Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens meet with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa. Continue reading

The Nietzschean Bodhisattva: Part I

One of the tasks that Joan Stambaugh pursues in her chapter on “Creativity and Decadence,” is to explain what it means to say that “Nietzsche sees art as fundamental to life, as the ‘truly metaphysical activity of man’” (The Other Nietzsche, 21). Nietzsche, Stambaugh says, sees art as not, “a sphere of culture, not as a highly specialized, privileged area for the few, but as that activity of man that is most crucial to his life” (ibid.). Stambaugh finds such a claim rather strange, for aren’t other things crucial to life before art? She sees the resolution of the strangeness in her interpretation of Nietzsche on truth. She writes:

For Nietzsche, there is no truth in the traditional sense of that word. The world of the will to power is in constant flux, not the undefined, undetermined flux of Heraclitus, but the flux of shifting centers of power that increase and decrease, but never remain the same. True knowledge of this world is impossible, in fact, it is incommensurate with the very nature of the world. “Knowing” is simply a pragmatic falsification of the world for the purpose of dealing with it more effectively. Therefore, instead of despairing over the fact that there is no static, finished world to be known, the meaningful activity in this world of flux and the will to power becomes art, shaping this world, giving it meaning and values. The previous institutions and endeavors of man are forms of decadence, they distort the world. “Our religion, morality, and philosophy are decadent forms of man. The counter movement: art” (The Will to Power, No. 794). “The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available, they seek ways and means of reaching it. ‘Will to truth’—as the impotence of the will to create” (The Will to Power, No. 585). (22-23)

This denial of truth is very much in line with Nietzsche’s pronouncements about the death of God, which signals the death of the power of the idea of a fixed transcendent world giving meaning to this world. The world is not finished, with its meanings and values already determined. Instead, the world is in a very important sense continually underdetermined as a result of both there being no transcendent, fixed meaning giver, while at the same time that the world we inhabit is in constant flux. So, Nietzsche’s denial of truth is the denial of a kind of Platonic conception of truth/meaning/value. Continue reading

Controlling for Joy

I often have the feeling that my Buddhist practice is in turmoil. Its high and low tides in response to my sorrow’s moon. Sometimes that moon is full, others new, but most often all manner of shapes in-between. This would likely bother me more if I had not read CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters when I was first working through my existential crisis of religion in my early 20s. This short book is a fascinating read, as Lewis relates an exchange of letters between two of Satan’s Tempters, Uncle Screwtape and Wormwood. Wormwood is a novice and receiving instruction from his uncle. When Wormwood expresses satisfaction that his prey’s faith is diminishing, Uncle Screwtape responds harshly, admonishing Wormwood with the law of Undulation.

So you ‘have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away’, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one every told you about the law of Undulation?

Humans are amphibians— half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation— the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life— his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. (Lewis, Chapter 8)

Every one of my interests, both philosophical, spiritual, and even recreational, has always succumbed to the law of Undulation. And, again, with my Buddhist practice the peaks and troughs so often correspond to times of illness and health. This might make it seem like it is only important to practice when ill or otherwise suffering. If that were the case, it would make it even more difficult to be grateful for the hard times—for if there were no hard times, practice would not be necessary, on this view. Continue reading

Dirty Ontology: The Muddy Waters of “the” Self

“When the water is deep, the boat rides high. When there is much mud, the Buddha is large.”
—Dōgen, “The Indestructible Nature in Deep Muddy Water” in the Eihei Kōroku

 

“Know thyself” is the fairly famous injunction inscribed overhead at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. The meaning of this may be less obvious than it seems, but regardless of how it was intended, we can read it in different ways depending on what we understand by “knowing” and what we understand by “self.”

I originally became interested in thinking about different conceptions of self in the context of death. Consider the original reasoning that got me interested in philosophy: “If there is no God, then there is no soul. If there is no soul, then there is no afterlife. If there is no afterlife, then the self ceases to exist upon death. Ceasing to exist is not good. Thus, death is not good. Thus… fuck.” But that conclusion depends on a very particular conception of self. To use a turn of phrase from Walt Whitman, it presupposes a conception of self where the self is contained “between one’s hat and boots.”

It seems to me that this idea strikes us as obvious (where the “us” in question is quite Western). That is, if I am not a self-contained, independently existing soul, then I must be this flesh and blood that “I” haul around everywhere. Mustn’t this be true? How could I be anything else? Even if I, or even an entire culture, were to say that what myself is is something other than this flesh and blood, this lump of flesh, how can that make it so? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It couldn’t. After all, consider the most extreme case: if the entire earth were to be destroyed, I would certainly still survive entirely intact if I managed to get away on, say, a spaceship. If not a soul, then I am necessarily this lump of flesh. An analogy: Calling my cat a “dog,” giving it dog food, a dog bone, and making it sleep in the doghouse, does not make him into a dog. I cannot make my cat something he is not by my treatment of him.

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Midlife Crisis: Or First Draft of a Book Preface

It seems to me that my life, like surely many people’s lives, resembles the trajectory of modernism to postmodernism (to post-postmodernism?). That is, like many people, when I was a child everything was imbued with a robust intrinsic identity and meaning, both of which could be definitively and determinedly known. One of the most obvious examples of this was the faith in the near omniscience of my parents, and once in school and out of the house, in that of other adults. In the very beginning, there is truly nothing unknown; and though I did not have firsthand knowledge of it, I knew others must. When a child like this, the pronouncements and judgments of parents and adults are absolute, unquestionable, and though sometimes terrifying, an ultimate source of security. There is the recognition of one’s own limits and simultaneously the boundlessness of the abilities of adults, not the least of which was the ability of my parents to make me feel secure and loved.

I know others had very different childhood experiences—something my wife reminds me of regularly, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I was ridiculously naïve; I’m sure plenty of other children either figured it out or at least had premonitions of their parents’ limitations much earlier, but not me. It would not be until my late teens that I really began to question not only my parents’ abilities but the soundness of social institutions more generally. For along with confidence in parents and adults, comes confidence in institutions. I mean institutions such as the church, school, government, business, history, and the unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, greatness of the United States. When young, so many of these seem to work by an intrinsic magic, only to turn later to have been “nothing but” a placebo effect. Continue reading

Epicurus, Dōgen, and Not Fearing Death

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of sentience,… Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.
(Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

Restating what I take to be Epicurus’ point, when we are alive, we are not dead and thus death is not an issue; when we are dead, we cannot know anything good or bad, since we no longer exist; thus, when dead, death is not an issue. The immediate objection, or the one that comes to my mind, is that I can now, while alive, justly fear death because what I am fearing is the cessation of all possible future “lived nows.” What life seeks and fears losing, we might say, is an endless succession of lived moments. So, sure, when I die and cease to be, I won’t be underground in a coffin hating every moment of it, just as before I was born, I did not lament not yet being born. But I sure as hell can not want THIS to stop.

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The Metaphysics of Choice—How Abortion Gives Birth to Life

“If I had watered the flowers yesterday, they wouldn’t be dead today.” Such counterfactual statements are tricky because there is no way to confirm their truth, since in this case I didn’t water the flowers. For it’s always possible that they would have died anyway due to some unknown cause or because they needed watering two days ago if they were not to die today. Still, even though counterfactuals present such problems, we can still make reasonable claims about them. Consider, for example: “If Barnes had not had the flu, then he would have gone on the trip and died in the plane crash.” It’s possible something else would have prevented his going, but he could well assess for himself that nothing else simultaneously happened to keep him from going (no death in the family, for example) so that he most likely would have been on the plane if he hadn’t had the flu—and, thus, the flu saved him.

I often think about such cases because I think they point out how the smallest seeming choices and occurrences ripple forward in time to great consequence. One such example in my own life was in October 2008. My then wife, Jennie, and I had in July moved to San Marcos, Texas from Iowa after I graduated with my PhD but could not find a tenure-track position anywhere. We moved so she could do an MFA in creative writing (poetry). But then we decided to get divorced in early October. While I was feeling alone, and impatient not to be, in late October when I was asked whether I wanted to go to Austin for dinner and drinks with a few friends and a woman visiting one of them from out of town, my initial response to myself was, “no.” I’m not much for going out, but then I reconsidered and decided to do it after all. Having made that choice, on March 15th, 2009, I ended up moving into an apartment in a row house basement in Washington, DC, with that friend of a friend. I’m fairly confident that that would not have happened if I had not changed my mind about going out with them to Austin, for she was leaving the next day and I would not have seen her again otherwise, at least not under those same conditions.

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Everyday Tea and Rice—Everyday Time

In “Continuous Practice, Part I,” Dōgen writes:

In the continuous practice of the way of buddha ancestors, do not be concerned about whether you are a great or a modest hermit, whether you are brilliant or dull. Just forsake name and gain forever and don’t be bound by myriad conditions. Do not waste the passing time. Brush off the fire on top of your head. Do not wait for great enlightenment, as great enlightenment is the tea and rice of daily activity. (Shobogenzo, Tanahashi 2010 edition)

What is it to not “be bound by myriad conditions”? What is it to not “waste the passing time”? How is great enlightenment the “tea and rice of daily activity”? These questions and others can be approached by looking at our relationship to time. Continue reading

Dying. Suffering. Death.

I have suffered death since 3—
Grandmother’s open casket—
casting a shadow on everything since

I have suffered the death of
insects—some drowned,
some squashed
many on their backs refusing
to go gently

I have suffered the death of
animals, some by my hand—
both accidental and with tear-shuddering
compassion—
some on the vet’s table
some on the bathroom floor
all struggling, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the dying of
family,
never death itself, that moment.
The hospital bed.
The nursing home bed.
And again,
the struggle, gasping: suffering.

I have suffered the death of
myself—or at least its
thought and imagination—
countless times in the weight
of the shadow.
….
But how to die? In my sleep?
So easy and not suffered.
Then,
on the table?
on the bathroom floor?
struggling and gasping: suffering?

I want to die
sitting upright
actualizing the wholeness and
depth of the grasses and trees,
the mountains and waters,
the true human body.

I want to die in
solidarity with this world.

Realizing the Matrix—On the Possibility and Desirability of “Uploading” Insight

There is a special class of knowledge or wisdom that we might call insight or realization. This comes in a variety of forms and degrees. For example, someone tells you how scary it is to be in the water when someone spots a shark. You’ve been afraid before, you’ve been in the ocean before, so you think you have a pretty good idea of what that must be like. But you don’t really realize what it’s like until you’ve been swimming on the North Shore of Oahu and someone yells, “Shark!” At which point you panic like never before, swim like never before. Or you have a conversation with a friend and they tell you something that sounds plausible and halfway interesting, but it doesn’t really connect with anything else you’ve been thinking about or that is meaningful to you. But some years later, after reading different things, thinking things through, you suddenly have an insight, you suddenly have this realization. You then happen to excitedly tell your friend about it, and their reaction is, “That’s what I told you two years ago!”

What is importantly common to the shark and friend examples is that they both involve a kind of “seeing” for oneself. The shark example is different in the speed at which the realization happens. It is a purer form of realizing what it is like to experience or do something. The example with the friend is less of a realizing what it is like and more a realizing the significance of something. This realizing the significance often means seeing connections, how an idea, for example, connects up with other important ideas, one’s other beliefs and values, etc. Such realizations are markedly different from simple cases of knowing how to do something like ride a bike and knowing what we might call “trivia” or pieces of information. For example, one might readily learn and know that in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is an important philosopher, is convicted and sentenced to death, eventually dying by drinking hemlock. So much is relatively easy to understand/know. But it takes years of studying philosophy and reading Plato, etc., to realize the full significance of those bits of knowledge, their value/significance, how they connect up with other issues, both in philosophy and one’s life. Continue reading