Archive for February 1st, 2011


February 1, 2011

The largest question posed by the juxtaposition of east and early west, seems to me, is whether the world is more a field of strife or of harmony, one or many.

Another interesting  question: what did the Zen master mean by telling his pupil to kill the Buddha? It doesn’t sound very harmonious or compassionate, on its face. But maybe “killing the Buddha,” figuratively, is what we do in philosophy.

Buddhism, like Hinduism and Jainism, courts the mystic quest for enlightenment beyond words (and beyond its own developed logic). Philosophy for them all culminates in direct and immediate sight and understanding. All resist the over-intellectualizing tendency so delightfully skewered by Benjamin Hoff‘s rendering of the familiar figure of Pooh’s friend Owl, the very archetype of a dusty dessicated western bookworm. All advise holding the seductions of material consumption at arms’ length. All mistrust stubborn and incurious “common sense.”

But Buddhism distinguishes itself by rejecting an ultimate redeeming reality subsisting beneath all appearances, and it rejects the notion of a substantial and enduring self.

We were talking about the problem of suffering the other day. Suffering is indeed life’s pervasive problem, and its acknowledgment is Buddhism’s first “noble truth.” Fortunately, diagnosis and treatment follow in quick succession.

Unfortunately, from this outsider’s point of view, the medicine is bitter: it requires us to renounce all craving and desire. As I indicated, I’d prefer a more targeted approach. Lose the inappropriate desires, keep the nourishing ones – like the desire for philosophical enlightenment, and for deserved peer recognition, and maybe for something as impertinent to some as a sunny day in the centerfield bleachers.

It’s hard to knock any steps on the Eightfold Path, especially since they are all stipulated to be “right” – seeing, thinking, speaking, acting etc.

Nirvana would be nice, I suppose, but again… I’m not sure I want to lose my particular form of egoism. I’ve spent a lifetime constructing it, after all. This is the one insight I’m prepared to share with the Randians: self-regard need not be selfish.
My dogma would never eat your karma. That would be selfish. Brutish, really. The opposite of a Bodhisattva. Or of a compassion-counseling “superior priest.”

Is everything constituted by its relations, without remainder? That’s the “middle way” view of Nagarjuna.

Confucius and Aristotle, both exponents of moderation, also both emphasized the importance of personal virtue. Confucius certainly seemed to be trying to have it both ways when he said we’re born with the quality of “humanness” but must still achieve our respective degrees of humanity. I don’t know about that, but I do like the rejection of mind-body dualism and the notion of spiritual mastery as more than a cerebral event. Mens sana in corpore sano is common ground, even if ch’i remains controversial.

Is the world an illusion? Not all Buddhists say so. Transitory, yes. Nugatory, no. Nyaya sounds like a taunt, but its just logic.
The discussion in our text of Confucian love is timely, in view of the recent Tiger Mother controversy. Is western familial love not tough enough?

Lao Tzu’s spontaneity and simplicity “in accordance with one’s own nature” has a much more western ring to it, to a parent’s ear. But non-action, wu-wei, is un-pragmatic (and thus un-American, philosophically at least) in the extreme.

Yin &  yang have become so cliche, but sure make a pretty symbol on a medallion. And can you really write the “Book of Changes” (I Ching) in advance? Or must each of us live it?

Finally, today, the metaphor I’ve already invoked more than once: in contrast to the Christian concept of soul as an individuated, distributed bit of eternity, Taoists think of it as more like a drop in a stream. We emerged from Mother Sea, and we’ll go back again. Or maybe you prefer Walt Whitman’s famous image in Leaves of Grass: “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Or the leafy image of Freddie, falling to earth and regenerating the ground for Spring.

PW2… Asian Spirit… Becoming Buddha (Thurman, TED)… The Way (Tao of Pooh, Freddie the Leaf)