Two Birds on a Tree: different models of selflessness

Discussing the illusion of self control with a friend the other day, it became clear that the idea of self as an illusion is not for everyone.

Is self truly an illusion?

It depends on what you mean by ‘self’, what you mean by ‘truly’, and what you mean by ‘illusion’. Heck, while we’re at it: it depends on what you mean by ‘is’ as well.

But before we worry too much about precise definitions of terms, it might be worth considering some of the other ways this central phenomenon of selflessness is framed.

I’ve been focusing mainly on the analogy between the illusion of a self who is in control from a Buddhist perspective, and Christian perspective of pride as the desire to be like God in the sense of (paraphrasing Aquinas) desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

But there are other models or frameworks that attempt to describe the same phenomenon of selflessness. One notable example is found in the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture, where the individual human being is shown to contain two ‘selves’: one that is involved in the world, and the other that is conscious but not involved.

two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, are perched on a branch of the same tree. One of them tastes the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the other, tasting neither, calmly looks on.

On the same tree, the individual self (jiva), deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the other as the Lord worshipped by all and His glory, he becomes free from grief.

The site where I found these excerpts from the Svetasvatara Upanishad contains a much better commentary than I could produce. The following explains the meaning of the two birds:

The form of every sentient being has two indwellers–the two Selves just like the two birds. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual self, the jiva, tastes the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented–and so forth. The individual thus undergoes experience sometimes laughing and some times weeping, immersed in thought and bewildered by his own helplessness.

The Supreme Self, on the other hand, tasting neither [sweet or bitter experiences], calmly observes. God also experiences because He is an indweller of all and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet, He looks on without eating–without being affected or conditioned by such experiences. But He does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences.

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

There are other models, other methods, and other attempts to explain the central phenomenon. These efforts have their own historical and social contexts. For example, one might view the Buddhist insistence on no-self or anatman as, in part, a refreshing reaction against the Hindu doctrine of atman – the inner self or soul, the ‘Supreme Self’ depicted in the Upanishad above.

The startling idea that we have an inner self that is divine can, over time, be taken for granted and fall far short of the reality depicted in the Upanishads. The Buddhist response reframes that reality in newly-startling terms: there is no atman, there is no enduring, divine, inner self. The nature of all phenomena is sunyata – emptiness.

What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.

 

Untying knots

I thought it was Hui Neng, but apparently Lin Chi wrote:

I have no teaching to give to people; all I do is untie knots.

I’ve recently finished the fourth draft of a novel I’m working on, and waiting for feedback from a reviewer. The drafting process has dragged on, giving way to the daily demands of raising a child. But the need to work on it, to get something done, was a fixture in the back of my mind all this time.

Now that I have nothing substantial to work on for a while, the need to get something done has lumbered into the foreground and is stomping around, nervously seeking fresh prey.

I didn’t realise how strong it was, but I guess committing to writing a book presumes some degree of long-term motivation.

So now I’m sitting here, quietly possessed by the spirit of accomplishment with no satisfying avenues of expression at hand.

It’s a rare moment of deeper self-awareness.

And in the context of recent thoughts about free will, the illusion of self, and acceptance of reality, I feel that this need to accomplish something is another knot to untie.

Because – believe it or not – I have actually accomplished things before in my life, and it doesn’t feel like this, this slightly desperate need to find a worthwhile goal to immerse myself in.

This feels quite a lot more like the boredom and frustration that often plunges us into mechanisms of distraction and escape: food, tv, games, etc.

I’ve tried to explain in earlier posts that the thoughts and impressions that feel like “me” are just thoughts and impressions. If you observe closely, “me” is always changing, and you can even ask the perennial non-dualist question: if this is “me” then who or what is it that is observing “me”?

This strong desire to accomplish something is one of those impressions that constitutes “me”. It just happens to be a very forceful and deeply held impression, one that is capable of stimulating and initiating other, associated thoughts of “me”.

In other words, this is a big knot and it is tightly bound.

So how do you untie a knot?

It’s a bit tricky, because if “you” doesn’t really exist in terms of agency and control, then the knot is being untied in spite of, not because of, the illusion of control.

This is why the untying of knots is attributed to grace – an external, divine influence – or to the equally divine wisdom or insight that cuts through the illusion at the heart of this “knot”.

Because in reality the knot itself is just a thought or impression. It is not in control, it does not have real power. It is more like a symbol of how your mind is functioning. It is like a label that tells you what is going on inside your mind.

So here’s the thing: the kind of wisdom or grace that cuts through the illusion and unties the knot is the same wisdom or grace that dispels the illusion of “me”.

And as such, this wisdom or grace does not come about because of anything “you” or “me” can do. Rather, it comes about despite the illusion of “me” and “you”.

It comes about, because it comes about. It simply comes about, and the mind ceases to create the impression that this “knot” has power, or that this knot is “you”.

Pride and the delusion of self

Seeing parallels between religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism depends on a familiarity with the themes expressed in their mystical and esoteric writings.

For example, it is thought by many that Buddhism denies the existence of a soul and that it aims at a nihilistic destruction of the psychological self.

Likewise, many believe that Christianity focuses on heavenly rewards for earthly virtue, through a peculiar filial relationship with a supernatural being, mediated by arcane, seemingly arbitrary laws or commandments.

The reality is that Buddhism and Christianity are neither the same, nor are they entirely different.

But after many years of reading the commonalities have come to the fore, and the differences seem much less significant. I don’t spend time worrying about how reincarnation can be reconciled with the Christian afterlife, because in terms of my own practice these questions are not significant.

What are significant are things like the Christian perspective on pride in relation to the Buddhist perspective on the illusory nature of the self.

Here’s one of my favourite passages on pride, from the 4th Century ascetic monk, John Cassian:

For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall.

What he’s describing is the fall of Lucifer, who was the greatest of the angels but succumbed to pride and so fell from heaven.

Cassian describes the sin of pride in terms of Lucifer’s false belief that attributed his own greatness to himself rather than to God. Cassian goes on in the context of the subsequent fall of man:

For while he believed that by the freedom of his will and by his own efforts he could obtain the glory of Deity, he actually lost that glory which he already possessed through the free gift of the Creator.

The logic of pride and the fall is the same. It is a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and self-sufficiency. Cassian draws on scripture to demonstrate the contrast between pride and the corresponding remedy of humility:

For the one says, “I will ascend into heaven;” the other, “My soul was brought low even to the ground.” The one says, “And I will be like the most High;” the other, “Though He was in the form of God, yet He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”

Finally, Cassian describes how we can overcome pride:

And so we can escape the snare of this most evil spirit, if in the case of every virtue in which we feel that we make progress, we say these words of the Apostle: “Not I, but the grace of God with me,” and “by the grace of God I am what I am;” and “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

That last line is especially significant, as it undermines the freedom of the will and sense of agency that are themselves the greatest symptom of our pride.

This is where I see a direct parallel with Buddhist teaching on the nature of the self. An important part of this teaching is that our sense of self and our cherished identity are a delusion that we take for real. Enlightenment amounts in part to seeing that these selfish thoughts and impressions are not substantial, that there is no self who sits in control of our will and actions.

This is what “puffed up” means in Cassian’s words. Pride is an inflation of our sense of self, til it obscures the reality of our total dependence on God.

The problem with the Christian teaching on pride is that we often interpret it in very limited, human terms. We think pride is just about arrogance, and selfishness is about being inconsiderate of others.

But taken to their extreme we see both in the nature of the fall and in the remedy that pride is much more profound than this. On a spiritual level, pride is a mistaken belief in the primacy and power of our own will. Or to put it more strongly, it is a sense of ownership and control over our will, when in truth “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Christianity is predominantly a devotional religion, focusing on the individual relationship with God. Yet in the depths of this relationship the mystics report a sense of their own negation in God’s love. That is, they experience a union with God that totally changes their own sense of self and agency.

Buddhism is not typically a devotional religion. Instead it focuses on this experience of the negation of the self, without attempting to express in devotional terms the reality into which the self is subsumed.

But in both cases, the obstacle to this insight is the delusion of control, of will, of self-sufficiency. Buddhists will not talk of it in terms of pride and humility, and Christians will not talk of it in terms of self and no-self. Nonetheless it is my belief that they are speaking of the same thing.

What is understanding?

For many years I’ve taken for granted the power of understanding to change one’s perspective for the better.

But seeking to always understand more, better, or deeper is as much a form of escapism as any addiction or distraction.

The trouble with understanding is that it masquerades as a pure positive. It’s hard to say “I understand well enough” or “I don’t need to understand better” let alone “I’m okay with not understanding”.

Even coming to the realisation that “understanding is escapist” feels like yet more evidence of the value of understanding!

Perhaps it will help to know what “understanding” really means? That might risk us seeking to understand understanding, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Understand literally means “to stand in the midst of”.

In practice, understanding is another word for “knowing”. Yet it implies the kind of intimate knowledge that comes with standing amidst or among the thing known. To me it also implies a kind of immersion in the thing known. That’s why I prefer it to “comprehend” which is literally to seize or take hold of something, with implications of use, mastery, and control.

This linguistic clue is significant.

Some people seek knowledge for the sake of power. Others seek it because “the truth shall set you free”. The difference in intention and locus of control is the difference between thinking you can use this knowledge to attain your desired end, versus thinking that reality itself is already perfect if only we could experience it truthfully.

The latter is theoretically superior from a spiritual perspective. Yet in practice it risks being just another way of escaping from your experience of reality.

This is what fuels the escapist pursuit of understanding: the idea that the more we know about reality and the better we understand our spiritual predicament, the closer we come to a different, more positive experience.

There’s merit to the pursuit of understanding because many of the mistakes we make are due to ignorance. “Understanding” stands for the kind of knowledge that defeats ignorance and saves us from suffering and error.

It is not unusual to have great realisations along the spiritual path, to understand things better, and experience significant changes as a result. The problem arises when we tune in to understanding as the path itself, and seek to replicate these realisations again and again through our own power.

Yet it often feels as though we only had the realisation because we sought to understand in the first place. If we hadn’t tried to work it out, would we ever have found the answer?

Perhaps we should ask instead where this knowledge, realisation, and understanding comes from. Do we really just set out to know, and by applying our minds gain the knowledge we seek? Do we truly control our acquisition of knowledge? Are we really responsible for finding the answers that cause change?

At first it seemed like this was the case. But over time it’s become more and more apparent that we’re not in control of our lives, we are the product of them. We are our lives, our experience of reality.

In that sense it is better to observe that my thoughts – whether ignorant or knowing – arise and fall as if of their own accord.

My sense of control is a delusion, because the ‘me’ and the feeling of control are likewise thoughts and impressions that arise and fall. My mind creates an impression of who I am, and an impression of being in control. It creates an impression of understanding but it also creates the impression of ignorance.

This train of thought is a strange one. It is mysterious and seems paradoxical. It’s as if I’m saying that everything is outside my control, yet that implies a control in the first place.

The truth is that I don’t direct the course of my understanding, because the impression of doing so is just another impression. The struggle to cut through the ignorance is another impression. The sense of “aha!” at finally understanding is likewise another impression.

What is motivating me to write this now, to examine this now, is not “me”. It is all coming from the same source, whether it be the thought of continuing, or the thought of seeking distraction in food or household work.

That’s why one branch of Buddhism says:

As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

Delusion and realisation belong to a self that is made up of thoughts and impressions but mistaken for the real self. If that mistake is not made, there is no delusion and hence no realisation.

Yet we continually fall back into this non-self that takes up the mantle of a real self and we sustain it continually through thoughts and impressions.

Why do we do that? Well, what if the answer is that we don’t do that. It’s simply done.

It reminds me of something I was trying to write a while ago. We’ve all heard of Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. What it means is that Descartes was looking for something, some piece of knowledge that he couldn’t possibly doubt.

He settled on the idea that he couldn’t doubt that he exists, because in doubting his own existence it proves that someone must exist to do the doubting. Hence, if I’m doubting, I must exist to doubt.

But subsequent philosophers have argued that this is a mistake. Descartes only assumed from experience that doubts must belong to minds that can doubt. But even that can be doubted.

So what can Descartes know for sure?

Just that thinking is happening.

Buddhism and Christianity: a brief convergence

G.K. Chesterton once teased his contemporary proponents of comparative religion as arguing that:

Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.

He was right in that enthusiasm for a “common truth” in all religion seems almost by definition to resolve comfortably in the domain of a Buddhist-inspired mysticism. Modern advocates of a universal religion still tend to fall into the trap of equating Christ with the Buddha, and then cutting out the bits that don’t fit.

But Chesterton was not especially well informed about Buddhism, and I suspect that those who want to Buddhify Christ may be thinking a little too narrow in their approach to the problem.

That’s not what this post is about, however, and lest I get sidetracked let’s keep things simple.

After some years of consideration and study, it seems fairly straightforward that what is described in Buddhism as Sunyata or ’emptiness’ corresponds to the apophatic or “negative theology” aspect of God as something that defies the grasp of our intellect.

Buddhism may therefore be viewed from a Christian perspective as a conceptually negative attempt to enter into a profound mystical relationship with God, both understood and experienced as the hidden foundation of all reality.

From a Buddhist point of view, orthodox Christianity is a little harder to grasp. Okay, it’s actually a lot harder to grasp without conceding some points that don’t seem to lie in the usual ambit of Buddhist metaphysics.

But if all form arises from emptiness, and we understand (thanks to negative theology) that by ‘God’ Christians refer to this emptiness, then wouldn’t we have to allow that ‘creation’, or the coming into being and sustenance of all things, must be the same as the arising of forms out of emptiness?

The stumbling block of an anthropomorphised view of God as some kind of Zeus-like deity sitting above the clouds and contemplating how to interfere in our lives is not the view held by orthodox Christianity.

The real stumbling block is that orthodox Christians believe Jesus Christ to have been an incarnation (coming into form) of God (emptiness), as a true expression of the emptiness, in a way that differs from the Buddha, where the Buddha is understood to be an ordinary human who realised emptiness.

You can see why there is such a temptation to reduce Christ to the level of a Buddha, or to say that Christ’s claims of divinity were misunderstood by his followers, or that they are somehow the ‘equivalent’ of the Buddha’s enlightened state.

Yet at the same time, some Buddhist sects have gone in the opposite direction, elevating and even divinising the Buddha until he represents not just an awakened or enlightened human, but enlightenment and emptiness itself.

Some people are offended by Christian exceptionalism. That’s understandable, but Buddhism can also be exceptionalist in its own way – viewing other religions as inferior paths that do not contain the complete truth – it’s just that reincarnation allows Buddhism a much more relaxed attitude on a number of issues.

Since I’m angling for a Buddhist perspective on Christianity, let’s look at it from the more pragmatic perspective of the individual path to enlightenment. When Christians hold up the crucifix they are venerating the image of the highest possible being (God) that was reduced to the lowest and most miserable human condition – unjust suffering and death at the hands of others.  They venerate this image in the understanding that the dead God-human did not remain in death, but came back to life, and in so doing revealed the truth about life, death, God, and humanity.

Is it any wonder that his followers subsequently lost their fear of death, changed their lives, and gained a new understanding of their relationship with God?

Each religion makes sense in its own context. We can also find points of contact between the different religions. But when we do this we are stepping outside the original frame of either religion. To try to make them all fit together is inevitably a different activity. To see them as saying the same thing is ultimately a solitary experience.

I guess the real question is whether it is otherwise for anyone else?

Just one look

Embed from Getty Images

I came across this website recently where a guy put forward what we might call a quasi-spiritual theory and practice.

His theory is that all our psychological unease and strife is caused by a subconscious “fear of life”. This fear of life is linked into a desire to know ourselves as we are. I don’t know which comes first, the fear or the desire. It doesn’t really matter at this point.

We go looking for this ‘self’ everywhere…here we insert the usual spiritual story of seeking peace and happiness in material possessions or power or self-image.

The usual spiritual story would encourage us to look within to find our true self, and find in that all the happiness and peace we wrongly sought outside ourselves.

The problem with this approach is that instead of just looking inside and going “oh, there I am”, we implicitly reason that given how desperately we pursue happiness and avoid suffering in life, this ‘self’ we need to find must be pretty spectacular. It must be magnificent and intoxicating and profound in direct proportion to our desire for happiness and our aversion to suffering.

That’s where this “Just One Look” idea comes in. The guy who runs the site claims firstly that this “find your self” theme is not meant to be a mystical spiritual quest. It would probably be better presented as a simple psychological method. In fact he refers to the “fear of life” problem as a “psychological auto-immune disease” for which the act of looking within is simply “medicine”.

His method is, first, to recognise that you can move your attention around at will. Second, that you have a feeling of what it is to be “me”, a feeling that you can either discover directly just by looking for it, or indirectly by going to a normal childhood memory and remembering what it felt like to be you at that time.

This feeling of “me” is not mysterious or esoteric. It’s pretty straightforward and we typically take it for granted, chasing after emotions and external or internal stimuli.

But according to the theory, this “me” feeling is what we actually desire. It’s something that never really changes, and once we look at it with our attention (intentionally, I presume), it sets in motion a gradual but more thorough psychological change.

As far as I can tell, what happens is that when we look at that feeling of “me” while understanding that this “me” is the antidote to the fear of life, all our fear-based psychological habits become superfluous. They don’t vanish overnight, but their motive force – the fear – no longer has such power because you now know that this “me” is your unchanging and consistent internal reference-point.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. It has a great deal in common with elements of spiritual practice in Vedanta and Buddhism. And to be fair to the ‘spiritual’ side of it, spirit and soul are proto-scientific terms. Psychology is, after all, the logic of the soul.

In Vedantan or Buddhist terms, I think this little method is picking up on the theme of misidentification: that we wrongly identify with impermanent or illusory things, whether they be ‘external’ like reputation, career, etc., or ‘internal’ like positive or negative emotions, thoughts, intellectual process, etc.

Some methods teach us to disidentify or ‘see through’ those objects, those false selves or idols. Others focus on finding the ‘true self’ within. But as the author notes, this has accrued a great deal of spiritual baggage along the way.

It is my experience that there is one desire that drives us all and that is the desire to know what I am. This desire, in most lives, for most of the time, is wrongly understood and projected upon objects of acquisition or aversion. It is projected upon objects of acquisition like relationships, power, money, position in the herd, education, and understanding. The seeking after understanding as a way of quenching the thirst of this desire to know what I am is a huge mistake. The nature of this desire is denied, is unrecognized. It is not recognized to be the desire to know what I am but it is easy to see it in operation, as we are continuously trying to understand our story, to put it in a good context, to fix it, to shape it, to get rid of the things that cannot be if I am to be what I must be, in order to accept myself.

The endless effort to run the memory tape of my life, so I have a consistent and coherent structure that I can call “me,” which, of course, always fails. Moment to moment, it fails. This story about what I am, the story that entails and incorporates all of my emotions and feelings, unconscious urges, the things that I do in the world, the things that I have done, even the thoughts that come to my mind, this is an endless backbreaking doomed-to-failure effort to provide a structure, a face, a shape that is stable and safe, and that I can say, “That is me.” There are always these things about me popping up, that I have to say “It’s not me.” But that is the desire that drives it all and the culture is porous to this reality. It shows up all the time. “Be all that you can be.” “That is not who I am.” “Let me be who I am.” It is porous to the understanding of what is really driving us.

Even so, it’s very easy for people to pick up this non-spiritual theory and turn it into another spiritualised practice. I can see traces of it already, where people grab hold of key phrases and imbue them with significance that says implicitly “If I can just follow this practice, then I will be happy”. It’s entirely possible to fall into the trap of thinking “If I can only realise that happiness is not contingent on anything, then I’ll be happy!”

It helps that the guy putting forward this theory does not have the usual trappings of a guru or cult-leader. It’s very easy to not be invested in something I’ve just read on a website written by some American guy I’ll never meet.

Maybe that’s why it worked: there’s no implication that this “me” you need to look at is esoteric or religious or whatever. It’s just a psychological base that, when identified, provides stability and a frame of reference to undercut our hyperactive and otherwise all-absorbing emotional and cognitive states.

It’s like discovering that you don’t drink enough water…and then a bunch of other issues and behaviours turn out to be caused by moderate dehydration.

I would say that “fear of life” is likely derived from the sense that life’s fluidity and unexpected changes can profoundly effect us. The sense of “me” is like a built-in safety-mechanism that prevents us from being totally overwhelmed or overrun or changed. But like any safety-mechanism, it can’t reassure you if you don’t know it’s there.

Dharma and Natural Law

Embed from Getty Images

Law of nature: buddha eat too much, buddha get fat.

In the usual broad strokes, and with unforgivable brevity stemming from a bad mood that is, let’s face it, probably intrinsic, let me kill two birds with one stone and reply to Dtcwee’s comment on the is-ought problem under the guise of presenting an esoteric observation from religious philosophy:

Dharma and Natural Law are basically the same thing.

But only basically, of course. If they were entirely the same thing it would be obvious to everyone. On the other hand, Natural Law alone is not obvious to many people, as evidenced by how people usually respond to my efforts to convey it.

[Either I’m really bad at communicating, or other people are really bad at understanding. Obviously I prefer the latter option, but there’s a third possibility: that the things I’m trying to communicate simply cannot be communicated easily.]

First let’s try to find some examples to cover the is-ought problem as requested.

Let’s say a friend says you ought to buy gold right now. You ask why. He replies “because the price is about to go up”. You reply “so what?” He explains that if you buy gold now, and the price then goes up, you’ll have made money easily.

So what?

Your friend, despite his misgivings, explains that money is not always easy to make, but in this case it will be quite easy to make quite a lot of money.

So what?

Your friend, now thinking you’re trolling him, nonetheless resolves himself to crush your whimsical spirit and proceeds thus: everyone – including you – needs money to live. Without money, you will waste away in poverty and deprivation.

So what?

Oh, so that’s how this is gonna go, is it? Okay, well, poverty and deprivation are horrible and humiliating and painful.

So what?

Well, your former friend says through gritted teeth, you should do whatever you can to avoid horrible, humiliating and painful circumstances.

Why?

Because they’re bad!

Why?

Well…nobody likes them!

So what?

So you should avoid things you don’t like.

Why?

Because….if you don’t, further bad things will happen to you.

So what?

So…eventually you’ll die and everyone will spit on your grave?

So what?

So, that’s a really bad thing to happen to you!

Why?

Because…everyone views it as a bad thing.

So what?

So you should too!

Why?

Because it’s normal.

So what?

Don’t you want to be normal?

Should I?

Look, we both know that you know all this. You do understand the value of money, and you will follow my advice to buy gold once this tedious argument is over, because you do want to avoid pain, suffering, and humiliation, don’t you?

Yes. But ought I?

Okay, I hope that wasn’t too painful to read, but if you look at it carefully (or maybe it’s obvious) you’ll see that every time the friend makes an ‘is’ statement – a statement about the way the world is – the other guy replies ‘so what?’. Every time the friend makes an ‘ought’ statement – should, ought, or ‘bad’ which implies ought – the reply is ‘why?’

The friend keeps trying to use ‘is’ statements to justify ‘ought’ statements, but he can never really convince the annoying moral skeptic that he ought to do anything.

The discourse does manage to trace the specific ‘ought’ of “you ought to invest in gold right at this moment” back to the more general underlying ‘ought’ of “you ought to act in a way that avoids future pain, suffering, humiliation, etc.”

But that’s as good as it gets for the friend. No matter what he says, he can’t explain to the skeptic why he ought to accept an ought. The skeptic isn’t even convinced by his own desires. He knows he wants to avoid pain, suffering, humiliation etc., but he also knows that he can turn his skepticism against his own wants and desires.

Just because I desire something doesn’t mean i ‘ought’ to do it. Why ought I follow my desires anyway?

There’s no real answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good or telling question. All it really shows is that if you choose pure skepticism as a starting point there’s nothing within the limits of skepticism that can take you out of it.

The rules of the game only work if you accept them. The rules do not countenance convincing unwilling people to play the game. Monopoly doesn’t have penalty cards for sullen turds who don’t want to play.  Sure you won’t win the game if you don’t care, but the whole point is that I don’t care, right?

This is actually a pretty good analogy for Natural Law and, while we’re at it, Divine Law and its Eastern counterpart of Dharma.

Dharma is prominent in all Indian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Its meaning varies in different contexts, but broadly accumulates around the concept of “cosmic law and order”.

What makes Dharma especially interesting is that in a Buddhist context the word takes on multiple meanings, from the aforementioned “law/order” to the teachings of the Buddha, to a philosophical term for phenomena generally.

This gives it allusions that are analogous to those implicit in Natural Law, once you understand that Nature really refers to essence, the metaphysical principle by which blank existence is informed in the creation of all things.

In other words, both Dharma and Natural Law take on the highest significance when they are viewed as reflections of ‘the way things are’ on the deepest level.

Better still, Dharma in a Buddhist context retains its significance despite the Buddhist emphasis on Sunyata or ’emptiness’ as the ultimate level of reality.  So the impression that Buddhism transcends rules and laws and phenomenal reality is belied not only by the continued recognition of Dharma as having some kind of relevance on a mundane level, but moreso on the depiction of the Buddha’s teaching itself as the Dharma.

Dharma dharma everywhere, nor anything permanent to cling to.

To my mind, this perspective of Dharma keeps morality in the right tone as a part of, firstly, the order of reality, and secondly the path to Enlightenment laid out by the Buddha and his followers.

In other words, it maintains a good balance between morality and metaphysics, a balance that is sometimes lost when we recognise the divine implications of the moral order, and (sometimes) ditch natural law in favour of the easier-to-grasp divine command theory.

I’m sure the same problem occurs in practice in Buddhism: perhaps people become fatalistic or moralistic with regard to Dharma and karmic bonds. In this case, the remedy to both is to remember the ‘order’ of which the law is only one aspect.

Natural law is, after all, the law implicit in the created order, where law is etymologically “something laid down and fixed”, without necessarily conveying the juridical or punitive aspects of law.

Natural law is, as NL theorists never tire of saying, more analogous to “the laws of physics” than to the justice system.

But as with the monopoly example, Natural Law and Dharma are really both the rules of the game. The difference is that you can’t help but play, like it or not.

Some people like to gloat that religious morality or religion itself is a self-interested prospect: that people only follow it because they want to avoid suffering or pursue happiness. That is, of course, the underlying mechanism of the whole game.

And while that might leave religion incapable of convincing the utter skeptic, don’t forget that skepticism itself is a choice, one that cannot be compelled on its own terms either.

Cynical and amoral: the dark side of the mindfulness fad

My latest piece at MercatorNet looks at the dark side of mainstreaming mindfulness meditation:

I’ve met and worked with people who are deeply into this kind of meditation and promote it at the middle-management level. The scary thing is that they aren’t even completely cynical; they genuinely believe in the near-magical benefits of meditation, and see no problem in advancing Google-inspired programs in their own corporate territory. They see mindfulness and meditation in uncritically elevated terms, and are equally uncritical of the corporate structures of which they are a part. Meditation will save the world, but it turns out there’s nothing bad to save it from.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/cynical-and-amoral-the-dark-side-of-the-mindfulness-fad

Reversion in Buddhism?

My PhD reading on Wang Bi the third century AD Neo-Daoist philosopher revealed the scholarly view that in his elevation of wu or “emptiness/non-being” as metaphysically and spiritually preeminent, Wang Bi prepared the way for the eventual popularity of Mahayana Buddhism in China.

In other words, Wang Bi’s metaphysical interpretation of wu gave Chinese thinkers an entry-point for the Buddhist concept of Sunyata or “emptiness”.

Reversion

So I am surprised to find in a description of Sunyata allusions to something that in a Daoist context is called ‘reversion’:

Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and life are the reality of a continuous existence.

Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this “state of existence”, everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also the foundation for all activities and functions.

The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this “state of cessation”. This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of prajna.

I have often seen references to impermanence in the context of Sunyata, and of course if Sunyata underlies the rising and falling of existences, then Sunyata is metaphysically prior. But I have never before seen rising and falling depicted as a cycle with human values attributed to either end of the cycle. Yet as we see above, the text describes our (incorrect) tendency to focus on the ‘rising’ part of the cycle when in fact ‘falling’ is identified as the ‘home’ and ‘foundation’ of existences, activities, and functions, such that Amitabha is depicted as radiating light and life from the “state of cessation”.

This sounds strikingly similar to the Daoist principle of reversion that Edward Slingerland has elucidated so well in his discussion of wu-wei in the Laozi (Daodejing), and which I quoted previously in my Easter Vigil Notes:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.

[…]

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

It would be intriguing and encouraging indeed if the Buddhist interpretation quoted earlier is representative of Mahayana more generally. I’ve not come across it before, though most of what I have read has been far more preoccupied with maintaining the peculiar integrity of the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, and advancing ’emptiness’ against the more compelling evidence of our senses.

Indeed, absent the ‘necessary/contingent’ distinction presented in Christian-Hellenic philosophy, I’m not sure I could ever have grasped ’emptiness’ appropriately either. Buddhism has the handicap of having originated in opposition to a religious metaphysics that had – as far as I understand it – overplayed the idea of a divine, imperishable substratum of being. So we end up with quite challenging attempts to explain ’emptiness’ as things kinda sorta both existing and not existing, which I find very unsatisfying.

Much better, in my admittedly eccentric opinion, to explain Buddhism as the realisation of the contingency of all creation, without the corresponding necessity of a creator. And yet I think the creator is there, in the very modest positive depictions of Sunyata. Buddhism is like an apophatic theology written by someone deeply traumatised by an excessive cataphatic upbringing.  Imagine someone raised in the context of an overly superficial evangelical protestantism where God is essentially depicted as an immortal superhero, subsequently having an experience of “divine darkness” a la Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in, of course, an entirely pre-Christian and non-Judaic context:

The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.