil is certainly (b) morally elevated and (c) intellectually illuminated.  His efforts at suicide can have (d) given him an ongoing sense of immortality and (e) a loss of fear of death.  Phil has certainly undergone a (h) change of character.  The Cosmic Sense usually comes upon a person in his late thirties, and, we are told, Phil was twenty years out of high school, just right for (i) the age of illumination.  As for (j) and (k), Phil seems to exude extraordinary charm at the end of the movie, based on people's reactions to him.

The Ned Ryerson Conundrum

Ned Ryerson is an important character in the twilight zone of repeating days that traps Phil Connors in the film.  On the surface, there seems nothing particularly meaningful in the meetings between Ned and Phil.  It seems simply that Phil must avoid a pushy salesman, and that we see, over the course of the many meetings (most of which are implied, and may number thousands), the different strategies Phil uses to rebuff Ned's aggressiveness.  On the final February 2--the one that takes effect--we are told that Phil has purchased every variety of insurance that Ned sells.

Phil and Ned
The question then is, "What does it mean that after thousands of meetings, Ned is successful in selling insurance to Phil?"

But, also, there is something very curious going on in the carefully written screenplay.  And it is this curious thing which I think we are tasked to understand.

The curious thing is this:  If we are to suppose that the events relating to Ned are there just for comedy's sake, then why--when the screenplay is so meticulously crafted--does the first meeting between Phil and Ned so closely echo the later "pick-up" meeting between Phil and Nancy? Below, is the text of the first meeting between Ned and Phil, followed by the Phil and Nancy pick-up scene.

******** Ned greets Phil
Ned:  Phil?  Hey, Phil.  Phil.  Phil Conners.  Phil Conners, I thought that was you.
Phil:  How ya doing?  Thanks for watching.
Ned:  Now don't you tell me you don't remember me because I sure as heck-fire remember you.
Phil:  Not a chance.
Ned:  Ned!  Ryerson!  Neddle-nose Ned.  Ned the Head.  Case Western High!  Ned Ryerson.  I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show.  Bing!  Ned Ryerson.  Got the shingles real bad senior year almost didn't graduate.  Bing!  Again.  Ned Ryerson.  I dated your sister, Mary Pat, until you told me not to any more.  Well?
Phil:  Ned Ryerson?
Ned:  Bing!
Phil:[meekly] Bing.

******** Phil greets Nancy
Phil:  Nancy?  Nancy Taylor!?
Nancy:  [Laughs]
Phil:  Lincoln High School?  I sat next to you in Mrs. Walch's English class.
Nancy:  Oh, I'm sorry.
Phil:  Phil Connors!
Nancy:  Wow.  That's amazing.
Phil:  You don't remember me, do you?
Nancy:  Um.
Phil:  I even asked you to the prom.
Nancy:  Phil Connors?
Phil:  I was short and I've sprouted.
Nancy:  Yeah.  Gosh, how are you?
Phil:  Great.  You look terrific.  You look very, very terrific!
Nancy:  [Laughs]
Phil:  Listen.  I've gotta go do this report.  Um.
Nancy:  Are you a reporter?
Phil:  I'm a weatherman with channel 9, Pittsburgh.
Nancy:  Wow.  Gosh.  I should have known.  That's great.
Phil:  But maybe later we could--
Nancy:  Yeah.  Whatever.
Phil:  Promise me?
Nancy:  Yes.
Phil:  OK.  I'll be right back.
Nancy:  OK
Phil:  Wish me luck.
Nancy:  Good luck.

Now, it may not be immediately clear what the similarity is between these two conversations, so let me explain.

In the meeting when Ned greets Phil, Phil never recognizes Ned, though Ned provides three personal items of information:  1) Phil's full name  2) the high school Phil attended and 3) the name of Phil's sister.

The day before Phil succeeds in picking up Nancy, he goes to her and gets three bits of personal information from her:  1) her full name  2) the high school she attended  and 3) the name of her senior-year English teacher.  The next day, Phil confronts Nancy with his knowledge of this information to suggest that she must know him since he clearly, certainly knows her.  Ned had confronted Phil in exactly this way!  And there is no indication in the movie that Phil ever really remembered Ned from high school.

Question:  Why did the screenwriters knowingly make these scenes so similar and formulaic?

Perhaps the answer is this: When we take up the  practice of the Four Abodes of the Buddha -- the four being loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity -- we first learn a simple, yet vital, beginner's task, "learning (just) to see the other."

As drabness or boredom in life is overcome our encounters both with people we think we know and with persons whom are strangers to us take on measures of adventure and discovery. We are tantalized by how others are both similar to us and quite different. We witness sparks of something new, amazing -- even unique -- in even the most annoying-seeming individuals, or those whom we had at first tagged as drab or dull as dust. There is nobody who isn't a wonderland and of immense value. Just the seeing makes it so.

Thus, Phil is finding himself -- in scenes that span from those with Ned to those with Nancy -- at the beginning of getting outside himself, becoming appreciative of other people.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Mercy vs. Justice

Greetings readers and my friends!

I am almost completely done with my philosophical reading's of Dogen's Shobogenzo's first chapter so I'll be posting those soon, but for now I'd like to hear some of your opinions (whether "Buddhist" or not doesn't matter) regarding the debate of "which bears richer fruit," mercy, or strict justice.

So that's it! My question: which bears better fruit? Mercy or justice?

Should child rapists ever be shown any mercy?
(is putting a child rapist away forever a merciful act instead of killing?)

Should a woman who was beaten by her husband then killed him in desperation deserve mercy under the law?

Is the law capable of mercy?

Is feeding the starving, helping the helpless etc acts of justice or mercy?

I'd love to hear your opinions on this topic! This is a very touchy topic for very very many people so do respond and be polite to each other!

I am personally on the side of mercy to a naively extreme point. I believe that most people given the chance will respond to mercy (certainly not all). I believe this because there are reasons people commit heinous crimes and the premise is that it generally takes place in acts of desperation and not willful acts of evil. The questions remains for me to answer, and my friends, I need your help because I don't know, do willful acts of evil--for example the Hitler's of the world, do they deserve mercy?

Comment, share, let me know, let your friends know, get this topic moving!

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Merry What????

The holiday season. Why are there so many holidays crammed into such a short amount of time (in the US, anyway)? And how many blogs are written about this time of year? And how many of those are going to offer coping mechanisms about how to deal with family members, how not to gain weight, and any number of other topics that one might infer that the holiday season is to be dreaded rather than celebrated?

There are any number of holidays both secular & religious, and sometimes a combination of both, that a "Buddhist" might feel a little left out of. We are not exactly endowed with many "holidays" in general, let alone at this time of year. Some of us celebrate Bodhi Day (AKA Rohatsu) on or around December 8, marking the awakening of the Buddha 'neath the Bodhi tree. There's Vesak, which combines Birth, Awakening and Paranirvana (death) of the Buddha celebrated in may countries. And rolling three potential holidays into one is not a great way to get time off from work.

Thanksgiving should theoretically be a no-brainer for a Buddhist, but with all the conspicuous consumption, over-indulgence, family confrontations, and potential the prevalence of booze, might make it a little rough. Christmas in a religious sense may not hold any special meaning, and the secular version is not quite what a renunciant, eschewing attachment, desire, and clinging, might really feel too comfortable with either.

But I'd really like to offer a less cynical, less resentful, less dualistic approach to the Holiday Season:

There is the practice the Perfection of dana (generosity) which doesn't necessarily mean giving your nephew a video game that was last year's model, and not being a gamer, you can't understand the look of disappointment and the forced "Thanks." It could mean being generous with one's time, going to the yet another get-together even if deep-down you'd really rather not.

The Four Immeasuables come to mind also--metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy or empathy) and upekkha (patience and equanimity). I'll let you figure out how to implement each of them, since they will be subject to your situation, causes and conditions. And if it offers any solace, holidays are impermanent as anything else.

So go ahead and say Merry Christmas, it might mean that you justthismuchless attached to your identity as a "Buddhist."

And if that's all not working for you, get on the cushion and ask “Who is this that's feeling uncomfortable?” and see if you can answer the huatou.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, May All Beings Be Happy, including during the holidays.

Monday, 17 November 2014

A Review of Sam Harris’s new book "Waking Up: A guide to spirituality without religion"

A Few Words Upfront: I had Sam’s new book lounging around downlist on my Kindle when I read Chris Dierkes’s strident objection to The Great Sam in his Soul Interpreter blog. The (usually) Great NellaLou, who blogs Smiling Buddha Cabaret, sent a 'shout out' in praise of Dierkes’s rambling 3700+ word post which he titled “Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit.” I read Sam’s book, promptly, and loved it. So, now, like a Canadian Mountie, I come galloping to the rescue. Hang on, Sammy! Here I come!”
For starters, let it be known that Sam Harris, famously one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism who brought non-belief out of the shadow of Satan’s pitchfork and into prominence and respectability this century, is not a Buddhist any more than he is a follower of any other religion.

From use of the X-Ray feature in my Kindle, I find that in his book, Waking Up, Harris uses the word ‘buddhist’ 20 times. Only once does he use the word in reference to himself, which occurs in Chapter 3, thus [emphases, mine]:
If I were a Christian, I would have undoubtedly interpreted [my experience of “losing me” and no longer being a separate self] in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit. If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the Eternal Self, in which the world and all individual minds are thought to be mere modification. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness” in which all apparent things manifest as if in a dream.”

But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being.
Thus, in one fell swoop the twin towers of Chris Dierkes’s argument collapses. Harris is not a Buddhist and this “his Buddhism” being Bullshit thing is all Dierkes’s Bullshit. And, thus, Dierkes’ long argument on matters dogmatic where Dierkes places in combat Dierkes’s narrow view of what Buddhism is against that which he supposes is Harris’ narrow definition of what Buddhism is is, itself, a battle of smoke against mirrors that dissolves into a calamitous pile of stinky shards of nonsense and piffle.

The truth is that Harris’ book isn’t didactic. And, it doesn’t wander into a briar patch of insolence by turning Buddhist sutras into the inerrant words of some damn floats-on-a-cloud Buddha God. Rather, the book is (mostly) a telling of Harris’s experiences with powerful mind-altering drugs and of many many years practicing meditation techniques intently. His life as someone who has had profound experiences – both blissfully good and (with drugs, not meditation) terrifyingly bad – taking his brain to extreme places acts both as a lure and a warning. But Harris doesn’t preach.

Harris doesn’t tell us what to do; he just explains his rich and oft-times wayward history as a seeker. But he does warn us that he may have been very lucky. Some of his uses of potent drugs could possibly have set him down a corridor to insanity. And while he maintained a skeptical sensibility while being an acolyte of important meditation instructors, other more-vulnerable seekers can easily be taken in my charlatans. Pretending to be a great realized master is easy. Actual enlightened masters are a rarity.

In the Soul Interpreter “…Buddhist Bullshit” essay, a seven-minute Big Think video that Harris is in is ostensibly the object of Dierkes’s derision (though, too, praise for Harris). But Dierkes knows about the new book and should know that limiting his assessment of Harris to the spare and edited words from a short video is an injustice.

Anyway. My assessment of Waking Up is that it is in most ways typical Sam Harris: Earnest and brilliant. I love to read Sam’s words (or hear him on television). He has full control over a formidable vocabulary which he uses to craft clear, well-written text.

One thing Sam does, which for me adds to his charm, but, likely, annoys most others is that, sometimes, he veers wildly off topic for what appears (to me) to be for no particular reason (other than, possibly, he’s an Aspergers geek). In a recent three-hour discussion with Cenk Uygur of the MSNBC show “The Young Turks,” Sam and Cenk got off-track when they veered into debating the not-vitally-important issue of whether or not Mormonism is more impossible to be true in its beliefs than mainstream Christianity. Cent insisted that both Mormonism and mainstream Christianity were completely – and thus, equally – impossible. Sam insisted that mathematicians would back him in his claim that the wacky add-ons that come with Mormonism gave it a boost to a yet higher level of impossibility. Yeah. OK.

In Waking Up, Harris veers off into Strange Geekyville when for what seemed for no good reason, to me, he engages in a long analysis of the recent first-person book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, showing how it is neither a proof of anything nor an honest, diligent record of whatever happened to its author, Dr. Eben Alexander.

I highly recommend Waking Up to Sam Harris lovers and anyone interested in having amazing things happen in their experience of consciousness (which would necessarily include all Progressive Buddhism readers).

Tom Armstrong is a long-time blogger on matters Buddhist and Homeless and was the founder of the Blogisattva Awards in 2006.  He lives in Sacramento, California.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Come Full Circle: A philosophical reading of Shobogenzo's first chapter

1811ed of the Shobogenzo's cover page
Dear readers,

This will be the introduction to an essay that I am writing and will be posting on here to read. I will divide it into several post to not overwhelm you or myself with intense editing and scrolling down the page. It will be a chronological reading and major themes will be discussed mostly in the end. Enjoy.


Dogen Zenji was a Japanese Zen (or Soto Zazen to use Dogen’s preference) monk who lived from 1200-1253. To put this into perspective, the first crusades are coming to a close and the next ones are coming about, Mongols are rallying and Genghis Khan will soon be on the map and China’s intense cultural cultivation is taking place as well. Some of the world is extremely dark during this time, as it is today, but Dogen offers a glimpse into a way of practice that is indistinguishable from any other Zen monk, or thought during this age. He is comparable to Nargarguna to who the major developer of Mahayana Buddhism and the idea of negation—Enlightenment too, must be negated—transcended—emptied—understood transparently, and so on.
            He offers criticism to philosophers of the West who wouldn’t be born for centuries. He an entire two paragraphs just insulting a person who believes there’s a separation from “mind” and “body.” His contradictions are not difficult to spot but offer something greater to the whole picture of the Shobogenzo. This, however, is not what I will want to do in this piece. I am going discuss the first chapter of the Shobogenzo under the premise that it was not a direct speech, sermon, or anything written by Dogen. This came later after the first publication of the Shobogenzo and is, as the title “Bendowa” suggests; it is a dialogue on the practice of Zazen (Zenji 3).
            This chapter culminates the rest of the Shobogenzo because it makes clear claims of the supremacy of the practice of Zazen, and as we shall see, it is incredibly broad for being simply a dialogue on practice; it includes commentary on inclusivism of religious communities, distinction between ‘religious experience’ and methodologies offered by religious traditions then claims that Zazen practice is a precise balance of the two; Dogen also introduces the understanding of specific histories. History as a concept and an important piece in understanding this world is generally absent from Buddhist thought. Recently many Buddhist philosophers, specifically from the Kyoto School have begun conversing with Western philosophers on these important topics. We must see whether Dogen offers any potential in his writing to introduce History as an important concept because in my own Western view, it is an important one, it’s complexity cannot be underestimated, it’s transparency revered, its influenced we must tremble from. I will get more into the topic of History as we move along (Zenji 11, 13, 15).
            There is much more that can be met within the pages to discuss so we must begin. We will begin with the next post.

Book used: Numata’s Center BDK English Tripitaka Series Shobogenzo: the True Dharma-eye Treasury Volume I translation by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Buddha-Nature--and Not-Buddha-Nature

Zen, like other Mahayana schools of Buddhism, has at its core Buddha Nature. Tagathagarbha is one word associated with Buddha Nature, as in the womb of the "thus-come." Dharmadhatu sometimes comes into play also, as in the Buddha-realm, the Absolute Reality, the Dharmakaya.

But getting back to Buddha Nature....We often hear phrases such as, "You're already Buddha," or, "You're perfect just as you are" (and Suzuki-Roshi wisely added, 'And you need a little work.')" So, am I perfect just as I am? Am I really already Buddha, or a Buddha, or what? If I'm already Buddha, then you must also be Buddha, and everyone else is, so who are all these Sentient Beings we Bodhisattvas are supposed to be saving anyway?

The good news is, just like Chao-chou's dog, we have Buddha Nature (Mu notwithstanding). But just what exactly is that? I certainly don't feel like Buddha. Not feeling particularly awakened this morning. My thus-come-ness just hasn't come today. (Why is it always late?!?) Innately, yes we are Buddha. We have the potential for awakening, we have the Nature of a Buddha within, just as a seed has the nature of becoming a flower within. But a seed is a seed, and a flower is a flower. You are in the womb of the Buddhas, just waiting to be awaked. We can all become enlightened, of conducting our lives fully in the Dharma Field (not that we aren't already, maybe we just don't realize it).

But if you've read any of the biographies of the Buddha, if you've read any of the old Suttas and legends, it becomes very apparent that even Gautama had a lot of work to do before he woke up as the Buddha. Now granted, he only had unenlightened teachers wandering the forests in his time, so he had to do the work on his own, without the aid of the glut of books we have today with his name, Zen, or mindfulness in their titles. (No wonder it took six years!)

Just because we've heard the term "Buddha Nature," and think it sounds kinda cool--who wouldn't want to be a Buddha--and maybe we think that we're living in reality, already in the Dharmadhatu.The fact that we become puffed-up about being Buddha, or thinking it's cool, maybe that it makes us a little special, at least more special than those poor bastards who've never heard that they're already Buddha--all these things make us "not-the-Buddha," at least for this moment. (That's as impermanent as anything else, give or take 84,000 kalpas or so).

We're already living in the Dharma-field, all dharmas are Buddhadharmas, but that includes the dharmas that we still struggle, we still have greed, and anger, and delusion, and aversions, and while they're all very un-awakened qualities and practices, we do indeed have that germ that may sprout into Buddhahood, that actual point at which we're doing right more than wrong, we're doing more good than not, being helpful more than turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. A teacher of mine once referred to Buddha-Nature as what's there...underneath all the layers of crap (karma) we've gathered onto ourselves.

But Suzuki-Roshi had it right. There is work to be done! Don't think that since we're already Buddha, why bother practicing? Dogen already did that math a lot of centuries ago, and his school (Soto) practices "just sitting." Rigorous sitting at that, in fact. And if, in fact, there is no attainment to be done, and nothing to attain, doesn't mean we've already not-attained not-it. A few lines later in the Heart Sutra we find out that all Buddhas depend on prajnaparamita and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi--Unexcelled Perfect Enlightenement.So get on the cushion, then get off the cushion, and BE Buddha, not just rest on your laurels THINKING you're Buddha and being sloppy about life and practice. Do the work! (Save a sentient being or two while you're at it, even if there are no beings, and no saving to be done, OK?)

Deep bows to you, Buddha.

Sunday, 21 September 2014


Illustration credited to Alex Hill
Friends and Readers,

This is not an exposition on the phenomena of anger, but it is my anger that I will be pouring out. As the religious have for eons written confessions, dreams, and their angers as well, it is my turn.

We Buddhists attempt to channel our anger (hopefully not just get rid of it, ultimately impossible) in the proper ways, through meditation, through action, through illumination and through community activities. These can all be either positive reactions or negatives to the anger that is boiling within us, but I am getting off topic. Let me tell you what is making my own blood boil.

I am angry that many have lost the need for depth in life. In fact, I am furious. Just today I was serving a gentleman  (I’m a waiter, which is the fate that befalls us philosophers) who looked at me after I told him I study philosophy and said,

“Why don’t you study something useful like economics?” I am still infuriated by this notion and I am now shifting by belief that I have no reason to prove to anybody why philosophy is still important, they have to show me why it's not.

I am angry that we believe we can ultimately be pleased by a surface existence. Popular culture has no evil intrinsically, but my satisfaction cannot be sustained by watching the latest TV show, no matter how good, by the most recent fashion fad (which will change in a few hours anyways).

My anathema is the continuation of staring into screens, onto pages, into each other and only seeking information. Catalogs only suffice to those who want more of the surface. The ocean is much more than just how far it stretches, but its depths make it the most mysterious of all. We are like this. You will only find some life on the surface of the ocean but to be a functional habitat for the trillions of life-forms that live there, depth is required.

Walt Whitman said there is a multiplicity within us, there are lives within us, depths to be explored, criticized, praised, changed, and kept. It infuriates me to state that our lives can be lived happily enough if we just stay on the surface. Yes, the depths are dangerous, dark, sometimes bringing from themselves nightmares and poisonous serpents but without those depths, there would be no surface for us to frolic on.

There is ferment within me. The inferno within wishes to engulf the sick belief that money automatically means anything at all besides being money. This is hardly anything new, in fact, I am beating a field of dead horses by writing any of this, but the inferno is only growing and cannot be contained. Money automatically means happiness? No. Money automatically means evil? No (despite how lovely this view looks).

Our egos have exploded and grow to disproportionate sizes—a sex tape conjures the belief that one is a celebrity who requires attention, fame, money, power. The surface, it seems, has satisfied us and has turned us into monsters. We are zeppelins that are inflated with the thin hydrogen of our most basic desires. We fly around, slowly, demanding awe from the onlookers who will only shortly burn up in the crash along with us and just another moron (pardon my French) will attempt to rebuild it, alter it just slightly, and set it up into the sky.

I am tired of dogmatism—certainty stains the eyes and the souls. I am not arguing with matter-of-facts, I am not proposing, asking, or trying to even all together persuade why all of these lead to horrendous ends, we have seen it time and time again. I am demanding that it STOPPPPPPPPP.

Has our beasthood (which is not to criticize the animal world, which is not ‘beastly’ as we like to believe, in order to inflate our own egos some more) taken over? Soon we shall be shedding our skins and underneath will not be another layer of skin, but bones and muscle. We have become this dull. We have become boring, incapable of opening our minds to foreign concepts (and the more tragic part, to “foreign people.”) We treat those who are different with disgust because they are not us.

This has gone so far that we even spread democracy with the gun. Really?????????????

What is all of this for? For life? For happiness? This provides no happiness for me, it drives me to the belief that there’s something wrong with me. How sick. Am I to believe that my belief that we have dimensions of us (and the world) that are unexplored and won’t be, that things change; there are variations and perspectives, that philosophy is dead, that the humanities are dead—no—that humanity is dead.

These are not my wishes. Humanity shouldn’t continue to decay in its iniquity, it should reach and fish within its own dangerous depths to find the pearls that only lurk at the bottom of the seas. I don’t have the answers my friends, I have my frustrations, my convictions, my love and my hope and for now, I have my life and that will suffice. But know, because I have my life, hope, convictions etc. I will not just sit idly and be satisfied with only things that I’m “supposed” to be satisfied with. I am furious that people are becoming automatons because I know for a fact they are not, but reorienting themselves to be. Let’s stand together, move together, love together and all go fishing together, within ourselves, so that we may come to the bottom and bring the pearls to the surface, which will illuminate the waves that crash along the shores of our lives.

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