Goethe and Ryōkan as Exemplars of How to Live

Writing on compassion in early Buddhism, Anālayo notes that the primary form of compassion was teaching the Dharma, i.e., the Buddhist teachings on the cessation of suffering. But as Anālayo also notes, verbal instruction is not the only way to teach: teaching, “…can also take place through teaching by example” (Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, 16). Indeed, teaching and learning by example are extremely important, and often unconscious. We don’t always realize that others, especially children, learn by our example, nor that we learn from others’ example. One important question, of course, is who do we take as our exemplars of a well lived life? For the kind of person we choose as our life-well-lived-exemplar implies a choice about the kind of life we wish to lead.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the life of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832), who was an important German poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, and scientist. —A person much praised by Nietzsche, as we will see. And I want to compare Goethe with the Japanese Zen monk, poet, calligrapher, and recluse, Ryōkan (1758 to 1831).

There are a number of things that make these two figures particularly interesting to me. First, they are both writers and poets. Second, though they have been influential in very different ways, both their lives and works have inspired many. Third, since they are both writers and poets, they both belong to that category of being, so to speak, that Nietzsche seems to hold in the highest esteem, namely, the artist, the creator. As Nietzsche writes in his Zarathustra: 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

The Philosophy Classroom: The Ultimate Safe Space

In the past weeks my newsfeed on Facebook has been filled with articles about safe spaces and trigger warnings. My impression from the headlines and comments alone is that most people are understanding these things differently than I and my colleagues do. Very briefly, I understand a trigger warning to be a kind of heads up that the topic to be discussed will go into graphic detail about a topic, e.g., rape, that may “trigger” past trauma. The point being to allow someone who is not yet ready to hear, much less discuss, their experience to bow out—for even if they are not explicitly the subject of the conversation, if the subject concerns their kind of traumatic experience, it is their experience under discussion. I have not had occasion to use trigger warnings in my philosophy classroom simply because I have not discussed topics that deal with trauma. There seems to be some confusion or worry that trigger warning are used to allow students to avoid hearing things that make them “uncomfortable.” However, if some use them that way, that is unfortunate, but I do not have reason to believe it is the norm. There is, of course, a huge chasm between the uncomfortable and the traumatic. I’m guessing that most teachers would catch on that something disingenuous is up if they gave a trigger warning and half the class walked out.

Similarly with safe spaces: there’s a ton of confusion. Unlike with trigger warnings, I have used the phrase, “I consider this classroom to be a safe space.” What I meant and what I said to my students was that that means people can speak up, share their thoughts and experiences—fully be themselves—without worrying about being ridiculed, made fun of, or otherwise made to feel bad for what they have said or who they are. It most definitely does not mean that we won’t be discussing difficult or controversial material or material that will make them uncomfortable. As a philosophy professor, I don’t believe I’m doing my job unless I’m leaving my students confused if not also uncomfortable. Confused because I believe that they cannot deepen their understanding of the world and themselves without first working through confusion. Uncomfortable because my philosophy classroom is not about telling them how things are, but rather challenging them with questions they wouldn’t otherwise be asked to consider. Continue reading

Suffering and the “Full Human Experience”

If life does not always tend toward the tragic (and I’m not convinced that it doesn’t), then it does tend toward the “son-of-a-bitch!” in a variety of ways. In this vein, Nietzsche recognized that the problem of suffering is not so much that we suffer, but that we crave an answer to why we suffer. And this in the sense of: to what end? What is the meaning of our suffering? —Not only do we experience suffering, but we suffer our suffering. Both levels of suffering call for a response. Nietzsche castigated and disparaged the religious, in particular, Christian, response to suffering. Buddhism, too, was problematic. Religions in general were seen as life-denying to Nietzsche. What is “life-denying” comes in various forms, but insofar as Christianity and Buddhism regard suffering as evil, regard its “why?” as due to “sin,” and see human existence as something to transcend, Nietzsche sees them both as dangerous. For life, or a life worthy of the name, according to Nietzsche, must embody a great will, one that takes on great responsibility, great suffering. Suffering is not an objection to existence.

We see these latter ideas most radically expressed in Nietzsche’s response to the suicidal nihilism he saw following of necessity from the death of God and all that underlies and spreads out from its epicenter. In the religious context, the “ascetic priest” uses the “ascetic ideal” to give suffering meaning. The ascetic ideal is a valorization of self-denial: “The three great slogans of the ascetic ideal are familiar: poverty, humility, chastity” (Genealogy of Morals, III 8). Here the “meaning” of suffering is: “You are to blame! You have not been properly humble, chaste, or impoverished!” By contrast, Nietzsche dares the “higher type” of human to say “Yes!” to all that was, is and will be, to embrace (the idea of) the eternal recurrence—the paradoxical idea that you, not simply another version or copy of you, will relieve your life again and again as the universe eternally cycles through the exact same loop of events:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. (Ecce Homo, “Why I am so Clever,” §10.)

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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

After the Funeral

Tragic, hard—this life.
I do not ask why.

I do ask for kindness.
I do ask for some level of

in the face of uncertainty
in the face of death.

Do not give me a
child’s reason for believing in
your “Amen.”

Tell me of how
he preached
love, charity, and non-violence
and my fleshy soul
be moved, eager

for more—

just do not
denigrate or write off

this life, so tragic
so hard.

Nihilism, Hell, and Self-Interest

Often when people fear hell, they fear it in the sense of an afterlife of eternal torment, or, perhaps more sophisticatedly, eternal separation from God. As others have noted, though, hell exists on earth in a variety of forms. For example, you can read Sartre’s “No Exit” as making the case that “hell is other people.” As an introvert, I find that line of thinking attractive, but I think a more pressing form of hell on earth is putting one’s effort, ones being, into a daily existence that faces some form of nihilism. Nihilism in the sense that nothing that exists and nothing that one may do has any meaning or significance. I take it that anyone who has been tempted by, or succumbed to, nihilism knows how this is hell, and how it can make all the other hells all the more hellish. Suffering, whether other people, a kidney stone, or a broken heart, can feel all the more hellish when the loss is simultaneously (paradoxically?) experienced as meaningful and yet for nothing.

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The Wisdom of Pain

“…if I say again that the greatest human good is daily to converse about virtue [value/meaning], and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe.”
—Socrates in Plato’s Apology

Others have written on this essay’s topic, likely better than I. And since my background is largely academic, I feel a pressing urge to research what they’ve said, so I don’t repeat things or make errors they’ve corrected for. However, this essay is as much for me as it is for you. That is, while I cannot help but do too much thinking “in my head,” my better thinking occurs with my hands. Thus, writing this is a thinking things through for myself, and while that can certainly be aided by the work of others, it’s often best to give myself room to think. But moreover, anything I write will be informed not only by my experiences, but by the work of others that I have long been reading. And lastly, if I do repeat what others have already said, I hope it is in such a way that it might reach an audience that the others haven’t or couldn’t so easily reach, for whatever reason.

This past week my wife and I have visited the hospital a number of times. Her grandmother is there and, having worsened instead of having gotten better, the family has had to confront her impending death. Among other things, this has meant having to decide when to stop fluids and begin hospice care. Since her grandmother is unconscious, we go there to support her mother and family. Sadness upon sadness, confronting the reality that she will never speak to any of us again. Sadness upon sadness, having to admit that there is no recovery and now she must be made comfortable until the end.

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