Sunday, 31 July 2011

Aspects of People I Find Interesting


Buddhists and Integralists, like me, tend to be people watchers -- interested in others‘ thinking and behavior. Now, there are a large number of Buddhists who specifically are not interested in all of this amateur psychoanalysis crap; they think that study of all this hoo-hah is very much the ilk of confusion and calamity we should step away from.

But me, I’m rather fascinated by how strange the best and the worst of us are. And l love trying to formulate a kind of “behavior set” or logic matrix that might explain the wondrous [or goofy or inane] behaviors of others.

An aspect that I sometimes see in people that I find admirable I call “situation saving.” These are people who step in to save people when they make an unfortunate faux pau or otherwise say something ignorant or inappropriate or goofy. Now, I don’t mean any of this in a kind of meta-sense. Most of the transactions that I observe are small; they happen, are forgotten and life moves on.

AN EXAMPLE: This morning I stopped in a one-man clock-repair shop, just as it opened, to get a new battery for a watch. [Yes, I’m a dinosaur. I wear a watch. Leave me alone!] While waiting for my watch to get taken care of [Which should have taken just a scant minute!], other customers came in with minor problems that the repair guy tended to without charge: straightening a numeral on a lady‘s clock; removing a link from a fellow‘s watch; then, directing the lady, who’d returned, to a cell-phone store she was eager to find. When my battery-replacement thing was done, and the guy had told me the charges, a very reasonable five bucks, I said, “Boy, you’re very busy this morning, but not making much money. Hopefully some good-paying business will come in -- a guy with a busted cuckoo clock or something.” The repair guy was flummoxed on how to respond to the odd thing I said! I was sticking my jerky nose into his business! The repair guy FAILED to save the situation.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, kind reader: I was a jerk and the repair guy was basically kind-hearted. This is true; this is so very true, but it misses the point. The repair guy did not have the presence of mind to save my sorry ass when I said something stupid. He didn’t have “situation saving” moxie.

He could have said “Yeah, hopefully either an expensive cuckoo clock will come in for me to overhaul, or a grandfather clock that had fallen down a long flight of stairs.” And then my point wouldn’t have seemed so crass, and me and the repair guy could’ve smacked palms in a high-five and gone about our happy days

Now, again, here, I know what you’re thinking, kind reader: Maybe -- even probably -- the guy takes his job quite seriously, loved clocks, got into his business because he admired well-made, perfectly performing clocks and he would be in pain to see a busted cuckoo clock or a badly damaged grandfather clock. He’s sort of a clock physician: His mission in life is to restore timepieces to good health.

Oh, all right. Sheesh. I have to admit your point, dammit, reader. You are probably quite right. Indeed having observed the repair guy for the many minutes I was cooling my heels in a chair waiting for my battery thing to get taken care of, I could see he was extraordinarily pleasant and thoughtful. Just the type of fellow who is likely to admire the excellence of well-constructed clock innards. Probably, yes, he would grieve to see any badly damaged exquisite timekeeping machine. Indeed, the walls of his small shop had interesting and downright lovely clocks of different sorts all about. He did give off clock-loving vibes.

So, how about this: The repair guy could have changed the subject abruptly to save my embarrassment. He could have said, “Why, Tom, I’m having a great day, so far! Don’t you fret about me! And I must say, this Fossil Avenger you wear is quite nice. What a joy for me to handle it. It’s an heirloom!”

Oh Kay. Oh Kay. I know what it is you’re thinking. Reader. A Fossil Avenger is crap. If the watch guy delights in fine timepieces, he cannot, with any integrity, say anything nice about my beat-up old watch. The guy should have been flummoxed, you’re thinking. There simply is no way to save a jerk like me in the hairy situation I’d gotten myself into.

You know, reader: You are no damn help AT ALL. I go to all this trouble just to tell you a little bit about my day and I have this list of many, many aspects of people’s personalities I find interesting and want to share and HERE YOU’VE GONE AND SPOILED EVERYTHING!

You can just take your nitpicky little mind and point your beady eyes at SOMEBODY ELSE’S BLOG. I’VE HAD IT. I QUIT THIS POST. IT‘S OVER. Why couldn’t I have imagined you saying nice, soothing things, Reader? What's wrong with you!? GET OUTTA HERE!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Buddhist Economics: Then and Today


Picture of Schumacher from the 1973 edition of Small is Beautiful.
Economist E. F. “Fritz” Schumacher wrote a book that became a sensation in 1973, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, most of which is a compilation of lectures and articles he’d written in the 60s. The book was not only a fresh breeze in its day, its insights about where the world was quickly headed are prophetic, predicting the waste of resources and the drudgery modern society imposes on people with its view of the meaning of labor and the headlong rush to 'bigger, more, mightier.'  Of inspiration to Schumacher was society in the nation of Burma in the 1950s.

The book is also important as insight into what has been lost in Burma for the last 45 years. We have learned in the last few years of the Orwellian horror that is the life imposed on average Burmese citizens, but, truly a harsh existence has been endured there by average citizens for four-and-a-half decades, since a military junta took control. Soon the dimming light on Burma may move elsewhere and the Burmese will, again, be forgotten, to languish in misery for further decades under the thumb of a cruel regime. [See Bertil Lintner's "The Burmese Way to Fascism," an essay from 2007 on how things have been and pretty much now are in Burma.]

George McRobie, who worked with Schumacher for twenty years, and with him founded Intermediate Technology Group and in the 80s taught Appropriate Technology at the University of Pennsylvania, writes this of Schumacher’s experience in Burma:
Fritz spent all his free time in Burma studying Buddhism. He spent his weekends in a monastery and studied under Buddhist scholars. “I then began to ask myself,” he said, “What would a Buddhist economics look like? And I concluded that it would be the exact opposite of our Western economics.”

First, he argued, a Buddhist approach to economics would distinguish between misery, sufficiency and surfeit. Economic growth would be good only to the point of sufficiency. Limitless growth and consumption would be disastrous. Secondly, a Buddhist economics would be based squarely on renewable resources: an economics of permanence In contrast, Western economics is based on the ruthless exploitation of nonrenewable resources, and recognizes no limits to production and consumption -- a nonsustainable system.
Schumacher had been enchanted by Burma and the happy society he’d witnessed there on visits in the 50s. In 1955, he wrote about how its society functioned in a paper, published in Rangoon, Burma, “The Economics of Buddhists.” In 1966, four years after the military took control of the country, he wrote a paper called “Buddhist Economics” that was published as part of Schumacher’s first book, A Handbook of Asia. It also appears as the fourth chapter in Small is Beautiful and can now be found many places online, including here [at the E.F. Schumacher Society].

It’s only about six pages long. Go read it!

Truly, the whole of Schumacher’s work as an economist, from the mid-50s until his death at age 66 in 1977 is his “Buddhist Economics,” a sustainable system to support happy lives. It is sad that Schumacher’s enduring message made it to the world stage when he was already 62 and so shortly before his death. But his message ― so clarion now with climate change and economic retreat in the offing ― is still disregarded by our gutless leaders who pander to corporations that survive wholly on ‘growth, more, bigger.’

While it is true that Schumacher did not anticipate the rush of technologies that have promised to make work increasingly interesting and challenging and life less wasteful ["might have promise," I should say. Who knows where technological advancement might take us?], he did recognize the rat race that modern life has become. Instead of making life less stressful, it has become more competative with the price of messing up more severe. Instead of bringing more economic balance to societies, it has ushered in a new Gilded Age of wide disparities.

This from Manas Journal [which is associated with the EF Schumacher Society] in a piece titled "Limitation is Liberation" [Nov 1985]:
What, Schumacher asked, is wrong with Western economics? Thinking about how to make a living cannot be a mistake, but Western economics, he held, is founded on a mistake—the failure to establish limits. As he said:
Because Economics, up to a point, can rightly claim universal validity, it has been accepted as possessing universal validity throughout. What do I mean by up to a point? The essence of materialism is not its concern with material wants, but the total absence of any idea of Limit or Measure. The materialist's idea of progress is an idea of progress without limit. . . .

Is this compatible with Buddhism or Christianity or with anything the Great Teachers of mankind have proclaimed? Of course not. It is compatible only with the most naked form of Materialism.
As I write this the Democrats [with Obama being the leading voice] and the Republicans [with the Tea Party holding sway] are locking horns. But, truly, both sides want the same thing to 'cure' America's economic woes: A surge of consumerism! A pox on both their houses, I say. It is exactly what Schumacher inveighed against: Materialism run amok. The cure to all our ills becomes more work, more stuff, bigger houses to hold it all. Our judgments become one of how much stuff we have in comparison to how much stuff the neighbors -- the Joneses -- have. More, more, more, unsustainably till everything bursts.

I don't know that Schumacher would approve, but we need to do something other than what both the Democrats and Republicans are contemplating as fixes for our economy.

My suggestions:  Let us remove ALL payroll taxes, and tax in other ways to cover workers' benefits.  Why?  To make things such that having an employee is as cheap as possible in the US.  That way, workers here can compete against labor elsewhere in the world and against technologies that replace humans as workers.

Let us shorten the workweek from 40 hours to 30 hours before overtime kicks in.  Thus, businesses will be encouraged to enlarge their workforce.

Let us forestall foreclosures on homeowners by allowing homeowners to keep their house if they make mortgage payments that are 40% or more of their income.  That way, we might be able to stabilize the housing market more quickly.  And, we take the intense stress that has descended on as many as 30% of the people in the US.

We need a more compassionate economics in the West.  And, most importantly, one that is sustainable and allows us to escape the pointless, life-robbing circumstance where we all become chasing-our-own-tail Consumerists.

Fantastic blogposts that, from their content, relate to this one:  "Buddhist Economics." from The Buddhist Blog. James Ure bemoans the lost interconnectivity in society in light of the worldwide economic plunge. And, from Integral Options Cafe, there's "Adbusters - E.F. Schumacher (Thought Control in Economics)" wherein PB's William Harryman writes about a more-compassionate economics, based on Schumacher's insights, and then presents a piece from Adbusters that gives some background to Schumacher's life and thoughts.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

I am a Buddhist who has no wish to see suffering eradicated

I am a existential Buddhist who has no wish to see suffering eradicated in the world.

This is so because I cannot see how existence without challenges [or with only make-work challenges] would be satisfying.

And if I (just, just!) perfect myself and eradicate my own suffering, I get booted to parinirvana [that is, unless I aggressively fight off the promotion], which doesn’t sound like much fun.

I cannot see how the loneliness of parinirvana is appealing. A universe of just me, the Adibuddha, and — what? — a stack of peanutbutter-and-jelly sandwiches and some quarts of milk until I can figure out what next to do? [Are there video games in parinirvana? Does anybody know? Internet access?]

Heaven, as described in the New Testament, or spoken/written about by suppositionist Christians, or mused about colloquially, doesn’t sound all that spiffy. Mind you, I am a wee bit fearful of death, and wouldn’t mind an escape clause, but whiling away centuries, eons, or for-fucking-ever on a cloud, playing a harp and eating perfect fruit to fill my body-made-of-light sounds like the kind of paradise where I would join the Rebel Underground [the Stormy Black Clouds is what I imagine their name is].

Jimmy Roughton, my favorite preacher, imagines himself in heaven planning a garden after death. But with God there, what work wouldn’t be “make work?” I mean, God, as He's conceived to be, can do anything, perfectly (and if “perfectly” isn’t the appropriate concept, then to the utmost of brilliant) and it’s done instantly. Why have Jimmy labor to create a garden when God can make a better one with a snap of His fingers, or just by saying a word?

The Zennists say that samsara IS nirvana, which, in Christian terms, means that heaven is earth, as it is. We just don’t see it. The Kingdom of Heaven is HERE. The land where improvements in people’s lives can be made is all around us.

My problem is I don’t want nothing, yet I don’t want a perfect [i.e., jolly] and crowded and eternal place, either — perhaps because there could be no compassion there. Wherever a better place is — on this world or on the next one — it mustn’t be static; there have to be challenges. And I require that these challenges be real and meaningful. So, is there an ultimate and excellent “this life” or afterlife place for me? Somehow, someday, somewhere?1 Or, even a good conception of one?

I, of course, ask because if there isn’t a Utopia in store for me (or, for all of us, really), then the obvious alternative is for us all to make where we’re at, here on the third planet from the sun, Utopia. But if we do that, then it automatically isn’t a utopia.

So what’s to do!? Improve life, for others, in the circumstance and environs we find ourselves, now, and hope that that is a satisfactory way to be and thing to do until something unexpected and better falls in our lap.

And during this long, long, long meanwhile, until the tickets to Disney World come in the mail (or what-the-fuck-ever) we can hope — just hope — we’re doing our teeniest part for the good of the whole. I mean, like, what else do any of us have going for us? You dig?
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1 Sneaking lyrics into this essay from the song “Somewhere (A Place for Us)” from West Side Story.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

How is novelty possible?

written by Tom Armstrong
“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something - because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. - And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”
~Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953, No. 125
A meatspace friend of mine, with the online moniker Nagarjuna, is greatly interested in the philosophical faceoff of Free Will v Determinism.

He greatly believes that the Determinist [or, termed in the manner he sees it all: Inevitablist] side has the better argument, his logic being that whatever we decide is the determined result of a chain of outcomes, without there being any evidence of an agent [a homulculus, e.g.] intervening.

Mark Johnson in his 2007 book The Meaning of the Body comes down on Nagarjuna’s side in this essential philosophical debate, it seems, but he raises a novel issue: that of novelty. If the universe is determined wholly by chains of causes and effects, how does something new arise?

Johnson writes:
Our ability to make new meaning, to enlarge our concepts, and to arrive at new ways of making sense of things must be explained without reference to miracles, irrational leaps of thought, or blind impulse. We have to explain how our experience can grow and how the new can emerge from the old, yet without merely replicating what has gone before.

As it turns out, this may be one of the most difficult problems in all of philosophy, psychology, and science: how is novelty possible? As far as I can see, nobody has yet been able to explain how new experience emerges. The problem is that if we try to give a causal explanation of novel experience or novel thought, these come out looking causally determined, rather than creative and imaginative. An embodied theory1 of meaning will suggest only that new meaning is not a miracle but rather arises from, and remains connected to, preexisting patterns, qualities, and feelings.

Most people believe that human will possesses absolute freedom, which is why we think we can hold people responsible for their actions. But if there is no transcendent self, no disembodied ego, to serve as the agent of free choice, then what sense can we make of real choice, or of moral responsibility for our actions? This problem has plagued all naturalistic accounts of mind, from David Hume to William James to Antonio Damasio. We need a view of choice that is consistent with cognitive neuroscience and its insistence on the embodiment of mind and yet which doesn’t make a shambles of our notions of moral responsibility.
I raise this topic in this Buddhism blog because of Buddha’s Enlightenment and insight into the essential problems of the human condition. Buddha’s Awakening was “new” -- for him, at least, if we posit that former buddhas Awoke in ages past.

Thanissaro Bikkhu writes in an essay online, “The Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening":
… Buddha says at one point in describing his Awakening, "Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute." In other words, he gained liberating knowledge through qualities that we can all develop: heedfulness, ardency, resolution. If we are willing to face the implications of this fact, we realize that the Buddha's Awakening is a challenge to our entire set of values. The fact that the Unconditioned can be attained forces us to re-evaluate any other goals we may set for ourselves, whatever worlds we want to create, in our lives.
“The Unconditioned can be attained”!! Something new coming from nowhere? But coming to us only if we are heedful, ardent and resolute?

In a paper called “The Unconditioned: In Buddhism, Zen and Our Own Lives",” Jeff Shore explains the path and implications of the reality of losing ourself.

What is Buddhism? Simply put, it could be called a practical way of emancipation or liberation. Liberation from what? From everything. From all conditions. …

You might think that we somehow transcend the conditions. Buddhism, however, affirms no such transcendental, supernatural reality. …

Buddhism uses terms like ignorance, craving, and attachment to describe the relative cause of our dis-ease. This may not satisfy someone seeking a simple, either-or answer. If we look under the surface, however, we can see that these causes are, indeed, intertwined and pointing to different dimensions of the problem. Ignorant of who we really are, we crave fulfillment in something else. We can never come to rest that way, so we go on, blindly entangled in craving and attachment.

Attached to something, we become possessive and afraid to lose it. Rather than finding fulfillment, our dis-ease only seems to increase. Why do we crave? Because we don't know who we really are. If we truly knew ourselves, we would not crave to be or to have something. And that craving in turn keeps us from seeing who we really are, thus perpetuating the vicious, painful cycle of ignorance-craving-attachment.

Practically speaking, here is the core of the problem: this tiny, literally insubstantial — yet damned tenacious — knot of deluded self-attachment. It's really nothing at all, but through conditions entwining, a tight knot of "I-ness" emerges. And we all know how painful this can be. That's what impels us to begin religious or spiritual practice. That's what drives us to sit zazen.

… zazen is freedom from all conditions, without eliminating any of them. More than that, genuine zazen is the fulfillment of all conditions … First, by actually giving ourselves up to concentrated zazen and sitting through to the end of ourselves, the tangled knot of deluded selfness naturally comes undone. There is nothing holding it together. In a sense, it is only our delusive craving to be a certain way — even to be "enlightened" — that holds the painful snarl together.
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1 the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body. They argue that all aspects of cognition, such as ideas, thoughts, concepts and categories are shaped by aspects of the body. These aspects include the perceptual system, the intuitions that underlie the ability to move, activities and interactions with our environment and the native understanding of the world that is built into the body and the brain.
The embodied mind thesis is opposed to other theories of cognition such as cognitivism, computationalism and Cartesian dualism.[1] The idea has roots in Kant and 20th century continental philosophy (such as Merleau-Ponty). The modern version depends on insights drawn from recent research in in linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, robotics and neurobiology.

The LIGHT in EnLIGHTenment

written by Tom Armstrong
"I can die happily. I did not hold one single teaching in a closed hand. Everything that may benefit you I have already given. Now, don't believe my words because a Buddha told you, but examine them well. Be a light onto yourselves." — Buddha
Le Principe du Plaisir 
(Portrait of Edward James), 1937.
Oil on canvas. René Magritte
Edward James Foundation, UK
During my early days as an impressionable Internet Buddhist, circa 1996, I recall a discussion in an AOL chatroom where the most sapient among us insisted that the notion of light being an important part of enlightenment was folly. Other sagacious sutra readers in the room were insistant that the term enlightenment should be abandoned altogether because it planted in our minds misdirecting ideas of what enlightenment/satori/awakening was. For years thereafter, I clung to that appraisement: Enlightenment is ineffable. For us to impose preceptions of it that give it flavor or color or feel would cause us to misidentify markers in our spiritual advancement, sending us off on muddy time-wasting slogs through the barren marshes of error.

Today, I have come to think that light is important: its rays filling the room; its beams serving as a guide to anyone's quest to eliminate suffering in the adventure of life. Hui-neng, the great C'han master, said in what his disciples would record in the Platform Sutra, "Learned audience, to what are meditation and wisdom analogous? They are analogous to a lamp and its light. With the lamp, there is light. Without it, it would be dark. The lamp is the quintessence of the light and the light is the expression of the lamp. In name they are two things, but in substance they are the same. It is the same case with meditation and wisdom."

Let us simply consider the obvious importance of nature's light to life. It seems less important to us nowadays, living in our incandescent- and florescent-lit buildings, warmed by heat coming up to us from vents in the floor, living our lives vicariously through people pretending to be real on television shows, but the sun, this round disc in the sky, regulates and is necessary for all life known to us in the universe. Its warmth and its light make the day, and when it dips below the horizon, there is nothing but life-draining night and hope for the next day's dawn, when the streets and the trees and the sky will become fully visible, again. When that eastern star pushes into view, nature wriggles from its slumber; the birds start chattering; and all the creatures come to action to feast and fly and frolic. And Shakyamuni Buddha, persistant and willful, sitting beside that Bodhi tree, realized enlightenment on seeing that morning star and thought "I and all beings on earth together attain enlightenment at the same time."

Zen Master Ejo, Dogen's disciple, in the chapter "Absorption in the Treasury of Light" in his Shobo Genzo Zuimonki wrote "Buddha said, 'This light of lights is not blue, yellow, red, white, or black. It is not matter, not mind. It is not existent, nor nonexistent. It is not a phenomenon resulting from causes. It is the source of all Buddhas, the basis of practicing the Way of enlightening beings, fundamental for all Buddhists.'"

It is only in the last one hundred years, thanks to the creative intelligence of Albert Einstein, that we have come to better understand this light whatever-it-is that pervades the universe -- Buddha's remark, quoted by Ejo, being intuitively correct, but far, far ahead of science!

People commonly misunderstand light, thinking it this hybrid thing -- part wave, part matter -- that travels at an incredible velocity, the so-called Speed of Light. But light doesn't dawdle at the Speed of Light; unimpeded, it traverses the universe instantly. It is untouched by time. It is only from the perspective of lumpy, time-bound humans that light travels at 186,000 miles/second. If it were possible to chain our wrist to a beam of light, we would be everywhere in the smallest segment of a moment. Light is indeed as Buddha described it, "not matter, not mind. It is not existent, nor nonexistent. It is not a phenomenon resulting from causes."

[From a description of a discussion/instruction coming online in Fall 2011, "From Science to God," it says "Peter Russell and Jeffrey Mishlove continue a conversation about consciousness in the material world. Russell provides a clear summary and implications of the Theory of Relativity. He explains that as mass speeds up, space and time decrease, but also the mass increases. That is why it is impossible for mass to move at the speed of light.  If that were to happen, the mass would reach infinity, requiring an infinite amount of energy to move it, which doesn't exist. However, light moves at the speed of light. Therefore, from light's perspective, there is no space or time. He argues consciousness is not matter and has no mass. Thus, consciousness does not exist in space or time, and is more like light."]

According to currently configured theory of everything, M Theory, a photon of light is a non-looping vibrating string, atuned to the laws of harmonics, bounded, as sentient beings are, between two impassible membranes [that bar us from other dimensions we cannot perceive], leaving us in the universe we know, existing in the three dimensions of space. While sentient beings travel a life's journey on an arrow of time, light does not. Light is not subject to time; a beam of light is immutable.

From the Tibetan Book of the Dead we are told that the first stage of the Bardo -- the Chikai, the bardo of dying -- begins at death and lasts from a half a day to four days. During this period, the dead person realizes he no longer has a body. An ecstatic experience pervades the consciousness of the departed, called the "Clear White Light." It is written that everyone gets at least a glimpse of this light, but that the more spiritually advanced will see it longer and go beyond to a higher level. An average person will drop into a lesser state, the secondary "clear light."

It is believed that the "Clear White Light" is the light from all enlightened ones, indistinguishable from everyone's true essence. Ejo wrote something parallel regarding the treasury of light: "[It] is the root source of all Buddhas, the inherent being of all living creatures, the total substance of all phenomena, the treasury of the great light of spiritual powers of complete awareness. The three bodies [mind belonging to the Arhats, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas], four knowledges [realizing their liberation], and states of absorption [in mystic or meditative union with ecstacy] numerous as atoms in every aspect of reality, all appear from within this."

Those who have had a near-death experience describe something just like the "Clear White Light," and have other experiences which track and seem to validate the stages of the bardo described in the Book of the Dead.

This is written about Amitabha Buddha: "The splendor of His brilliant light is beyond mind. The light of His brows illuminates a hundred worlds. His eyes are pure brilliant light, limitless like the oceans. In Amitabha's realm of infinite light, all beings are transformed And Enlightened into countless Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. His Forty Eight Vows ensure our liberation In Nine Lotus Stages we reach the ultimate shore of Enlightenment. Homage to the Buddha of the Pure Land, Compassionate Amitabha Buddha."

Near the end of "Absorption in the Treasury of the Light," Ejo wrote:
This is the light in which the ordinary and the sage, the deluded and the enlightened, are one suchness. Even in the midst of activity, it is not hindered by activity. The forest and the flowers, the grasses and the leaves, people and animals, great and small, long and short, square and round, all appear at once, without depending on the discrimination of your thoughts and attention.. This is manifest proof that the light is not obstructed by activity. It is empty luminosity spontaneously shining without exerting mental energy.
This light has never had any place of abode. Even when buddhas appear in the world, it does not appear in the world. Even though they enter nirvana, it does not enter nirvana. When you are born, the light is not born. When you die, the light is not extinguished. It is not more in Buddhas and not less in ordinary beings. It is not lost in confusion, not awakened by enlightenment. It has no location, no appearance, no name. It is the totality of everything. It cannot be grasped, cannot be rejected, cannot be attained. While unattainable, it is in effect throughout the entire being. From the highest heaven above to the lowest hell below, it is thus completely clear, a wondrously inconceivable spiritual light.
If you believe and accept this mystic message, you do not need to ask anyone else whether it is true or false; it will be like meeting your father in the middle of town. Do not petition other teachers for a seal of approval, and do not be eager to be given a prediction and realize fruition.
Finally, this from Ken Wilber in Boomeritis [in a riff on the Genjōkōan]:
To study enlightenment is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be one with all things. To be one with all things is timeless enlightenment. And this timeless enlightenment continues forever, it is a ceaseless process, absolutely perfect, and fully complete at every moment of its being, yet also unfolding endlessly ...
[Most of this first appeared in Zen Unbound emagazine, six years ago.]

Friday, 8 July 2011

newish mindfulness blog

hi there buddhists.

so, i started this new blog, following the direct path

i thought i would wait a bit before telling people about it because i wasn't at all sure i could really blog regularly about mindfulness. i still don't really, know, that is. i had been doing a bit of teaching, which went okay except that i am not really well enough to travel to teach, so having had a personal blog for about 10 years, i thought i would try to blog what i would teach.


so far it's been interesting. a bit of feedback, not as much as i would like, but still. and also, it is a bit like teaching, in that once i have posted i start thinking about the next one, and in this way i have found that mindfulness has been very much on my mind. though whether that is actually me being mindful is another matter.

i made a GIANT tech blunder at the beginning as well, i misspelled satipatthanna in my URL - missed out the 'h', and when i thought it was too late i didn't worry about it, but when i realised i could change the URL i did it, and promptly lost followers. teething trouble.

there is also this issue of 'how much buddhism' when you teach mindfulness... oddly, or perversely, i am personally getting more buddhisty myself, while trying to keep the blog as free from jargon as possible. i don't know if that's sustainable...

anyway, i would be grateful for any feed back - either here or on the blog.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Lincoln was a buddha

by Tom Armstrong

Writing in 1880, John Caird, looking back at the man's life, wrote these eloquent summarizing words
…[My overall impression] is that of a man who combined with intellectual originality other and not less essential elements of greatness, such as magnanimity and moral elevation of nature, superiority to vulgar passions, and absorption of mind with larger objects, such as rendered him absolutely insensible to personal ambition, also self-reliance and strength of will – the confidence that comes from consciousness of power and resource – the quiet, patient, unflinching resolution which wavers not from its purpose in the face of dangers and difficulties that baffle or wear out men of meaner mould. Along with these, we must ascribe to him other qualities not always or often combined with them, such as sweetness, gentleness, quickness and width of sympathy.
Caird's words are about Gautama Buddha, but can very much be said of Abraham Lincoln, as well – a person no less extraordinary and no less different from the people all about him such that his impact was astonishing. Events, time and place all had overwhelming influence in making Buddha Gautama and Abraham Lincoln immortal persons. But both had buddhaseeds sprouting when they were children. And both acted in ways that baffle ordinary men.

Buddha Gautama is a whole other story. He decided to try to let others in on what propelled him. Abraham Lincoln's strange life's journey led him to center stage during America's most trying time, just at that pivotal moment when the baton of the presidency needed to be passed … to that rare diamond, a buddha.

Caird's assessment is interesting in that he didn't apprehend Gautama Buddha as being a buddha. His opinion was what he came to know of Guatama as a man, from what documents he read, compared to ordinary men. Likewise, persons who knew Abraham Lincoln, most all of whom appraised him as an astonishing human being, did not have the wherewithal to assess his high spiritual attainment directly.

Young Mr. Lincoln

The shorthand for Lincoln's boyhood days are that his mother died when he was quite young, but, happily, a wonderful, loving stepmother took her place in his life; he lived in a log cabin; he was naturally athletic, but he was inclined to turn his head toward the pages of a book; and in all ways, even as a youngster, he was honest and wholesome.

All of the above is true. What is not understood is that it is true to an outrageous extreme. Furthermore, it is not understood, except by scholars, that Lincoln was very much not the pastoral, ah-shucks Huckleberry of legend and as portrayed in old movies, but was instead an outlandish alien freakazoid! If he had had a single eye in the middle of his forehead, pointy ears and the ability to fly he would have been a more natural citizen of placid rural Indiana & Illinois than the gawky, two-eyed, big-eared, non-flying Abe Lincoln reality who was born in 1809 and died from an assassin's bullet.

Rural Indiana and Illinois of the 1810s and 20s was the edge of the wild, uncivilized West. The land was rustic and primal as were the isolated homesteading inhabitants. Boys were supposed to be especially ornery and mean and scarred up and smelly. They would torture animals and torture each other and had distain for learning much more than how to shoe a horse or slaughter a pig. Constant hard physical labor was required of all members of a family to stave off death in the boggy, cold, isolated areas where Lincoln grew up. Poisoned milk killed Lincoln's mother, his maternal grandparents and others. A harsh winter killed scores of neighbors – some found only after the spring thaw.

One thing remembered by many who knew him as a small child was his love of animals. One schoolmate remembered that he quite seriously lectured others about ants' right to life; another, that he broke up a gang of 'mates that were torturing terrapin turtles for entertainment and that he composed essays against cruelty toward animals on multiple occasions.

Though hunting was one of the few pleasures for men and boys of the rural Midwest, Lincoln would not hunt. And though his farming background could have been of great advantage to him politically, he didn't speak of it – most probably since memories of it were admixed with the pain of having been hired out by his father to help slaughter pigs.

William Lee Miller, author of the book “Lincoln's Virtues” wrote “Throughout the life of that extraordinary hired hand whose name was Abraham Lincoln, there would be a recurrent pattern: an initial impression of the boy or the lad or the man, derived from externals and superficialities, would then be overthrown by the shock of recognition of this intellectual power.” Miller, it seems to me, has it mostly right, but from (my interpretation of) the words of others in his book and other books [and of these, most-especially William Herndon's “The Hidden Lincoln”] it is not “intellectual power” that throws people for a loop – rather it's Lincoln's emptiness of guile and ineffable Buddha glow that might find expression through his intellect, but might also shine from his compassion, humanity or just the way he held an ax.

A Religious Man

Mary Todd Lincoln said, after her husband's death, “He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature.”

As a young man Lincoln would engage in discussions advocating a “doctrine of necessity,” that opposed unfettered free will. I think this is very much a young person's insight into the interconnectedness of all things and beings and the chain of causes that seem to determine all events. A less magnificent person than Lincoln is likely to develop from this beginning, a religious sensibility grounded in scientism. Compassion toward others then becomes just a wildly romantic indulgence. But Lincoln, above everything was vividly compassionate and it was through this lens that he increasingly sought wisdom.
The beauty of his character was its entire simplicity. … True to nature, true to himself, he was true to everybody and everything about and around him. When he was ignorant on any subject, no matter how simple it might make him appear he was always willing to acknowledge it. His whole aim in life was to be true to himself and being true to himself he would be false to no one. – Joshua Speed, one of Lincoln's closest friends.
Speed's statement is as clarion a depiction of authenticity as you might find. Authenticity is a requirement for spiritual advancement.

In his mid-20s, Lincoln wrote a manuscript showing that the Bible was false. He did not believe that Jesus was God and could not believe that a true God would bring punishment to his 'children' when the laws of cause and effect that he saw in the world were pre-eminent forces. His friends were shocked by his beliefs that his law partner, William Herndon, contends he maintained throughout his life. Fearing for his political future, one friend burned the manuscript to keep it from being published. Still, Lincoln – who continued to be forthright and outspoken on the subject – was dogged by a reputation thereafter for being an infidel which was politically damaging.

With Malice toward none …

Leonard Swett, a close friend of Lincoln's, said in an interview, a year after the assassination, “He was certainly a very poor hater. He never judged men by his like, or dislike for them. If any given act was to be performed, he could understand that his enemy could do it just as well as any one. If a man had maligned him, or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse, and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his Cabinet just as soon as he would his friend. I do not think he ever removed a man because he was his enemy, or because he disliked him.”

Indeed, Swett's words are a gross understatement; Lincoln was incapable of hate. Lincoln included on his initial Cabinet men who were his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 -- and he was especially gracious to guarantee the acceptance of his chief rival, William Seward, to the post of Secretary of State.

Edwin M. Stanton, who was Lincoln's second Secretary of War, is a particularly curious case. Stanton (of whom Fredrick Douglass would observe, “Politeness was not one of his weaknesses”) had ignored Lincoln, utterly, when – many years before he became president -- they were two of three lawyers chosen to represent a company for a particularly important civil suit. Lincoln was not a well-educated East Coast attorney, like the others. Judged from the fact that Lincoln was a rural Illinois lawyer, gangly and not well dressed, he was kept silent at the lawyers' table and the closing argument which he had prepared went unheard and was curtly ignored: The text, that Lincoln had passed on to his colleagues in a sealed letter, was returned to him unopened.

In the first years of the Lincoln administration, there are public records of Stanton referring to Lincoln as an imbecile (twice) and a baboon, yet Lincoln was undeterred in his selection of Stanton as his Secretary of War. He selected the best person for the position and ignored all else.

Observes William Lee Miller, “[Lincoln's] 'ego,' as we call it now, did not distort his good mind's working. His considerable self-confidence notwithstanding, he would achieve a detached and proportionate sense of himself in relation to an unflinching measure of the scope and meaning of the enormous human drama that confronted him. His self did not get in the way.”

Ambition

The biggest character flaw that William Lee Miller tags Lincoln with is ambition. It would also be an overwhelming obstacle to the thesis that Lincoln is a Buddha, if one agrees with Miller that at times Lincoln pushed himself forward, instead of doing the right thing that might have been politically disadvantageous.

For Miller, Ambition first comes up when looking at Lincoln's vocational choices. Instead of remaining in his rural community, either as a farmer or businessman, Lincoln chose to become a lawyer and move to the city of Springfield.

Despite his wide-ranging, superlative skills, Lincoln may have had fewer options than Miller supposes. Saddled with deep compassion for the suffering of animals, he was not suited for farm work. Much as a Buddhist is indisposed to take up the profession of being a butcher, Lincoln was indisposed to make his life's work one that included the slaughtering of farm animals.

Entrepreneurs need to be of a character such that they are eager to profit, overgreatly at times, at the expense of unwitting customers in order to make their businesses thrive. Lincoln did not have the disposition required for him to be a successful businessman. Indeed, young Lincoln's business ventures failed, putting him in a deep debt that took years for him to extricate himself from.

Becoming a lawyer, and tossing himself into the political maelstrom of his time and place, seems to have been the vocational path (and spiritual challenge) that was left to him after crossing off others. His wasn't a fulsome, consuming ambition; rather, it was that last path available that was suitable to his blend of talents and weaknesses.
Lincoln's Face

“At first glance, some thought him grotesque, even ugly, and almost all considered him homely. When preoccupied or in repose he certainly was far from handsome. At times he looked unutterably sad, as if every sorrow were his own, or he looked merely dull, with a vacant gaze,” one observer wrote. Still, as even the caustic Englishman Dicey observed, there was for all his grotesqueness, "an air of strength, physical as well as moral, and a strange look of dignity" about him. And when he spoke a miracle occurred. "The dull, listless features dropped like a mask." according to Horace White, an editor of the "Chicago Tribune". "The eyes began to sparkle, the mouth to smile, the whole countenance was wreathed in animation, so that a stranger would have to say, "Why this face, so angular and somber a moment ago, is really handsome!" He was the homeliest man I ever saw." said Donn Piatt, and yet there was something about the face that Piatt never forgot. "It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated."

The poet Walt Whitman commented after getting a close-up view: "None of the artists or pictures have caught the subtle and indirect expression of this man's face." And again, some years after Lincoln's death: "Though hundreds of portraits have been made, by painters and photographers (many to pass on, by copies, to future times), I have never seen one yet that in my opinion deserved to be called a perfectly good likeness: nor do I believe there is really such a one in existence."

"Beyond a certain point Lincoln's appearance not only defied description; it also baffled interpretation. "There is something in the face which I cannot understand." said Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. And the leader of the German-Americans in Illinois, Gustave Koerner, remarked: "Something about the man, the face is unfathomable. In his looks there were hints of mysteries within."

Buddha as a Man; Lincoln as a Man

In the middle of the 19th Century, when Lincoln was being assessed as a heroic and tragic figure, Buddha was being introduced and examined by Victorian England. Since others' assessments of Lincoln are colored by culture, time and place, I think it is interesting to see how similarly Buddha Gautama was viewed.

From the book “The British Discovery of Buddhism,” comes this quote:
Of all the qualities praised, it is the Buddha's compassion and sympathy that was most often remarked upon. Millions were won by his intense sympathy for suffering, observed Joseph Edkins [quoted in Remarks on Budhism (sic)]. According to The Westminster Review in 1878, his was 'the example of a life in which the loftiest morality was softened and beautified by unbounded charity and devotion to the good of his fellow-men'; and The Church Quarterly Review for 1882 viewed him as one 'who, born a prince, sympathized with the sorrows and the moral struggles of the meanest; who … opened his arms to receive as a brother every one who pursued goodness, truth, unselfishness, and his ideal …' George Grant remarked in 1895 that, after making all allowances for accretions, the picture remains of an extraordinary man 'the memory of whose unselfish life, thirst for truth, and love for humanity ought to be honoured to the latest generations.'
Fittingly, the last year of the century, William Rattigan drew together the Victorian assessment of the Buddha:
Having regard to the intellectual and religious darkness of the period, it is impossible not to accord a high degree of admiration to Gautama for the lofty percepts he enunciated, for the gentleness and sereneness which pervade his utterances, for the deeply sympathetic and profoundly humanitarian spirit which underlie his doctrines, and for the manly endeavour he made to arouse a true feeling of self-reliance amoungst a people prone to lean for support upon others.
In league with this, Lincoln concluded his second inaugural with these famous words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 
Conclusion

Yes, we exhaust ourselves on the legend of Lincoln in the fifth grade, and for us he becomes a tired relic, like Mickey Mouse and Lady GaGa and Harry Potter's glasses. His face – unanimated and serene – stares out at us from pennies and five-dollar bills. His wise words are just etchings on bronze somewhere -- the life that once was in his words has been expelled. “Fourscore and seven years …” sounds like a tiresome history lesson to us today, not the beginning of a speech, rich and eloquence, that brought chills and tears to Americans for decades after the speech was spoken.

If you pull together all the assessments of Lincoln, it is a remarkable record. He was greatly beloved by all in the communities he lived in. He was the dazzling, pre-eminent person – giving, loving and vividly authentic. Absolutely honest. Absolutely dependable. Fully in touch with the pain of others'. He held no grudges and condemned no one. He believed there was clarion truth in the notion that created America – that all had equal rights to live and equivalent right to live in liberty and pursue happiness. No one could be a master since no one should be a slave. And no one could be a slave since no one should be a master.

Somewhere back in misty time, one of the buddhas that walked this earthy earth became president of the United States. And it made a difference.

[Versions of this post were put up previously in Zen Unbound and the blog Homeless Tom.]

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