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 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

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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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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