Suffering and Platonic Lives, Platonic Selves

How would you feel if you were never to read another book in your life? What about if you were never to ski, or if not skiing, then some other sport? How would you feel if you could not live in the city? What about the country? What about the suburbs? These are only a few questions that pertain to the kinds of lives we might live. Some of us would be unmoved by life without books and others could not bear not living in the country. But, I take it, most of us do not think that there is only one kind of life to live as a human being, as a person. We do not, in other words, think that there is some sort of Platonic form of the perfect human life. We acknowledge a variety of possibilities; moreover, it is part of our liberal heritage to see this as a good thing. If for no other reason than the fact that we think imposing a particular life on someone, particularly when it doesn’t fit, is to rob them of their autonomy and ultimately to make them suffer.

So we suffer when a life we do not choose is imposed upon us. But notice what happens when we shift from thinking about the Platonic form of the perfect human life, to thinking about the Platonic form of a particular life. I am assuming that what is true of me here is true of many, if not most, others. That is, I have a tendency to conceptualize the explicit form of my life; I think of myself as a philosophy professor, one who likes to hike, one who gets meaning out of the natural world, one who loves animals, one who is at least not half bad at writing, one who works on Wittgenstein, Dōgen, and Nietzsche, etc. These are all things that I have, if not explicitly chosen, then at least endorsed for my life. These are the things that go into making up who I am. Since I have chosen them, I do not suffer them. Or so it seems.

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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

The Fruitfulness of Using Aristotle to Understand Buddhism

One of the classes I teach is Ethics from a Global Perspective. I usually begin the course with selections from Aristotle‘s Nicomachean Ethics. As I tell my students, I think there is much that Aristotle gets wrong, particularly his views on women, but his overall ethical framework, and the concepts and distinctions he employs, are extremely useful. While Kant is an obvious exception, Aristotle’s teleological approach can easily be mapped on to the other views we consider such as Hinduism and Buddhism. As with Aristotle’s ethics which rotates around the concept of eudaimonia, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, are centered around clearly identifiable ends. Where Aristotle asks: What constitutes eudaimonia? Buddhism asks: What constitutes enlightenment? So there’s a nice parallel structure, and I want to suggest that we can fruitfully use Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia and virtue to help elucidate important aspects of Buddhism.

I take it one of the caveats that most writers and professors make regarding eudaimonia is to point out how problematic the translation of it as happiness can be. While happiness is not univocal in English, my impression is that most folks associate it with a certain mental state, or feeling; moreover, one that can be assigned a specific duration. And so, we find other translations of eudaimonia in terms of a lifelong flourishing or well-being. However, given liberal (in the classical sense) and capitalist influences, it seems to me even flourishing and well-being are likely to mislead.

Emphasizing that eudaimonia is something applicable only to a whole life is a helpful start. Aristotle eventually identifies eudaimonia, flourishing/well-being, with virtue. Importantly, virtue for Aristotle is not a passive state, but very much an active one. In fact, eudaimonia consists in a lifetime of virtuous activity (which includes a number of “external” goods—one interesting question about these external goods is whether they are needed in order to be virtuous or whether they are needed in addition to virtuous activity; and, of course, it could be both). So what it is to have achieved a life of eudaimonia is to engage in a certain activity one’s whole life. In other words, eudaimonia is something you do. This is not to say, of course, that eudaimonia does not involve certain mental and affective states. The virtuous person enjoys being virtuous, for example. Continue reading

Dōgen on Hearing Things As They Are…a Response to Okumura Roshi

One of my most beloved contemporary Zen practitioners and scholars is Shōhaku Okumura Roshi. One reason is simply the fact that he is in the lineage of Zen that I attempt to practice, namely Dōgen’s. But I also find his approach very human; that is, his approach to Zen is a Zen that a human could practice. This is not always the case, it seems to me, with other Zen practitioners and commentators. But this, of course, does not mean I don’t resist some of the things he says, though I suspect oftentimes that resistance is more a matter of my misunderstanding, or perhaps better, my seeking to understand and falling short. But I am convinced that there is much value in lingering in confusion and talking about it with others. So what follows is that sort of lingering.

In a recent blog post for the Dōgen Institute, Okumura translates and comments on the following poem from Dōgen:

声づから Koe zukara At the very time
耳の聞ゆる Mimi no kikoyuru when my ears hear
時されば Toki sareba the voice as it is,
吾が友ならん Waga tomo naran everyone I talk with
かたらひぞなき Katarai zo naki is my friend.

What Okumura focuses on in his commentary, and what I want to focus on, is what it means to “hear something as it is.” What I want to suggest by the end is that things are much less clear than Okumura (and othes) make them appear to be. To get there, let’s consider the sound of a barred owl. What could it mean to hear the sound as it is?

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The Desirability of Desire

A fairly standard, but I would argue flawed, understanding of Buddhism says that the root cause of suffering is desire—and a related interpretation says even that desire itself is suffering. While those are overly simplistic and problematic interpretations in themselves, some interpreters of Buddhism go even further and say that enlightenment requires the cessation of all desire. If we take that literally as a call for having no desires whatsoever, then it is difficult to take that seriously. After all, if you think about it, it’s pretty clear that either one engages desire or one engages death. Moreover, it’s hard to understand what the Buddhists are doing if they don’t desire enlightenment. The issue in Buddhism is not so much one of desire as it is attachment to the object of desire, or so I would argue.

However, what I want to focus on is, we might say, the desirability of desire. That is, even if the problematic interpretations of Buddhism that say desires themselves are suffering is wrong, might it not still be the case that desire itself, when compared with the having of the object desired, is not so pleasurable? In other words, the answer to the following question is obvious: Which would you rather have, the desire or the object of the desire? The object, of course! But is that always right?

In my early twenties, I think I was going for a walk thinking about some girl I had a crush on, I had the thought that desire itself could be more pleasurable than the actual having of the object desired—that the pursuit/longing was more pleasurable than the attainment, the having of the object. I thought this is pretty interesting; in fact I was rather surprised by it. At the time, I proudly mentioned this realization to one of my paternal half-brothers. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember him being dismissive. I don’t mention this out of some grudge. Rather, I want to say that I can understand his dismissiveness, given that I couldn’t explain it well myself at the time and given that it may well seem counterintuitive at first. 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

Pain vs. Pleasure: An Incongruity of Sympathies

If you are reading this, then I am guessing that you are not suffering too badly, nor are you having the time of your life—although I guess it would be rather flattering if either of those things were happening and you were that determined to read this. But assuming you’re not, let me ask you to imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are suffering greatly. There are people who are being burned alive unable to escape their homes on fire, who have just lost their spouse, children who are gasping their last breath from starvation, and on and on. It is hard, but imagine them. ——However, and thankfully, there are other people having other experiences, as well. Now, if I may, let me ask you to clear your mind for a moment, and imagine the most nondescript, boring thing you can. Hold that in your imagination for a few moments. ——And now, if I may be a demanding author one more time, let me ask you to once again imagine, to really try to imagine, that there are people in other parts of the world right now who are having a wonderful time. There are people who after years of trying are right now finally giving birth to their first child, people who have just settled onto the beach for the first day of their long-awaited honeymoon, people who overcame great obstacles, years of discrimination, and they have just found out that they were admitted into the University of their dreams on a full scholarship, and on and on.

Yesterday while writing a short piece on consciousness, it occurred to me that there may well be an interesting, if not also troubling, incongruity between our empathetic reactions to different kinds of events. My hypothesis is that the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel some sort of empathetic pain on behalf of those they were imagining suffering; however, the majority of people who would follow the above paragraph’s instructions would feel little or no empathetic joy on behalf of those they were imagining ecstatic or joyful. To be clear, I think this is an empirical question, not one that can be argued a priori. Perhaps it reveals something of myself; perhaps I am projecting my own responses onto others.

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Walt Whitman and Crossing the Boundaries of Consciousness

My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman‘s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.

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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