October 29, 2008

Nishitani's Path of Nothingness

Quick Bio of Nishitani

Keiji Nishitani (1900 - 1990) was a Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto School and a disciple of Nishida Kitaro. Because the nature of Nishitani's philosophy was expressed more religiously and subjectively, he felt ideologically closer to the existentialists and the mystics, namely Søren Kierkegaard and Meister Eckhart, than the scholars and theologians who were aimed at more objectively expressing their ideas. ... Nishitani focused on creating a standpoint "from which he could enlighten a broader range of topics," and wrote more on Buddhist themes towards the end of his career. Sadly, tragically, he is said to have associated himself with Japanese nationalism/ fascism during WWII.

English-language books by Nishitani: Source of info: wikipedia

Nothingness, Nihilism, Emptiness and Śūnyatā are all important terms that Western Buddhists struggle to understand. Different sects within our religion place different meanings on them. Philosophers co-opt the terms, insisting on bridling them with their own conceptions. Nothing and empty are already shackled to common understandings we learned in our childhood; nihilism to an understanding that comes later. And sūnyatā is of particular interest since, by popular interpretation, it negates even itself.

What, then, is to be made of this word stew? And what is to be made of what the words represent, if they represent anything more than a puff of smoke that has fully vanished? And, as Kyoto School philosopher Keiji Nishitani seems to have insisted, Is the very meaning of our lives to be found where there is no meaning?

Let us begin with existential nihilism which refers to "the feeling of emptiness and pointlessness that follows from the assessment that 'Life has no meaning.'" Karen L. Carr who wrote Banalization of Nihilism defines it in two contemporary forms:

  • People for whom what used to make sense no longer makes sense. These folks feel "deeply empty" and cannot quickly find relief.
  • People who respond to their feeling of emptiness by "conforming to the masses and by satisfying their shallow desires." These folks suffer a loss of passion and are likely to become superficial in their relationships and interests.
In Nishitani's view, the first form of nihilism is the vital first step toward "actualizing one's ideal self and improving one's life." The second much-more-common form parallels the flatland culture of moderntimes where self-centeredness and self-absorption are ascendant and our surrounding world is seen as being at human's disposal (rather than integral to the fabric of existence, as was the view of pre-modern societies).

Writes Nishitani in his book The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism:
if nihilism is anything, it is first of all a problem of the self. And it becomes such a problem only when the self becomes a problem, when the ground of the existence called "self" becomes a problem for itself....Thinking about the issue by surveying it as an objective observer cannot touch the heart of the matter.
Thus, understanding the threat that nihilism imposes only becomes possible when one's own existence becomes a problem to oneself. This is not something that a person can truly approach abstractly {as is happening here and now in this wordy post!} Nihilism is known only by being caught in its clutches.

Nishitani claims that in order to escape the universe of shit we find ourselves in when we are enclosed in this angsty black hole of existential doubt is to move from the field of consciousness to the field of nihility and then to the field of emptiness.

The Field of Consciousness
[aka, The Field of Reason]

From a paper in the journal "Philosophy of Education" by Yoshiko Nakama, I find this cool definition of Nishitani's field of consciousness [Emphasis, mine]:
The field of consciousness is the locus of the separation of subject and object where consciousness tries to grasp objects through conceptual representations. The field of consciousness is the source of dualism. Dualism posits oppositional distinctions such as subject and object, good and bad, and life and death, and it implies that there is the self that tries to grasp and objectify the nature of the object from the self's point of view, which Nishitani thinks is the human-centered attitude. The dualistic view separates the self not only from other things but also from itself. Nishitani writes [in Religion and Nothingness], "At this level, even the self in its very subjectivity is still only represented self-consciously as self."
Thus, the Field of Consciousness, where the great majority of people are [including, likely, YOU, dear reader], is downright diabolical, though, of course not literally thus. The self is alien from the self. It is the condition that René Descartes discovered and wrote about in the year 1641: Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. Descartes believed that this "ego cogito" circumstance was beyond all doubt, and a wonderful thing, to boot. "Ego cogito," however, assumes that self and all else are and must remain fundamentally separated. But the Buddhist Path has the promise of leading us out of this all-suffering Munchkin Land.

The Field of Nihility
[aka, The Field of Relative Emptiness
and similar to
The Field of the Ekstasis of Self Existence

This is where people find themselves when life's meaning eludes them and they do not succumb to shallow diversions. When Siddhartha first left his father's compound, stepping out into the miserable real world, the Field of Nihility is what he found: Everything was pointless, full of misery or bodings of misery with no escape other than the certain black nothingness of death.

Existential philosophers found this field, but for most of them they find, usually, No Exit. For Jean-Paul Sarte, the "cure" is taking responsiblity for one's doomed life. But here, the ego remains in full lustre. Of the existentialists, Nishitani most admired Friedrich Nietzsche whom, Nishitani observed, attempted "to posit a new way of being human beyond the frame of the 'human,' to forge a new form of the human from the 'far side' [and] 'beyond [dualistic] good and evil.'" Yet, [as Fred Dallmayr wrote in his article "Nothingness and Sunyata," published in Philosophy East and West Vol. 42, Issue 1] "no matter how radicalized, subjectivity and subjectivication for Nishitani do not consitute the endpoint of relentless doubt.

The Great Doubt
[at the far side of The Field of Nihility]

Writes Zen Master John Daido Loori in Beliefnet, "boundless faith in oneself and in the ability to realize oneself and make oneself free, and a deep and penetrating doubt which asks: Who am I? What is life? What is truth? What is God? What is reality? This great faith and great doubt are in dynamic tension with each other ..."

Writes Malcomb David Eckel in the essay collection The Christ and the Bodhisattva:
According to Nishitani, the solution to the nihilistic dilemma is not to rediscover God, since the distinction between God and the self involves an inevitable sense of alienation. He argues that the self can rediscover itself in a meaningful way, not by projecting a divine subjectivity outside itself, but by breaking through even its own selfhood.

[Quoting Nishitani from his book Religion and Nothingness,] “Only when the self breaks through the field of consciousness, the field of beings, and stands on the ground of nihility is it able to achieve a subjectivity that can in no way be objectivized. This is the elemental realization that reaches deeper than self-consciousness. In standing subjectively on the field of nihility, … the self becomes itself in a more elemental sense.”
Wrote Rinzai Zen Master Hakuin, "At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully."

Says Nishitani in Religion and Nothingness, "“What I am talking about is the point at which the nihility that lies hidden as a reality at the ground of the self and all things makes itself present as a reality to the self in such a way that self-existence, together with the being of all things, turns into a single doubt. When the distinction between the doubter and the doubted drops away, when the field of that very distinction is over-stepped, the self becomes the Great Doubt. …

"When this Doubt appears to the self, it does so with an inevitability quite beyond the control of the consciousness and arbitrary willfulness of the self. In its presence, the self becomes Doubt itself. The self realizes the doubt about reality. This is the “self-presentation of the Great Doubt.” Through it the uncertainty that lies at the ground of the self and of all things is appropriated by the self."

A little later in his book, Nishitani quotes a sermon by 18th C. Rinzai Zen master Takusui re a method of practice to encounter and address this delicious doubt. Here's some of it:
The method to be practiced is as follows: you are to doubt regarding the subject in you that hears all sounds. All sounds are heard at a given moment because there is certainly a subject in you that hears. Although you may hear the sounds with your ears, the holes in your ears are not the subject that hears. If they were, dead men would also hear sounds. . . . You must doubt deeply, again and again, asking yourself what the subject of hearing could be. . . . Only doubt more and more deeply . . . without intending to be enlightened and without even intending not to intend to be enlightened; become like a child in your own breast. . . . But however you go on doubting, you will find it impossible to locate the subject that hears. You must explore still further just there, where there is nothing to be found. Doubt deeply in a state of single-mindedness, . . . becoming completely like a dead man, unaware even of the presence of your own person. When this method is practiced more and more deeply, you will arrive at a state of being completely self-oblivious and empty. But even then you must bring up the Great Doubt, “What is the subject that hears?” and doubt still further, all the time being like a dead man. And after that, when you are no longer aware of your being completely like a dead man, and are no more conscious of the procedure of the Great Doubt but become yourself, through and through, a great mass of doubt, there will come a moment, all of a sudden, at which you emerge into a transcendence called the Great Enlightenment, as if you had awoken from a great dream, or as if, having been completely dead, you had suddenly revived.
Absolute Emptiness
[aka, Sunyata or Nothingness]

"Buddhists have argued from the earliest stages of the tradition that a person must learn to be self-reliant, but to be truly self-reliant, a person has to realize that the self is not ultimately real. Only then can someone experience the freedom and illumination that is the goal of Buddhist life." writes Eckel.

Writes the Wanderling:
Mahayana teachings have always considered that the understanding of Sunyata is an attainment which is extremely difficult and extraordinarily profound.

For example, in the Prajna Sutra it says "That which is profound, has Sunyata and non-attachment as its significance. No form nor deeds, no rising nor falling, are its implications."

Again in the Dvadasanikaya Sastra (composed by Nagarjuna, translated to Chinese by Kumarajiva, A.D. 408) it says: "The greatest wisdom is the so-called Sunyata."
But as Gregory K. Ornatowski writes in his article "Transformations of `emptiness': On the idea of sunyata and the thought of Abe and the Kyoto School of Philosophy" in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies sunyata has undergone profound definitional changes throughout the course of Buddhism's history such that one has to wonder if enlightened and wise beings during these centuries are atuned to the same thingless thing.
... although to be praised for its bold attempt to blend a particular Eastern religious concept with Western-style logical philosophical discourse, [the Kyoto School which includes Nishitani] ultimately runs up against certainin consistencies as well as the criticism that the interpretation of sunyata used is less "Buddhist" than a particular type of twentieth-century "Japanese philosophical Zen." In attempting to understand the background to this appropriation, we have also been able to investigate one case of the wider issue of how Buddhist ideas were transformed over the course of their movement within and between different cultures and among various thinkers. This serves as a necessary antidote to the idea common among many Buddhist faithful (and faithful of other religions as well) that their own basic religious ideas somehow have not fundamentally changed over the course of time and that an unbroken line of continuity exists between the ideas of the founder and their own particular school. In the case of Buddhism, even when changes are acknowledged, Buddhists tend to attribute them to upaya, skillful means and adaptation to local cultures, with the "higher"understanding of the ideas unchanged. Yet, such an interpretation seems difficult in the case of sunyata, given the significant transformations it experienced as it moved from the Nikayas to the Prajnaparamitas, to Nagarjuna and to Yogacara, and then to the Tien Tai, Hua Yen, and Ch'an schools in China and their corresponding schools [including the Kyoto School] in Japan.
So what can be said as a definition of Nishitani's sunyata? The following delicious words come from Nishitani's Religion and Nothingness:
It has often been pointed out that the subjectivity of the ego resolutely refuses to be viewed objectively. And yet, the self shows a constant tendency to comprehend itself representationally as some “thing” that is called “I.” This tendency is inherent in the very essence of the ego as self-consciousness. Therefore it marks a great step forward when the standpoint of Existenz-in-ecstasy, held suspended in nothingness, appears as a standpoint of truly subjective self-existence. Nonetheless, traces of the representation of nothingness as the positing of some “thing” that is nothingness are still to be seen here. The standpoint of sunyata, however, is absolutely nonobjectifiable, since it transcends this subjectivistic nihility to a point more on the near side than the subjectivity of existential nihilism.

As a valley unfathomably deep may be imagined set within an endless expanse of sky, so it is with nihility and emptiness. But the sky we have in mind here is more than the vault above that spreads out far and wide over the valley below. It is a cosmic sky enveloping the earth and man and the countless legions of stars that move and have their being within it. It lies beneath the ground we tread, its bottom reaching beneath the valley’s bottom. If the place where the omnipresent God resides be called heaven, then heaven would also have to reach beneath the bottomless pit of hell: heaven would be an abyss for hell. This is the sense in which emptiness is an abyss for the abyss of nihility.

… even in Buddhism, where we find the standpoint of emptiness expounded, a transcendence to the far side, or the “yonder shore,” is spoken of. But this yonder shore may be called an absolute near side in the sense that it has gone beyond the usual opposition of the near and the far. Indeed, the distinguishing feature of Buddhism consists in its being the religion of the absolute near side.

October 23, 2008

Is blogging over with? passe? dead?

When two great buddhointegroblogospheric sites each, independently, comment in terms of blogging being a bygone exercise -- disappearing like glaciers, Republicans and 401(k) balances -- you know we're being informed of a threat to the worldwide web, that it's a global warning.

Cliff Jones of This is This writes, "It is dead. It died on the blog. With its browsers 'round its ankles."

Cliff cites a post in the BBC News blog of Rory Cellan-Jones, where we are told, "I do think that there is evidence that early adopters from the tech crowd have moved on, perhaps disappointed that their blogs are not reaching a mass audience - or discovering that it's easier to have a conversation in a smaller space, where the madding crowd doesn't keep butting in."

Where elsewhere are bloggers off to? Wired Magazine says, "Twitter — which limits each text-only post to 140 characters — is to 2008 what the blogosphere was to 2004. You'll find [Robert] Scoble [of Scobleizer blog and Scoble on Twitter], [Jason] Calacanis [of calacanis.com], and most of their buddies from the golden age [of blogging] there. They claim it's because Twitter operates even faster than the blogosphere. And Twitter posts can be searched instantly, without waiting for Google to index them.

~C4Chaos [pictured on flickr, under the flow of a melting glacier, above] of the (hyper)stream ~C4Chaos [and still, reluctantly, of the infrequently-posting blog ~C4Chaos] tells us, in his blog, after a ten-day posting lapse, "Long-time visitors would have noticed by now that I no longer blog every day like I used to. Not to worry. I haven’t given up blogging. I’m actually more active now than I was before. Here’s why: Life is But a Stream, Why I Do Less Blogging and More (hyper)streaming."

What do we find on ~C4's site's (hyper)stream tab? Twitter and Friendfeed posts, on & on like there's no tomorrow.

There may be a flicker of hope, though. Cliff, "reporting from the twitching corpse," tells us in a follow-up blog entry, "Actually, reports of the death of blogging are greatly exaggerated. It’s interesting to read about this in newspapers, too. It’s like horses talking about the demise of cars. Things co-exist. Horses are still around. And like newspapers they are more for fun than function, they make a lot of mess and French people eat them."

Whew! That was close. I figure anything French people eat will be around for a long time. Do frogs still have legs? Why, sure they do. Mmmm, tastes like chicken.* Do blogs still have legs? Hell, yes. They talk the talk and they can still walk the walk.

* Or, tofo chicken for non-carnivores.

10/27/08 Update: In his comment to this post, C4Chaos tells us that behind him in the pic we do not see melted glacier water. [I knew that; I am teasing.] And that his hyperstream includes Twitter and Friendfeed posts, not Twitter and Facebook, as I had written. I've changed my post text in light of C4's correction re the hyperstream but not the water stream.

October 22, 2008

Update on my situation.

Yo, All.

A quick update on my situation. I met with the third, tie-breaking mental-health professional, a Dr. Edwards, whom I believe to be a doctor of psychology as opposed to being a psychiatrist. The meeting went well, I thought. At the end, I asked Dr. Edwards if he could tell me, in order to save me days of worry, if I had safely met the bar of being competent to stand trial. He told me that I needn't worry, that by his evaluation methods, I was competent.

This is good news! It's nice to know, that by a vote of two to one, I am not loony!

My next court date is on Election Day when I expect to receive a copy of Dr. Edwards's evaluation report. And, I expect that my case will then shift back to Superior Court. Here's the online record of my window-breaking felony thing at the Superior Court website. Punch the "details" button to open up the record, such as it is.

At the next court date in Superior Court, whenever that is, I expect that my petition to dismiss my public defender will be addressed.

Again, this week like last, I am spending many days at Steve's home in the Natomas area of Sac'to, getting online, thumbing through his bounty of spiritual books -- lots of Ken Wilber! Eknath Easwaran! books on the mind, God and goodness -- and listening to the Mahavisnu Orchestra and Led Zeppelin, while also taking care of my cat friends, doing a little vaccuming, eating hardily and studying criminal law.

October 19, 2008

Great Thanks to Steve, the Buddhoblogosphere et al

Steve, Ji and an unidentified friend.

Life has been challenging (at best) for me during my last six months in the wilderness. There are many to be thanked for kindness bestowed on me and help given to me during this period.

Topping the list: Great thanks to Steve (aka, Nagajuna on the Internet where he blogs Naked Reflections [link] and is, with me, co-blogger of the dormant Thoughts Chase Thoughts[link]. In meatspace, Steve and I are both inhabitants of the majestic city of Sacramento.) I thank Steve for his unwavering magnanimity and bountiful heart. Steve and his beautiful wife Ji have opened their home-and-hearth, providing me with a vacation from the drudgeries of Homeless World. Though there are abundant angels with me out on the cold, rocky streets of Capitol City, the cosy comforts and freedom of a house are irreplacable. It is a pleasure and a source of learning for me to converse with Steve; he's a brilliant, wise, compassionate man. Ji is a loving person and a magnificent cook. Also, I feel great gratitude to Steve and Ji's kindly, regal cats, Tao Tao and Jai Dee, who have befriended me.

Tao Tao and Jai Dee

The mighty buddhoblogosphere has been tremendous at dispensing wisdom and compassion by email and with comments to this blog. Of great note is the stream of help in my recent post pleading for advice.

I bow to you all.

-- Tom

October 18, 2008

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In this post I am recommending a movie about homelessness to y'all. The movie I am recommending is NOT the movie that is titled the same as this post. That movie, made in 2000, which starred George Clooney, is a fine film, too, but the movie I am interested in having y'all see is the film that first came up with the title "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- as a part of the hijinks in Preston Sturges's 1941 romp Sullivan's Travels.

Why am I recommending this film to you? Because it is great and because of a post over at Rev. Danny Fisher's blog called "I'm Late to Blog Action Day." In his post, the reverend tells us he is late to acknowledge Blog Action Day, which was on October 15 and had as this year's issue of the year: Poverty. In his post, Danny links to 88 things you can do about poverty right now. The list is good and mostly about homelessness, but I am particularly taken by the second item on the list of things, which is this: Be homeless for a day/night - which blogger Lex offered as an idea over in her blog Ester of Elgin.

Also, a week ago, in an email to James of The Buddhist Blog [qv.] I had written, "... James, you should seek out the nearest men's homeless shelter where you live, dress down a bit, and stay there for a night. As I think of it, asking my homeful Buddhist readers to experience a wee bit of homelessness is something I must post about." THIS HERE is that promised post. [Hi, James. I hope you're reading this.]

Here, the Amazon.com "essential video" review of Sullivan's Travels:
Writer-director Preston Sturges's third feature, 1941's Sullivan's Travels, remains the antic auteur's most ambitious screen effort. Having added the producer's stripe to his duties, Sturges combines breezy romantic comedy, arch Hollywood satire, and social essay into a single, screwball story line.

The titular pilgrim is John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), an Ivy League grad who's enjoyed a meteoric rise as the director behind escapist movies like Ants in Your Pants of 1938, but is now determined to raise his sights toward more exalted, serious-minded cinematic art. His proposed breakthrough, portentously titled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, elicits a studio response closer to "Oh, brother," given the director's utter lack of first-hand experience on the wrong side of the tracks.

Instead of capitulating, Sullivan sets off disguised as a tramp, ready to meet life's crueler lessons face-to-face--albeit followed at a discreet distance by a motor home filled with studio handlers and reporters. His ludicrous odyssey may give the boy director no real insight, but it gives Sturges the chance to inject some reliably fine gags and a romantic subplot featuring the luminous Veronica Lake. It's at this juncture that Sturges the writer's darker objective throws a jolting shift in tone. Suffice it to say that just when a comic, upbeat denouement seems imminent, Sullivan travels instead from the sunlit California of the comedy's early reels toward a darker, relentlessly downbeat world influenced more by the social realism of the movies the hero desperately wants to make. By the final reel, Sturges has flirted with real tragedy, turning his conclusion into a meditation on his own seemingly carefree, dizzily comic art.
--Sam Sutherland
Thus, as you see, Sullivan goes off to experience homelessness for a spell. I recommend that readers of this blog who have never been homeless do the same: Stay in a shelter for a couple days; eat at a place that serves free food to the poor; try to see what Buddha and Jesus experienced. Gain a touristic acquaintance of homelessness which is far better than no direct acquaintance.

As the movie shows, being homeless on a lark is NOT THE SAME as actually, really being subjected to the deprivations of homelessness and the wonders, splendors and cruelties in that world -- but it is a start toward learning a little bit about life "on the other side of things."

And of course a comedy movie, or even a serious documentary, won't prepare you for what it's like to be homeless. What is particularly nice about Sullivan's Travels is that "jolting shift in tone" that aids in revealing the "darker, relentless downbeat world" where one is shy of hope in a time-devouring place that is always uncomfortable. Being there is a jolt, but we owe it to humanity to be tasared by that reality that so very many proximate to us experience continually.

Update: Sullivan's Travels is New York Times writer A. O. Scott's Critics' Pick for October 20. Click here to view the three-minute viddy review.

October 10, 2008

A Plea for Help #1

Kind Sangha Members [both Buddhist and Homeless]:

Sorry for the desperate title of this post, but I find myself in an absurd nightmare and I would welcome any ideas or guidance.

In a nutshell, as many of you may know, in April my mother died; my sister was her usual oppressive self and transformed what, in my opinion, should of been humble funeral-and-burial plans into something expensive and disrespectful and more about her than our mother; then, my sister stole the inheritance; and I broke windows at my sister's home.

All this has introduced me to the Homeless World in Sacramento, which I find fascinating. Somehow, everything here [in Homeless World] seems just like it had to be, yet it is a startling surprise because there are such a great many splendid, yet flawed and troubled, people among the homeless. I feel like Jodie Foster in the movie Contact when she made contact and said "I would never have believed it was so beautiful." Still, it is all a carnival of misery.

Too, I have been introduced to the galloping madness of the justice system and welfare system and mental-health system and strange arenas of ordinary ineptitude and, on too-rare occassions, strange arenas of extraordinary generosity.

A lot has been weird. The central problem I have now is that I am being forced to see mental-health professionals to determine if I have the marbles in my head necessary for me to act properly in court.

This is occurring, not because I have acted improperly in court. By my "public defender"'s admission, it is at least partly because I've made claim that she is doing a lousy job acting as my attorney. I am appauled by my attorney and had petitioned the court to dismiss her, as is my 6th Amendment right.

Slow forward momentum in the courts regarding the glass-breaking thing was suspended for a month while I saw two highly credentialed mental-health doctors.

Turns out that one of the two wrote a report concluding I was right as rain: "The defendant does not present any psychotic symptoms." She did write, however, that there was "a degree of immaturity" and that I displayed "hints of narcissism."

The other doctor came to a radically different conclusion in his report. His much longer report, which is filled with errors and misquotes, says that I have a "major mood disorder" "characterized by multiple symptoms of depression and hypomanic, poor impulse control, impaired judgment, and possibly psychotic symptoms." Also, I have a personality disorder, according to this doctor. He suggests a multitude of antipsychotic medications with the possiblity that in place of one I be subjected to electoconvulsive therapy.

Of course, this is all SCARY AS HELL. As Woody Allen joked in Annie Hall, I think it was, "my brain is my second favorite organ" -- so I'd rather not have some whacky doctors in there thinking they have the right to scramble the little gray cells.

One strange element of this is that if I had had to guess, I would have said that the woman doctor I saw wasn't impressed with me and that the man I saw subsequently better understood my head, heart and situation. Boy, did I have that backwards. Also, be informed, during both evaluations I was the same person: Me, as I know him.

The result of this disparity is that my case has been dunned with another continuation -- for another month -- while a third doctor has been charged with "breaking the tie," to use the words of my public defender. These evaluations are feeling like sets in a tennis match, with my head being used as the ball. First to win two sets, wins the match.

I want to break out of this madness. No, not any madness in my head -- where there isn't any -- but the madness of this politicized justice and mental-health system. Everything seems wildly arbitrary: the plea-bargaining process; the mental evaluations; my rights regarding any of this, et al.

Any ideas out there? I'd like to be evaluated by a Buddhist doctor, and I think that that's fair, considering the selection process is pretty much rigged against me. [Perhaps a Buddhist doctor's conclusions cannot be entered into the record such that they 'mean' anything; but I would like for that 'something different' thing to happen, anyway.]

Latest News on the Benefits of Meditation

"For thousands of years, Buddhist meditators have claimed that the simple act of sitting down and following their breath while letting go of intrusive thoughts can free one from the entanglements of neurotic suffering." [from a quote at The Buddhist Blog {link}]

In Mark Epstein's book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, I found the following which suggests meditation as a means of addressing "emptiness" or the "oppressive feeling of the self":

Psychotherapy, while conventionally seeking to eradicate the debilitating sense of emptiness, can also serve as a forum for authenticating and encouraging a capacity to bear the unknowability of the self. ... [T]here are healthy ways as well as unhealthy ways of dropping the oppressive feeling of the self. While people tend to turn first to the unhealthy way, such as using drugs or alcohol, there are actually much more fulfilling ways of losing oneself, of which meditation is a good example.
Serendipitously, James of The Buddhist Blog in his new post called "The Science of Meditation" first quotes an article from Miller-McCure, reposted in the digest Buddhist Channel, "Think on This: Meditation May Protect Your Brain" that tells us of the brain enhancing qualities of meditation that have been discovered in recent years. Here just a snip:

...researchers reported last year that longtime meditators don't lose gray matter in their brains with age the way most people do, suggesting that meditation may have a neuro-protective effect. A rash of other studies in recent years meanwhile have found, for example, that practitioners of insight meditation have noticeably thicker tissue in the prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for attention and control), and that experienced Tibetan monks practicing compassion meditation generate unusually strong and coherent gamma waves in their brains.
James, who suffers from attention deficit disorder [ADD] goes on to report on his own benefits from practice, both while in a state of meditation and afterward. Here, James's words on how he feels after meditating:

... I’ve noticed that once I emerge from meditation that my mind is sharper, better able to concentrate without interference and better able to hold my attention a good period of time later. After meditation it also helps me feel more patient and less overwhelmed with stimuli because I am continuing that thought processing used while meditating. Of course it never lasts all day but the more I practice the longer I can go without too much interference and stress from all the stimuli. It is much like learning a language in a way, the more you practice the more your mind rewires itself. And so no wonder the great teachers all refer to meditation as practice.
All this is great news, for long-practicing meditators and for anyone thinking about taking up meditation or who has an attention problem or who in other ways is entangled in neurotic suffering or is oppressed by the nattering self.

In the Homeless World, there are a lot of folks snared by drug or alcohol abuse. In Sacramento, and surely it is the same nationally, homeless folk with substance dependencies wait greedily for money they receive at the first of any month, or a few days thereafter. Here, some call them "happy checks" -- which most often come from Social Security in payment for a disability or as GA, aka general assistance, from the welfare office. When the payment days come, a great number of homeless Sacramentans start living large -- renting motel rooms for sex or other partying and buying lots of the drug or beverages of choice. The population that shows up at Loaves & Fishes decreases substantially, and the competition for beds at the mission evaporates completely such that many beds go unutilized.

Thanks to news in the article James cites, reasons for taking up meditation are heightened. I hope that substance-abuse programs in my metropolis -- and everywhere -- make meditation instruction an important part of what is provided to the people they serve. Let us lessen suffering in the world using the healthy benefits of meditation, y'all!

October 3, 2008

On Love

What is love? Few of us will be tempted to consult a dictionary on the subject. We know that we want those we love to be happy. We feel compassion for their suffering. When love is really effective — that is, really felt, rather than merely imagined — we cannot help sharing in the joy of those we love, and in their anguish as well. The disposition of love entails the loss, at least to some degree, of our utter self-absorption — and this is surely one of the clues as to why this state of mind is so pleasurable. — Sam Harris in The End of Faith
The above is a quote from one of our current-day fiery atheist writers. Impressive sentiment, and all the more so, so far as I am concerned, because in his definition of love, which comes dropped pretty much out of the blue in his book, Harris's instinct is to focus on giving/feeling love, not on the receipt of it. {Note, though, that Harris means to poke a stick at theists when he writes of love being "felt [i.e., directed toward people], rather than merely imagined [i.e., directed toward Jesus/God]."}

Speaking about love is difficult for the preachers who give sermons at the Union Gospel Mission. Certainly, they will tell the constantly-shifting congregants that God loves them or Jesus loves them, but mighty felt love of other people (i.e., our neighbors, whom Jesus tells us includes even our enemies, far away) remains a topic unexplored. This seems odd to me since Paul did something kind of weird and very bold in his epistles, that appear as many of the books in the New Testament: He adapted the then rarely-used Koine Greek word agapē to represent the powerful, encompassing, expansive Christian idea of love extended to all. [The New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek, btw.] By finding and adapting a rare word, Paul raised the stakes, making the claim that this Christian love was something new and significant. [In his Sermon on the Mound, Jesus tells us, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. (Matthew 5:43:44) Other books in the New Testament, written later, adapted Paul's usage of agapē.

In his book Good and Evil, humanist philosopher Richard Taylor writes briefly of the revolutionary quality of this new love-thing that Jesus introduced and Paul eloquently embraced:
It is fairly common to find love treated as a virtue, particularly by moralists who are influenced by religion. It was considered by St. Paul to be the highest virtue, surpassing both faith and hope. [Taylor is referring to a short letter to the Corinthians by Paul, 1 Corinthians 13.] Whatever may have been the fortunes of other Christian teachings, this one at least has persisted. Even depisers of religion are apt to stay their criticism of this teaching, however severely they may wish to deal with the rest.

It was not generally conceived to be a virtue by the ancients, prior to the rise and spread of Christianity. Most ancient moralists did, to be sure, devote considerable attention to friendship, but this was thought of more as a blessing than as a virtue and it was never, I believe, represented as one of the cardinal virtues. They thought of love or friendship as among the great goods of life, belonging to the same category as health, learning, honor, and the like, and their thinking was directed to analyzing its different forms and discovering the means to its attainment. They rarely thought of it as a unique incentive to noble and vituous conduct generally, or as anything one should try to extend to all humankind.
Adapted from Wikipedia:
The Christian usage of the term agapē comes almost directly from the canonical Gospels' account of the teachings of Jesus. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus said unto him, "Thou shalt love (agapao) the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love (agapao) thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)
Though agapē is a powerful Christian thing [just as metta, the practice of universal loving-kindness, is powerful in Buddhism], the UGM preachers seem to have an aversion toward it.

Jimmy Roughton speaking before the Union Gospel Mission congregation.
Jimmy Roughton, whom I've previously praised and called my favorite mission preacher -- because of his showmanship and because his sermons have had a theme and arc that builds over the course of thirty minutes to make a point -- gave a sermon supposedly on Love recently, but then seven minutes in, abandoned the course of what he was saying, and went back to his old stuff to deliver hellfire-and-brimstone promides, use the reasoning of Pascal's wager, and mock atheists. [Very disappointing and sadly ironic. Roughton evokes the idea of love briefly, then winds his way toward mocking others.] In a comment on the Atheists, he said he couldn't understand why, with their view, they bother to write books attacking Christianity. The answer to that is easy: (1) Of course, they make money from their books; (2) they believe what they are writing; and (3) they believe they are doing good in the world by saving people from religion. Roughton should have the integrity to give the devil his due, and the same to atheists. Please understand: I am not an atheist, I'm pro-religion, and I fault the new atheist writers for their flatland thinking. [See Flatland described on the list of Wilber concepts here.]

Another recent preacher at the mission even cited lines in Matthew about separating the sheep from the goats to buttress his argument that we must believe in Jesus to save ourselves from hell, while ignoring the context of what Jesus was saying. Here are the lines the preacher quoted, from Matthew 25:
32: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left
41: Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels
The preacher strangely ignored the point Jesus was making that determined the separation of the sheep from the goats, which was this, from the intervening lines:
34: Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37: Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38: When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39: Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40: And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
A third preacher in the past week gave a sermon on Faith, using the first few lines of 1 Corinthians 13 to make his argument, but ignored the whole point of the epistle he was quoting, which was this, that came in the last line: "But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

Arrrrgh! Love deserves better treatment! It should be possible for one of the Christian preachers at the mission to tell the congregation how terrific loving someone else and embarking on the journey of loving everyone feels*! Paul writes, "Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth."

I suppose that fire-and-brimstone makes for the most-straightforward sermon to save a mission congregant, and that "love" would seem to be a girly topic for a seemingly hardened, overwhelmingly-male mission audience populated by many tattooed felons, drug- and alcohol-addicts and glass-window breakers. But the audience at the mission is really pretty smart and savvy and wise in ways beyond being streetwise. Give love a chance, you preachers. When we are told in the Book of John that "God is love," that statement doesn't mean that God loves us. The full quote is "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." Thus, the imperative is to love.

* Late note: As Richard E. Watts writes in his Mar92 article in the Journal of Individual Psychology, 'Biblical Agape as a Model of Social Interest,' "Agape is the highest form of love and is primarily volitional and self-giving rather than emotional and self-centered." Thus while agape can feel good, the love that comes is "consciously developed" for others, driven wholly by desire for others' welfare.

October 1, 2008


New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman wrote a paragraph in his column [“Rescue the Rescue”] yesterday, on the bailout legislation, which directly brings to mind the Buddhist idea of interbeing:
We’re all connected. As others have pointed out, you can’t save Main Street and punish Wall Street anymore than you can be in a rowboat with someone you hate and think that the leak in the bottom of the boat at his end is not going to sink you, too. The world really is flat. We’re all connected. “Decoupling” is pure fantasy.
When I first read about interbeing [in a Thich Nhat Hanh book, no doubt], I thought the idea so obvious that it was barely worth noting. But, truly, the way each of us thoroughly penetrates each others’ lives, such that our every breath and thought is borrowed, it is an amazing, profound and humbling thing. There is nothing original about any of us, nor is there anything essentially individual, permanent or stark. We are each just a near-random scoop out of the batter of human-beingness, which allows any of us who are aware to fully appreciate and sympathize with the plight of others and have keen insight into others' points of view.

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

Laozi 570-490 BCE, Chinese Philosopher, Founder of Daoism
from Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, Stephen Mitchell, tr., 1988
And the King will answer them, "I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me."
Matthew 25:40