Cutting Through Bullshit—The (Possible) Advantages of Chronic Illness and Disability

Some years ago, I was reading Nietzsche and it occurred to me to make a note in my journal. Something along the lines of needing to regularly come back to Nietzsche, as he provides a wonderful sort of intellectual conscience. Is this a surprising thing to think about Nietzsche? What I have in mind are such passages as, “[Philosophers] all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic…. while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesman for the prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’…” (Beyond Good and Evil. “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” §5). That is powerful stuff and bites to the marrow. And so I am cautious, in my better moments, to try to avoid succumbing to such temptations, which include being tempted to hold true that which makes us feel better. Along these lines, I take it that part of what it means to have truth as a goal inquiry is that the standards for whether or not one’s inquiry is going well are not ultimately relative to one’s subjectivity.

With all this in mind, I’d like to explore some reasons for thinking about the advantages of being disadvantaged, at least in terms of chronic illness and disability (I’m not including the disadvantages of poverty and racism, for example). I will try to avoid belaboring it, but here is my background. Continue reading

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

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

Suffering, Creativity, and Genius

What would Nietzsche make of us? What would Nietzsche make of the T-shirt you can find on Facebook that is a spoof of a beer label. It reads, “Nietzsche’s Übermensch/Superior Quality/It’s Beyond Good/Zarathustra & CO. Distillery/Consume Responsibly.” If there were a God who gave him a soul, would Nietzsche turn in his grave? What would he think about the fact that over the years I have viewed his writings as a kind of self-help? That is, and perhaps ironically, if I have not sought comfort in Buddhism, I have sought comfort in Nietzsche’s writings. I have often been inspired by his call to greatness, his call to take on profound suffering in the name of creation, in the name of genius. And I realized long ago that it was inspirational because it appealed to my ego, as I’m sure it does to the egos of other, predominantly white boys/men. The inspiration works like this: “Don’t you want to think of yourself as a creative genius, then quit your bitching about your suffering and embrace it!” The implication supposedly: if I’m reading Nietzsche, and I’m embracing my suffering, then I, too, am a higher type. On top of Nietzsche’s writings in some sense inviting this sort of poor reasoning, there is the danger that goes along with dedicating your life to reading the works of geniuses: One, of course, would very much like to be a peer of the authors one is reading. It is difficult, particularly if you’re introverted and spend much time in isolation with the work of geniuses, not to long for some measure of equality.

However, neither suffering nor our embracing of it are sufficient for creative genius. So much is obvious. Nevertheless, it is rather interesting to think about the connection between genius and suffering and/or madness. In today’s essay, I want to explore in a loose way a number of issues concerning creativity, genius, suffering, and psychopathy.

Consider Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Specialization of Poetry,” which provides an interesting way into these issues. As his title indicates, Berry is concerned to challenge what he sees in 1974 as the specialization of poetry. Briefly, Berry contrasts the poet specialist with the “ordinary person” who happens write poetry in addition to doing other work. He considers, for example, William Carlos Williams who is both a poet and a community engaged doctor. For Berry, the poet specialist runs the risk of making their poetry divorced from more communal, public concerns, choosing to focus instead on interiority, in particular on their suffering. Among other things this is marked by the reader’s interest in the poet’s life itself, her views on all manner of things, instead of simply the poetry itself. In addition to the poet’s turning inward and away from shared experience and public concerns, Berry notes a concomitant turn to the art of words. The words themselves, not what they say, takes precedence over engagement with experience and tradition. But Berry’s main problem seems to be that with a focus on suffering there is a focus on people as sufferers (victims) and not actors responsible for their fate. Hence, there is a contrast between the passive poet responding to her suffering and the activist poet who takes responsibility for themselves and what is happening in society. Further, Berry thinks that the poet’s focus on interiority goes along with an absence of narrative in contemporary poetry and the lack of narrative goes with the lack of communal engagement. While we won’t be engaging all or many of these issues, I want to give the reader the context of Berry’s discussion. Continue reading

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 at the University of North Georgia 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