A View on Life and Death

A while back, I saw that it was a friend’s birthday on Facebook. I had not talked with this friend in years, having lost touch after moving to a different city. I warmly jumped at the occasion to say “Hello,” and reconnect. Flipping to the birthday notification, I typed out a heartfelt message, wishing him well.

A few hours later, I got a message notification from a person I didn’t know. He kindly and regretfully informed me that my friend had been dead for almost a year now. I was shocked. I had no idea. All I could do was thank this informative stranger and think back on my time with my friend, hoping that my message hadn’t caused any undue stress for anyone.

Honestly, I’ve encountered little death in my time. I’ve had pets die and a couple great grandparents, but I’ve had few instances of losing another person. This sudden awareness of the death of a friend I’d fallen out of contact with gave me pause.

Part of me wishes I could picture him in some serene afterlife, but honestly, this thought confuses me. I struggle greatly with the concept of a soul because it seems to be an attempt to assert an unchanging thing behind the ebb and flow of this impermanent universe. Every experience I’ve had, every thing I’ve studied, every fact and figure — all of it, everything points to transience. Suggesting a metaphysical permanence behind it all seems like an existential coping mechanism. Perhaps, there really is some great metaphysical Origin — Mind, Tao, Source, Idea (Eidos). If there is though, I maintain that it is a vastly different thing than is standardly posited with the term “soul” and its rather pastoral associations.

I’m left, instead, with some succor in knowing that whatever happens to us when we die, at least my friend is no longer the body he was here. He had longstanding chronic illness which made his life difficult and painful, leading (I presume) to a young death.

Ironically, isn’t this precisely our fear with death — not knowing who or what we will be when this body dies? As Heidegger puts it, it’s the possibility of one’s impossibility (or rather, of Dasein’s impossibility). Why must we posit an eternal ego to give this life and its experiences worth? As in the case of my friend — meeting with him for a few months in an intense period of my life makes his presence in my life all the more valuable for its rarity. Perhaps, I appreciate him all the more because relationships and the people who participate in them are impermanent — flashes of brilliance, fireworks on a summer’s evening.

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Rather than reach for life affirmation in the hereafter or for a Nietzschean, definingly transcendent moment for Eternal Return (a sublime life experience that grants you the fervor to say yes to this life, even if it were to be repeated infinitely), I think instead of life as something passing and therefore undefinably beautiful, rare, and unique. Much like seeing falling stars in the Perseid meteor shower – they all are similar in a way, but each burns differently, and each is beautiful and is to be savored in its passing, not a tragedy when it ends, rather one flashing, beautiful emergence, which is followed by others. I see no tragedy in living your life as something that will end and in so doing, making it shine while you flicker in the history of the Universe.


I plan to expand further on ideas about how to make one’s lifetime shine in my next post.

May this bring you peace and inspiration in being a timely being.

Gassho!

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A Pause

What is it to be alive as a human being? Constantly, we aim forward towards the next achievement, the next escape, the next gratification. “We are always already ahead of ourselves.” At the same time: “We are unknown to ourselves.” We run forward on neverending tracks of light, seeking fulfillment and completion elsewhere, yet we do not see the tracks nor the pattern of our movement. We see not the chase of like and the fleeing from dislike. We ignore it and all else that does not fall into the dualism. The trinity: desire, aversion, and ignorance. Two fuel our journey, and the last keeps us from being aware of anything else but the journey without seeing it for the journey it is…

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A moment of pause then, so that we might finally look around — a moment of truly seeing: circumspection and introspection… Stop. Just be present. Your breath. Your heartbeat. The sweat trickling down your arm. Here. Now. This is life unfolding. All of it. Not the nostalgia for the past or your five year plan for the future.

We worry so much about being right — doing and saying the right things, making the right choices, or we constantly judge ourselves as good or bad — a juxtaposition against some idealized or future “self” — how we should have acted, what could have been done better — always found wanting or meeting expectations. However, these just keep us rocketing forward on the twin rails of desire and aversion. What if the only dichotomy that matters for this life, this tiny little heartbeat of universal time, is whether we awaken or remain dazed and confused? What would life be if we were to liberate ourselves of the journey on rails and walk along with the freedom to move otherwise?


“What is freedom? It is nothing more and nothing less, than life lived awake.” -Ken McLeod, “Reflections on Silver River”

May this help you take pause and live a life awake.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”

This opening chapter shows the way by pointing out the enlightened path and comparing it to the deluded path. The amazing thing about this opening passage is its balance between solid ethical philosophy/cognitive-behavioral psychology and more austerely poetic spiritual maxims. It’s pretty long, so I’ll only cover part of it, and I’ll go through that part in pieces.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart roll over the tracks of the bullock that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them. — Trans. Easwaran

This initial chapter is called “Twin Verses”, and the reason is clear here. We have the deluded and enlightened paths–samsara and nirvana–side by side, twinned in the same structure and style of explication.

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The first sentence is the same in both, and it reveals the importance of karma in a way that resonates with Western philosophy and cognitive psychology. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics couches virtuous (that is excellent) action in an ongoing awareness of oneself within a social landscape. This requires an ongoing examination of how I have been molded by my background–upbringing and origin–and how I am molding myself further with each thought and action. Another familiar parallel is cognitive-behavioral psychology, which is more or less the successor of a Stoic understanding of the mind. Our thoughts mold our perception of ourselves and the world. In that sense, all that we are and all that the world is are the thoughts that mold us/it. Therapy, then, becomes an engagement to change the thoughts that harm us and the related behaviors to those thoughts. With these comparisons, the relevance of the Buddha’s position for us from the West is made clear.

Our two paths are displayed before us, and this is where the Buddha goes dramatically beyond these familiar points of comparison. The deluded path of ongoing suffering is the path of selfish thoughts. This includes all the plans oriented on my own aggrandizement. Out of the just listed Western parallels, the Stoics would be the only ones to make this dramatic leap (I’m reminded here of Marcus Aurelius speaking of being a citizen of the Universe). Selfish thoughts, even those oriented toward my success, my story, and my truth, even when they don’t harm others, will lead ultimately to dukkha, i.e. suffering, discontent, and continual yearning.

Why? This is a path that continually tries to get beyond the inevitability of impermanence. It’s an ongoing attempt to rig the game just right to get me that happiness of success that will never dissipate, never change, never fade. If I try hard enough… If I plan thoroughly enough… If I get the conditions just right…

Notice how all these thoughts are turned inward. If the world gives to me just right, I will be happy. That is the crux: external conditions have to be right, whether following the path of avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure. The energy of this system goes from outside to inside, from the world to me, thus the inward nature of these thoughts. “I” become the focus and goal of thoughts set up toward making my life just perfect. Even if that perfection includes others, it’s still about my perfect life.

In comparison, the enlightened path is one of selfless thought (and action). Such people (at least attempt to) give joy to all in all their speech and action (that which follows from thought), and hence, they are regularly cultivating joy in situations. It follows them everywhere. This invites a larger discussion of Buddhist psychology and karma, but let’s put this simply: the first path keeps the selfish person in an ongoing chain of cause and effect. His or her actions bring consequences that maintain an enduring cycle of felt dissatisfaction and of fighting to be free of this dissatisfaction with subsequent action … which is ultimately not fully satisfying. Selfish thought leads to selfish action which leads to the karmic consequence of this never-ending cycle: samsara. The other path invites us to at least see the difference. Then, perhaps, we have a gap after selfish thoughts arise–before we speak or act on them. Realizing that they lead only to sorrow, we instead change our thoughts, speech, and actions to more selfless ones. With time, this practiced self-reflection becomes a new mold for our thoughts, and selfless thoughts come on their own. With such a shift, we attempt to give joy to all, attempting to help them find peace, happiness, and health (by inspiring them to step beyond sorrow-laden paths as well). With this, we first begin cultivating more positive chains of consequences (as if that’s a necessary motivation), and ultimately, we step beyond the cycle of ongoing dukkha–that karmic chain is broken.

Notice that this second passage focuses on the selfless person giving joy, not getting it. Here, we have the contrast that this path is not inward-oriented like the first, in the sense of seeing the world’s purpose as to give to me or for me to take from it. Instead, this is outward-oriented. My thoughts are aimed out from myself toward the joy of all. The energy of this system now moves from me outward, rather than the inward grasp of appropriation for self. Through such a step beyond concern about my own joy, beyond “I”, me, and mine, I paradoxically realize that very joy in myself.

Let these discussions open one other passage for consideration:

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace.

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those who give up resentful thoughts surely find peace.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law. — Trans. Easwaran

Again, I’m reminded of Western philosophy in that one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns is man’s propensity for “ressentiment”–more or less, resentment. The problem is precisely how inwardly driven this is–it’s literally a feeling again and again, a “re-sentir” (to feel again). This keeps us trapped and tortured, perpetually reactive, rather than vibrant, active, and creative. We get again and again, but we only get the pain of a stung mind, an envenomed heart. As in the passage of Thus Spake Zarathustra (II, 29–The Tarantulas), we feel the toxic bite of the tarantula, again and again, stagnant and rotting with emotional poison, and with Nietzsche, according to Deleuze, the problem is that this reactivity, this “feeling again”, lies throughout our entire human psychology. So the question becomes how do we step beyond this into that active state, rather than feeling reactivity everywhere?

To exemplify this problem, we can take another verse from chapter 18 of the Dhammapada:

There is no fire like lust, no jailer like hate, no snare like infatuation, no torrent like greed.

Notice that all of these are reactive evaluations–wanting to have what one does not have or jealousy of what someone else has (which is really another version of the same). In each, we become trapped in or tortured by reactivity. Hate, the jailer, is an instance of not wanting, and as such, it is wanting. It is not wanting a situation or person to be as he/she/it is, so it is wanting to have the world be completely different for me. (See my comments on love and hate in Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 – Love and Metaphysics and also my comments on hope and fear in Reiki-The Five Precepts: 2nd Precept-Faith)

In comparison, the Buddha offers the selfless, enlightened path, one that is not stung by holding on to the continual, reactive poison of internalized wrong done to self:

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

To let go of the resentful thoughts, the bars of the prison of hate, we cannot negate that person or thing out there which has wronged me. This is the most basic impulse in us, but as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” Selfish action to escape pain, begets another and another, and moreover, it begets this same resentful and retaliatory (as with hatred) reactivity in others. The only way to get beyond this is to selflessly give–to love–rather than to selfishly take–to hate (remember that hate wants the world to be utterly different in a way more suitable to me; it is a wanting, and it can lead to the subsequent action of taking, through negation). This means even giving up the self-righteous thoughts of being wronged. You instead give yourself to the world, finding connection with it, finding the suffering in those who have “wronged” us, finding the compassion of an awakened heart.

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In conclusion, let’s offer this passage of Red Pine’s translation of Verse 63 of the Tao Te Ching which I discussed in a recent post. These guiding words for the Sage go hand in hand with the Buddha’s words for the arhat who walks the selfless path of love, peace, and joy:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine


May this inspire you to read the rest of this beautiful chapter and the whole book. May it show you the first steps on the selfless path, and may you begin to walk it towards joy, peace, and love.

Gassho!

Ayn Randian Dreams (Nightmares?) — A Philosophical Mosaic

I saw a clip–
A grey, hazy time capsule,
Chronicling our past
Yet so present…
Still a specter
Which dominates our minds

Ayn Rand on Johnny Carson???
She expounds,
In a gratingly brittle voice:
The virtue of greed
The reason in selfishness
Only a system
In which
Every man pursues
His own “Reason”
Is one
In which
Humanity can be
Actualized
Capitalism is this system?
Surely a jest!
Each man is not free
Nor guided by his reason
In our system
Of markets
Of money
Of subjugation
–All for profit…

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She says at the outset:

Man’s proper ethics, or morality, is a morality of rational self-interest. Which means that every man has a right to exist for his own sake, and he must not sacrifice himself to others or sacrifice others to himself (brief pause) that the achievement of his own rational happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life. As a consequence of that, the only system, the only political system, that expresses this morality is the system of laissez-faire capitalism, by which I mean full, unregulated, uncontrolled capitalism, a system based on the recognition of rights, including property rights…

Yet capitalism seeks
To subvert fellow men
Sacrificing others to one’s reason
Readily
Often
Systemically
In the name of Profit,
The almighty God
–The only self-interest
Which receives worship,
The singular idol
Sitting atop
The altar of industry
Do you not believe me?
The annals of history
Surely show
Such systemic sacrifice of others
Upon the altar of Profit

The “Reason” of true Philosophers
Would not aim at this
As Wisdom, the Good, or Love
Those are the true aims
Of “Reason”;
Not this solipsistically myopic,
Self-serving materialism
Should we see this
As worthy successor
To profound analyses of eudaemonia?
I laugh
What other response is fitting?
As Nietzsche once said:
“Not with anger, rather with laughter does one kill.” *

What of the “Reason” of the Stoics?
Would they not scoff as well?
Laughing at how poorly,
How childishly,
You, lady with delusions of grandeur,
Have misunderstood
The entire Universe
And our place in it
Those who vouch
For other such
Individualistic notions
Of Truth and Wisdom
Are equally lost.
No authentic seekers of Truth…
Merely idealistic demagogues
Preaching greed from soapboxes,
Rather than providing wisdom
Or anything of substance.
They are lost
Yet declare it insight
Seeing shadows on the wall
As deep, whole, and true
Rather than with the wise sight
That has seen the sun
The sight that sees them
As empty figures


The immature are their own enemies, doing selfish deeds which will bring them sorrow. That deed is selfish which brings remorse and suffering in its wake. But good is that deed which brings no remorse, only happiness in its wake.

Sweet are selfish deeds to the immature until they see the results; when they see the results, they suffer. Even if they fast month after month, eating with only the tip of a blade of grass, they are not worth a sixteenth part of one who truly understands dharma.

As fresh milk needs time to curdle, a selfish deed takes time to bring sorrow in its wake. Like fire smoldering under the ashes, slowly does it burn the immature.

Even if they pick up a little knowledge, the immature misuse it and break their heads instead of benefitting from it.

The immature go after false prestige – precedence of fellow monks, power in the monasteries, and praise from all. “Listen, monks and householders, I can do this; I can do that. I am right and you are wrong.” Thus their pride and passion increase.

Choose the path that leads to nirvana; avoid the road to profit and pleasure. Remember this always, O disciples of the Buddha, and strive always for wisdom.  — The Dhammapada; Verse 5, Lines 66-75


A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few person nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  — Albert Einstein, found in The Places that Scare You by Pema Chödrön

May this bring you to think differently about yourself and your place in society and the universe. May it bring you to desire authentic wisdom and reason. May it inspire you to the love of wisdom (philosophy) and lead you down the path of many questions and insights.
Gassho!

*”Nicht durch Zorn sondern durch Lachen tödtet man.” — Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra; Vom Lesen und Schreiben