Archive for November 17th, 2011

patience, attentiveness, unreality

November 17, 2011
The book we voted more than a month ago to read in SOL has proved mysteriously elusive for many of us. Not for me, though, amazon delivers. So I have a few thoughts, and more than a few questions, about the Dalai Lama’s prescription for happiness. Mostly I need to understand why he repeatedly speaks of the illusory nature of existence when he really seems to mean its transitoriness and ephemerality. “Everything, whether friendly or hostile, is an illusory display.” Why do Buddhists treat impermanence as unreality? (And why has wordpress removed all my carriage returns?!)
His call for patience, the only force strong enough to neutralize corrosive anger, is particularly fortuitous. (I suppose I can live without carriage returns.)
We must make an effort to remain in a relaxed state of mind. Because unless we get rid of this unsettled feeling, it will feed our hatred, causing it to grow and eventually destroy us… we have to make a great deal of effort to obtain happiness, while suffering comes naturally. (But) A wise person can achieve happiness…
And suffering’s not all bad anyway, it helps us “lose our sense of self-importance” and gain greater compassion for others. Isn’t that really the goal here: lose the self-importance, retain the compassionate self?
Marie writes:
If we perpetuate the notion we are independently arising phenomena, it is not possible to reflect on our emptiness. Instead of looking inward at emptiness, we see a mental projection of the “I”. If we reflect on our own inherent emptiness, much of the daily attachments we form to people and things we deem tantamount to happiness can slowly dissolve. Attachment to our own conceptions of things is the cause of afflictive emotions. As the Dalai Lama frames it, attachment will lead us to afflictive emotions, as if by a ring in our nose.
That’s very well put. I still struggle, though,  with understanding whose conceptions of things I should attach to, if not my own. No one’s? Is that because “attachment” is inherently distortive and misleading? And is my emptiness not filled by precisely those attachments to people (and maybe some things) that have personal importance to me?
In chapter 2, DL says human life is a “fortunate rebirth.” I don’t buy reincarnation (is he selling?), but I’m pleased with “fortunate.” He’s no pessimist, if you can trust the adjective. I’m puzzled, though. I thought it was the ultimate object of Buddhist practice to put a stop to those fortunate rebirths, always a harbinger of suffering.
Nagarjuna said it was ignorant to believe that phenomena are real. DL elaborates: “all concepts, including that of emptiness, must be abandoned.” That would just leave percepts, but they’re not “real” in Buddhist terms.  Where are we now to stand? “We should never go contrary to common sense,” but we’re really not in Kansas anymore with all this talk of  rebirth and unreality coupled with a repudiation of the conceptual tools required to elucidate our meaning.
No matter, “may all beings be happy” is a wonderful affirmation, as is the will to “be good people and good examples.” Likewise, the caution to be careful, not squander our days, not feed negative emotions.
What, though, of the repeated judgment that “all phenomena, outer and inner, are like a dream or an illusion”? Like? Or just are? But not all phenomena are as illusory as others.
Attentiveness and mindfulness tame the drunken elephant of the mind. They reinforce the selflessness of regarding oneself as a ghost, haunting a world where we and our associates and loved ones are “entirely devoid of reality.”
In the very next statement, DL says “Human life is a unique and favored opportunity.” I think so too, but I don’t have the problem of reconciling that view with the dearth and hollowness of reality. What does it really mean to say that we lack an essential core or underlying essence? When Sartre and the existentialists say it, it’s an  injunction to do something, create an identity, inhabit a persona. But that would be inimical to the Buddhist program of displacing  substantial selfhood, it seems.
I once wrote this, and have been trying ever since to understand what’s wrong with it. I hope the class will help me with that today:

It’s not enough to be “present” in some Zen-like fashion of transparent and selfless purity at our most compellingly significant experiences; we must bring ourselves, our persons, our peculiarities and idiosyncracies, our histories, and our anticipated futures—in a word, our subjectivity—with us to our most transcendently stirring moments. Only thus may our lives accumulate concrete significance in their particularity. The purity of pure experience is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The
people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die.

Put less dramatically, I wonder how it is that we can “be master of ourselves,” “appreciate others’ positive deeds,” and the like, while fully regarding ourselves and them as “self-less apparitions.”
I await further enlightenment.
But let me close this post on a note of appreciation for one very practical piece of wisdom from HHDL I intend to continue following:
We should lie on our right side, with our head toward the north, as did the Buddha when he passed into nirvana, and be ready to rise promptly in the morning.
I’m ready!