Monday, 18 May 2015

Liberalism, Buddhism, the annoyance of other people

This post is more than somewhat inspired by Average Buddhist's recent ProgBud post, "Faith, Buddhism and a Hurricane" and exists as a follow on to Denis Kurmanov's recent posts, "Politics" and De Profundis Inferni." In all three of these posts, the Buddhist writer expresses dissatisfaction with life and a sort of disappointment -- or, maybe, "anguish" is best -- in wrestling with the beast that Buddhism can be.

A touchstone for me is my favorite description of the goal of Buddhist practice taken from an article written by B. Alan Wallace and Shauna L. Shapiro entitled, "Mental Balance and Well Being" from the October 2006 issue of American Psychologist. The bit I like reads thus:
The goal of Buddhist practice is the realization of a state of well-being that is not contingent on the presence of pleasurable stimuli, either external or internal. According to Buddhism, this movement toward well-being is a fundamental part of being human. As the Dalai Lama commented,
I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.
A fundamental insight of Buddhism is the recognition of the fluctuating, impermanent nature of all phenomena that arise in dependence on preceding causes and contributing conditions. Mistakenly grasping objective things and events as true sources of happiness produces a wide range of psychological problems, at the root of which is the reification of oneself as an immutable, unitary, independent ego. By first recognizing these ways of misapprehending oneself and the rest of the world, one can then begin to identify the actual sources of genuine well-being. The true causes of such well-being are rooted in a wholesome way of life, are nurtured through the cultivation of mental balance, and come to fruition in the experience of wisdom and compassion. In this way, the pursuits of genuine well-being, understanding, and virtue come to be thoroughly integrated.

Now, just because I like this bit of text doesn't mean, of course, that I apply its wisdom, earnestly. Hardly. I'm a bit of a crank. I often get my dander up and charge citadels of power in an effort to change the world!1 I am highly unsuccessful in all my efforts and am left to stew about it afterward. Often, after my Don Quixote thing, I ride my donkey back home and re-imagine all that I did, only with me being much more articulate with nastier retorts and with my opponents left writhing on the ground, shaking their fists at me, screaming "You've beaten us, again, Armstrong! Damn you, you golden-tongued genius! And you're handsome, too. Well dressed. And we like your hair!"

I joke a bit in the above paragraph, but what is certainly true from it is that I FAIL in my efforts to make a better world and I REVISIT my failed efforts in my head and allow that to multiply real personal misery.

One area in my life where I'm quasi-successful is in regard to the homeless community of Sacramento and West Sacramento. I am no longer homeless, but I still know many of the guys and continue to blog about homelessness and seek the best for the guys, to get them off the street having meaningful, productive lives.

Sometimes, thoughts cross my mind that take me out of the moment. Recently, I was talking to a really nice thoughtful homeless fellow I know, Milton2, when something I know about him occurred to me: He is 48 years old and has spent half his life in prison. What he has been convicted of, repeatedly, is child sexual molestation. I've read in academic journals that for every conviction of child molestation there are fifty instances where the crime is never reported or the charges against the perpetrator are dropped, often because the traumatized child cannot bear the pain of memory of her experience.

So, how is it possible to have a cordial conversation with a very likable man, knowing that his background is reprehensible? I think it starts with the Walt Whitman idea that each of us are multitudes and that with this Encyclopedia of Self we can find empathy for anyone. Whitman wrote, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

Now, my child-molester friend certainly isn't multitudes; he's a psychopath whose exclusive interest is doing things for his own enjoyment. And when I described Milton as "thoughtful" and "nice" this is true in the way he comes off, but only because he is actively striving to manipulate me. Nonetheless, he is interesting, good company and I am filled with compassion for him.

The world would be a better place had Milton never been born. Because of the real possibility that Milton will re-offend, I would be at best ambivalent to learn of Milton's death now, today, because I can enough imagine the horror for a child when she is sexually attacked.

It's a crazy-ass world we live in, but I have come to believe that people do the best they can with the twisted minds and crooked backs, sorrows and limitations that beset them. This is a different "frame of reference" than what most people have with others. Nonetheless, I'm convinced it's the correct one.


1. Recently, I made a mighty effort to get the child-hating book Go the Fuck to Sleep out of the library. "WHAT child-hating?" asked one librarian. "It's humor! It's a satire!"

2. Not his real name.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Faith, Buddhism and a Hurricane

The Average Buddhist has been quiet for a while. Life intervenes. Blah, blah. Yes, I’m busy, but the truth is my silence has more to do with existential angst than with my “To Do” list. I’m suffering from a serious crisis of faith. 

It has been twenty years since my first crisis of faith catapulted me from the Episcopalianism of my childhood. Growing up I was very involved in the church. We attended every week and I served as an altar girl throughout middle and high school. It was gratifying and centering at the time to be so intimately involved in the liturgy. Then one day I was sitting in the choir pew reciting the familiar Nicene Creed and I realized I didn’t believe what I was saying. It seemed sudden at the time, but it really wasn't. The words were etched into my memory and I could speak them like a reflex, but my belief and my faith were long gone. 

In Buddhism I found a refuge. The Four Noble Truths make sense to me as the fundamental way of the universe. One’s manner of understanding and interacting with those Truths supports a lifetime of evolution. In Buddhism, it is not necessary to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient superhuman being who blesses and damns, who prevents certain disasters but who in some undefined “plan” allows other tragedies to transpire. Even the words of the historic Buddha himself are open for proof by experiential testing. Some would say that faith is irrelevant in Buddhism. I’ve made the grim discovery that it’s not.

My my primary beef is with the teaching that the enlightened mind is the truth of human nature and that the horrible things people think and do are nothing but clouds covering the blue sky. As Buddhists, this is something we are asked to accept on faith and I just can’t do that right now. Despite that, I find myself paralyzed by the wish that I could do something more to disperse that cloud cover - something big, something heroic - that would turn the heads of the masses and wake everyone at once. Instead I am stuck with the drip, drip, drip. I am just one drop of water carving a canyon from a stream.

Merriam-Webster defines “faith” as “a firm believe in something for which there is no proof.” There is absolutely no proof that human nature is fundamentally good. There is ample proof that the opposite is true. As a person who desires enlightenment for all, where does that leave me? Suffering.

Still I should have learned by now, yes? Desire and attachment is the root of suffering. Desiring enlightenment for all is the root of an enormous amount of suffering on my part. So, what? Do I abandon it? Unfortunately to date I find that I’m unable to do that. Even if I could, what good would that do anyone else? If I become inured to the cruelty and the suffering of others, I become a part of the problem. Round and round. My cloud cover spins into a hurricane. I’m not sure how long the storm will last and the weatherman’s on break.

Anyone else feel this way too?

Thursday, 7 May 2015

"Real" Buddhism: Book vs. Folk

The following is a guest post from Eisel Mazard, a formidable self-taught scholar of numerous Buddhist languages, regions, and historical periods. Read more from his blog:
I received a request to make expansions to an already-long article.  I tried to make these as brief as possible, and in now glancing at them in isolation (i.e., without the rest of the article surrounding them), they seem as if they might make sense juxtaposed in a single blog.
How important is the example of Dharaṇi?  In North-Eastern Thailand, Hayashi Yukio observed the cult of Dharaṇi (here transliterated as Thornani) closely bound into the most intimate and ultimate of rituals, the treatment of the remains of the dead:
First [the mourners] gather before the ashes of the deceased and pour water […] onto them to cool them down.  At the same time, the phu liang and her siblings, (mostly women) place the tray of food beside the ashes and the eldest addresses the winyan of the deceased, and the earth goddess, Mae Thorani.  "We have come because today is the day for collecting the bones.  We will invite the monks and make merit. […] Mae Thorani, please take merit (to the deceased).  This is our merit (bun khong hao)." [Yukio Hayashi, 2003, Practical Buddhism among the Thai-Lao, p. 183]
If funeral rituals may be supposed to be central to religion (or at least to the anthropological evaluation of religion), Theravāda Buddhism is certainly not an exception to that rule.  In this example we see the goddess Dharaṇi taking on a crucial role in both the funeral rite and in what is commonly called "merit-transfer", acting as the intercessory deity conveying the merit to the dead.  This imagines her as having a place of tremendous power, moving between the realms of gods and men in the cosmology of Buddhism: "The merit transferred through these rituals […] is said to be delivered to the deceased after first being received by Mae Thorani or thewada (divinities) and notifying yommabun (officials who follow the Lord of Death [yom])."  That role, in the study of any religion, would be considered very important indeed, and yet we here see it assigned to a goddess whose name almost escaped notice in the Pali canon (and a name that, even where it does appear, most likely had its religious significance "reverse-engineered", as described above, or perhaps we might say "retconned", in the informal parlance of our times).
I can't say that I'm employing this example as part of a debate about folk Buddhism (vs. "Book Buddhism").  The notion of debate presumes that all parties have the capacity to be persuaded by the evidence; debates about abortion policy within the Republican Party are far more earnest than debates about the status of ancient texts within academia.  At the intersection of religion and politics, the human aptitude to be selectively blind to the evidence is developed to the highest levels of virtuosity.  In an old essay, I mentioned (briefly) the case of a professor "who felt that my work supported his own conclusion that the Pali canon contained no description of the Buddha as an historical figure at all", whereas my work supported the opposite conclusion. (Link here)  Although Pali scholars themselves are susceptible to selective blindness in their own way(s), those who cannot read Pali will simply offer any ideological justification imaginable for why it's unnecessary to learn to read the ancient sources.  There's no debate possible on that point: the written word is powerless against the self-righteousness of canonical illiterates --and they try to gain some support from the plurality of claims to canonical literacy (i.e., Pali vs. Chinese vs. Tibetan vs. echoes-of-Sanskrit, etc.), as if the possibility that more than one ancient language could be useful vindicates their position of reading none of them.

We have a very instructive example of this non-debate unfolding in the works of Martin Southwold (whom I critique at greater length in Chinese, here):
Southwold presents his own methodology in direct contrast to the earlier precedents of Richard Gombrich and Stanley Tambiah, both of whom explored questions surrounding the application of anthropology to Theravāda Buddhism in their early works.  Hayashi Yukio describes Tambiah's early writing (of the 1970s) as "attempt[ing] to integrate the methods of Indologists and anthropologists."  The resulting mixed-method proceeds from the crucial assumption that, "According to Tambiah, if it is texts that define Buddhism, then practices and concepts not found in those texts, even though they may evolve as the actions of Buddhists, belong to the domain of non-Buddhist behavior."  As an almost perfect antithesis, Southwold stated that he felt, "a rooted refusal to state, or even imply, that village Buddhism is not true Buddhism", in contrast to the views that Gombrich reported (and that Southwold admits he also heard himself, though mostly from middle-class informants), "that village Buddhism 'is corrupt', or 'is not true Buddhism', or 'is not really Buddhism at all'."
The problem here is not quite "a false dichotomy", but perhaps just the wrong dichotomy for the job: we can study "village Buddhism" with a warm, accepting, open-minded attitude while we remain acutely aware of how folklore differs from the more ancient, canonical texts.  Even if there were not so many centuries to separate the two, frankly, it would be worthwhile to remain aware of how popular religion differs from (unpopular) philosophy.  Conversely, if we're ignorant of the ancient texts, we cannot really remedy that ignorance by being (uncritically) flattering toward folk traditions, and refusing to regard them as corrupt (even if some of the adherents themselves do, etc.).

Either people believe there's a long-haired, near-naked earth-goddess who delivers "merit" from their funeral rituals to the spirits of the dead… or they don't.

Apart from the question of whether or not these beliefs can be vindicated by reason or evidence, we can ask (with an open mind) whether or not the given belief is consistent with the written record of Buddhist philosophy --and so on for all the other colorful local customs.

In some sense, I feel the whole debate is dishonest if the only possible outcome is an author deciding what his/her next essay is going to be about.  Real, earnest debates about religion (just like politics) have implications for how we're going to raise our own grandchildren, how we're going to bury our own grandparents, or how we're going to strive to "live the good life", in Aristotle's sense.  I don't think that any of the academic defenders of folklore-based Buddhism would want to teach their own children to believe in these rituals; by contrast, back when I was defending book-based Buddhism, I really, sincerely, wanted to encourage more people to learn Pali and read the books.

Monday, 4 May 2015


Alas we have come to the time where political discussions begin and our true natures are exposed!

I must first say that American politics confuses me to no end. I reject the idea of a two party system, it's atrocious. I do not, however, reject unity among people that is strong enough to potentially lead to a two party system? (Perhaps that's idealistic logic, but I'll give my naivety in this topic and the nation that I call home some benefit of the doubt.)

In terms of economic affiliated terms such as "capitalist" and "socialist" I'd fit strongly with the latter. I do not believe that either of these theories/methodologies are ontological. There are a lot of implications on metaphysical claims (which I find most fun to discuss) in both. A separation of market and the Will of a person in choice, the ability to strive for one's own Well-being together as a community is a strong argument for capitalism. Unity among diversity, a common goal so strong and the knowledge, as a whole group, that Life is present in such a powerful way that there are certain things much more important, worthy, and priceless than money can buy or offer on the market. This latter statement is not a necessary argument for socialism, in fact, socialism is often anathema to diversity. This ought not be the case.

I'll bring it back to American politics with a bit of Aristotelian zest. Consider our duties as citizens, whichever class we occupy and whatever frame of mind we have--contrarian trolls or Enlightened and supportive poets etc etc all influence the wonderful invisible whole, the nation. What's wrong with the statement here? The nation is not a powerful enough word to describe what our link to unity ought to be. It is a long stretch to state that therefore the phenomena as politics as we know it is false: I am critiquing the lust over the ideas of contracts. This critique goes against both "Statest" socialism and capitalism.

The lust for unity in our most recent history has been for contracts. If it is penned down then it is legal. If we have agreed then it then is in stone and it will never change (unless it goes through its own rigorous process....) The allusion to the Ten Commandments is misleading because the symbol of fire on stone and the laws that are Divine are more powerful than those agreed upon by humans.

No. I am not creating a duality.
No, I am not claiming a theocracy. What I mean by Divine is the precise nature and Life that can bring Satisfaction to sentience, the future, and our present. I have no idea what this sort of Life may entirely entail but it I know for a fact that the words I just wrote would not show up in common law.

Love is a powerful influence in law, justice, mercy, the rest of it all have their pendulum sways in historical moments, yet which wins?

Deep within us there is obligation that we did not choose. We have been chosen to have been given power through, by, and with Nature, therefore we cannot bastardize her.

Our laws and the contracts that we build with ourselves are good as long as they know their own misfortunes and misgivings. No law is perfect and no person should believe such a thing. Law, as us, changes and shifts, molds and bends to odd times, and in strength of Compassion, hopefully to "good ends." But if it fails us, if we fail ourselves, we must continue onward. I am thankful that there is no other choice.

Coming back to American politics. Ideally, if Bernie is capable of defending democratic socialism and pointing to Life and doesn't sell out, then good for him.

I hope, more so however, that the mainstream eventually truly catches onto Mercy, Love, Forgiveness and the rest of those wonderful things.

Best Wishes,
Denis Kurmanov

Friday, 1 May 2015

A Socialist in the Running? A Progressive Buddhist Politics for 2016

Or: Is there a coherent political agenda in Progressive Buddhism?

Like many first learning about Buddhism, I assumed it was a natural fit for my free-thinking, socially liberal ways and quickly found evidence to support that presupposition. Now that I've studied it for 15 years and teach it along with Comparative World Religions courses to college students, I know that presuppositions and confirmation bias are nasty little things to be rooted out, not reinforced. But I also know that they don't go down without a fight.

In a wonderful 2008 article "Voting Buddhist?", Buddhism scholar Jeff Wilson writes that "Among many converts to Buddhism, at least those willing to speak publicly on the matter, there's a near unanimity that Buddhists must vote for Barack Obama because he is the only candidate whose views and policies align with good Dharma."

That was less than two months before the 2008 general election, which Obama, of course, won. With just over 15 months to go (aye yay yay!), the race for our 2016 presidential election is only in its infancy. Yet we do have two clear candidates on the Democrat side: Hillary Clinton (as of January, 1993) and Bernie Sanders (as of yesterday). For now, I'll just set the Republican candidates aside.

The Dalai Lama has famously claimed to be a Marxist, and yet he also drew criticism for cozying up to the right wing American Enterprise Institute last year (to his defense, he made it clear that he is a socialist/leftist).

Know who else is a socialist?

However, Wilson continues:
But there's a danger in assuming that Buddhism and left-wing politics inherently go together, and that Buddhists ought to vote for liberals because they're Buddhist. Historically speaking, Buddhism has tended to support conservative status quo regimes in Asia, going all the way back to India. In the contemporary world, virtually all of the democratic countries with a significant Buddhist population are currently ruled by right-wing political groups.
That puts a bit of a thorn in our visions of Buddhism as somehow deeply aligned with the compassionate social campaigns of contemporary leftist politics. However, it doesn't preclude Progressive Buddhists today from creating a platform or agenda drawing from Buddhist ideals: compassion must be manifest and wisdom cultivated.

But again I run the risk of simply importing my prejudices into what this would look like: things like universal healthcare including care facilities for those stricken with mental illness, debilitating drug addictions, and old age; as well as universal access to free higher education.

So I want only to start such a conversation here, asking you all to add thoughts in comments or (if you're a contributor) offering new posts in the future. We also have the very pragmatic question ahead of us in terms of perhaps throwing support toward Hillary Clinton, someone far less 'progressive' but who can nonetheless rally the sleepy/silent middle-of-the-spectrum voters who already know her well enough to vote for her. Many I know are certainly in the camp that might go that route when the push comes to shove, thinking of the horrors that another republican (all those in the race so far at least) would bring to the American political landscape.

The Buddha, to my knowledge, never gave an "it could be worse" line of reasoning for supporting a non-virtuous ruler. But he did, with kindness and restraint, preach to Ajātasattu, by all means a horrible ruler and human being. He also famously changed his rules for monks at times, usually when they found idiotic loopholes in his existing rules, and by and large seemed flexible on the social/political front (this perhaps contributing to why later Buddhists were able to accommodate and at times support autocratic and staunchly conservative regimes in Asia and why we may have as many different approaches to American politics here today as we have readers and writers!).

But for now, reading articles like this on Vox, comparing the campaign contributions for Clinton and Sanders (18 out of the top 20 for Clinton are corporations, while 19 out of 20 for Sanders are unions), may lead the more 'progressive' edge of the American Buddhist world support Bernie. 

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!

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