Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Trinity of Concepts: Emptiness, Desire and Enlightenment

Greetings readers!

It is quite obvious that I am about to tackle some major concepts within this blog post. I will not apologize for heavy philosophical writing but I will, for the sake of all beings, attempt to make this as simple as possible. Simplicity within Buddhism is a sacred element in my opinion because it is key to the understanding of universality, interactivity and the progression of Compassion.

So how on Earth can I possibly tackle such major themes, which have everything to do with each other all in one post?

Can I go down a check-list of some sort and check mark everything that I need to say about each and just move on to the next one?

I hate the word blasphemy but I think it would be appropriate for such a project. Not only do these have everything to do with each other, I am going to make a case in stating that they are all the same thing.

That is incredibly “unorthodox” of me to state but those of you who are already thinking to yourself, “What? Why? You’re crazy!!!” I beg you to hear me out. You will see that I am not “stretching” things that far and even if I were, so be it, it must happen.

I will begin with Emptiness!

Within my postmodern mindset it is difficult for me to accept a notion of something being contentless. The only form of contentless that I can even imagine is something having so much content that some of it needs to be thrown out. There are a few ways to go about explaining this. The classic question “why is there something instead of nothing” can be turned into “why is there something instead of everything?”

To quickly ponder over those two questions and to simultaneously move to my next point would be to answer in saying that Nothing is not nearly as much chaos as Everything. Everything must be diluted, Nothing is open, potential where as it is Everything that must be deconstructed and made peace with. Something is a flux between the two, Everything and Nothing even though it seems that this Something is Everything at the same time. That’s as far as I will go with that but my major point here is saying that there are things that could use a little bit of diluting, trimming and throwing out of.

Such statements are beginning to sound a little bit Nihilistic....that’s because they are. They are not Nihilistic in the sense that everything is meaningless but rather the contrary, everything has so much meaning that we do in fact need to peal some of it away, throw it away and then take what is good, useful and pragmatic and continue on with that. Nihilistic pragmatism? Yes. I would state that Buddhism has a lot of that very concept embedded in the heart of it.

Okay so finally, Emptiness. What is emptiness?

We live and continue our days, day-by-day, moment by moment. There is nothing new about this statement to Buddhism. What about these moments? Now. What about right Now? As I am writing this post and as you Now are reading this post. It is difficult to say that the future exists at all because it is now here yet but it is also impossible to say that there is anything static within this world as well. We’re stuck saying things are Becoming. Things are constantly becoming and so Now is a constant process of change. This too is nothing new to Buddhism but here is where it gets interesting. Emptiness is not the idea that there is, in fact, nothing that keeps “me” “you” “us” “we” and so forth but rather it is moments. It is not things that are empty but time.

Moments in time from one moment to the next. The flux between when one thing is about to end and when the next moment is about to begin. There is absolutely no way to ever measure such a thing and so we can say a few things here. We can either say that because there is no quantification of such a thing and such a claim to Emptiness would force Emptiness to be attributed to Now, since Now is all we have, and then everything is Emptiness.

But wait!

How can everything be Empty so fundamentally when we have already discussed that things have content to them, they have meaning, potency and potential? Can, with such a view everything be Empty at the same time? Because stating Now is Empty only with time, but always Empty would force the way we view content itself to change.

So no. That’s out!

We’re not forced to say that Emptiness does and should have content, we are blessed to be able to say that. This is where Emptiness meets Desire.

Part II: Desire as Emptiness. Emptiness as Desire.

Desire is believed to be the thing that keeps us within Samsara (at least in Theravada.) Samsara to me is more so a continuation of the breaking of community and the lack of realization of interdependency, interactivity and compassion. That definition would make Samsara a negative aspect of reality.

Traditional logic, and the Four Noble Truths state that with the breaking of Desire, Enlightenment can be attained. This understanding continues to do good when Desire and Enlightenment are properly situationally explained but as a general ontological point, I think it leads us way off the road.

Desire as a more conceptual thought cannot be ridden of and all Buddhists know this. The Dalai Lama always tells people it is not Desire that we’re trying to get rid of, it is “bad” Desire. Desire to do evil things like harming people and animals and such.

Okay so back on course. The statement I made was that Desire and Emptiness are the same thing, neither of which is contentless. That last point is incredibly important and please do not forget that! It. Is. Not. Contentless!!!

As moments continue to arise and fall, constantly changing, it is Desire that continues interactivity and community. It is that process, the Desire for those two things which keep the Cosmos and Everything somewhat stable in place. Because we don’t have any idea as to what sort of Desire that is, the basis of it, the reason behind it, the point in which the Desire is Ultimately Fulfilled (or brought to a close) we must call it Empty.

There is one more reason we must call it Empty. As things come from the past and are thrown into the present and continue on, infinitely into the “future” there is a interactivity between what we call Being and Non-being. Being is Existence, transcendent of itself and constantly changing and Non-being are those moments of Emptiness where there is a flux between what has taken place and what is about to take place. Non-being and the word Creativity can be interchangeable here and they both have the quality of being “Empty.” They’re empty because they’re potentials, neither determined nor isolated from anything else, rather influenced by everything instead. It is that slightest moment when we have an Empty choice to do something Good or Evil that is Empty. The manifestation of the action is the leaving of Non-being and into Being and also then becomes either Enlightenment or a continuation of Samsara.

Desire as Enlightenment.

This is where the unorthodoxy really kicks in guys, so please, hold on!

I have now stated that Emptiness is not contentless but is moments in which Good and Evil are in flux and that choice is made. There is no isolation and no determinism but rather influence. Being and Non-being are dynamical in that Empty/Creative/Desire(ful) moments lead to choices to be made which can be Good or Evil.

Samsara has been defined as a breaking of community and interactivity, an ignorance that everything is interdependent and connected.

Enlightenment must be some form of the opposite of that (with exception, of course. It’s not always the case that if it’s not “A” then it has to be “not A.)

Please excuse the logic lesson there!

So Desire can be Enlightenment only if Desire is essentially viewed as favorable. I am talking about the same Empty Desire that I talked about just a few minutes ago. The way that it can be viewed as favorable and be viewed as Enlightenment is if the understanding of Desire is positive in the first place. Empty moments must somehow more likely lead to Good than Evil for them to be Enlightenment.


Well....almost. Yes because I am openly an idealist regarding humans and just the world and do believe that most people will make a Good choice as opposed to an Evil one but more so because there is nothing left to call Enlightenment. That sounds like a strange thing to say but I mean it, there is nothing left other than these moments to call Enlightenment.

The “Criteria” for Desire to be Enlightenment generally gets fulfilled.

1)  It is mysterious
2)  It is objectively present but subjectively participated with
3)  It is empty on its own thus requiring context.
4)  It is its realization that can change some people.
5)  For Mahayana, the realization of this for others is more likely to happen than a realization in one’s own mind.

These similarities do not make it necessary that Enlightenment and Desire are the same thing so I will now move on quickly to Enlightenment.

Enlightenment as Apophatic Participation with Everything

Before I begin here I will have to give some terms. This will seem as the largest “break” from what I have written so far in this post yet it will all tie in together again, I promise.

To describe some terms here, apophatic means negation. It is generally used in theological terms but I believe it to be useful when discussing Enlightenment as well. What I mean exactly by negation is saying that we can only say what something is not instead of what something is. I link this sort of term closely with mysticism but not always.

What Enlightenment is not….

Enlightenment is not a state one enters and leaves that is isolated from some and available for others.  Thus Enlightenment cannot be isolated, it must be constant, integrated with everything around it. Attempting to isolate it will go against one of the most important of all Buddhist principles of interconnectivity.

Enlightenment cannot “truthfully realized” via a belief of raw experience.
I mention this statement almost in every post because I honestly believe it is a misconception many Buddhists have, especially in the tradition that I am a part of, Zen.

Through no attempt may a person find a “hidden” or “final” truth about oneself that is completely common, simple and universal to all things. Regardless of whether this “hidden” “Buddhanature” is a positive quality to humanity or not, a raw experience not only is not a way to discover such a religious and subjective term, raw experience itself is not possible. As stated above, the closest we can come to Emptiness is Desire, which is not contentless so no amount of meditation will take a person to a place where “Buddhanature” is discovered.

(On a quick note I am not attempting to make humanity seem as if though it is not in a state of Buddhahood, my explanation for Buddhahood is much different than that and it will be explained more thoroughly in my next post!)

The list can go on and on but I find those to be the most important. With such statements it is possible to justify such intensive history of Buddhist mysticism and monasticism.

Buddhism began as a predominantly monastic faith available to few but as concepts that had to do more and more with everybody arose, the tide shifted into a religion of laity and not of the monks. Buddhism lends itself easily to introspective isolation with such stress on the individual but it is a mistake to assume the individual is, in fact, one single “I.” Realization of anything within Buddhism goes through the motions of discovering the principles that Buddhism presents and one of those is interconnectedness and community. The “I” is only as “we” continue and still personhood is a tricky subject. I will not say much more about this because this will begin the “Self” discussion which is not the purpose of this post.

To Sum Up!

We have now stated that Emptiness is Desire is Enlightenment.
Enlightenment is a mysterious thing, empty in that it is not contentless but rather so mysterious that it is empty. Desire is the progression of each moment in continuation towards community and interdependency, the healthy kind.  Enlightenment is such because it is generally characterized as a realization of the Buddhanature within all things but this suggestion is that the Desire that propels everything and its realization is the Enlightenment that we seek. We respond and participate in such ways that it becomes so subjective, yet recurrent that “Empty” is a word that can be used.

There will be more posts on all of these topics as I go into more depth but that is a nutshell introduction to how I view Buddhist philosophy.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Buddhist Practice & Homeostasis

Change is hard. This could be the fifth Noble Truth. Regardless of the focus or purpose, it is very difficult to effect noticeable and lasting change be it of perspective or behavior.

Psychological "bootstrappers" would have everyone belly up and "just do it". They display self-righteous disdain for the larger part of humanity's limited ability in this regard. Generic New Age enthusiasts might advise us to lovingly embrace our perceived shortcomings. While this is a great feel-good strategy to avoid self-judgment, it can result in avoidance of necessary change all together.

Why is this the case? Why do we resist even those changes we need the most? The answer lies in part with our body's natural tendency toward seeking homeostasis, that is its remarkable ability to generate sameness.

In general, our ability to maintain homeostasis is a good thing. It is what regulates our blood pressure when we move from a seated to a standing position. It is what increases our metabolism when we go swimming in cold water to keep our internal organs warm. There are times, however, when this system gets in our way, such as when we want to lose weight or begin an exercise regimen.

I am a voice rehabilitation professional and trainer by profession. A large part of my work involves helping people make changes in the way their voice operates either to improve or repair vocal function. When I work with people, I impress upon them the fact that the perceptual system has only two modes of operation "normal" and "wrong." I tell them this so they are prepared when their mind tells them they sound horrible, when in fact they sound much better than before.

Our entire physiologic being craves sameness. Ah ha! There they are - craving and attachment - the building blocks of suffering. And it's built in to our core physical functioning. Oh darn. Conveniently, our Buddhist practice prepares us for this realization. Life has suffering. Suffering is caused by attachment and craving. Now we can understand at least in part where that comes from. Homeostasis!

Maintaining awareness of the body's drive for homeostasis allows us to orient our Right View a little differently than we might otherwise. Rather than being a personal failing of control or will, our resistance to change is a physiologic fact we have to partner with in order to be successful. Settling into this view makes it easier for us to release our struggle against it and meet the challenges of change with mindfulness and equanimity.

As we look toward a new year, many will engage in that timeless tradition of selecting a New Year's resolution. I say, go for it! But do keep your "Right View" wits about you and remember to be gentle with yourself if homeostasis rears its ugly head. Change is hard. That's why we practice, practice, practice.

May you have ample opportunities for practice in 2013!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Snippet on Kuan-Yin

Greetings readers!

This post will be much less theoretical and more of an explanation as to why I think Kuan-Yin is incredibly important to Buddhist thought and to comparative studies/incorporation into other traditions.

Firstly, those who do not know much about Kuan-Yin, I will give a brief introduction to her:

She is a Chinese Goddess of mercy and compassion and is also an incarnation or potentially transgendered God by a different name. There are legends of Kuan-Yin changing into other animals and people in order to help those who were crying or in need of safety. In Mahayana Buddhism (which Zen would fall under) she is regarded as the top Bodhisattva.

I do not believe that there is a need to compare religions for the sake of quality comparison but rather because as an understanding on differences, similarities that go beyond the basic but into the ontological as well. I promised I wouldn’t make this post theoretical however I may have lied.

Please forgive me.

Kuan-Yin would be an embodiment of mercy and compassion? Something that could be looked at in a more Western/Christian way, right?


Although there is potential to see things that way, it would not be very Buddhist because most Buddhism does not have the idea of embodiment. That’s not true in all cases but the basic reasoning behind it is that embodiment of anything would create more potential for there to be a noticeable “self” that is not interdependent, or impermanent.

The correlation between the adjectives that describe “self” and “self” are very important in that statement because most of us do think there is some sort of recurring pattern that we can at least call a “person.” I won’t begin to get into that so we can just leave that one open for discussion. 

Kuan-Yin’s recurring pattern and person would thus be known as Mercy and Compassion. They are not an embodiment because they are plainly within Kuan-Yin. Despite the two, Kuan-Yin’s “person” and those concepts being irreducible, it’s not quite safe enough to go as far as the Platonic notion of embodiment. 

Kuan-Yin shows that it is very natural, very human, very universal to have mercy and compassion and that anybody at all is capable of such practices.

These practices would be practices in the person’s own way.

In the shared experience and world of with whom or what the experience is with.

Would influence the rest of the Cosmos because all is connected and has influence

and would also then influence Compassion, Mercy etc in others.

Is that the same as Embodiment?

It’s damn close but the one other distinction between Christian embodiment and this Buddhist idea is that the “full embodiment” of Being/Love which is found in Christianity is not found in Buddhism. Kuan-Yin’s Mercy and Compassion are virtues that are planted, and mustered along the way through effort and strife making them ever so much more desirable, beautiful, and Zen.

So what then exactly is her importance?

As obvious as it sounds, she’s a woman.

The importance for there to be a religious figure with such importance who is a woman is very important, cannot be forgotten and must be celebrated. I won’t go into this too far but feminism is imperative for a successful globe which is pragmatic, progressive, pluralistic and loving.

Also Kuan-Yin shows us that these giant virtues are there at the palm of your hands in one way or another. One of my favorite statues of her is her holding a tea leaf which is a basic plant in the East yet has become a mystical ceremony. The basic”ness” of Compassion and Mercy are met with the mystical female figure who has reached Sainthood just by living. That’s something we can all strive for!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Buddhism and the Silence of the Internet

Today we're hosting a guest-blog from Eisel Mazard, whose blog may be familiar to many of you (it has been in our Blog Roll for some time). I also explored Jeffrey's post on the decline of Buddhism online at my Patheos blog here back in July. As I said then, it's a complex issue. I was using Google's Ngrams, which only display data up to 2008, and Eisel looks at specific discussion groups. Could the discussion be going on somewhere that we're not looking? Blogs like this one and James Ure's Buddhism Blog continue to grow, and the Buddhist Geeks have been successful enough to hold two large conferences. My own blog over at Patheos just had its best month in terms of visitors (but most of that was due to a post about the 2012 US Elections). What do you think? Do you have a blog? How is it performing in terms of numbers, comments, and/or lively sense of community? --- Justin Whitaker

Buddhism and the Silence of the Internet

The culture of communication is changing: this makes it difficult to measure any kind of cultural change through the lens of any given medium.  In an earlier article, I commented that one of the problems with counting the number of Buddhists in America through a telephone survey is that the culture of the telephone itself has changed in the last 20 years (who will answer an unknown number in the middle of the work-day, etc.).  However, the simple fact that I'm here dealing with is the decline of the discussion of Buddhism in English.  In some ways, the numbers speak for themselves, and in some ways they require quite a lot of talking to.
Jeffrey Kotyk recently drew attention to the sheer decline in the use of the word "Theravada" itself through Google's own statistics; you can compare that chart to what seems to be declining interest in Zen Buddhism, and other key terms (see his article, here).  Although interesting, staring at that chart (below) raises many questions about what type of change the Google Ngram statistic really measures (in relation to changes in the publishing industry specifically, and the culture of communication generally).  By contrast, the more colorful chart above is very simple: it shows the decline in the number of messages sent to an online discussion forum (namely, "Pali: The Pali Collective").
There was a generalized complaint about declining activity from the "Progressive Buddhism" blog a few months ago, too: "…so many of the 'names and faces' of 2007,8,9 and 10 are gone or have simply shifted interest…".  That complaint is evidently applicable to "The Pali Collective" and many other online discussion groups I've recently glanced over; when I look back at the archives of messages from 2007, I can see the names of a few Pali scholars whom I know/knew and respect, who are evidently no longer active in the forum.  However, "The Pali Collective" is still a relative success story: a large number of groups that I looked up have completely ceased to exist.  Others, like the (declaredly) academic forum moderated by Richard Hayes have gone silent, but have not formally shut down.  Circa 10 years ago, that forum was an extremely noisy place.
The Dhammadutas group (as shown above) declined into silence, and was then taken over by Spam.  Clicking through the archives, 2009 seemed to be the last year of real (human-to-human) communication on the forum, but it had already been in decline for some time.
By far the most active discussion forum shown in any of these charts is "Dhammastudygroup", but we nevertheless must observe a decline over the last several years (the level of activity is now roughly half of what it was at its peak).
This discussion forum for Black Buddhists seems to have been a convivial gathering around 2006, but declined soon thereafter, and now has not had a single message posted in 2012.
The broadly inclusive forum named "Sangha" has now declined to a tiny fraction of its former level of activity.  Although I'm showing a (roughly) 10 year period for each of these forums, I would note that "Sangha" was actually founded in 1998.  As such, this is probably one of the longest-running (continuous) discussion forums for Buddhism (in English), although it is not as old as the (now-moribund) forum overseen by Richard Hayes that I mentioned before ("Buddha-L").

I have seen many, many other examples of decline (and, frankly, I do not know of any real exceptions to the rule).  I've presented charts based on Yahoo groups specifically, because they display their own statistics in a manner that is easier to read than Google groups and other competitors (glance over the grid of numbers, e.g., at the bottom of the Buddhadasa group… also in stark decline).

Are we looking at a change in the culture of communication, or are we looking at an indirect indication of a real cultural change?  Before I started a blog of my own (à bas le ciel) I did look through a long list of possible websites that I could have (instead) become a contributor to.  There were no good options.  Although I do still have three articles in peer review, in the last few years I've surveyed my publishing options on paper, again and again; the choices that exist (for an author) are similarly bleak, and many of the publications are in an ongoing state of decline.

Is the growth of my own blog now an exception to the rule?  Although I'm surprised at my own growing number of readers, I also see this small-scale success in the context of the collapse of other modes of publication that should have (or could have) been available to me.  19th century journals really did contain "notices" written as casually as these blog-articles (often more casual still) and a forum of that kind (on paper) is now severely lacking for anyone in the field.  As I mentioned in recent articles, we no longer have the type of "scholarly pamphlet" that the Buddhist Studies Review and the Pali Buddhist Review used to be (as recently as the 1990s).  In looking over the charts above, however, we seem to be witnessing the shrinking of the internet (as a forum for Buddhism in English) especially since 2006.  If you've been actively searching for blogs or new publications on Theravāda Buddhism lately (and, perhaps, this is how some of you discovered my writing in the first place) you will have noticed: I don't have much competition.  As time goes on, I seem to have less and less competition, not more.