Saturday, March 23, 2013

faith in awakening

by thanissaro bhikkhu

The Buddha never placed unconditional demands on anyone's faith. And for anyone from a culture where the dominant religions do place such demands on one's faith, this is one of Buddhism's most attractive features. We read his famous instructions to the Kalamas, in which he advises testing things for oneself, and we see it as an invitation to believe, or not, whatever we like. Some people go so far as to say that faith has no place in the Buddhist tradition, that the proper Buddhist attitude is one of skepticism.
But even though the Buddha recommends tolerance and a healthy skepticism toward matters of faith, he also makes a conditional request about faith: If you sincerely want to put an end to suffering — that's the condition — you should take certain things on faith, as working hypotheses, and then test them through following his path of practice.
There's a hint of this need for faith even in the discourse to the Kalamas:
"Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These mental qualities are skillful; these mental qualities are blameless; these mental qualities are praised by the wise; these mental qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them."
AN 3.65
The first few phrases in this passage, refuting the authority of scripture and tradition, are so strikingly empirical that it's easy to miss the phrase buried further on, asserting that you have to take into account what's praised by the wise. That phrase is important, for it helps to make sense of the Buddha's teachings as a whole. If he had simply wanted you to trust your own unaided sense of right and wrong, why would he have left so many other teachings?
So the Buddha's advice to the Kalamas is balanced: Just as you shouldn't give unreserved trust to outside authority, you can't give unreserved trust to your own logic and feelings if they go against the genuine wisdom of others. As other early discourses make clear, wise people can be recognized by their words and behavior, but the standards for wisdom are clearly measured against the Buddha and his noble disciples, people who've already touched awakening. And the proper attitude toward those who meet these standards is faith.
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this: 'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I'... For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this: 'Gladly would I let the flesh & blood in my body dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if I have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing my persistence.'"
MN 70
Repeatedly the Buddha stated that faith in a teacher is what leads you to learn from that teacher. Faith in the Buddha's own Awakening is a requisite strength for anyone else who wants to attain Awakening. As it fosters persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, this faith can take you all the way to the deathless.
So there's a tension in the Buddha's recommendations about faith and empiricism. I've discussed this point with many Asian Buddhists, and few of them find the tension uncomfortable. But Western Buddhists, raised in a culture where religion and faith have long been at war with science and empiricism, find the tension very disconcerting. In discussing the issue with them over the past several years, I've noticed that they often try to resolve it in the same ways that, historically, the tension between Christian faith and scientific empiricism has been resolved in our own culture. Three general positions stand out, not only because they are the most common but also because they are so clearly Western. Consciously or not, they attempt to understand the Buddha's position on faith and empiricism in a way that can be easily mapped onto the modern Western battle lines between religion and science.
The first interpretation has its roots in the side of Western culture that totally rejects the legitimacy of faith. In this view, the Buddha was an embodiment of the Victorian ideal of the heroic agnostic, one who eschewed the childish consolations of faith and instead advocated a purely scientific method for training and strengthening one's own mind. Because his method focused entirely on the present moment, questions of past and future were totally irrelevant to his message. Thus any references to faith in such issues as past karma, future rebirth, or an unconditioned happiness separate from the immediate input of the senses are later interpolations in the texts, which Buddhist agnostics, following the Buddha's example, should do their best to reject.
The second interpretation has roots in the side of Western culture that has rejected either the specifics of Christian faith or the authority of any organized religion, but has appreciated the emotion of faith as an essential requirement for mental health. This view presents the Buddha as a Romantic hero who appreciated the subjective value of faith in establishing a sense of wholeness within and interconnectedness without. Tolerant and opposed to dogmatism, he saw the psychological fact of a living faith as more important than its object. In other words, it doesn't matter where faith is directed, as long as it's deeply felt and personally nourishing. Faith in the Buddha's Awakening means simply believing that he found what worked for himself. This carries no implications for what will work for you. If you find the teaching on karma and rebirth comforting, fine: Believe it. If not, don't. If you want to include an all-powerful God or a Goddess in your worldview, the Buddha wouldn't object. What's important is that you relate to your faith in a way that's emotionally healing, nourishing, and empowering.
Because this second interpretation tends to be all-embracing, it sometimes leads to a third one that encompasses the first two. This interpretation presents the Buddha as trapped in his historical situation. Much like us, he was faced with the issue of finding a meaningful life in light of the worldview of his day. His views on karma and rebirth were simply assumptions picked up from the crude science of ancient India, while his path of practice was an attempt to negotiate a satisfying life within those assumptions. If he were alive today, he would try to reconcile his values with the discoveries of modern science, in the same way that some Westerners have done with their faith in monotheism.
The underlying assumption of this position is that science is concerned with facts, religion with values. Science provides the hard data to which religion should provide meaning. Thus each Buddhist would be performing the work of a Buddha by accepting the hard facts that have been scientifically proven for our generation and then searching the Buddhist tradition — as well as other traditions, where appropriate — for myths and values to give meaning to those facts, and in the process forging a new Buddhism for our times.
Each of these three interpretations may make eminent sense from a Western point of view, but none of them do justice to what we know of the Buddha or of his teaching on the role of faith and empiricism on the path. All three are correct in emphasizing the Buddha's unwillingness to force his teachings on other people, but — by forcing our own assumptions onto his teachings and actions — they misread what that unwillingness means. He wasn't an agnostic; he had strong reasons for declaring some ideas as worthy of faith and others as not; and his teachings on karma, rebirth, and nirvana broke radically with the dominant worldview of his time. He was neither a Victorian nor a Romantic hero, nor was he a victim of his times. He was a hero who, among other things, mastered the issue of faith and empiricism in his own way. But to appreciate that way, we first have to step back from the Western cultural battlefield and look at faith and empiricism in a more basic context, simply as processes within the individual mind.
There, they play their major roles in the psychology of how we decide to act. Although we like to think that we base our decisions on hard facts, we actually use both faith and empiricism in every decision we make. Even in our most empirically based decisions, our vision is hampered by our position in time. As Kierkegaard noted, we live forwards but understand backwards. Any hard-headed business entrepreneur will tell you that the future has to be taken on faith, no matter how much we know of the past. What's more, we're often forced into decisions where there's no time or opportunity to gather enough past facts for an informed choice. At other times we have too many facts — as when a doctor is faced with many conflicting tests on a patient's condition — and we have to go on faith in deciding which facts to focus on and which ones to ignore.
However, faith also plays a deeper role in many of our decisions. As William James once observed, there are two kinds of truths in life: those whose validity has nothing to do with our actions, and those whose reality depends on what we do. Truths of the first sort — truths of the observer — include facts about the behavior of the physical world: how atoms form molecules, how stars explode. Truths of the second sort — truths of the will — include skills, relationships, business ventures, anything that requires your effort to make it real. With truths of the observer, it's best to stay skeptical until reasonable evidence is in. With truths of the will, though, the truth won't happen without your faith in it, often in the face of unpromising odds. If you don't believe that democracy will work in your nation, it won't. If you don't believe that becoming a pianist is worthwhile, or that you have the makings of a good pianist, it won't happen. Truths of the will are the ones most relevant to our pursuit of true happiness. Many of the most inspiring stories in life are of people who create truths of this sort when a mountain of empirical evidence is against them. In cases like this, the truth requires that faith actively discount the immediate facts.
If we dig even deeper into the psychology of decision-making, we run into an area for which no scientific evidence can offer any proof: Do we actually act, or are actions an illusion? Are our acts already predetermined by physical laws or an external intelligence, or do we have free will? Are the results of our acts illusory? Are causal relationships real, or only a fiction? Even the most carefully planned scientific experiment could never settle any of these issues, and yet once we become aware of them we have to take a stand on them if we want to continue putting any energy into our thoughts, words, and deeds.
These were the areas where the Buddha focused his teachings on empiricism and faith. Although his first noble truth requires that we observe suffering until we comprehend it, we have to take on faith his assertion that the facts we observe about suffering are the most important guide for making decisions, moment by moment, throughout life. Because his third noble truth, the cessation of suffering, is a truth of the will, we have to take it on faith that it's a possible goal, a worthwhile goal, and that we're capable of attaining it. And because the fourth noble truth — the path to the cessation of suffering — is a path of action and skill, we have to take it on faith that our actions are real, that we have free will, and yet that there's a causal pattern to the workings of the mind from which we can learn in mastering that skill. As the Buddha said, the path will lead to a direct experience of these truths, but only if you bring faith to the practice will you know this for yourself. In other words, "faith" in the Buddhist context means faith in the ability of your actions to lead to a direct experience of the end of suffering.
The Buddha offered these teachings to people seeking advice on how to find true happiness. That's why he was able to avoid any coercion of others: His teachings assumed that his listeners were already involved in a search. When we understand his views on what it means to search — why people search, and what they're searching for — we can understand his advice on how to use faith and empiricism in a successful search. The best way to do this is to examine five of his similes illustrating how a search should be conducted.
The first simile illustrates search in its most raw and unfocused form:
Two strong men have grabbed another man by the arms and are dragging him to a pit of burning embers. The Buddha notes, "Wouldn't the man twist his body this way and that?"
The twisting of his body stands for the way we react to suffering. We don't bother to ask if our suffering is predetermined or our actions have any hope of success. We simply put up a struggle and do what we can to escape. It's our natural reaction.
The Buddha taught that this reaction is twofold: We're bewildered — "Why is this happening to me?" — and we search for a way to put an end to the suffering. When he stated that all he taught was suffering and the end of suffering, he was responding to these two reactions, providing an explanation of suffering and its end so as to do away with our bewilderment, at the same time showing the way to the end of suffering as a way of satisfying our search. He had no use for the idea — often advanced by later writers in the Buddhist tradition — that our suffering comes from our struggle to resist suffering; that the search for an end to suffering is precisely what keeps us from seeing the peace already there. In the light of the above simile, simply relaxing into a total acceptance of the moment means relaxing into the prospect of being burned alive. The present keeps morphing into the future, and you can't turn a blind eye to where it's taking you.
This simile also explains why the idea of a Buddhism without faith holds little appeal for people suffering from serious illness, oppression, poverty, or racism: Their experience has shown that the only way to overcome these obstacles is to pursue truths of the will, which require faith as their rock-solid foundation.
The second simile:
A man searching for fruit climbs a tree to eat his fill and to stuff his garments with fruit to take home. While he is there, another man searching for fruit comes along. The second man can't climb the tree but he has an axe, so he chops the tree down. If the first man doesn't quickly get out of the tree, he may break an arm or a leg, or even die.
This simile shows the perils of looking for true happiness in the wrong place: in sensual pleasures. If your happiness depends on anything other people can take away from you, you're putting yourself in danger. As the Buddha notes, we hope for happiness in sensual pleasures not because they've ever really satisfied us but because we can't imagine any other escape from pain and suffering. If we allowed ourselves to believe that there is another alternative, we'd be more willing to question our strong faith in our cravings and attachments, more willing to look for that alternative and give it a try. And, as the third simile argues, if we look in the right way, we'll find it.
A person searching for milk tries to get milk out of a cow by twisting its horn. Another person searching for milk tries to get milk out of the cow by pulling at its udder.
The Buddha taught this simile in response to an assertion that there is nothing a human being can do to attain release from suffering. We can attain it, he said, as long as we follow the right method, like the person pulling at the udder of the cow.
The right method starts with right understanding, and this is where faith in the Buddha's Awakening comes in. As the Buddha once stated, he didn't tell us everything he awakened to. What he told was like a handful of leaves; what he learned was like the leaves in the forest. Still, the leaves in the handful contained all the lessons that would help others to awaken; right understanding begins with learning what those specific lessons are.
The most important lesson, and the most important item of faith, is simply the fact of the Awakening itself. The Buddha achieved it through his own efforts, and he did so, not because he was more than human, but because he developed mental qualities that we each have the potential to develop. To have faith in his Awakening thus means having faith in your own potential for Awakening.
However, the specifics of what he learned in his Awakening are important as well. It's not simply the case that he found what worked for him, while what works for you may be something else entirely. No matter how much you twist a cow's horn, it'll never produce milk. The Buddha's insights penetrated into how things work, what it means for them to work. These insights apply to everyone throughout time.
When summarizing his Awakening in the most condensed form, the Buddha focused on a principle of causality that explains how we live in a world where patterns of causality fashion events, and yet those events are not totally predetermined by the past.
The principle is actually a dual one, for there are two kinds of causality interweaving in our lives. The first is that of a cause giving results in the immediate present: When this is, that is; when this isn't, that isn't. When you turn on a stereo, for example, the noise comes out; when you turn it off, the noise stops. The second type of causality is that of a cause giving results over time: From the arising of this comes the arising of that; from the cessation of this comes the cessation of that. If you study now, you'll have knowledge long into the future. If you damage your brain, the negative effects will be long-term as well.
Applied to karma, or intention, the dual principle means this: Any moment of experience consists of three things: (1) pleasures and pains resulting from past intentions, (2) present intentions, and (3) pleasures and pains resulting from present intentions. Thus the present is not totally shaped by the past. In fact, the most important element shaping your present experience of pleasure or pain is how you fashion, with your present intentions, the raw material provided by past intentions. And your present intentions can be totally free.
This is how there's free will in the midst of causality. At the same time, the pattern in the way intentions lead to results allows us to learn from past mistakes. This freedom within a pattern opens the way to a path of mental training that can lead to the end of suffering. We practice generosity, virtue, and meditation to learn the power of our intentions and in particular to see what happens as our intentions grow more skillful, so skillful that present intentions actually stop. Only when they stop can you prove for yourself how powerful they've been. And the spot where they stop is where the unconditioned — the end of suffering — is found. From there you can return to intentions, but you're no longer their captive or slave.
In presenting his teachings on karma and suffering to his listeners, the Buddha would offer empirical evidence to corroborate them — noting, for instance, how your reaction to another person's misery depends on how attached you are to that person — but he never attempted to back these teachings with full-scale empirical proof. In fact, he heaped ridicule on his contemporaries, the Jains, who attempted to prove their more deterministic teaching on karma by claiming that all those who kill, steal, lie, or engage in illicit sex will suffer from their actions here and now. "Haven't you seen the case," the Buddha asked, "where a man is rewarded by a king for killing the king's enemy, for stealing from the king's enemy, for amusing the king with a clever lie, for seducing the king's enemy's wife?" Even though the basic principle of karma is simple enough — skillful intentions lead to pleasure, unskillful intentions to pain — the dual principle of causality through which karma operates is so complex, like a Mandelbrot set, that you would go crazy trying to nail the whole thing down empirically.
So instead of an empirical proof for his teaching on karma, the Buddha offered a pragmatic proof: If you believe in his teachings on causality, karma, rebirth, and the four noble truths, how will you act? What kind of life will you lead? Won't you tend to be more responsible and compassionate? If, on the other hand, you were to believe in any of the alternatives — such as a doctrine of an impersonal fate or a deity who determined the course of your pleasure and pain, or a doctrine that all things were coincidental and without cause — what would those beliefs lead you to do? Would they allow you to put an end to suffering through your own efforts? Would they allow any purpose for knowledge at all? If, on the other hand, you refused to commit to a coherent idea of what human action can do, would you be likely to see a demanding path of practice all the way through to the end?
This was the kind of reasoning that the Buddha used to inspire faith in his Awakening and in its relevance to our own search for true happiness.
The fourth simile stresses the importance of not settling for anything less than the genuine thing:
A man searching for heartwood goes into a forest and comes to a tree containing heartwood, but instead of taking the heartwood, he takes home some sapwood, branches, or bark.
Faith in the possibility of nirvana — the heartwood of the path — is what keeps you from getting waylaid by the pleasures of the sapwood and bark: the gratification that comes from being generous and virtuous, the sense of peace, interconnectedness, and oneness that comes with strong concentration. Yet, surprisingly, modern discussions of the role of faith in the Buddha's teachings rarely mention this point, and focus on faith in karma and rebirth instead. This is surprising because nirvana is much less related to our everyday experience than either karma or rebirth. We see the fruits of our actions all around us; we see people being born with distinct personalities and differing strengths, and it's only a short leap to the idea that there's some connection between these things. Nirvana, however, isn't connected to anything we've experienced at all. It's already there, but hidden by all our desires for physical and mental activity. To touch it, we have to abandon our habitual attachment to activity. To believe that such a thing is possible, and that it's the ultimate happiness, is to take a major leap.
Many in the Buddha's time were willing to take the leap, while many others were not, preferring to content themselves with the branches and sapwood, wanting simply to learn how to live happily with their families in this life and go to heaven in the next. Nirvana, they said, could wait. Faced with this honest and gentle resistance to his teaching on nirvana, the Buddha was happy to comply.
But he was less tolerant of the stronger resistance he received from brahmas, heavenly deities who complacently felt that their experience of limitless oneness and compassion in the midst of samsara — their sapwood — was superior to the heartwood of nirvana. In cases like this he used all the psychic and intellectual powers at his disposal to humble their pride, because he realized that their views totally closed the door to Awakening. If you think that your sapwood is actually heartwood, you won't look for anything better. When your sapwood breaks, you'll decide that heartwood is a lie. But if you realize that you're using bark and sapwood, you leave open the possibility that someday you'll go back and give the heartwood a try.
Of course, it's even better if you can take the Buddha's teachings on nirvana as a direct challenge in this lifetime — as if he were saying, "Here's your chance. Can you prove me wrong?"
The fifth simile:
An experienced elephant hunter, searching for a big bull elephant, comes across a large elephant footprint in the forest. However, he doesn't jump to the conclusion that it's the footprint of a big bull elephant. Why? Because there are dwarf female elephants with big feet. It might be one of theirs. He follows along and sees some scratch marks and tusk marks high up on the trees, but still doesn't jump to the conclusion that he's on the trail of a big bull elephant. Why? Because there are tall female elephants with tusks. The marks might be theirs. He follows along and finally sees a big bull elephant under a tree or in a clearing. That's when he concludes that he's found his bull elephant.
In explaining this simile, the Buddha said that all the preliminary steps of the practice — going into the wilderness as a monastic; adhering to the precepts; developing restraint, contentment, and strong concentration; seeing past lives and gaining vision of the beings of the cosmos dying and being reborn in line with their karma — are simply footprints and scratch marks of the Buddha's Awakening. Only when you have your own first taste of Awakening, having followed his path, do you really know that your faith in his Awakening was well placed. Touching the dimension where suffering ends, you realize that the Buddha's teachings about it were not only true but also useful: He knew what he was talking about and was able to point you there as well.
What's interesting about this simile is the way it combines healthy faith with honest skepticism. To act on this faith is to test it, the way you'd test a working hypothesis. You need faith to keep following the footprints, but you also need the honesty to recognize where faith ends and knowledge begins. This is why, in the Buddhist context, faith and empiricism are inseparable. Unlike a monotheistic religion — where faith centers on the power of another — faith in the Buddha's Awakening keeps pointing back to the power of your own actions: Do you have enough power over your intentions to make them harmless? Do harmless intentions then give you the freedom to drop intention entirely? The only way you can answer these questions is by being scrupulously honest about your intentions, to detect even the slightest traces of harm, even the slightest movement of intention itself. Only then will you know the deathless, totally unconditioned by intention, for sure. But if you claim to know things that you don't, how can you trust yourself to detect any of these things? You need to make your honesty worthy of your faith, testing its assumptions until you find true knowledge in the test.
This is why science will never be able to pass valid judgment on the truths of Awakening, for the path deals in matters that outside experimenters can't reach. Although others may sympathize with your suffering, the suffering itself is an experience you can share with no one else. The honesty and skillfulness of your intentions is an affair of your internal dialogue, something that is also purely your own. Scientists can measure the neurological data indicating pain or intentional activity, but there's no external measurement for how the pain feels, or how honest your intentional dialogue may be. And as for the deathless, it has no physical correlates at all. The closest that outside empirical measurement can get is to pictures of the footprints on the ground and the marks in the trees.
To get to the bull elephant, you have to do what the Buddha's disciple Sariputta did. He kept following the path, without jumping to dishonest conclusions, until he saw the elephant within. Then, when the Buddha asked him, "Do you take it on faith that these five strengths — faith, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment — lead to the deathless," Sariputta could answer honestly, "No, I don't take it on faith. I know."
As Sariputta stated in another discourse, his proof was experiential but so inward that it touched a dimension where not only the external senses but even the sense of the functioning of the mind can't reach. If you want to confirm his knowledge you have to touch that dimension in the only place you can access it, inside yourself. This is one of two ways in which the Buddha's method differs from that of modern empiricism.
The other has to do with the integrity of the person attempting the proof.
As in science, faith in the Buddha's Awakening acts like a working hypothesis, but the test of that hypothesis requires an honesty deeper and more radical than anything science requires. You have to commit yourself — every variation on who you feel you are — totally to the test. Only when you take apart all clinging to your inner and outer senses can you prove whether the activity of clinging is what hides the deathless. The Buddha never forced anyone to commit to this test, both because you can't coerce people to be honest with themselves, and because he saw that the pit of burning embers was coercion enough.

Friday, March 22, 2013

RIP chinua achebe

by chinua achebe

Speed is violence
Power is violence
Weight is violence

The butterfly seeks safety in lightness
In weightless, undulating flight

But at a crossroads where mottled light
From trees falls on a brash new highway
Our convergent territories meet

I come power-packed enough for two
And the gentle butterfly offers
Itself in bright yellow sacrifice
Upon my hard silicon shield.


"when we are comfortable and inattentive, we run the risk of committing grave injustices absentmindedly.”

“there is no story that is not true.”

“privilege, you see, is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity.” 

"the world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.”

"charity . . . is the opium of the privileged.”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


from a brief history of thought by luc ferry

"stoicism here anticipated one of the most profound insights of psychoanalysis: that he who remains the prisoner of his past will always be incapable of 'acting and enjoying', as freud said. . . stoicism would teach its disciples to part ways with those ideologies that promote the virtue of hope."

"contrary to the commonplace idea that one 'cannot live without hope', hope is the greatest of misfortunes.  for it is by nature an absence, a lack, a source of tension in our lives."

"there are moments when we seem to be here not to transform the world, but simply to be part of it, to experience the beauty and joy that it offers to us.  for example, you are in the sea, scuba diving, and you put on your mask to look at the fish.  you are not there to change things, to improve them, or to correct them; you are there to admire and accept things."

"we must learn to content ourselves with the present, to love the present to the point of desiring nothing else and of regretting nothing whatsoever."

"there are moments, instants when we have the rare experience of being completely reconciled to the world. . . to see to it that life as a whole resembles such moments: that is the fundamental project of stoic wisdom. it is at this point that we touch on something resembling salvation, in the sense that nothing further can trouble a serenity which comes from the extinguishing of fears concerning other dimensions of time."

"both religion and philosophy are closely linked, through their attempt to conquer anxiety over human mortality."

"the implacable and blind fate of the ancients gives way to the benevolent wisdom of an individual who loves us as individuals, and in a way that no one else loves us.  it is love that becomes the key to salvation.  but, this is not love in the usual sense; it is what christian thinkers will call 'love in god'."

"this leads us to the second characteristic: love is stronger than death.  what link can there be between the sentiment of love and the question of what can save us from mortality and death?  it is simplest to start from the christian proposition that there are, fundamentally, three faces of love, which between them form a coherent 'system'.  first, there is the love that we might call 'love-as-attachment': in the sense that we are bound to another, to the point of not being able to imagine life without this other.  we can experience this love as much within the family as with a lover.  on this point, christians were united with stoics and buddhists in viewing this love as the most dangerous and least enlightened of all.  not only because it risks diverting us from our true duties towards god, but also because it cannot survive death and it cannot tolerate rupture and change.  aside from the fact that it is usually possessive and jealous, love-as-attachment stores up for us the worst of all sufferings - the loss of loved ones."

"at the opposite extreme is what we might call 'compassion': a love that drives us to care for strangers when they are in need. . . and, finally, there is 'love-in-god'.  here and only here is the ultimate source of salvation, which, for christians, will prove stronger than death."

"you will remember that stoicism regards the fear of death as the greatest obstacle to the happy life (likewise in buddhism).  and this anxiety is not without its connection to love.  in simple terms there is an apparently insurmountable contradiction between love, which leads to attachment, and death, which leads to separation.  if the law of this world is one of finiteness and mutability, and if, as the buddhists maintain, everything is 'impermanent' - changing and perishable - then we sin by lack of wisdom if we attach ourselves to things or persons that are mortal."

"the ideal condition in which to die is one where you have abandoned everything, inwardly and outwardly, so that there should be, at this crucial moment, the least possible longing, desire or attachment to which the soul can cling.  this is why, before dying, we should free ourselves from all our goods, friends and family." -sogyal rinpoche, the tibetan book of living and dying

"it is unjust that men should attach themselves to me, even though they do it with pleasure and voluntarily.  i should deceive those in whom i evince this desire; for i am an end for no person, and have not the wherewithal to satisfy them.  am i not about to die?  and thus the object of their attachment will die.  therefore, as i would be culpable in causing a falsehood to be believed, though i should employ gentle persuasion, though it should be believed with pleasure, and though it should give me pleasure; even so i am culpable in making myself loved.  and if i attract persons to attach themselves to me, i should warn those who are ready to consent to such a lie that they should not believe it, whatever advantage i might derive from it; and likewise that they ought not to attach themselves to me; for they should be spending their life and their efforts in pleasing god, or in seeking him." - pascal, pensees

"the reason why this grief had penetrated me so easily and so deeply, was that i had poured my soul out onto quicksand by loving a person sure to die, as if he would never die." - augustine, confessions

we must ensure that "our soul does not become stuck and glued to these transient things by loving them through the physical senses.  for as these perishable creatures pass along the path of things that race towards non-existence, they rend the soul with pestilential desires, and torment it without cease; for the soul loves to be in them and take its repose among the objects of its love.  but in these things there is no point of rest, for they are impermanent, they flee away and cannot be followed with the bodily senses.  no one can fully grasp them even while they are present." -augustine, confessions

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


from a brief history of thought by luc ferry

"...we must not think about death, because there are only two alternatives: either i am alive, in which case death is by definition elsewhere; or death is here and, likewise by definition, i am not here to worry about it!  why, under these conditions, would you bother yourself with such a pointless problem?"

"poe is suggesting that death means everything that is unrepeatable.  death is, in the midst of life, that which will not return; that which belongs irreversibly to time past, which we have no hope of ever recovering."

"to live freely, capable of joy, generosity and love, we must first and foremost conquer our fear - or, more accurately, our fears of the irreversible."

"we can neither think nor act freely when we are paralyzed by the anxiety provoked - even unconsciously - by fear of the irreversible."

"for the ancients, not only was nature before all else good, but in no sense was a majority of humans called upon to decide between good and evil, between just and unjust, because the criteria which enabled those distinctions all stemmed from the natural order, which was both external to and superior to men.  broadly speaking, the good was what was in accord with the cosmic order, whether one willed it or not, and what was bad was what ran contrary to this order, whether one liked it or not.  the essential thing was to act, situation-by-situation, moment-by-moment, in accordance with the harmonious order of things, so as to find our proper place, which each of us was assigned within the universal."

Monday, March 18, 2013


“Compassion is threatening to the ego. We might think of it as something warm and soothing, but actually it’s very raw. When we set out to support other beings, when we go so far as to stand in their shoes, when we aspire to never close down to anyone, we quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of 'life not on my terms.' The commitment traditionally known as the bodhisattva vow, or warrior vow, challenges us to dive into these noncozy waters and swim out beyond our comfort zone. We vow to move consciously into the pain of the world in order to help alleviate it. It is, in essence, a vow to take care of one another, even if it sometimes means not liking how that feels.

This commitment is connected deeply and unshakably with bodhichitta, traditionally defined as a longing to awaken so that we can help others do the same, a longing to go beyond the limits of conventional happiness, beyond enslavement to success and failure, praise and blame. Bodhichitta is also a trust in our innate ability to go beyond bias, beyond prejudice and fixed opinions, and open our hearts to everyone: those we like, those we don’t like, those we don’t even notice, those we may never meet. Bodhichitta counteracts our tendency to stay stuck in very narrow thinking. It counteracts our resistance to change.

This degree of openness arises from the trust that we all have basic goodness and that we can interact with one another in ways that bring that out. instead of reacting aggressively when we’re provoked, endlessly perpetuating the cycle of pain, we trust that we can engage with others from a place of curiosity and caring and in that way contact their innate decency and wisdom."

-pema chodron

Friday, March 15, 2013

the home-coming

from thus spoke zarathustra by friedrich nietzsche

"o solitude!  solitude, my home!  i have lived too long wildly in wild strange lands to come home to you without tears!
now shake your finger at me as mothers do, now smile at me as mothers smile, now say merely: 'and who was it that once stormed away from me like a storm-wind? -
'who departing cried: i have sat too long with solitude, i have unlearned how to be silent!  you have surely learned that -  now?
'o zarathustra, i know all: and that you were lonelier among the crowd, you solitary, than you ever were with me!
'loneliness is one thing, solitude another: you have learned that - now! and that among men you will always be wild and strange:
'wild and strange even when they love you: for above all they want to be indulged!
'but here you are at your own hearth and home; here you can utter everything and pour out every reason, nothing is here ashamed of hidden, hardened feelings.
'here all things come caressingly to your discourse and flatter you: for they want to ride upon your back.  upon every image you here ride to every truth.
'here you may speak to all things straight and true: and truly, it sounds as praise to their ears, that someone should speak with all things - honestly!
'but it is another thing to be lonely.  for, do you remember, o zarathustra?  when once your bird cried above you as you stood in the forest undecided, ignorant where to go, beside a corpse.
'when you said: may my animals lead me!  i found it more dangerous among men than among animals.  that was loneliness!
'and do you remember, o zarathustra?  when you sat upon your island, a well of wine among empty buckets, giving and distributing, bestowing and out-pouring among the thirsty:
'until at last you sat alone thirsty among the intoxicated and lamented each night: "is it not more blessed to receive than to give?  and more blessed to steal than to receive?" - that was loneliness!
'and do you remember, o zarathustra?  when your stillest hour came and tore you forth from yourself, when it said in an evil whisper: "speak and break!" -
'when it made you repent of all your waiting and silence and discouraged your humble courage: that was loneliness!'
o solitude! solitude, my home!  how blissfully and tenderly does your voice speak to me!
we do not question one another, we do not complain to one another, we go openly together through open doors.
for with you all is open and clear; and here even the hours run on lighter feet.  for time weighs down more heavily in the dark than in the light.
here, the words and word-chests of all existence spring open to me: all existence here wants to become words, all becoming here wants to learn speech from me.
down there, however - all speech is in vain!  there, the best wisdom is to forget and pass by: i have learned that - now!
he who wants to understand all things among men has to touch all things.  but my hands are too clean for that.
i even dislike to breathe in their breath; alas, that i lived so long among their noise and bad breath!
o blissful stillness around me!  o pure odours around me!  oh, how this stillness draws pure breath from a deep breast!  oh, how it listens, this blissful stillness!
but down there - everything speaks, everything is unheard.  one may ring in one's wisdom with bells - the shopkeeper in the market-place will out-ring it with pennies!
everything among them speaks, no one knows any longer how to understand.  everything falls away into failure, nothing falls any longer into deep wells.
everything among them speaks, nothings prospers and comes to an end any longer.  everything cackles, but who still wants to sit quietly upon the nest and hatch eggs?
everything among them speaks, everything is talked down.  and what yesterday was still too hard for time itself and its teeth, today hangs chewed and picked from the mouth of the men of today.
everything among them speaks, everything is betrayed.  and what was once called a secret and a secrecy of profound souls, today belongs to the street-trumpeters and other butterflies.
o humankind, you strange thing!  you noise in dark streets!  now again you lie behind me - my greatest danger lies behind me!
my greatest danger always lay in indulgence and sufferance; and all humankind wants to be indulged and suffered.
with truths held back, with foolish hand and foolish-fond heart and rich in pity's little lies- that is how i used to live among men.
i sat among them disguised, ready to misunderstand myself so that i might endure them, and glad to tell myself: 'you fool, you do not know men!'
one forgets what one has learned about men when one lives among men: there is too much foreground in all men - what can far-seeing, far-seeking eyes do there!
and when they misunderstood me, i, like a fool, indulged them more than i did myself: for i was accustomed to being hard with myself and often even taking revenge on myself for this indulgence.
stung by poisonous flies and hollowed out like a stone by many drops of wickedness: that is how i sat among them and still told myself: 'everything small is innocent of its smallness!'
especially those who call themselves 'the good' did i discover to be the most poisonous flies: they sting in all innocence; how could they be - just towards me!
pity teaches him to lie who lives among the good.  pity makes the air stifling for all free souls.  for the stupidity of the good is unfathomable.
to conceal myself and my riches - that did i learn down there: for i found everybody still poor in spirit.  it was my pity's lie that i knew with everybody,
that i saw and scented in everybody what was sufficient spirit for him and what was too much spirit for him!
their pedantic wise men: i called them wise, not pedantic - thus i learned to slur words.  their gravediggers: i called them investigators and scholars - thus i learned to confound words.
gravediggers dig diseases for themselves.  evil vapours repose beneath old rubble.  one should not stir up the bog.  one should live upon mountains.
with happy nostrils i breathe again mountain-freedom!  at last my nose is delivered from the odour of all humankind!
my soul, tickled by sharp breezes as with sparkling wine, sneezes - sneezes and cries to itself: bless you!

thus spoke zarathustra.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

reconciliation, right & wrong

by thanissaro bhikkhu

"These two are fools. Which two? The one who doesn't see his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who doesn't rightfully pardon another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are fools.
"These two are wise. Which two? The one who sees his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are wise."
AN 2.21
"It's a cause of growth in the Dhamma and Vinaya of the noble ones when, seeing a transgression as such, one makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma and exercises restraint in the future."
DN 2
The Buddha succeeded in establishing a religion that has been a genuine force for peace and harmony, not only because of the high value he placed on these qualities but also because of the precise instructions he gave on how to achieve them through forgiveness and reconciliation. Central to these instructions is his insight that forgiveness is one thing, reconciliation is something else.
The Pali word for forgiveness-khama-also means "the earth." A mind like the earth is non-reactive and unperturbed. When you forgive me for harming you, you decide not to retaliate, to seek no revenge. You don't have to like me. You simply unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep us ensnarled in an ugly samsaric wrestling match. This is a gift you can give us both, totally on your own, without my having to know or understand what you've done.
Reconciliation — patisaraniya-kamma — means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions, or maintain that I did no wrong, there's no way we can be reconciled. Similarly, if I insist that your feelings don't matter, or that you have no right to hold me to your standards of right and wrong, you won't trust me not to hurt you again. To regain your trust, I have to show my respect for you and for our mutual standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior; to admit that I hurt you and that I was wrong to do so; and to promise to exercise restraint in the future. At the same time, you have to inspire my trust, too, in the respectful way you conduct the process of reconciliation. Only then can our friendship regain a solid footing.
Thus there are right and wrong ways of attempting reconciliation: those that skillfully meet these requirements for reestablishing trust, and those that don't. To encourage right reconciliation among his followers, the Buddha formulated detailed methods for achieving it, along with a culture of values that encourages putting those methods to use.
The methods are contained in the Pali Vinaya's instructions for how monks should confess their offenses to one another, how they should seek reconciliation with lay people they have wronged, how they should settle protracted disputes, and how a full split in the Sangha should be healed. Although directed to monks, these instructions embody principles that apply to anyone seeking reconciliation of differences, whether personal or political.
The first step in every case is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. When a monk confesses an offense, such as having insulted another monk, he first admits to having said the insult. Then he agrees that the insult really was an offense. Finally, he promises to restrain himself from repeating the offense in the future. A monk seeking reconciliation with a lay person follows a similar pattern, with another monk, on friendly terms with the lay person, acting as mediator. If a dispute has broken the Sangha into factions that have both behaved in unseemly ways, then when the factions seek reconciliation they are advised first to clear the air in a procedure called "covering over with grass." Both sides make a blanket confession of wrongdoing and a promise not to dig up each other's minor offenses. This frees them to focus on the major wrongdoings, if any, that caused or exacerbated the dispute.
To heal a full split in the Sangha, the two sides are instructed first to inquire into the root intentions on both sides that led to the split, for if those intentions were irredeemably malicious or dishonest, reconciliation is impossible. If the group tries to patch things up without getting to the root of the split, nothing has really been healed. Only when the root intentions have been shown to be reconcilable and the differences resolved can the Sangha perform the brief ceremony that reestablishes harmony.
Pervading these instructions is the realization that genuine reconciliation cannot be based simply on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual understanding of what actions served to create disharmony, and a promise to try to avoid those actions in the future. This in turn requires a clearly articulated agreement about — and commitment to — mutual standards of right and wrong. Even if the parties to a reconciliation agree to disagree, their agreement needs to distinguish between right and wrong ways of handling their differences.
Yet right and wrong have gotten a bad rap in Western Buddhist circles, largely because of the ways in which we have seen right and wrong abused in our own culture — as when one person tries to impose arbitrary standards or mean-spirited punishments on others, or hypocritically demands that others obey standards that he himself does not.
To avoid these abuses, some people have recommended living by a non-dual vision that transcends attachment to right and wrong. This vision, however, is open to abuse as well. In communities where it is espoused, irresponsible members can use the rhetoric of non-duality and non-attachment to excuse genuinely harmful behavior; their victims are left adrift, with no commonly accepted standards on which to base their appeals for redress. Even the act of forgiveness is suspect in such a context, for what right do the victims have to judge actions as requiring forgiveness or not? All too often, the victims are the ones held at fault for imposing their standards on others and not being able to rise above dualistic views.
This means that right and wrong have not really been transcended in such a community. They've simply been realigned: If you can claim a non-dual perspective, you're in the right no matter what you've done. If you complain about another person's behavior, you're in the wrong. And because this realignment is not openly acknowledged as such, it creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy in which genuine reconciliation is impossible.
So the solution lies not in abandoning right and wrong, but in learning how to use them wisely. Thus the Buddha backed up his methods for reconciliation with a culture of values whereby right and wrong become aids rather than hindrances to reconciliation. To prevent those in the right from abusing their position, he counseled that they reflect on themselves before they accuse another of wrongdoing. The checklist of questions he recommended boils down to this: "Am I free from unreconciled offenses of my own? Am I motivated by kindness, rather than vengeance? Am I really clear on our mutual standards?" Only if they can answer "yes" to these questions should they bring up the issue. Furthermore, the Buddha recommended that they determine to speak only words that are true, timely, gentle, to the point, and prompted by kindness. Their motivation should be compassion, solicitude for the welfare of all parties involved, and the desire to see the wrong-doer rehabilitated, together with an overriding desire to hold to fair principles of right and wrong.
To encourage a wrongdoer to see reconciliation as a winning rather than a losing proposition, the Buddha praised the honest acceptance of blame as an honorable rather than a shameful act: not just a means, but the means for progress in spiritual practice. As he told his son, Rahula, the ability to recognize one's mistakes and admit them to others is the essential factor in achieving purity in thought, word, and deed [MN 61]. Or as he said in the Dhammapada, people who recognize their own mistakes and change their ways "illumine the world like the moon when freed from a cloud" [Dhp 173].
In addition to providing these incentives for honestly admitting misbehavior, the Buddha blocked the paths to denial. Modern sociologists have identified five basic strategies that people use to avoid accepting blame when they've caused harm, and it's noteworthy that the Pali teaching on moral responsibility serves to undercut all five. The strategies are: to deny responsibility, to deny that harm was actually done, to deny the worth of the victim, to attack the accuser, and to claim that they were acting in the service of a higher cause. The Pali responses to these strategies are: (1) We are always responsible for our conscious choices. (2) We should always put ourselves in the other person's place. (3) All beings are worthy of respect. (4) We should regard those who point out our faults as if they were pointing out treasure. (Monks, in fact, are required not to show disrespect to people who criticize them, even if they don't plan to abide by the criticism.) (5) There are no — repeat, no — higher purposes that excuse breaking the basic precepts of ethical behavior.
In setting out these standards, the Buddha created a context of values that encourages both parties entering into a reconciliation to employ right speech and to engage in the honest, responsible self-reflection basic to all Dhamma practice. In this way, standards of right and wrong behavior, instead of being oppressive or petty, engender deep and long-lasting trust. In addition to creating the external harmony conducive to Dhamma practice, the process of reconciliation thus also becomes an opportunity for inner growth.
The Buddha admitted that not all disputes can be reconciled. There are times when one or both parties are unwilling to exercise the honesty and restraint that true reconciliation requires. Even then, though, forgiveness is still an option. This is why the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness is so important. It encourages us not to settle for mere forgiveness when the genuine healing of right reconciliation is possible; and it allows us to be generous with our forgiveness even when it is not.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


by Jean Valentine

People pray to each other. The way I say "you" to someone else,
respectfully, intimately, desperately. The way someone says
"you" to me, hopefully, expectantly, intensely ...
—Huub Oosterhuis
You       who I don’t know       I don’t know how to talk to you   

—What is it like for you there?

Here ... well, wanting solitude; and talk; friendship—
The uses of solitude. To imagine; to hear.
Learning braille. To imagine other solitudes.
But they will not be mine;
to wait, in the quiet; not to scatter the voices—

What are you afraid of?

What will happen. All this leaving. And meetings, yes. But death.   
What happens when you die?

“... not scatter the voices,”

Drown out. Not make a house, out of my own words. To be quiet in   
another throat; other eyes; listen for what it is like there. What   
word. What silence. Allowing. Uncertain: to drift, in the
restlessness ... Repose. To run like water—

What is it like there, right now?

Listen: the crowding of the street; the room. Everyone hunches in   
against the crowding; holding their breath: against dread.

What do you dread?

What happens when you die?

What do you dread, in this room, now?

Not listening. Now. Not watching. Safe inside my own skin.
To die, not having listened. Not having asked ... To have scattered   

Yes I know: the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to   
follow it back to life; I know. Impossible, sometimes.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


by lucille clifton
who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be

beautiful    who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals

that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin

sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls    clicking

their bony fingers
they have heard me beseeching

as i whispered into my own
cupped hands    enough    not me again

but who can distinguish
one human voice

amid such choruses
of desire

Sunday, March 10, 2013

the use of pleasure

quotes from the use of pleasure: the history of sexuality volume two by michel foucault

"what were the games of truth by which human beings came to see themselves as desiring individuals?"

"as for what motivated me. . . it was curiosity - the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself.  after all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower's straying afield of herself?"

"it is easy to see that each of these great figures of sexual austerity is tied to an axis of experience and to a cluster of concrete relationships: relations to the body, with the question of health, and behind it the whole game of life and death; the relation to the other sex, with the question of the spouse as privileged partner, in the the game of the family institution and the ties it creates; the relation to one's own sex, with the question of partners that one can choose within it, and the problem of the adjustment between social roles and sexual roles; and finally, the relation to truth, where the question is raised of the spiritual conditions that enable one to gain access to wisdom."

"given a code of actions, and with regard to a specific type of actions (which can be defined by their degree of conformity with or divergence from the code), there are different ways to 'conduct oneself' morally, different ways for the acting individual to operate, not just as an agent, but as an ethical subject of this action.  take, for example, a code of sexual prescriptions enjoining the two marital partners to practice a strict and symmetrical conjugal fidelity, always with a view to procreation; there will be many ways, even within such a rigid frame, to practice that austerity, many ways to 'be faithful'.  these differences can bear on several points worth considering."

"they concern what might be called the determination of the ethical substance; that is, the way in which the individual has to constitute this or that part of himself as the prime material of his moral conduct.  thus, one can relate the crucial aspects of the practice of fidelity to the strict observance of interdictions and obligations in the very acts one accomplishes.  but one can also make the essence of fidelity consist in the mastery of desires, in the fervent combat one directs against them, in the strength with which one is able to resist temptations: what makes up the content of fidelity in this case is that vigilance and that struggle.  in these conditions, the contradictory movements of the soul - much more than the carrying out of the acts themselves - will be the prime material of moral practice.  alternatively, one can have it consist in the intensity, continuity, and reciprocity of feelings that are experienced vis-a-vis the partner, and in the quality of the relationship that permanently binds the two spouses."

"the differences can also have to do with the mode of subjection: that is, with the way in which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obliged to put it into practice. . . one can also practice fidelity in response to an appeal, by offering oneself as an example, or by seeking to give one's personal life a form that answers to criteria of brilliance, beauty, nobility, or perfection."

"there are also possible differences in the forms of elaboration, of ethical work that one performs on oneself, not only in order to bring one's conduct into compliance with a given rule, but to attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one's behavior.  thus, sexual austerity can be practiced through a long effort of learning, memorization, and assimilation of a systematic ensemble of precepts, and through a regular checking of conduct aimed at measuring the exactness with which one is applying these rules.  it can be practiced in the form of a sudden, all-embracing, and definitive renunciation of pleasures; it can also be practiced in the form of a relentless combat whose vicissitudes - including momentary setbacks - can have meaning and value in themselves; and it can be practiced through a decipherment as painstaking, continuous, and detailed as possible, of the movements of desire in all its hidden forms, including the most obscure."

"other differences, finally, concern what might be called the telos of the ethical subject: an action is not only moral in itself, in its singularity; it is also moral in its circumstantial integration and by virtue of the place it occupies in a pattern of conduct.  it is an element and an aspect of this conduct, and it marks a stage in its life, a possible advance in its continuity.  a moral action tends toward its own accomplishment; but it also aims beyond the latter, to the establishing of a moral conduct that commits an individual, not only to other actions always in conformity with values and rules, but to a certain mode of being, a mode of being characteristic of the ethical subject."

"all moral action involves a relationship with the reality in which it is carried out, and a relationship with the self.  the latter is not simply 'self-awareness' but self-formation as an 'ethical subject', a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal.  and this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform herself.  there is no specific moral action that does not refer to a unified moral conduct; no moral conduct that does not call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without 'modes of subjectivation' and an 'ascetics' or 'practices of the self' that support them."

"moral conceptions in greek and greco-roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of askesis than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden. . . the accent was placed on the relationship with the self that enabled a person to keep from being carried away by the appetites and pleasures, to maintain a mastery and superiority over them, to keep his senses in a state of tranquility, to remain free from interior bondage to the passions, and to achieve a mode of being that could be defined by the full enjoyment of oneself, or the perfect supremacy of oneself over oneself."

Friday, March 8, 2013

two yearnings

"zeffrino didn't know quite what to think.  seeing a lady cry was a thing that made your heart ache.  but how could anyone be sad in this enclosure of sea crammed with every variety of fish to fill the heart with desire and joy?  and how could you dive into that greenness and pursue fish when there was a grown-up person nearby dissolved in tears?  at the same moment, in the same place, two yearnings existed, opposed and unreconcilable, but zeffrino could neither conceive of them both together, nor surrender to the one or to the other."

from the short story "big fish, little fish" by italo calvino