Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

The puzzle of religious identity

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A while back a clinic at which I had an upcoming appointment called me to ask questions in preparation for my visit. One of the questions was “What is your religious preference?” The question took me my surprise—of what medical relevance could that possibly be to an otorhinolaryngologist? Do the nostrils of an evangelical Christian look different from the nostrils of a Zen Buddhist?

What took me even more by surprise than the question was that I answered it quickly and without hesitation. More surprising yet was my answer: “Quaker,” said I.  After the call ended, I reflected on the fact that for several decades my response to that question, on the rare occasions it has arisen, has always been “Buddhist.” Why, after decades of identifying as a Buddhist, did I spontaneously have a different answer?

As I began to think about this, I began by reflecting on the fact that I have dual citizenship, being a citizen of the United States by birth and a citizen of Canada by naturalization. For years I carried two passports. When entering the United States I always showed my U.S. passport, and when entering any other country I showed the Canadian passport. When traveling outside North America, I always thought of myself and identified myself to others as Canadian. Now that both passports have expired, I don’t travel outside North America. I now live in the United States again and vote in local and federal elections whenever the opportunity arises, but despite exercising the rights of a citizen, I cannot easily think of myself as a citizen of the United States or any other country. I have ceased to believe in countries; they are at best a conventional conceptual structure that I reject but to which practical life requires some degree of acknowledgement, however reluctant.

My attitude toward religions that have names is parallel to my attitude toward countries that have names and borders. The most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your religious preference?” would be the same as the most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your citizenship?” The answer to both questions would be “None.” And yet, I do have membership in two religious organizations, both of which I maintain. I have no preference of one over the other. It has mostly been through force of habit that when asked I tend to tell people I’m a Buddhist.

So why did I recently answer the question of religious preference differently? As I thought about this further, it occurred to me that I have always seen myself as a pretty substandard Buddhist, at lest by traditional criteria. I don’t particularly like or get any inspiration from Buddhist rituals. I don’t really believe anyone has ever attained nirvana, which is traditionally said to be the complete eradication of the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nirvana is also traditionally said to be the cessation of rebirth, but I have never believed in rebirth in the first place. As far as I am concerned, everyone who manages to die has attained the end of consciousness and has no worry of being born as an animal or a ghost or a denizen of any of the hells or paradises cooked up by the common human reluctance to face oblivion; it follows from my convictions, if they are true, that either everyone attains nirvana, or no one does.

I find it impossible to believe that anyone has ever existed who can accurately be described by the fulsome praise embedded in the formulaic description of the Buddha: “noble, fully awakened, perfect in knowledge and conduct, knower of the world, unmatched teacher of gods and people” and “the best teacher on two feet.” Are there any gods to be taught? Can anyone who is a teacher of people be called unmatched or the best? Surely there are countless thousands of very good teachers, people whose advice it would benefit almost anyone to follow. Why single out one good teachers as the best?None of the traditional praise of the Buddha makes much sense to me.

All told, if being a Buddhist entails going for refuge to the Buddha and the Dharma (which, as an item of refuge is understood as the ultimate goal of nirvana) and the Community, I fail to go for refuge to at least two out of three of the traditional Buddhist refuges. Truth be told, I don’t even believe in the community as it is traditionally understood by Buddhists, namely, as the community of noble persons, those being the people who have eradicated various false views, sexual desires, anger, pride and various other afflictions. My belief is that if one is born human, one dies human and is human every moment in between birth and death, and being human inevitably involves having an amygdala and all the “base” and “animalistc” mental states that originate in that part of the brain that human beings share with other deuterostomes.

By now it must be clear that I fall short of all traditional expectations of what it means to be a Buddhist. So how could I ever have thought of myself as a Buddhist at all? The answer to that is that one key teaching of Buddhism has made more sense to me than any other teaching anywhere, and that is that all internal and external turmoil arises from the presence of greed, hatred and delusion, and the more those afflictions are subdued, the greater the odds of feeling some degree of comfort while alive. While it is true that many philosophies incorporate that same key teaching in one way or another, it just happens that I first heard that teaching clearly articulated by Buddhists, so it is to Buddhism that I habitually give credit, even while acknowledging that Stoicism, along with most if not all of the world religions, and humanism deserve equal credit.

I suppose I thought of myself as a Buddhist because in my own mind it was the standards of Buddhism of which I was most conscious of falling short. I’m quite confident that I am equally far below the standards of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, but what stood out in my mind, because of the accidents of who got to me first to shape my thinking, was my being below the standards of Buddhism.

What changed recently, I think, is that I have been reading quite a bit in recent months about the Quaker notion that one’s life—the way one lives—is the only real testimony to one’s faith. I admit to being very weak in any kind of faith, but if I did have any of it to give testimony to, I think I’d prefer to give testimony to it in the specific ways that liberal Quakers do, namely, by manifesting integrity, simplicity, peace, equality and community (or at least as much of community as an introvert like me can face). As I look at the reality of how my life has unfolded, I stand convicted of having manifested those ways of testimony rather poorly. And it is, I submit, because lately I have been far more conscious of being a substandard Quaker than of being a substandard Buddhist that I blurted out that my religious preference on that day was Quakerism.

I still do not see what possible relevance my or anyone else’s religious preference has to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Perhaps I should have answered that I am a secular humanist with a deviated septum.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, November 11, 2019 at 15:05

Posted in Buddhism, Quakerism

Writing to faceless readers

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When I picture my mother, Helen Louise Schooley Hayes (03/11/1922–09/16/1993), the image that most often comes up is of her sitting at a table, a fountain pen in hand and a sheet of line paper in front of her, a cup of coffee off to one side and an ashtray with a lighted Pall Mall cigarette on the other side. When I picture her at different stages of her life and in different places where we lived, the table may be different, as also the brand of cigarette, but the cup of coffee and the fountain pen and lined paper are invariably present. I can still see her looking thoughtfully into space, taking a couple of drags on her cigarette, then lighting up with a smile and writing a few more sentences. Watching her write, even when as a young child I occasionally resented being ignored, brought me joy.

These pictures in my mind are almost the only ones I have of my mother. She hated being photographed. One Christmas she gave me a camera and then threatened to take it away from me when I snapped a photo of her preparing Christmas dinner n the kitchen. Years later she joked that she hated to be photographed because cameras only captured her overweight exterior and graying hair and failed to capture her inner beauty. It was one of the many light-hearted comments she made that contained a grain of truth.

During her lifetime, my mother wrote thousands of letters to her friends and relatives. Writing letters was nearly a daily activity. Her letters were written in a style that showed the influence of her favorite authors: James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, William Saroyan, Erma Bombeck. They were funny, clever, insightful, self-deprecating. She had a gift for drawing attention to human foibles by telling stories that illustrated her own. Like many people who write well, she had a tendency to lurch in the direction of depression, and I suspect that writing letters was a way of cheering herself up and keeping things in perspective—humor is, after all, one of the classical defense mechanisms. Whether or not she cheered herself up by composing her wry epistles, she nearly always managed to cheer up the recipients.

Several of the people to whom my mother wrote frequently, including myelf, urged her to consider writing a book, or at least essays to be submitted regularly to magazines. It seemed a shame that only one person at a time could enjoy her witty observations. Her response to such urgings was always the same: she could not imagine writing anything that was not addressed to a particular individual. When she wrote to a friend, she wrote what she knew that friend would appreciate reading about. If she could not picture a specific recipient reading her words, her muse remained mute. Although she loved language, she did not write for her love of well-turned phrases. She wrote for her love of specific people. She wrote to connect with them, one at a time, the way that intoverts prefer to connect with others.

When I was an undergraduate the first time around, I majored in English composition, which involved learning to write for several genres—poetry, short stories, plays, technical treatises, essays, even novels. I discovered that, like my mother, I could rarely write anything unless I had a specific reader in mind. If I imagined my professor, or my roommate, or one of my uncles, or the ghost of Mark Twain reading the piece I was writing, the words flowed more easily, and the result, I fancied, was more satisfactory than when I tried to write to an anonymous, faceless reader.

In one of my several attempts to encourage my mother to write for a wider audience, I suggested that she might try writing an essay with a specific reader in mind and then send it to be published. The finished product would surely be appreciated by far more people than the one for whom she was writing it. She thought about it for a moment and then told me it would never work. If she knew that eventually she would send it to a wider readership, she would also know that she was only pretending to write it for a specific reader, and her writing would reveal the pretense. It would lack authenticity. At the very least, it would lack the characteristic that made her writing such a joy to read, namely, that it was intensely intimate. On the other hand, if she really did write a piece for a specific reader, she would then feel it was a betrayal of that person, almost an invasion of the privacy of both the writer and the intended reader, if she shared the writing with a wider audience.

My mother lived long enough to see a computer enter her household. Despite all my father’s enthusiastic endorsements of the modern convenience of WordStar as a writing tool, my mother could not be tempted to try to compose a letter on that alien contraption. Even using a typewriter robbed a letter of its personal touch—a letter really should be written with a fountain pen, so the reader could detect all the subtle fluctuations of mood that showed up in the handwriting—but a letter noisily hammered out on a dot-matrix printer connected to a desktop computer was far too impersonal, not to mention just plain ugly, for words. The computer, she was quite sure, was a passing fad, for such a gimmick could never be used for true communication.

Looking back on my adolescent and adult life, I recall writing three or four letters a week to various friends and relatives. That habit stopped not long after a computer found its way to my desk when I was forty-one years old. My fountain pen eventually got put into a drawer and never came out again, and soon afterward my muse sought employment elsewhere. For the past thirty-three years I have been condemned to writing lifeless prose to faceless, and largely nonexistent, readers.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, March 11, 2019 at 11:32

Posted in Uncategorized

Imagine there’s no countries

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Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
—John Lennon (1940–1980)

Earthrise

In many of the the 2018 midterm election campaigns, some candidates are described as advocating open borders. Although there are few, if any, political candidates in the United States actually advocating open borders of the sort that exist in the European Union, it is interesting to think of what it would be like to have an agreement among all the countries in the Americas that would allow people to move freely anywhere in the American continents and the Caribbean islands to pursue a livelihood. What would it be like if workers could move from one country to another as easily as corporations do? This thought experiment can be taken one step further. What if there were no nations at all and therefore no borders to cross?

On Christmas eve in 1968, in the course of the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon, the lunar module pilot Bill Anders took a photograph of the distant earth with the surface of the moon in the foreground. The photo, entitled “Earthrise,” has been called by the nature photographer Galen Rowell “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. Nearly fifty years after the photograph was taken, in a PBS program called Earthrise: The First Lunar Voyage, members of the crew of Apollo 8 reflected on the impact that seeing the earth from a lunar orbit had on them.

One of the observations that several astronauts who have seen the earth from the moon or from the international Space Station have made is that when our planet is seen from a distance, it is possible to see natural features such as oceans and large lakes and mountain ranges and deserts, but it is not possible to see human-made features such as nations, states and counties. When seen from that perspective, it is apparent that the earth is surrounded by dark space and that there is nothing nearby on which the inhabitants of the planet can call for help. If the inhabitants of the earth are to survive, they must do so by cooperating with one another. Within the human race, that cooperation may best be achieved if a focus on differences—differences in nationality, ethnicity, ideology and religion—is not allowed to take priority over a focus on basic common needs. As the human race interacts with other species, the common needs of human beings are best met by remembering that we human beings are only one of countless other interdependent lifeforms on this planet. It is because the photograph Earthrise makes all that cooperation and interdependence easier to grasp that it has been called the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.

The role of mythology

In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, the historian Yuval Noah Harari discusses the influence that fictitious narratives play in human history. Examples of the fictions he explores are money, corporations, nations, ethnicity, personal identity and freedom. Harari points out that while it may be easy for a modern person to regard the Sumerian deity Enlil as a fiction and to see as fictitious narrative the belief that all the lands and crops and precious artifacts offered to Enlil are private property owned by Enlil, it may be more difficult to see that a corporation is also a fictitious entity and that it is a socially constructed fiction that the corporation owns lands. Most people probably do not regard it as preposterous to believe that Canada is real and that it owns part of the Arctic or that a British-Australian multinational corporation named Rio Tinto Group is real and that it owns the Bingham Canyon open pit copper mine in Utah. Why, then, would they regard it as preposterous that the Sumerians believed that all the land around them was owned by the god Enlil?

Harari does not advocate banishing fictitious narratives from our lives. Rather, he advocates recognizing that they are fictions. They are myths that give our lives meaning and that facilitate large-scale social co-operation. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for human beings to co-operate with large numbers of total strangers whom they have never met and never will meet without some kind of shared mythology. Mythology is therefore not to be avoided altogether, but it is important to realize that myths serve specific purposes under particular circumstances. As circumstances change and human needs change, then successfully meeting those needs may require a change in the fictitious stories we tell one another so that we can work together.

A question worth thinking about today is whether the fiction of nation-states is still serving the collective needs of humanity. There may have been a time when the story of having countries to kill or die for served a useful purpose. It may well be that we have entered a time when it is increasingly counterproductive to believe that a nation has a right to withdraw from co-operating with other nations to address such global predicaments as the warming of the planet through the combustion of fossil fuels. Perhaps it is time for international co-operation to give way to a kind of co-operation in which the very idea of a nation no longer plays a role, some kind of post-national co-operation. This is possibility I have explored elsewhere.

 

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, October 22, 2018 at 15:29

Posted in Social analysis

Thinking about self and not-self

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…the desire to become free from delusion or egocentrictiy is one of the causes of our delusion and egocentricity. …the desire to escape from this side of existence and enter another side is another expression of egocentric desire.

— Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjōkōan: the Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010, p. 44

Fifty years of being puzzled

The first presentation of Buddhist thought and practice that I ever heard was in a Unitarian church. In that presentation, given by a Theravādin lay Buddhist from Sri Lanka, it was said that a key tenet of Buddhism is that there is no self. It was also said, rather emphatically, that no one should accept any doctrine, Buddhist or otherwise, simply on authority. No Buddhist, it was explained, should accept any teaching simply because it was presented as a Buddhist teaching. For some reason, I accepted, simply on the authority of this lay Buddhist teacher, that it was acceptable not to accept a teaching of Buddhism, even if it was presented as a key tenet, so I did not accept the teaching that there is no self. It’s not so much that I rejected it as false. It was more a matter of not being able to make enough sense of what was actually being said to accept it or reject it.

Over the years I heard various explanations of what the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anātman) was saying. Some people insisted that it means that there is no soul. Others suggested it is an ethical injunction that one should not be self-centered. Others said it means no one has a fixed and permanent nature, because everything that comes into being eventually passes out of being.

The first of these claims, that there is no soul, struck me as far too modern and materialist to be a likely candidate for what early Buddhists meant when they said there is no self. After all, these Buddhists talked about consciousness, reactions to experience, character, decisions, and various other psychological functions that correspond to what philosophers in other traditions talked about when they discussed the soul and its faculties. It was not at all helpful to interpret anātman as meaning that human beings have no psychological dimensions.

The second of these claims, that anātman is advice not to be self-centered, makes perfectly good sense, but there are scores of traditions that disparage selfishness. The claim, which I came across repeatedly, that anātman is a distinctively Buddhist doctrine that differentiates Buddhism from all other religions and philosophies, would obviously be false if anātman is simply the commonplace warning that little good comes of being selfish.

The third claim, that anātman does not mean that there is no self at all but rather means that such self as there is is a work in progress that does not remain unchanged over time, also makes good sense, but who would ever deny that? Is that not what pretty nearly every human being discovers in the process of being alive for a while? Like the advice not to be selfish, there is surely nothing at all uniquely Buddhist about the observation that people do not have exactly the same nature when they are fifty years old that they had when they were toddlers.

Becoming provisionally less puzzled

As time went on, I came to feel that Buddhists were simply being boastful and making false claims to uniqueness when they said that the doctrine of anātman is what sets Buddhism apart from everything else. It is true that there were philosophical schools in India at the time when Buddhism was evolving there that claimed that the true self, the ātman, is unborn, unconditioned, unchanging and imperishable, and it is also true that Buddhists criticized those schools. That historical reality hardly makes Buddhism unique; it simply makes Buddhism one of the schools that denied the rather strange claim made by some in ancient India that the self is unborn, unconditioned, unchanging and imperishable.

In other words, making sense of the doctrine of anātman in Buddhism was not at all difficult to one willing to pay the price of saying that Buddhists were deluded in thinking that they alone realize that there is no fixed self. That is a price that I have always gladly paid, since Buddhists surely do not have a monopoly on thinking that they have a monopoly on truth. Thinking they are unique and special and better than everyone else is what human beings do best. As Sri Ramakrishna is said to have observed, “Everyone thinks that only his watch tells the right time.” In such chronometric arrogance, the Buddhists are not so unique.

Fifty years later and running out of time

When I first encountered the Buddhist doctrine of not-self, I was twenty-one years old. As I write this, I am seventy-three years old and none the wiser, but it’s clear that in the endeavor to become a little wiser, I’m running out of time. So let me say, for what little it is worth, what the doctrine of anātman means to me this week.

First, what it means to say that there is no self is that everything that I am (or that anyone is) is derived from something other than what I intuitively think of as myself. Subtract everything that is not me from me, and there is nothing left over.

One way to see the truth of that claim is to look at one’s accomplishments, the sort of claims that one makes on a curriculum vitae or a resumé. One of the things that appears on my resumé is a PhD, which I supposedly earned. What made that possible? I was born into a family of well-educated people who valued education, encouraged curiosity, had shelves full of books, had large vocabularies that they used well, instilled the importance of accuracy, and insisted on critical thinking. All that rubbed off on me simply by my growing up in that environment. I cannot take any credit for having acquired any of that. I did not choose to be born into that family and I did not choose to acquire their values. The circumstances of my upbringing happened by sheer luck. In picking up my families values, I simply did what every child naturally doesz: i imitated what I saw around me.

When my time came to pursue a higher education, money was available to pay tuition and keep life and limb together through a variety of sources—family money that had been passed down for several generations from nineteenth century industrialists, government scholarships, student loans, employment that I was fortunate enough to get during student years.

Everything that I eventually came to know was passed to me by people who had learned it from others, some of it through contact with teachers, some of it through books that someone had bothered to write, that someone had published, that someone had selected for a library, that someone had catalogued and shelved and made it possible for me to find. The entire enterprise of getting an education was possible because I was living in stable and mostly peaceful countries. Things that I might have fancied that I had discovered were nothing but items that had somehow been there to discover. There is none of that for which I could honestly take sole credit. Everything that I have ever allegedly accomplished was in fact due to someone or something other than myself. Subtract all the external factors, all the things that I do not normally think of as myself, from my PhD, and there is no PhD left. It is mine only by the grace of social convention, through an impossibility of giving credit to all those to whom credit is due. As with the PhD, so with everything that I have ever been or done or thought of being or doing. In all this, I am typical.

Second, what it means to say that there is no self is that there is no such thing as individuality. I mean that in two senses. The etymological sense of “individual” is that which is not divided. Buddhists, like numerous others, pointed out that what one takes to me one’s self is made up of numerous parts or features; a physical body that is itself made up of organs, that are themselves made up of cells, that are themselves made up of molecules, that are themselves made up of atoms, that are themselves made up of subatomic particles; a bundle of perceptions and thoughts and memories and other intangible features that can be analysed almost indefinitely; a collection of narratives about life, the universe and everything, all of them acquired from the society around one. A person can be endlessly divided into components and so is no individual.

There is another sense in which it can be said that no one is an individual, and that is that one cannot be divided off from, separated from, everything else that exists. By everything, I mean no less than everything in the universe. There is nothing anywhere to which everything everywhere is not in some way or another related and connected.  In this, as in all other things, what I have come to think and believe has been said by someone else better than I could say it myself. In writing about the sense of self as a kind of delusion, A.H. Almaas writes “The delusion here is not that you are an individual, but that you are an isolated individual, with boundaries that separate you from every thing else.” (A. H. Almaas, Facets of Unity: The Enneagram of Holy Ideas, pg. 102, loc. 1693. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.)

It is possible to act and think and speak in forgetfulness of all that interconnectedness and inseparabity and dependency on what intuitively feels to be outside the self. The result of that forgetfulness is usually, but not always, painful in some way, or at least uncomfortable. Being discontented can usually be traced back to being unrealistic in some way.  Unfortunately, because we are physcially finite and psychologically limited, and because being realistic means being fully aware of every thing in all its details and all its relations to everything else, we must all settle for having a pathetically narrow and partial picture of reality. We must all settle for being unrealistic, and as a result of that we must always settle for being prone to a share of disappointment, surprise, and even the occasional shock. The best approximation of being realistic anyone can hope to have is not to have unrealistic expectations of ever escaping the conditions that make being alive somewhat stressful.

Classical Buddhism told a different story. It held out the promise of the possibility of nirvana, the cessation of afflictions (kleśa-nirodha), when one became awake (buddha) to things are they really are. If that promise is taken too literally, it turns out to be a bogus promise. If, however, it is taken to mean that if one becomes awake to realizing that some degree of suffering and frustration is inescapable and that there is really nothing to be gained by fighting and resisting that fact, then that acceptance, insofar as one can muster it from time to time, will probably feel better than getting worked up into a frenzy over that over which one has no control.

That is how the doctrine of anātman makes sense to me today. Who knows what sense it will make tomorrow?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, June 24, 2018 at 20:54

Posted in Buddhism

Hanging on to the past

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“The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet–”
― Kobayashi Issa

When I lived in Hiroshima from the autumn of 1977 until the spring of 1979, I often passed by the iconic A-bomb dome, the ruined remains of the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Someone pointed out to me that the infrastructure of the building was so compromised that it would collapse if measures were not taken to keep it standing. While fully aware of and sympathethic to the purpose of keeping a visual reminder of the devastation wrought by an atomic bomb, I also reflected on the irony of putting effort into keeping something perpetually in a state of being on the verge of collapse. How does that differ from, say, putting a brain-dead person on life support on display for no other reason than to serve as a reminder that life ends in death?

In recent years I have been a volunteer in two organizations that monitor archaeological and historical sites in New Mexico. Monitors visit sites periodically to see whether damage has been done by natural occurrences such as fire or water, or by burrowing animals, or by human campers or treasure hunters. Any damage found is reported to an archaeologist, who then surveys the site more carefully to see whether steps need to be taken to restore the site to the state it was in just before the damage was done. The state a site was in just prior to being damaged, of course, is usually a state of collapse. Sites that were villages built by ancestral Pueblo peoples in the thirteenth century are now piles of stone and scattered pot sherds or flakes from the manufacture of lithic tools. Eventually the occupants of those villages moved on to other locations, probably taking with them whatever was both useful and portable. During the past century, however, and even more during the past twenty years, efforts have been made to keep those piles of stones and middens and pottery and tool scatter, so far as possible, in the condition in which we now find them. Archaeologists used to do much of their research by digging, which of course altered the nature of the site being researched. The tendency now is to use tools, such as ground-penetrating radar, that leave a site while gathering information about it.

I would not participate in the endeavor of site monitoring if I did not value knowing about how people lived in the past and if I did not respect the Pueblo peoples who still life in New Mexico and their ancestors who have lived here for many centuries. At the same time, however, I am struck by how holding on to things from the past runs counter to the fact that everything in this universe is constantly changing and that the material of any given epoch must be the same material of previous epochs. Materials are constantly being reused, transformed, and repurposed. There is something unnatural about preservation, not only physically but psychologically. It is, I am inclined to think, generally speaking more psychologically healthy to let the past slide into forgottenness than to hold on to it. Anything that is truly useful or valued is bound to survive somehow, or to be rediscovered if it goes missing for a while and turns out to be indispensible. This being the case, there is a part of me that is inclined simply to let nature, including human nature, simply take its course, knowing that the course nature takes is always destruction of the old to make way for the new. There is, however, another part of me that says with Kobayashi Issa, “And yet…. And yet….”

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018 at 11:44

Posted in Social analysis

The Sea of Hype

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hype (informal) noun 1. extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion. 2. deception carried out for the sake of publicity. Origin 1920s (originally in the sense ‘shortchange, cheat,’ or ‘person who cheats, etc’): of unknown origin.

Last night as I was watching a current affairs program on one of the commercial television channels, I was struck by how many commercial breaks there were. It seemed as though the pattern was that the announcer would say a few intriguing words about a news story that would be coming up in just a few minutes, then two or three commercial messages would come on, followed by a brief news story, half of which had already been given in the “preview” to the story, after which two or three more commercial messages would follow. Most of the featured stories consisted of politicians delivering sound bites, about which one conservative and one liberal panel member made a partisan pronouncement. What struck me in particular about this format was that the entire program from beginning to end consisted of almost nothing but hype—extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion. The commercial messages were, of course, promoting products or services. The politicians were promoting a political agenda. The commentators were trying to persuade the viewer that the agenda being promoted by the politician was either just exactly what the country needs right now or would be a complete disaster for all concerned.

What is missing in hype, it hardly needs to be said, is a careful weighing of evidence and an impartial assessment of the evidence considered. Advertising agencies are paid handsomely, not to offer an impartial assessment of a product based on scientific tests but to convince the viewer that this product is preferable to similar products made by a competing company. Political campaigning is all about making the case that a particular candidate is the best person for the job and will do the most for the citizens—all citizens, not just those who vote for the candidate making the pitch. Rarely these days is a politician not campaigning. When elected and “serving,” a politician must keep an eye on the next election, which requires persuading the voting public that the policy the politician is advocating is one that will benefit the voters. The partisan commentators who participate in panels on news analysis programs continue to carry out the endeavor of persuading, an endeavor that nearly always involves at least some degree of deception or distraction or oversimplification.

What struck me as I was watching the current affairs program last night was not just that this program was mostly hype but that almost everything one is exposed to all day long is hype. Hype is the very fabric of modern culture. (Perhaps it has always been so. Perhaps hype is the very fabric of being human. Not knowing whether that is the so, let me focus only on modern culture.) To change the metaphor, hype is the very sea in which we swim.

While reflecting on the ubiquity of hype, I was reminded of a conversation I had decades ago with a friend who had just returned to Montreal from seven years of living in a Buddhist forest monastery in Thailand. He reported that as he walked along the streets of the city he felt as though everything was reaching out and trying to grab his arm to get his attention. In every shop window, on every lamppost, in every Metro station, at every bus stop there were posters advertising goods and services, every one of which he had learned he could live without. He reported finding it an exhausting experience to take even a short walk in the city, such was the feeling of being assaulted from all sides by persuaders. After a few months, he noticed himself growing used to it, and we had a conversation about how unfortunate it is that we who live in contemporary society simply grow used to all the hype rather than feeling outraged by it. Being outraged by something that one is for the most part powerless to change, we concluded, is probably even more detrimental to one’s well-being than being slowly poisoned by omnipresent hype.

I was surprised to learn in consulting several dictionaries that the origin of the word “hype” is unknown. I had always assumed that it was an abbreviation of the rhetorical term “hyperbole,” which according to Wikipedia comes from the Greek ὑπέρ (hupér, “above”) and βάλλω (bállō, “I throw”). The article goes on to say:

In poetry and oratory, it emphasizes, evokes strong feelings, and creates strong impressions. As a figure of speech, it is usually not meant to be taken literally.

As a rhetorical device, I am quite fond of hyperbole or overstatement. A good deal of humor employs it. A bit of hyperbole adds spice to conversation. Like spice, it is best used sparingly, not as the main ingredient. (An exception to this rule, of course, is green chile in New Mexican cuisine.) I am concerned that the hype to which most of us are exposed these days has become the main ingredient of the main course and that as a result our minds are not receiving proper nourishment.

Fortunately, it is possible to find respite from the pervasiveness of hype, even in the United States, the country that hardly any politician can resist calling “the greatest country in the history of the world.” (Why limit oneself to just the world? Why not say it’s the greatest country in the history of the Milky Way?) One can watch PBS or listen to NPR to get some hype-reduced nutrition. One can read any number of works of fiction or non-fiction. One can have conversations with carefully selected friends in some non-commercial setting, such as a home or a relatively remote rural natural setting.

Now that I think of it, I suspect some version of hype may have been difficult to avoid during most of human history. In ancient Buddhist texts, written long before electronic technology overwhelmed us all, followers of the Buddha are advised to seek isolation (viveka), that being described as a place far enough away from a populated area that one can no longer hear the sound of people’s voices. Presumably the chattering of birds and chipmunks and the occasional roaring of lions does less to undermine one’s concentration than exposure to human verbiage. I am not convinced, however, that birdsong is entirely free from hype, especially during the mating season. Be that as it may, the hyperbole that the flora and fauna broadcast to draw attention to themselves does not irritate most human beings as much as the hype put out by our own species.

Speaking only for myself—Heaven forfend that I would try to persuade anyone else to have the same taste as I— on most days I had rather listen to a male finch trying to attract a mate with his elaborate arrangement of notes than to a politician trying to attract my vote or to a pharmaceutical company trying to convince me that its product is the best remedy for moderate to severe jangled nerves caused by overexposure to hype.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 12:13

Posted in Social analysis

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Convicted

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“Nothing can convict me of sin but the evidence in my own heart. From this evidence there is no escape.”—Elias Hicks (March 19, 1748 – February 27, 1830)

A term often used in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is “convinced Friend,” which is explained on the Quaker Jane website as “someone who experienced a convincement (either quickly or evolving over time) and chose in adulthood to join a Friends Meeting.” A convincement, in Quaker terminology, is what others might call a conversion experience or metanoia (μετάνοια), a sudden or gradual transformative experience that results in a change in the direction of one’s life. A convincement, however, is more than that. It is also a feeling that one has been convicted, as of a crime, and that one is therefore a convict, imprisoned for the time being. This recognition of one’s shortcomings, one’s failure to live according to one’s highest ideals, often results in one’s being less prone to the negative judgment of others for their shortcomings, as is expressed beautifully in the poem of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) entitled “Forgiveness”:

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

It would be difficult for me to point to any one experience in my life as a convincement, but early in adulthood a number of circumstances led to important changes in direction and alterations in perspective. A chance encounter with a collection of writings by the Stoics had an immediate effect on me, not so much one of making me change direction but of realizing that others had already said better what I was struggling to say about my outlook on the world. Not long after that, in the early months of 1967, I happened to attend two reading groups at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Golden, Colorado, one that was reading Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates and another that was reading several Buddhist writings. Reflecting on those readings had the effect of making me decide that I had completely lost all sense of belonging in the United States—there was hardly anything about the direction the country was taking on those days that seemed reasonable or moral to me—and that realization led to buying a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Oddly enough, I was convinced in those days that I was a Communist, and Winnipeg was a place with a number of Communist bookstores and members of various Canadian Communist parties. It took relatively little exposure to those people to make me realize I was not one of them after all. Fortunately, during those early days in Canada I also came into contact with members of the Religious Society of Friends. Despite a lifelong aversion to any kind of religion, and perhaps especially to anything Christian, I found myself so moved by the kindness, the thoughtfulness and the decency of Friends that I began to think it might be time to reconsider my antipathy. After attending unprogrammed Quaker meetings for worship for several months, I was both impressed by the quality of what was said when Quakers rose to give testimony in meetings and resistant to the notion that these communications were from where Quakers officially said they were from: Spirit. Whenever I heard an inspirational message in meeting for worship, a little voice in my head would say something like “That’s John speaking his own carefully reasoned ideas. It’s not Spirit talking.” I am not sure why it was so important to me to make that distinction in those days, but with time that little voice stopped insisting on saying that sort of thing. Perhaps a factor in my little inner voice’s change of diction was the fact that in those days I wrote fiction or poetry nearly every day, and many times would look at what I had written and would ask myself “Where did that come from? My muse? My unconscious? Reasoning? Spirit? Or does it really matter where it comes from? There it is.”

In those early days in Canada I was in danger of being overwhelmed by my anger with the United States and that country’s seemingly insatiable craving for enemies to blame and countries to invade. On a visit to a bookstore in Lethbridge, Alberta, I stumbled upon a copy of Edward Conze’s little tome on Buddhist meditation, which reminded me of how well I had responded to the Buddhist readings in the Unitarian-Universalist church in Colorado. I bought the book and hit upon a description there of a contemplative practice aimed at cultivating friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), and it was immediately clear to me that that was what I had to do. I had to change my attitude, quit being angry with perceived enemies, begin finding something to love and respect in everyone, and that practice was just the tool I needed to do the job that needed to be done. Fifty years on, I still do that exercise regularly. Practice, I have come to notice, does not necessarily make perfect, but it can at least make a little better.

Now in the early years of my eighth decade as a human being on the planet Earth, I am still not entirely comfortable with such concepts as sin or evil. Those are not categories that readily come to mind as I look at the external world or at the internal mindscape. What does come to mind is some notion that “things ain’t what they spose to be” and that ameliorative measures could be taken. As Hicks said so well, from the evidence of one’s own heart there is no escape. It is that evidence that convicts. And once convicted, one has no choice but to reform.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 12:55

Posted in Quakerism

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