Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

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

Tagged with , ,

Authority

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In the summer of 1986, I gave a public talk at a Zen center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After the talk, a woman who had been in the audience handed me a sheet of paper printed on both sides and assured me I would find it edifying. I read the front page of the sheet and learned the document in my hand contained the teachings of an entity named Lazaris, who lived in one of the dimensions that somehow had remained undiscovered by science and who sent messages to the beings in the dimensions that human beings occupy through a channeler. The dissemination of the teachings of Lazaris have progressed since 1986 from the crude and unhygienic medium of the printed page to the aseptic medium of the Internet. Lazaris now has a website, on which we learn this:

Since 1974, Lazaris has channeled through Jach Pursel, his only channel, offering his friendship and love and generating a remarkable body of tools, techniques, processes, and pathways for our Spiritual Journey.

Learning more than some basic information about Jach Pursel and his assistants and getting more than a few short quotations from the teachings of Lazaris requires going to the shopping page and buying access to audio recordings, which range in price from $7.95 to $74.95 for the basic teachings, although some basic teachings are free. Learning what Lazaris has to say about being prosperous and successful can cost up to $250. Prosperity is rarely inexpensive.

Another website gives more information about what Lazaris is:

Lazaris is a nonphysical entity who first began channelling through Jach Pursel, his only channel, on October 3rd, 1974. He is a spark of Light, a Spark of Love, who has helped tens of thousands of people to expand personally, metaphysically and spiritually on their Spiritual Journey Home.

Another page on that same website offers a taste of the wisdom of Lazaris through a few quotations

Your love has a fierce majesty that cannot be matched; your love has a tenacious magnificence that cannot be contained or measured. You of the Human Race stand alone among the many Races within the dimensional universes in your capacity to love and in your ability to care – in the way you care for each other. Others love, but none like you do… Others care, but none like you do.

Back in 1986, a friend who was with me as I perused the double-sided sheet of printed paper commented “I wonder why it is that some people feel they need a nonphysical entity to tell them the sorts of things they could probably figure out for themselves by paying attention to their own experiences in life. If people feel a need for help from others, there are plenty of ordinary physical entities who have given us more than enough good advice.” I wondered the same thing.

Thirty years later I am still wondering, although to be honest I have not given the matter much thought. It is not that we human beings need better advice, I am inclined to believe, but that we would do well to follow the good advice we have been given. The only reason I am giving the matter of the appeal of Lazaris and various other allegedly disembodied entities some thought right now is that the United States seems about to embark on an era of authoritarianism. The man elected to be the 45th President of the United States has said that he does not need extensive intelligence briefings, because he can be told about a situation for twenty seconds, and he gets a gut feeling about what to do. It’s as if he “just knows” what to do and how to do it. His way of just knowing does not require the careful gathering of evidence, the consideration of all the different conclusions that any body of evidence could support, assessing the limitations of the available evidence, and the painstaking weighing of possibilities and probabilities. No phronesis is required. All that is needed is to listen for twenty seconds and then let intuition and instincts lead the way. If others question the decision, they simply need to be told “I am very smart. I know things that no one else knows.” There is no admission that there could be any legitimacy to questioning the conclusions that such a method yields. It is absolute. In that respect, the pronouncements of the 45th President are like the statements of an oracle, or a nonphysical entity that channels wisdom through just one person.

In his book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, Shawn Lawrence Otto chronicles several of the human tragedies that have unfolded when authoritarians have suppressed both questioning and evidence that casts doubt on firm convictions. When, for example, unimpeachable leaders have insisted that particular agrarian policies would produce more crops, then have fired or imprisoned or even killed observers who dared to bring forth conclusive evidence that crop yields were in fact poor, masses of people have starved to death.

Authoritarianism manifests itself as an inability to accept that one has been mistaken. An antidote to authoritarianism is scientific method, which has at its very core not only the realization that one may very well be mistaken but the practice of trying to show that the currently accepted conclusions are mistaken, or at least incomplete and oversimplified and liable to be modified as new evidence comes to light. Failure to falsify a tentative claim reinforces the claim for now, but of course the claim can always be overturned in the future as better and more complete observations are made. It is falsifiability that distinguishes scientific claims from claims that are placed out of the reach of questioning or criticism. Authoritarianism and scientific method are fundamentally incompatible, which is why politicians with an authoritarian streak tend to be wary of science, scientists and evidence-based reasoning.

People, either individually or collectively, who have various kinds of vested interest have often used the greatest strength of those who practice science—their ability to replace a tentative conclusion with a more accurate one—against science. The tobacco industry, for example, sought to undermine public confidence in the conclusion that tobacco use entails numerous health risks by pointing out that what scientists say in one decade is shown to be false in later decades. If researchers are saying today that tobacco use entails health risks, suggested the practitioners of denial, ten years from now they may be saying something completely different. Exactly the same strategy was used by the pesticide industry to undermine public confidence in the finding that some pesticides and herbicides do damage to the environment and some health hazards to human beings. The same strategy has been used by the petroleum industry to manufacture doubt that the combustion of fossil fuels is a cause of changes in the climate that result in the melting of ice caps and glaciers, rising ocean levels, lethal acidification of waters, more turbulent storms and generally more unpredictable meteorological events. The transition team of the 45th president-elect tried to create doubt about CIA and FBI findings that Russia was involved in hacking into the email servers of both political parties by pointing out that those entities were mistaken in 2003 in saying that Saddam Hussein probably had, or would soon have, nuclear weapons. The doubt-creating strategy consists of making the fallacious argument that if someone was mistaken about something, then they cannot be believed about anything. That being the case, no one is to be believed but an infallible authority. But ordinary human beings are notoriously fallible, so the safest bet is either an extraordinary human being or a non-human entity.

If scientific method and authoritarianism are incompatible, then science is a way to counter authoritarianism, but authoritarianism is also a way to counter science. The authoritarian method consists in making claims, repeating them until people believe them, undermining the credibility of those who make contrary claims, deliberately silencing those who disagree with or question one’s claims, or by casting aspersions on the character of those who do not readily endorse one’s claims. A good many politicians practice all of those techniques. Probably every human being uses those techniques at one time or another.

This squib began with a reference to the teachings of Jach Pursel, which he claims are really the teachings of a nonphysical entity called Lazaris. Since I have no idea what these teachings are, because I am not inclined to pay money to find out, I am not at all in a position to suggest that there is anything pernicious in those teachings. In fact I suspect, but do not know, that the teachings are innocuous enough and unlikely to do anyone direct harm. They are probably not at all in the same league as the claim that nothing need be done by human beings to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. There is, however, a potential unintended consequence of disseminating advice by making the untestable claim that the advice comes from a nonphysical entity rather than taking the more straightforward route of saying “Here are some ideas I have that I would like to share with you (for free).” Claiming that the advice is not just the outcome of the thinking of another ordinary human being, but is the communication of a nonphysical entity who speaks through only one human being, makes the advice seem extraordinary and therefore (in the minds of some) more credible, less prone to the errors made by minds encased in meat, fat and bones. Presenting the advice in this way is an attempt to make an end run around critical thinking. In an age about to embark on an autocratic and authoritarian presidency, critical thinking is not something to try to run around. It is something to embrace and to use as well as one is able. There is no area of life that I can think of that is not enhanced by critical thinking.

Many a political and economic commentator has expressed the view that the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States is likely to be the beginning of a dark and dangerous period on undemocratic authoritarianism in American history. For what it’s worth, Jach Pursel, blogging on behalf of Lazaris, is inclined to disagree. His cheerful advice is remarkably similar to that of the President so many people are dreading:

Be a champion of change, a champion of the new future—a future no one has yet imagined.

Some, I think, may have imagined our future. Names such as William Golding and Eric Arthur Blair (alias George Orwell) spring to mind.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 at 14:25

Posted in Philosophical basis

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A narrative to end all narratives?

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Alice: But I don’t want to go among mad people.

The Cat: Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.

Alice: How do you know I’m mad?

The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn’t have come here.

A common feature of the kind of madness that modern psychologists call psychosis is delusion, that is, a perception of events that does not conform to experiences of the majority of people. A person with a psychosis may be subject to audial or visual hallucinations, that is, experiences they have that other people are not experiencing. It is not uncommon for a person with a psychosis to have a sense of self-importance or extraordinary ability, called a delusion of grandeur; this sense is sometimes accompanied by a feeling that one is so important that others are conspiring to thwart his efforts or bring him harm, which is called a paranoid delusion. People living with those who have been diagnosed with a psychosis sometimes report that the psychotic is convinced that he alone is sane and the the rest of the world is crazy. Whatever its content may be, delusional thinking involves a narrative, a story that the thinker is weaving to make some sense of his or her experiences.

The very idea of delusion presupposes a correct narrative, deviation from which constitutes fantasy. What is considered correct can vary considerably from one time to another—one need only recall that there was a time when the narrative that the earth was fixed in space and that the sun, planets and stars all rotated around it was so firmly established that alternative accounts of the relative positions of heavenly bodies was considered preposterous. Even at the same time, there can be significant differences among narratives. The Qur’ān, for example, claims to correct the mistaken narrative of the Christian gospels that Jesus died on the cross—Jesus was not crucified, says Qur’ān 14:157, it appeared to some that he had been. From the perspective of one who accepts the narrative of the Qur’ān as the true standard, the appearance of the crucifixion of Jesus may have been a hallucination, and the gospel narrative is an example of delusional thinking.

Consensus is not necessarily a reliable criterion of what is actually the case. Indeed, logicians regard the appeal to popular consensus an informal fallacy, called argumentum ad populum. It is absurd to believe that something must be true simply because most people believe it, equally absurd to hold the contrarian belief that something must be false simply because most people believe it.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900), who by popular consensus was, or at least was becoming, insane during the years when his most often-cited works were written, famously wrote “There are no facts, only interpretations.” If he was sincere in writing those words, of course, he cannot have believed that to have been a factual claim; it was merely a statement of how he interpreted things. It was his narrative of the moment, one that presumably helped him make some sense of what he was experiencing.

Narrative, the telling of stories, is most often done with language, although it is also possible through images such as wordless cartoons or mime. Language has been regarded with particular suspicion both by some individuals and some traditions. Consider the Daoist saying, “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.” Or consider the character Hugo in Iris Murdoch’s novel Under the Net, who says in chapter four to the first-person narrator:

“All the time when I speak to you, even now, I’m saying not precisely what I think, but what will impress you and make you respond. That’s so even between us—and how much more it’s so where there are stronger motives for deception. In fact, one’s so used to this one hardly sees it. The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.”

There were (and perhaps still are) some Buddhists who seemed to agree with Hugo’s claim that “the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.” The Mādhyamika philosopher Candrakīrti, for example, can be interpreted as having held the position that propositions and propositional thinking have a place in the world of commerce (vyavahāra) and other practical goal-driven enterprises, but they have at the very best an asymptotic relationship with the greatest good, nirvāṇa, the eradication of the causes of personal and social turmoil (duḥkha). A philosopher on one of whose principal works Candrakīrti wrote a commentary was Nāgārjuna, who praised the Buddha for having shown that liberation (śiva) consists in the silencing of narratives (prapañcopaśama).

I have written about prapañca as narrative before in a squib suggesting that the Buddhist notion of prapañca is that it is “pointless narrative.” Candrakīrti’s praise of silence (tūṣṇīm-bhāva) as the route to liberation suggests that he may have regarded all narrative as pointless and troublesome. If that was indeed his view, of course, he courted the same dilemma as Nietzsche would have courted if he thought it was a fact that there are no facts, or that the Daoist Laozi courted when he said in chapter 56 of Daodejing that those who know do not say and those who say do not know (知者不言、言者不知。)

Creating narrative is what people do. Every culture is a culture of story-tellers. It could even be said that what we call culture is little more than story-telling. There may well be no way of avoiding narrative so long as the brain is alive; this may be the case for spiders who build webs as well as for human beings who write books and then build cathedrals in which to asseverate what has been written. Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti were creating narrative when they said the the way to peace is to find a way to stop creating narratives.

It could be the case that narrative becomes a problem only when people believe narratives that create in their minds hopes that cannot be fulfilled or expectations that cannot be met. The Buddhist, for example, who uncritically accepts the narrative that the root causes of turmoil can be eradicated through mindfulness may be setting up an expectation that can lead only to frustration when the goal remains elusive. The ethicist who places an emphasis on the questionable premise that agents have freedom of will may be transmitting a narrative that leads to the avoidable condemnation of those whose essentially involuntary actions are unwelcome in mainstream society. Nations and would-be nations that take collective actions on the basis of the narrative that there are inalienable rights to which everyone is entitled may be promoting conditions in which citizens are constantly invited to be indignant about their rights (which are, after all, entirely fictitious) having been abridged.

A good deal of religion, philosophy and politics consists of pernicious narrative. To conclude, however, that because some narrative is pernicious, all narrative must be pernicious is to fall prey to the inductive fallacy, a form of thinking that, according to the narrative of mainstream logicians, may lead to conclusions that prove disappointing.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, September 2, 2016 at 20:25

Posted in Buddhism

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