Monday, 20 September 2010

What is the Essential Meaning of Buddhism?

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

A monk asked, "What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?" Mazu said, "What is the meaning of this moment?"
One of the greatest dangers I see as an emerging trend regarding Buddhist practice is this notion that Buddhism is the means to obtain an end beyond that of overcoming dukkha. Whether it be a pursuit of happiness, or metaphysical attainments, or political goals, or social justice or even racial parity, these kinds of expansions on Buddhist teachings are misguided and very much beside the point. True, I as well as many others acknowledge that Buddhist practice has made for a happier, healthier disposition; but happiness as a goal in itself is just like many of these other strivings, just more attachment and more delusion.
Barbara O'Brien talked a little bit about this pursuit of happiness in a recent post she made:
"Here in the West, happiness -- or an appearance of happiness, anyway -- is such a strong cultural expectation that to admit one is not happy is admitting to a kind of personal failure. So people wrap themselves in whatever they think is supposed to bring happiness and then suppress the little voice telling them it's not working."
Indeed, Mumon discusses some of these same types of issues in a post he made critiquing a recent article by Ethan Nichtern on the Huffington Post that analyzes the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek take on the expectations of a Buddhist practice:
"To Žižek, it is the rapacious "capitalist game" that's the bête noire of human existence and Buddhism is yet another opiate, a palliative, that does nothing to remedy the fundamental issue. This is horse feces as far as this Buddhist is concerned; because regardless of whether or not the capitalist game continues, regardless of whether or not the revolution comes, regardless of whether or not Richard Gere saves Tibet (and wins valuable prizes in doing so), suffering will continue. And dammit, it's incumbent to do something, and if you're not paying attention, you can't do squat. Political battles must be fought. Yeah, capitalism is inherently unstable. But I think Žižek, like many people like him, is so alienated from himself that he doesn't recognize there's a plethora of human functions besides economic and political ones. I have that impression of Žižek's alienation because he posits a straw-man "Western Buddhism" as a foil for his Marxist Critique."
As Mumon later points out, even Nichtern, who I have great respect for with his ID project, posits Buddhist practice as some sort of game changer, something meant to bring about radical social change, or at least the great desire to do so. Nichtern writes:
"Practical transformation is what Buddhist practice is all about. It's also about changing the world. To practice meditation consistently is to push back hard against the tidal wave of materialism that is quite literally killing the planet.
Personally, I haven't met many people who report having realized the radical state of self-acceptance. The ones who have are powerful agents of global change. Does the kind of self-acceptance which Buddhist meditation techniques systematically cultivate in the individual really change the world? Well, no, not alone. Zizek is right about that, as well as the danger of thinking that acceptance is the end of journey and believing in any way that we are "in it but not of it."
I understand and share his concern about keeping people interested, but I'm sorry Mr. Nichtern, "It's also about changing the world" is both subjective speculation and quite 'putting the cart before the horse.' The world will change whether we want it to or not. Furthermore, this "tidal wave of materialism" is only one of millions of other difficulties humans have had to face. I totally agree with Mumon's assessment of Nichtern here when he writes, "He wants to keep 'em once he's gotten 'em in the door. In other words, this Buddhist teacher is applying a goal, a gaining idea to his practice as teacher."

I don't want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings, just as much as opening a soup kitchen, teaching a child to ride a bike or making dinner for the family. But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be. At the end of the day, this is no better than the gadgets that beep enlightenment into your ears, or that rather disturbing "law of attraction" bullshit or a $50,000 dollar Dokusan to buy expedient enlightenment.
I haven't been big on quotes lately, but I thought of two that fit here rather well.
My daily activities are not unusual,
I'm just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing...
Supernatural power and marvelous activity -
Drawing water and carrying firewood. ~Layman Pang
Love yourself and watch -
Today, tomorrow, always.
First establish yourself in the way,
Then teach,
And so defeat sorrow.
To straighten the crooked
You must first do a harder thing -
Straighten yourself.
You are your only master.
Who else? ~ The Buddha from the Dhammapada

Friday, 10 September 2010

The Panic of Desire

Are you familiar with the panic of desire?

With the way that, another day having past - its minutes spent, its hours emptied - your stomach clenches at the thought that you did not get what you wanted? Whatever it was, whatever was given, whatever was done, it was not enough. The day was not sufficient.

Are you familiar with how this panic gives your throat a squeeze as you cast around for some small way to make good on the satisfaction you had imagined the day would promise, for some way to wring a bit of saving pleasure from the day before it is entirely past - or, at least, for some way to dull the ache of craving?

The panic of desire makes it hard to breathe. Your chest constricts. You're not going to get what you want.

Nothing is ever enough.

The whole world is passing away and you are not going to get it. Your own life is passing away and - even here, even with your own life - you will not have managed to claim it.

Desire desires everything. It wants everything. Desire grieves for all the things it will never have, all the places it will never go, all the people it will never know, all the recognition it will never receive, all the work it will never do. Desire is never done mourning.

Everything is passing away and the agitation of this grief colors everything you do and every thought that you have. All of your planning, all of your hoping, all of your scheming is animated by this grief.

This panic, the panic of desire, is the panic of grief.

The panic of this grief is what squats, like a rock, in the pit of your stomach.

Are you familiar with this stone of grief, this rock of panic? When you walk, can you feel its heft sway?

Have you seen, though, that this rock is, itself, enough?

Quick, better see it again.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Interrogative Mood

Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? consists entirely of questions. 164 pages of questions. Line after line, page after page, chapter after chapter, questions are piled on top of questions without a declaration in sight.

In general, the book reads like a stream of consciousness interrogation where every non sequitur that pops up - in whatever order, with whatever frequency, with whatever gravity - is immediately suspended, concatenated, and catechized. The mood is light but uncomfortably insistent. A sample:
Are you sure of yourself? Do you use the word coordinates? Does a snifter of brandy - swirling, amber, bright, piquant - strike you as a handsome thing? Is there trouble in Paradise? Do wheels have fun? Can there be surcease in the pursuit of charity? Would the number of snake teeth there have been in time exceed or equal or be less than the number of human teeth, do you think? Will you ride a pony? (150)
The questions tend to have one of two effects: (1) asking for facts, they plumb your ignorance, or (2) soliciting opinions, they show by way of sheer volume how trivial your opinions are.

Ignorance and triviality loosen the straight-jacket of the self. Both give us room to breathe.

In part, Powell has just this effect in mind:
Is there anything you'd like to ask me? Are you curious to know what I'll do with the answers you've given me? Do you think I can make some kind of meaningful "profile" of you? Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I have asked you? If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation? Isn't it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives? Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty? Is in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise? And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow? (69-70)
Questioning, the self comes loose but doesn't go away.

Something similar can happen with our compulsion to achievement:
Do you know what famous person complained famously that many men produce only excrement? If a man completed building a model airplane and ordered a subscription to a newspaper on a given day, would he have been more productive than if he had only produced excrement? Would he be better than they if he wrote a beautiful piece of music that was listened to by hundreds of men or even thousands as they produced only excrement? What if a couple of them or even hundreds annoyed by the music turn it off as they produce only excrement? What if the excrement producers regard as holy more or less that production and admit no distraction from their mission? What if they yell from their chamber where they ply their industry "Turn that crap off!" speaking of the music that someone has thoughtlessly left playing at too high a volume for their comfort? What if they have one of those German shelf toilets that allows the inspection of the feces and as they inspect the feces it is established that no one is so inspecting the music to ascertain its quality? Things are a little different now that we have some quality control going down on the excrement end and no quality control going down on the productive-genuises-live-better-lives end, aren't they? (104-105)
Living in the interrogative mood, we just might learn what to give (and not give!) a crap about.