Archive for February 3rd, 2011

sacred matter

February 3, 2011

First, following up on our discussion of Asian philosophy last time, Jennifer Hecht has interesting thoughts on Buddha:

The real excitement was in this actual, natural, real world. The Buddha said that we are tiny creatures, convinced of a sense of me-against-the-world, and possessed of a comically small vantage point from which to see the social world of human beings and the universe as a whole.

[But] …once you do manage to get rid of your sense of self, the truth of the universe is yours. You are no longer living from a single vantage point… not being you entails being everything else… everything in the world we know is constantly coming into being or disappearing, and it is all basically made of the same stuff.

The Buddha insisted that the way to enlightenment was not at all supernatural, or even spiritual… you are a collection of thoughts amid the universe, with nothing to do but be delighted… every moment is a marvel of being… Pay alert attention

Was there a God? Were there gods? The Buddha said these are questions “which do not edify.”

So what about karma, the great nontheistic religious belief of the East? The Buddha suggested we imagine a line of candles, and using the first to light the second, and the second to light the third, we progress down the line… He then asked if the flame on the last candle is the same flame as the first… It is to this degree that we are reborn… nirvana means to extinguish or to blow out– to extinguish the boundaries of the separate self.

Hippocrates was defending intellectual humility and medical science, not attacking pantheism, when he said incomprehension is no proof of divinity. Thales, savvy olive king reductionist and hydro-enthusiast, swore his own oath to science, nature, and “techne.”

Greek philosophy has a different take on yin and yang: instead of harmony, opposition and constructive strife… Dynamism, not stasis… Change, not Being.

I have trouble keeping Anaximander and Anaximenes, the other Milesians, straight. [Forget Anaxagoras!] They both had trouble resisting material reductionism.

Pythagoras differed from the Milesian materialists, saying the universe is composed not of stuff but of quantifiable relations. He believed in reincarnation, philosophized with women, inspired Plato, and is thought to have been the first to call himself a humble lover of wisdom. “Music of the spheres” was his copyright.

The perception of change, like Heraclitus’ river, just keeps flowing along. Parmenides and Zeno were among the first to repudiate it. For my money, they did not succeed.

Democritus– we’ve already heard Carl Sagan wax nostalgic for the Abderan (“no dummy”), as only one Brooklynite can wax for another–  was a pluralist about atoms and everything else, though he denied the existence of dedicated soul-stuff or wonder-tissue embedded in our tiniest bits.  Soul is breath, pneuma. There’s the large kernel of truth in Anaximenes’ airy reduction, the real stuff of all our aspiration, inspiration, and respiration. Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

But, does a real pluralist also deny meanings and purposes, in the plural? The more atoms, it would seem, the more potential meanings. So far from being opposed to the life of spirit, material plurality guarantees perpetual reconfigurations of possibility for enactment and enjoyment in the world as we experience it.

As William James, pluralist par excellence, said when contemplating the sadness occasioned by the deaths of parents and children: the fact that our atomic building blocks can and do assume the precious forms of our nearest and dearest loved ones should put a final end to all thoughtless, denigrating talk about the base vulgarity of material existence.

The mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form ought to make matter sacred for ever after.

Amen.