‘Sorry to bug you again Arnie, but I couldn’t help but think of you when I read this, food for thought-‘
“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental.
Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel.
Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”
Which he extracted from here.
If you follow my blog, then you might anticipate my answer:
“Hi Mr Wawa,
No, a simple spirituality or religiosity cannot accommodate reality because it is not based on any observed reality (and that is all we really have to work with) but is most often opposed to it: deny the earth and gain heaven. But we do not have to engage Buddhism in a religious mode; I think Buddhism serves better as a social/psychological science because it gives a method that allows us to reprogram our minds to escape suffering. The Buddha’s original statements (the four noble truths and the eight fold path: the method) are completely compatible with quantum physics, and in some ways can be thought of as anticipating it (emptiness, illusion of things, and the nature of the void). And so, while I generally agree with most of the statement you provided (above), the first sentence of the last paragraph seems wrong. Buddhism is scientific because it is a system for looking at reality and recognizing what is directly in front of us. Albeit, Buddhism is a science directed towards social and personal problems and not one that studies subatomic particles. In my experience, Buddha’s method steps in after the psychotherapy.
It cannot be denied that many people do make the Buddha into a saint or a god and ignore his ideas in because they need either a metaphysical father figure, who will solve all their problems, or an external source of the validation they cannot give to themselves. At its best, Buddhism, as a religion, does work for many people because it directs ones focus on the awareness of moment by moment reality. But even if people use Buddhism as a religion, it does not negate the Buddha’s scientific approach.
For me, Buddhism as spirituality is unnecessary. On the other hand, science is only useful once we have answered the philosophical questions lumped under the rubric Ethics. With no ethics scientific pursuit can bring us to unlimited destruction. Buddhism is focused on alleviating the suffering of oneself and of others. The big ethical questions are answered in Buddhism-as-a-science in a way not unlike entanglement in quantum mechanics, in that we are all entangled with each other and would do well to act accordingly.
As for Buddhism not being radical. And if your purpose is wanting to understand yourself and your place in the universe, Buddhism as an experimental science is a pretty radical idea.
Religions can be used to form a dogma of belief for a community of followers. On the benefit side, a religious dogma would be a listing of a set of activities that, if practised, would lead one to spiritual benefit. On the down side, dogma can become a means whereby one group of people oppress others. Buddhism, as a religion, has for the most part been a religion of the former type, allowing the development of communities of people who work together and support each other in their spiritual quest. But even in this positive light, Buddhism as a religion can have a negative side. A sanga can form that supports our attachment to the difficulties we have in struggling with our own psychologies. On example: lots of us get caught up in complaining about the difficulties we experience. Our sanga members treat us kindly, hug us nicely, and listen. We suffer. And while we get support in our suffering, nothing changes; we continue suffering. On the other hand, I remember one spiritual teacher who fought this tendency very nicely. After a weekend meditation, he asked all those present to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain during the sits. Everyone put up their hand. The teacher’s only comment was, “Good. Now no one needs mention pain again.”
But what if Buddha had been alive today; would he want to form a religion? Looking at what he said ~2600 years ago, I would say that what he brought to the world was essentially a scientific theory, not a religion. Science is a neutral device that lets us look at things analytically. Scientists think up theories, and then they develop methodologies to test the theories. After a theory is proven useful, then a technology is developed to exploit the knowledge that was revealed in the scientific experiment.
Buddhism’s major focus is the eradication of suffering; Buddhism as a science is the idea that there is a systematic way of doing the same. Many people react negatively to the idea that Buddhism could be approached scientifically. And there are two major difficulties in pursuing Buddhism as science: 1) it is hard to be aware of ones moment to moment suffering, and of ones moment to moment, suffer-inducing thoughts; 2) we are fragile beasts that suffer fear of extinction, and as our minds are naturally wired in such a way that we identify ourselves with—we believe ourselves to be—our suffering, we naturally fear to give it up: without our suffering, who would we be?
The first of Buddha’s four major scientific statements is that all is suffering. This statement is translated in various ways, but I think that the simple translation, ‘suffering exits’ is perfectly good to work with. This is a scientific statement because it is a simple observation. Buddha’s second main statement posits that suffering is caused by attachment to desires. This is a hypothesis which can be tested by experimentation: a simple survey could be devised by social scientists to check on the nature of any particular example of suffering (as opposed to pain), and this survey could help in determining the cause of that suffering. In my own experience, I have found that every instance of my suffering (as opposed to pain) was caused by attachment to some desire I had. The self analysis was hard and took a lot of work. And I am still being surprised by the up-welling of suffering.
Buddha’s third statement concluded that suffering can be alleviated by removing attachments to desires. Having made this scientific conclusion, Buddha then described a course of action, a technology that if followed would bring an end to ones suffering. This technology is found in the Eight Fold Path.
In science if you repeat an traditional experiment you get the expected result. If you use a developed technology, you get the expected result, as long as the machine is not broken. We are the machine, our brains are the software that makes the machine perform wonderfully—or makes it suffer.
But the Eight Fold Path is not merely a technology that gives a recipe for action, it also reveals the major causes of suffering. Where Buddha prescribes Right Thinking, he can be read to mean that incorrect thinking is the cause of one type of suffering. This holds true for all Eight elements.
If Buddhism is a religion then the Eight Fold Path is something to aspire to, attainable only through hard work, allusive insight, and the help of innumerable friends. One is not expected to succeed, one only hopes to succeed.
If Buddhism is a science, then Buddhism is a machine, like a car, that should diligently take one to the destination: the destination is a state of non-attachment and non-suffering. The technology is laid out in the Eight Fold Path. It is as simple as this: if one is thinking bad thoughts about another person, thoughts that if they became manifest would cause that person suffering, then one would do well to think something completely different, something that is positive, that would cause no one suffering. Go play the piano, take a walk. This process, of becoming aware of ones thoughts and then changing their nature by abandoning them and doing something else, will rewire ones brain, recalibrate ones machine into a more and more enlightened state. It is something that one can do safely at home alone.
Luckily, the religion of Buddhism has brought us one extremely well-honed and useful scientific exercise that can help us pay attention to, and to become aware of our moment to moment attachments and desires, and thereby point to the thoughts that give rise to our suffering. This honourable practice is meditation. The scientific companion to the cultivation of awareness through meditation is that when a suffering-causing thought or pattern is identified, then one can take the technology of the Eight Fold Path, think and act in a different way than one usually does, and thereby rewire our beings. All we have to do is have faith in the machine and use it.
It’s as easy as learning to be a software wizard on the computer. Re-hack your brain. One day I might complete the job on my own head.
I’m cutting my latest loaf of sourdough this morning, and I think it is too wet and heavy. My partner again states that she really likes my bread because it is good for the sandwiches that she takes to work. She says the tomatoes don’t make the bread soggy. All well and good, but what am I doing worrying about making the perfect loaf (a delusional goal) when all around the world most people have a hard time finding enough to eat? I live like the kings of old were accustomed to living, in terms of creature comfort, not in terms of life and death over others. At least not that I’m aware of, or am I?
I was in at the swimming pool a couple of days ago and a fellow in the change room was musing about how it would be nice if the pool bought a heat-less spin dryer to dry the swimming suits. I pointed out that we were going to have to do it the old-fashioned way and dry the suits on a line. He pointed out that the ‘Y’ had a spin dryer. “Maybe the pool management is saving the cost of the electricity and the machine?” I suggested. And then he made what I thought was a nonsequitur. “Somebody pays,” he said. I offered,”Taxes.” He came back with, “Even people in the third world pay for us. They send us all their stuff.” He suggested I look up The Story of Stuff, which I pass on to you in the spirit of dancing lessons from god, or being aware of what is really going on in terms of commercialism and economy.
On many Buddhist themed blogs lately I have been reading various musings, some tortured, some determined, all reflecting on the sorry state of the world today. Topics range from poverty, sex, politics, commercialism to war. The eternal human stuff. Well, if I am going to write yet one more blog about zen, what is my stand on these topics? I started musing about what I thought about politics, although the topic, politics, stands in for all the other topics as a test case.
Lessons learned from Nathan’s blog and Peter’s blog. Nathan writes from a zen perspective, often wondering how things in the world look when subjected to a certain amount of introspection and analysis. Peter directly points to common concerns and often asks how certain difficult topics affect your life, how zen practice affects your perception of the world. Or at least this is sort of what I take from the two of them.
What does Buddhism tell us about the world? This is territory for the Four Noble Truths.
Looking at all the world’s problems from the perspective of the 4NTs
If all is suffering then all the worlds peoples are suffering. What causes suffering? Suffering is the result of having desire, but desire results from having an incorrect or incomplete view of reality. In short (in terms of Buddhism), suffering is the state of not being enlightened. If the great majority of the world’s peoples are short of enlightened then their pursuits, for the most part, can be nothing other than an engagement with and a further perpetration of suffering. When suffering is caused by misapprehension of self and the world, we have to ask what is the major error in perception. It seems to me that the major error is a person’s idea of self. The old zen saw: the problem of the ego. Suffering people often feel that they are more important than other suffering people, that their suffering is somehow more important or significant than other peoples’ suffering. Politics is often called the art of the possible, but it is really the art of one suffering person tying to get advantage over other suffering people. Yes, compromises do happen, but few people are ever satisfied with a compromise. Compromise rarely (like never) stops the suffering.
What is the enlightened person supposed to do? Or more realistically, what can anyone who is writing about zen do about politics when confronted with the solipsism of suffering? Suffering is a real thing. It is everywhere. As zen nuts we vow to alleviate it. Should we get involved with politics if politics does not really relieve suffering? That depends.
So what am I doing writing this blog? I am trying to look at the world from a zen perspective. Trying to be aware of what really is going on. What is really going on in politics is that people try to thrash out some workable compromise. But how can a compromise work unless it makes deluded suffering peoples stop blaming each other for their suffering? If we want to engage in politics we need to point out that what is good for one is what is exactly good for another and that unless the good becomes general, suffering ensues. Supposed enemies are not really enemies in the long run. They are merely suffering people who have the misguided idea that someone else is causing their suffering. Oh, yes, someone might shoot you. But the reason they do so is because they are suffering and have mistakenly blamed you for it. The only way to stop someone or their brother or sister or friend from shooting you in the future is to help them alleviate their suffering. To try to subject your enemies to suffering is no solution at all. The proof of this pudding is that we have an endless history of people blaming each other for their suffering and going to war to put and end to the situation and yet we still have suffering and war. All attempted solutions have so far not worked.
Politics to a zen nut has to be an attempt to educate people about the nature of suffering, and it cannot be making accusatory or judgemental statements, or trying to get the advantage over another. Zen does not cast blame. The “beam in your own eye” is the blame you (I) give others for your suffering.
This is a hard lesson, especially when someone is coming over the hill with guns intent on killing you. How does one have compassion for the person who is causing you pain? The only reason they are causing you pain is because they blame you for causing them pain. This situation is the universal suffering circle from hell.
I have absolutely no idea how to go about educating the world. All I can do is argue that the first step in ending suffering is to stop blaming others for your (mine, our) disease of suffering. Have compassion for the (metaphorical) suicide bomber who sees his/her life as so awful that the only way they can stop their suffering is to cause others to suffer. How to make their life one of less suffering? What do you think?
One convenient thing about the radios: they had a strap useful for hanging them from one’s shoulder. So there I was one busy Sunday afternoon, deep in the middle of the rush, irritated yet again because I couldn’t find what I needed under the pile of radios. Ten years I took me to see the obvious. I don’t know what made me see the light. Whatever. I left the cash register, got a hammer and a couple of nails from the back room. Drove the nails into the wall. Took the radios and hung them up. Ten years. Problem solved.
Well It hasn’t been ten years, but the obvious just struck me. Here I am writing about the Bodhisattva Vows, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and it wasn’t until just the other days that I realized that the Bodhisattva Vows are merely the Four Noble Truths tricked up into intentions rather than mere statements of theoretical fact.
The theoretical statement of facts called the Four Noble Truths:
1) All is suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire.
3) There is a way out of suffering.
4) Follow the Eightfold Path.
The Boddhsattva vows:
1) Sentient being are numberless, I vow to liberate them.
2) Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
3) Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
4) The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.
1) All is suffering, therefore everyone suffers, and I vow to end the suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire, desires are endless, and I vow to stop desires.
3) Dharma gates are boundless. Dharma gates are the path out of suffering, and I vow to stop suffering by passing the lesson of each Dharma gate.
4) The Eightfold Path is Buddha’s way. It is unsurpassable, and I vow to embody it.
The Four Noble Truths are the theory; the Bodhisattva Vows state ones intention to embrace the theory (I suspect that all the sutras and all the writings of the sages boil down to the Four Noble Truths). The theory becomes fact once one has done the work to become aware, to be enlightened (or what ever name you use to name the end of suffering). There is not much more than that. When you are not engaged in suffering (and you are aware that you are not), then you have kensho (so simple to say, so hard to do). The trick in all this? Suffering is endless, vast in scope and covers all sorts of things beyond mere pain: envy rather than joy in other peoples’ joy; sadnesses rather than awe at the mystery of the universe; desire rather than delight in what one has; the need to gossip rather than searching out the unenlightened parts of one’s own being; the need to be loved (that statement will be controversial) rather than recognizing that one needs to love oneself first in order to love others. The list is endless: the need to be liked, honoured, admired, to judge, to be rich, to be better, to be exalted, to be enlightened above others…. No need to go on.
Oh, and sitting meditation? What does that have to do with anything? Meditation is giving ourselves the time and space needed to see what is going on inside and then practising to dissolve the attachments. And then maybe one day the light will come on and we will know what to do with our emotional radios.
This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.
According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.
What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…
Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.
Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?
One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):
Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.
When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.
What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.
I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.
You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.
I’m out in the garden, pulling weeds here, piling mulch there. The wind the night before blew the plastic off my rebar cloche frames. Pining the plastic back with hard to find, big, wooden clothes pegs. The Tomatoes are looking good. The sun is shining — for once. So far I’ve not had to water much because the spring is being cold and wet. The environment Canada weather site promises a week of sun. All these concerns and events are the usual garden things. And I walk around doing the usual gardener things, being aware, paying attention. Oh, ya. Sure.
A white plastic bucket catches my eye. We’re not supposed to have standing water about, providing places for mosquitoes to breed. I walk over to check out the bucket, to make sure there aren’t any mosquito larvae hiding there. The bucket is half full of water. There are a dozen dead bees floating on the surface. Bees, looking for water, landing on the surface and then not being able to get out. Surface tension holds them tight. One bee still moving fitfully. I lift it out and place it on a wooden bench in the sun. Maybe it will make it.
These bees are all solitaries. Living in small family groups. Not hive dwellers. Mates will be missing companionship tonight. All because I neglected to remember that bees can’t make it out of a bucket of water. To water bees you need a board, slanted slightly, and a drip source of water that will form a thin, wet always refreshed film of H20. Some authorities say that a simple piece of wood floating on the surface of your bucket provides enough of a surface for swamped bees to crawl out of the water and make good their escape.
I’ve been in the city for the last three years and I’ve forgotten about the bees difficulty with finding water and their difficulty with getting out of buckets, but I remember that the floating-bit-of-wood trick doesn’t work as an escape route for every kind of bee.
I dump the water out of the bucket.
I don’t know why, with all the rain, the bees are flying into a bucket. But I guess now I’m going to have to figure out some kind of bee watering board. I don’t want to kill any more bees due to my inattention. I go around the garden and dump the water out of all the other buckets. I don’t look to see if there are any mosquito larvae.