Saturday, December 14, 2013

HfM:Ch9 Emancipation from the World

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 9: Emancipation from the World here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 9: Emancipation from the World

The goal of vipassana (clear insight) practice is to end dukkha, transcending the worldly condition into the "supra-mundane" plane.

To understand that, let's look at the mundane plane.  It has three levels:
  1. Sensual: Contented in the various pleasures of the senses
  2. Forms: Contented in concentrating on various forms
  3. Formless: Contented in concentrating on concepts

All mundane beings, from earthly beasts to celestial beings, operate at these levels. Without active consideration, most beings settle into the sensual level as a default.

During the Buddha's time, several people had devoted themselves to maintaining the higher levels of the mundane plane. However, their concentration left them as nothing more than blissful rocks or logs, and they still struggled with desires and dissatisfaction.

Similarly, there are levels on the supra-mundane plane on the path to enlightenment; the Fruit of the Path. They are:
  1. The Stream-Enterer (sotapanna)
  2. The Once-Returner (sakadagami)
  3. The Non-Returner (anagami)
  4. The Perfected Individual (arahant)

An individual at these supra-mundane levels is known as an ariya. The level you are at corresponds to the level of release on has from the mundane world. This release is judged by assessing the Ten Fetters; ten subtle ties to the world. Once you are free of these fetters, you are truly free indeed. They are:
  1. Self-belief: Dropping the misconception that the body and mind are your self. (What is meant by self, and why it doesn't really exist, was discussed in Chapter 6)
  2. Doubt: Liberation from the uncertainty that the Buddhist path is the right and true path.
  3. Superstition: Releasing the misunderstanding that rules, rites, rituals, or objects hold some sort of special power.

When these first three fetters have been cut, a person has become an ariya at the level of the Stream-Enterer. They have been released from the most basic levels of bondage, and have entered the stream which will flow on to nirvana.

The next level of the supra-mundane comes after attenuating greed, hatred, and delusion to such a degree that there is only a feeble attachment to sensuality remaining. At this point, the ariya becomes a Once-Returner, as such a person will likely only dip back into the mundane worldliness only once.
  1. Sensuality: The attachment to and satisfaction in sensual things is completely extinguished.
  2. Ill-Will: All anger, resentment, hatred, annoyance, etc. are vanquished.

These two fetters are two sides of the same coin. Sensuality results from satisfaction, while ill-will results from dissatisfaction.

Once an ariya has released themselves of these first five fetters, they are said to be a Non-Returner, for they will never again return to the mundane worldliness, but instead will continue progress to nirvana.
  1. Bliss of Concentration on Objects with Form: Becoming free of the allure of deep concentration on object forms.
  2. Bliss of Concentration on Formless Objects: Similar to the sixth fetter, but instead pertaining to concentration on things like concepts, space, emptiness, etc.
  3. Awareness of Superiority or Inferiority: Ridding yourself of the delusion of having a status that is better or worse relative to another, further transcending the notions of "good" and "bad".
  4. Agitation of the Mind: Developing a mind that is not perturbed by sensory inputs.

An ariya having attained liberation from these nine fetters may still have some curiosity or inquisitiveness about things, but someone who has attained nirvana has no such interest in anything. In such an enlightened person, partiality is abolished, and nothing can provoke him or her to interest or action, even in the face of deadly circumstances. With the nine fetters cut, and advancing toward nirvana, the ariya is known as an arahant.
  1. Ignorance: Ending your ignorance. That is not done by knowing all things, but rather by knowing, and intuitively understanding, the true nature of things. Ending ignorance is about truly understanding dukkha. Ignorance will have you misidentifying suffering as pleasure, misidentifying the causes of pain and misfortune as being spirits or celestial beings, and misidentifying different levels of concentration or feeling as nirvana. Ignorance will have you pursuing non-essential knowledge, possibly making you even more deluded in the process.

A person who has cut these ten fetters has truly transcended the worldly condition; achieving nirvana. Nirvana is the canceling out of the worldly condition. It is the realm which is free of all conditional things, and therefore it is the end of dukkha and a complete, true freedom. It is the goal of Buddhism.

My Take

At the end of the book here, we get a little bit more information about what this nirvana thing is all about, at least according to Buddhadasa's Buddhism.  I've made references to Spock-like behavior, but, based on this chapter and all of the preceding content, let's push a little deeper...

What is this nirvana?  What kind of "bliss" can be expected from it?

In short, this nirvana is about causes and effects.

Consider all of the different stimuli which provoke you to into actions.  Often times, it's nearly an automatic process, like scratching an itch.  Other times, stimuli are strong influences, like browsing the dessert menu and seeing one of your favorites... chances are you'll end up getting that slice of cheesecake.  And, of course, there is an entire spectrum of other stimuli which coerce or provoke you into action.  Or, if not into action, perhaps they provoke you to think about them, hijacking your mind for some time.

In a sense, this provocation in the face of different stimuli is a type of bondage or slavery.  You react in a manner which, while it may appear to you to be under control, is actually controlled by the stimuli around you.  What you determined to do through logical evaluation is impeded, or even halted, as you become diverted or distracted by the influences around you.

Attaining nirvana means that you no longer respond to stimuli in a manner which is not first vetted by your logical mind, and your mind is operating in a condition which is free of any emotional influences.  You become fully in control of you.  So the associated bliss comes from the harmony of intuitively knowing the Three Universal Characteristics and of being independent of the influence of stimuli to the extent that your will alone determines your actions.  That is true freedom.

Or so the story goes.

And a story Buddhism is, not to be dismissive of it.  It's actually a pretty powerful story.  It's what leads some Buddhists into absolutely selfless, altruistic actions without consideration for their own safety, such as self-immolation to make political statements for the good of the general population.  These demonstrations prove that the state of nirvana is real and achievable, at least to a certain extent.  Obviously we can't tell much about the cycle segments of afterlife and rebirth from our temporal perspective.  ;-)

Yet Buddhism is not unique in its ability to prompt people into altruistic action, in either the extreme sense of self sacrifice, or otherwise.

As Buddhadasa said in the first chapter, Buddhism is best viewed as a religion.  Sure, it's quite different from the other major religions.  There's no attempt to placate some powerful deity, at least in Buddhadasa's version.  But even his version carries with it the key component of what makes a religion a religion; faith.

As we saw in the previous chapter, as well as this one, the elimination of doubt in Buddhism is part of the process.  We could say that eliminating doubt comes as a natural fruit of progress along the Buddhist path.  However, that defense falls apart given the prominence of elimination; it's purification #4 in the Seven Purifications, and fetter #2 of the Ten Fetters.

In other words, you commit yourself to believing in the religion before the religion provides its deepest proofs.  You buy into the worldview presented by the religion, and that is what helps you progress within it.  That's a common thread in all religions.

Religious faith aside, I find certain aspects of Buddhism practical and valuable to consider in everyday life.  I won't be setting myself on fire anytime soon, but I think there are some things which can really help live a more productive, and, perhaps, even a more enriched life.  I'm not talking about nirvana here, but it'll still be pretty damn good.  :-)

I'll write a post in the future concerning the lessons to learn from Buddhism.  Cheers!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

HfM:Ch8 Insight by Formal Training

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 8: Insight by Formal Training here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 8: Insight by Formal Training

Formalized training methods were developed by later Buddhist teachers. Enlightenment of the Buddha and others came without such training. However, some people believe that formal training makes Buddhism accessible to people with a wider range of innate attributes.

Buddhist training systems are divided into two complementary aspects; gantha-dhura (study) and vipassana-dhura (insight wisdom development). These practices were developed by asking fundamental questions about the path of enlightenment.

Vipassana, meaning clear insight, comes as a fruit of the Seven Purifications. They are:

  1. Moral Purity - Have upright behavior and speech.
  2. Mental Purity - Develop a concentrated, focused mind which is calm and ready to think.
  3. Perspective Purity - Eliminate false views which are inconsistent with the true nature of things. Know the Three Universal Characteristics, the Five Aggregates, etc.
  4. Confidence Purity - Doubt is eliminated by the understanding of the true nature of things.
  5. Path Vision Purity - Discernment is made of what is and what is not the Path to enlightenment. (There are several levels, or stages, of development, which are sometimes mistaken as the pinnacle of achievement, and sometimes there are other ancillary developmental benefits which people chase after because they mistakenly believe them to the purpose of development.)
  6. Progress Purity - With the Path clearly identified, progress is achieved along that Path.
  7. Insight Purity - The true nature of things becomes inherently intuitive in all circumstances, leading to Nirvana.

Later Buddhist teachers identified the progress (referencing the sixth Purification above) one makes along the Path in nine steps as follows:

  1. Concentrated introspection develops the insight that everything is involved in a perpetual cycle of arising and decaying.
  2. The decaying aspect of all things is focused on, such that it can be seen in its complete depth, recognizing that all things are in a state of perishing and disillusionment.
  3. Seeing the decay in all things at all times leads to an intense apprehension, or fear, of all things.
  4. This apprehension leads to the recognition of the emotional danger of becoming involved in things.
  5. Seeing the inherent danger of all things leads to complete disenchantment with them all.
  6. With that disenchantment comes an intense desire to be free of all things.
  7. That desire leads to an internal struggle to further weaken the bondage of the mind to things.
  8. Ridding ourselves of the bondage to things, we become imperturbable and achieve equanimity.
  9. The mind is then ready to perfect the progress and achieve Nirvana.

Following this system, vipassana can be gained. In turn, the mind can be freed from all dukkha because all cravings and desires will cease. Such a status is Nirvana, and it is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.

One final note: Be wary of teachers who have distorted the meaning of vipassana for the purpose of making a profit.

My Take

Reading Buddhadasa's words here, and combining them with those from the previous chapter, I got a sense that he has a level of disdain for formalized systems, but he recognizes them as a "necessary evil" that helps some people. This view is likely born from his own experience, where his own will and determination led him to become a self-taught "enlightened" individual, without the aid of a professional teacher.

On the other hand, while Buddhadasa didn't care for these formal systems, his language appeared to indicate an agreement in principle with the Seven Purifications and the nine steps of progress along the Path.

With the Seven Purifications and the nine steps of progress laid out clearly for examination, we can get a sense of what it takes to become enlightened. It's an extreme form of mental reprogramming where you get broken down to nothing and rebuilt with "right" views:

  • See how nothing lasts.
  • See that everything causes some form of dissatisfaction
  • See how "you" are nothing more than the summation of causes and their effects.

Meditate and focus on these "facts" until nothing is desirable. Then you won't care what you have or what you are, so you'll be fine with whatever happens to you.

It seems that, in a manner of speaking, the goal is to become the ultimate pessimist. Come to accept how broken and imperfect everything is, because none of it really amounts to anything anyway. Not only accept it, but relish in it, because such a view creates a certain level of freedom in that you can do what you want to do without the distraction of worldly desires, and without the fear of failure.

Can it "work"? Can someone really achieve the imperturbable equanimity, the calm bliss of Nirvana? I have no doubt; as surely as the mind can be programmed and reprogrammed.

The more important question is this: Is it worth it?

It you think that you are fated to a perpetual cycle of birth, life, death, afterlife, birth, life, etc., and this is your only way of getting out of that cycle, then, maybe. It seems like a truly rational goal, if you are totally committed to eliminating your dukkha once and for all.

Yet that perspective is challenged by other questions, such as:

  • Is all dukkha really undesirable?
  • Is there an optimal balance to be had between disenchantment and engagement that falls short of enlightenment, yet yields a truly rich (depth, not wealth) and rewarding life?

I wager that the answers to these questions, contrary as they may be to Buddhist philosophy, hold the attainable and desirable truth to leading a fully satisfying life.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

HfM:Ch7 Naturally Occurring Insight

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 7: Naturally Occurring Insight here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 7: Naturally Occurring Insight

Natural concentration is normally sufficient and appropriate for gaining insight. Of course, the type of deep concentration that can developed through formalized practice can yield insight, but it can also become an impediment to insight if one is not careful.

In the Scriptures, there are many references to people gaining enlightenment without any of the later-developed, formalized concentration practices, such as with the Buddha's first five disciples. Such concentration happens naturally, like when doing arithmetic or when aiming a gun at a target. It is not magical or miraculous, but it is powerful, and more than adequate enough to develop liberating insight, or can become adequate with some cultivation.

Joy comes with natural insight. You can have joy by doing good deeds, and increase joy by acting morally. There is also a joy associated with a concentrated mind.

Our minds are naturally restless, but as we learn to cultivate our ability to focus and concentrate, tranquility and calm will proportionately increase, preparing us to eliminate our misunderstandings.

We are not talking about achieving a deep level concentration such that the mind is silent and devoid of awareness. In fact, such deep concentration is an obstacle to insight. Instead, we are talking about a level of concentration where the mind is calm, focused, and ready to think introspectively without distraction. This is the natural, even mundane, level of concentration used by several disciples in the early Scriptures.

Our individual progress through such naturally occurring concentration will vary from one person to another, based on several influencing factors. However, as long as we work toward understanding the Five Aggregates (physical matter, feelings, recognition, thinking, and consciousness), our studies will surely be beneficial in coming to understand the true nature of things.

The true nature of things is found in the Three Universal Characteristics (all things are transient, not fully satisfying, and lacking self). It is found in understanding that nothing is truly worth desiring or owning, and no status is worth becoming or being, because there is no object and no status which does not come with its own type of associated dukkha (refer to Chapter 2 for the definition of dukkha). There will be a struggle to get, a struggle to be free of, or a struggle to maintain any thing and any status.

Skeptics may ask: "If we give up striving to have or to be anything, how would we exist?" This objection is founded in misunderstanding. We are referring to ridding ourselves of the desires that are based on misunderstandings, the type that cause us dukkha in its many forms, the type that enslaves the mind to a perpetual cycle of desire and causes us great distress.

We must work to rise above this level of foolish desires so that we can get, have, be, or become without any type of attachment to any object or any status, for that which we cling to or grasp at ultimately hurts us in some way and all the time; before, during, and after. Even clinging to goodness comes with its own form of dukkha.

Skeptics may object: "If nothing is worth having or being, then it's pointless to work, build wealth, or have property." This objection is also based on misunderstanding. In fact, those who are enlightened are better positioned to have and be, because their decisions will be based on objective, mindful evaluations as opposed to foolish desires.

If we look at the example set by the Buddha and his early enlightened disciples, they made great accomplishments. Instead of being motivated by mundane desires, they were motivated by wisdom coupled with metta, and this allowed for discernment of what was worthwhile to do. (Metta is translated here as universal love, but I wonder if "benevolence" may be a better translation than "love", which can mean so many things.) Even bodily needs were handled with this discernment; eating and treating illness as a reasonable means to sustain life, yet not being upset if food was not available, or if the illness couldn't be treated.

Enlightened people acting from wisdom and metta can do consistently and persistently far more good for others than anyone else. They recognize that there is no self, and so their actions are purely selfless, lacking all selfishness. Knowing that nothing is truly worth having or being, they can get or become without being slaves to any thing or any status, having tranquil equanimity regardless of what happens. Those who truly understand that nothing is worth having or being are encouraged by that knowledge.

When we get or become something, we should keep in mind that we can never truly get or become something, because everything is transient. Furthermore, all things are not fully satisfying. Yet we grasp at them foolishly, being slaves to our desires. That selfish motivation prevents us from being consistently good, fair, honest, etc. Through Buddhism we can be liberated from this bondage. The only way we can truly achieve anything is through gaining insight of the Three Universal Characteristics.

We are things only in terms of relative truth. Convenient conventions give us titles and roles, but we are not truly those things, as is commonly assumed. Such assumptions drive people to inappropriate actions in the hopes of becoming or maintaining a status.

Similarly, we possess things only in terms of relative truth, because we can't truly possess anything. Yet our custom is to be overly concerned with what belongs to whom, and we cling to the thought of things being mine. In this way, the things we have and desire tend to lord over our minds.

However, we should recognize that these are relative truths, and behave towards what we are, or work to become, or have, or work to have, in an appropriate manner; we are or have these things simply for convenience and ease. That way, they will be slaves to us, not the other way around.

As we gain insight, there comes with it a proportional level of disenchantment from things. The romanticized images fade away, and we see things as they truly are. And with that disillusionment comes freedom, because we are no longer driven to chase our clumsy, base desires.

With enough insight, we rid ourselves of the defilement of desires, becoming truly free and pure. This yields a state of peaceful, imperturbable equanimity, which is essentially Nirvana.

Nirvana has been translated as "absence of any instrument of torture" and "extinction without remainder". Together, these definitions express the elimination of both the source of suffering and the means of suffering to arising again.

Other Buddhist sects interpret Nirvana differently, including even as the absorption into deep concentration or the complete immersion in sensuality. However, the Buddha defined Nirvana as total freedom from bondage, torment, and suffering.

Nirvana results from the insight of the true nature of things. We can either cultivate this insight naturally, or we can engage in a formalized training system to develop it. Some people excel under a formalized system, but it is not necessary.

You have the means to develop insight naturally, simply by living pure and honestly, and reflecting upon the nature of things in all circumstances. You can break free of blind desires, and the dukkha that they yield, by applying natural, or slightly enhanced, concentration to the events in your life in consideration of the Three Universal Characteristics. This can provide perpetual joy in work and in leisure, yielding a mind that is calm, focused, and truly free.

My Take

This was an interesting, if meandering, chapter on Buddhadasa's Buddhist philosophy. I felt that much of its content should have been included in earlier chapters. Anyway, let's talk about some of that content.

Do it yourself; that was the main thrust of this chapter. Not only can you do it yourself, you may actually have better results doing it yourself than by going through a formalized Buddhist training system. This is the antithesis of the jargon peddled by most spiritual leaders, who emphasize needing right (in other words, "their") teaching such that you must come back to them, the "church" or other formalized institution, or some other means of extracting a regular financial support from you. That's a refreshing point of view.

Mixed in that message, we've got the strange insertion of answers to a couple of skeptical questions, which would seem better placed earlier in the book. The answers Buddhadasa provides here essentially align with my earlier conjecture (in the "My Take" section of the Three Universal Characteristics); that the way to think of the status of having eliminated desires is somewhat analogous to being like Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek. It's all about letting logic be your guide, not emotional desires.

But, speaking of desires, there was a particularly challenging sentence to make sense of in this chapter:

    "Regardless of whether we are hoping for worldly benefits, such as wealth, position and fame, or for benefits in the next world, such as rebirth in heaven, or for the ultimate benefit, the final Fruit of the Path, nirvana - whatever we are hoping for, the only way to achieve it is by means of this right knowledge [of the true nature of things] and insight."

In that passage, Buddhadasa appeared to be promoting desires! How else do you interpret achieving what "we are hoping for" while including worldly benefits? This one, lonely expression seems quite counter to what he had said everywhere else. He had consistently voiced that we should desire for insight, and that such insight would extinguish all other desires. Such language is even included in the paragraph from where this sentence was taken! Furthermore, it seemed odd that worldly desires would being included here, given that they can be "achieved" without special knowledge or insight. So I thought I'd offer alternate explanations than what comes at first glance:

  1. The knowledge and insight of the true nature of things are the foundation for everything else.
  2. We must recognize true achievements in perspective of the knowledge and insight of the true nature of things.
  3. The only way to truly achieve anything is through development of the knowledge and insight of the true nature of things.
  4. Though we may think that we are achieving things in this life, the true knowledge and insight suggest differently, and so we must know the true nature of things to view achievements in the right perspective.

Much like one of the Three Universal Truths suggests, I'm not completely satisfied with any of these interpretations, and, in light of the teaching rest of the book, I can't help but wonder if Buddhadasa would have redacted this sentence in a subsequent revision, or at least clarified it. Or, perhaps there is something lost in translation here. Or, perhaps this is just an indication that I don't understand Buddhadasa's teaching as much as I think I do! ;-)

Finally, let's touch on Nirvana. We're finally got some more information, more hints, of what Nirvana is supposed to be about, at least according to Buddhadasa. As I extrapolate it, it's this:

    Spock-like, logic-ruled mindset + equanimity bliss = Nirvana

You choose your actions based on logic. Your mental status doesn't change, regardless of the circumstances, events, or outcomes. This logical, perpetually calm mindset brings about an imperturbable, quiet joy, peace, and contentment. When you have achieved this level, you will never go back.

Getting to that level is what (Buddhadasa's) Buddhism is all about. And getting there requires developing intuitive-level insight about the true nature of things.

We'll chat more about Nirvana, the path to it, and its practicality (or lack thereof) in Chapter 9.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

HfM:Ch6 The Things We Cling To

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 6: The Things We Cling To here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 6: The Things We Cling To

We cling to the world, but most of us are only familiar with the superficial layer of relative truth. While the world is more than just our realm, our problem lies within our realm.

Our realm is made of Five Aggregates; the physical aspect and four mental aspects. The four mental aggregates are:
  • Feeling - pleasure, displeasure, neutrality
  • Recognition - awareness of things through the senses
  • Thinking - active thoughts, both willed and not willed
  • Consciousness - comprehension of what is sensed or thought

These aggregates are the basis for our desires, our forms of attachment, discussed in the prior chapter.

Our understanding of these aggregates is reflected by our concept of a self. At the lowest level, a person may kick a door that he painfully bumped into, as if to retaliate to the door itself for causing him pain. Those at higher levels may cling to the thinking aspect as being their true self.

    Feeling is the most common level where people cling to the concept of self. We are all seduced by pleasures and delights of the senses; focusing on things, grasping at them, and considering them to be mine. The effect of gain or loss, happiness or sorrow, pleasure or pain, is to drive the mind to cling to or repel from the source of that feeling. In other words, our feelings have control over our minds. This concept is so fundamental that truly understanding how feelings control the mind can lead you to enlightenment, so it is worthy of introspective study. Consider how feeling compels us to do the majority of our activities. We tend to invest all of our resources into attaining pleasure in one form or another. Feeling is why we study and why we work. It is no small matter. By understanding how feelings control the mind, we can better conduct our own activities as well as better understand the motivations of the struggles and conflicts of those around us; everything from minor interpersonal disputes up to and including wars. Even devotion to doctrines fall short of the enslaving power of feelings. Celestial beings and gods are still attached to pleasure in one form or another. And, of course, animals are slaves of pleasure in an even more crude form.

    There is a line of belief that the part of you which is aware and that receives sensations is your real self. However, recognition is simply a natural process of sensation and memory; as is demonstrated by how things which disrupt bodily functions can alter recognition. Recognition, then, is clearly not a self.

    Some people cling to the part of active thinking being their self; that which plans, intends, reasons, etc. This misunderstanding is seen in Descartes' expression "I think, therefore I am." However, Buddha taught that our thoughts are simply causal events, the results of interaction with prior events. When we think, we jump to the conclusion that there must be a thinker, or a soul; a master of the body. This is due to our inadequate understanding. Examining these Five Aggregates will show you that there is nothing remaining which can be considered to be a self.

    Some regard the part that fully and collectively comprehends senses and thoughts to be the self. However, Buddhists reject this notion, considering this process also to be natural. We take in stimuli and interpret those stimuli as objects in a mechanical, automatic function. No self needs to intervene. What else is there besides the physical body, feelings, recognition, thinking, and consciousness which could be called a self? Nothing. No one is a self.

We have been clinging to things since birth, but if we thoroughly examine the Five Aggregates, we will come to realize that there is no self in us, or in anything. Rational thought can help us realize that there are no true selves, but we need to develop deeper understanding such that it becomes intuitive insight; thereby making all clinging cease.

This is difficult to understand because, from birth, everything we experience reinforces the idea of self. Instinctively we identify ourselves and strive for self-preservation. Our speech identifies ourselves and others as selves; I, she, Mr. X, Ms. Y, etc. Inherently, as we cling to the concept of self, selfishness develops. This concept is a deception. We must realize that this speech and these thoughts are a facade of social intercourse. Mr. X and Ms. Y, and ourselves, are no more than the sum total of body, feeling, recognition, thinking, and consciousness.

The body can be further broken done, revealing just a collection of elements; earth, water, wind, and fire, or even their modern analogs of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. In those elements is no person, no self. "My child", "my husband", "my wife", etc. are all just summations of elements, physical and mental; each element empty of a self. Indeed, everything is empty of self. When this is intuitively understood, all grasping and clinging will cease.

So, by developing an intuitive understanding of these Five Aggregates, via the Threefold Training of morality, concentration, and wisdom, we will put an end to the Four Attachments of sensuality, opinions, rites and rituals, and the concept of self. Desire, unskilful grasping and clinging, will cease, and we will no longer experience dukkha. This will bring perpetual bliss and freedom to the mind that achieves such a state.

My Take

I am tempted to say that this was the most import chapter in the book. Why? Because throughout the other chapters, the need to realize that there is no self has been emphasized time and again as essentially the summation of the path to enlightenment, yet the reasoning behind the argument of there being no self had only been mentioned in brief. Furthermore, the concept of what was really meant by "self" was not clear until this chapter. So to me, this is a foundational teaching, and, had I been writing the book, I probably would have tried to position this teaching earlier, even if this is considered a "deeper" concept.

No self. Indeed, that appears to be the conclusion that the biological sciences has been driving towards, and doing so at an accelerated rate particularly in the past few decades as neuroscience has been supplemented with powerful tools such as MRI, DNA analysis, and an enhanced understanding of biochemistry. With insight like this, the Buddha seems to have been a true prophet, or at least a keen observer of the human condition.

This idea of no self is, perhaps, the hardest concept for most people to come to terms with, especially those of other faiths. It is a purely materialistic point of view. There is no soul, no spirit. There is only the biological, electrical, and chemical machinery of a self-replicating being with an inclination for self-preservation. This is about as atheistic a view as you can get, and I felt that I could solidly understand what Buddhadasa was saying.

Yet this "atheistic" view was tainted by Buddhadasa himself, as he made reference to celestial beings and gods having an addiction to pleasurable feelings. And there had been earlier brief and nuanced references in the book about the cycle of birth, death, and subsequent rebirth. In fact, a more-direct footnote included my hard copy book (not in the online version) way back in Chapter 2 said that:
"The Fruit of the Path [of attaining Buddhist enlightenment] consists of spiritual attainments that decrease [our misunderstandings of the truth] and guarantee full realization of Nirvana within seven lifetimes or less."
Seven lifetimes? How can there be no self, if there is a self which survives the end of your life to be reborn? This seems like an irreconcilable contradiction to this fundamental teaching of Buddhism. Yet what it really is is an artifact of the religious evolution from Hinduism to Buddhism.

Rebirth is a "fact" in many flavors of Hinduism, with some divisions emphasizing it more than others. Buddhism evolved from that tradition, considering rebirth a fact as well.

There are many diverse considerations of what controls the station of rebirth in both Hinduism and Buddhism, but in Buddhadasa's interpretation of the Buddha's teachings of the matter, which is only hinted at in this book, is that it is our desires which cause us to be reborn. We cling to things from our lives, and so we come back, trying to get them again. And so, when we eliminate desire, we will eliminate rebirth, and thus eternally be free of all dukkha.

So we find what could be a completely secular perspective hopelessly entangled with a religious faith of something that persists beyond death. I can't disprove rebirth any more than I can disprove the existence of a god, but I don't think that a faith in rebirth is necessary to reap some benefit from the core Buddhist teachings. But I've rambled on long enough here. We'll discuss how to use these teachings to our advantage later.

On a final note, while I felt that this chapter worked wonders in providing some fundamental understanding, I still did not have a clear picture of what Nirvana was. Or, more particularly, I couldn't quite understand how eliminating desires led to anything that could really be called bliss.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Debate Tip #7: Sum It Up

I think that one of the most frustrating things about any communication is when it appears that the person you are talking to does not have a clue of what you just said.  At the same level of annoyance is when that person does not appear to even have considered what you've said.  It is a fundamental sign of respect to illustrate that you have understood what you have been told and considered it, even if you disagree with it.

Show that respect.  The more respect you provide your opponent, the more likely they are to show respect to you, and actually consider what you are saying.

So, when your opponent states a position one way or another, take a moment to summarize what your opponent just said in the reply.  This helps to ensure that you actually know what your opponent meant, because he or she will have the chance to correct you.  It also demonstrates to them that you have actually considered their words.

Then proceed to rip their position to shreds with countering facts... doing so in a respectful manner, of course.  ;-)

You don't have to do this with every reply.  Just do so as it feels necessary.  Once you have done this on your own two or three times, you will be in a better position to ask them to do the same for you, if they haven't already picked up the trend of doing so.

If they appear to be completely ignoring your points, just kindly say something like "I am not sure that you fully understand my position.  Would you mind summarizing my point(s) and elaborating on why you object to them?"  Through this act, they will be forced to reconsider your position, or, alternately, you will be able to see where their misunderstanding/mental impediment is in understanding you.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

HfM:Ch5 The Threefold Training

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 5: The Threefold Training here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 5: The Threefold Training

You can eliminate dukkha through the Threefold Training.  (Dukkha is an all-inclusive sense of suffering and unsatisfactoriness, defined in Chapter 2.)  The three steps are:
  1. Morality - Controlling your actions and speech to promote peace and harmony, and to avoid undesirable effects.
  2. Concentration - Constraining the mind such that it is fit to do its work.
  3. Wisdom -  Developing the complete understanding (insight) of the true nature of things.
The "understanding" should not be thought of in the sense of either rational cognition or a conceptualization relative to each individual's experience.  Instead, it is a status of penetrating and intuitive-level wisdom, such that all things are inherently considered for what they truly are without any sense of enchantment, attachment, or bias whatsoever.

An intellectual understanding only provides the means to evaluate each desire as it comes; reasoning through the Three Universal Characteristics to become disenchanted.  However, with genuine insight, disenchantment has replaced desire at the most fundamental level, such that desire never arises.

Training in morality provides a foundation for gaining insight, because a moral mindset provides stability and limits perturbations.

Training in concentration is similar to training in morality, but instead of controlling your speech and actions, the goal is to control the mind.  "Good behavior" for the mind is unwavering, undistracted, deep concentration.  When successfully trained, this level of mind control is accompanied by other special abilities and benefits which are far outside the realm of what comes with naturally occurring or normally developed concentration.  To achieve this level of concentration requires endurance of hardships and intense training.

Training on concentration is even more relevant today than back in the time of Buddha, given the pace of our modern lives and our many distractions.  Such concentration will make all of our efforts more effective.

With the mind concentrated, we are prepared to see things the way they really are.  Often, the answer to a problem exists within our subconscious, but as long as we actively try to solve the problem, the answer will not come because the mind is not fit for its work.  Once the mind is concentrated, that subconscious solution becomes readily available.  Or, if there was no subconscious answer present, concentrated introspection will put us in the right mode to examine the problem and arrive at the solution.  The Buddha was in such a concentrated state before becoming enlightened to the true nature of things.

Solutions come when the mind is calm, undisturbed, and well concentrated.  Insight and concentration build off of each other, such that with better concentration, you will have better insight, and with better insight (particularly in understanding the way the mind works) you will have better concentration.

Buddhist wisdom (insight) is the ability to clearly see the reality of everything around you, and with that insight naturally comes detachment.  Outwardly we would appear to behave somewhat normally with things, but inwardly we would be independent and free from the bondage of desiring things we like.

Things we dislike also cause enslavement if we can't remain unmoved by them.  The emotional response to either liking or disliking causes us to be slaves to those things, because we will act according to our desires.  However, through insight, we can be freed and purified from the influence of things.  Freed of that bondage, we will have blissful enlightenment.

Buddhist wisdom gives us the ability to break the shackles of the Four Kinds of Attachment.  Examine the truth of this for yourself.

Buddhism conflicts with no other religion, and yet it is superlative to all others in its ability to eliminate all forms of attachment, completely liberating individuals from the bondage of things and beings such that the individual becomes completely self-reliant.

Buddhism is the universal religion because it deals with the fundamental problem which every being experiences:  it demonstrates how to eliminate dukkha, which is caused by our desires.

My Take

In my opinion, moral behavior is really the foundation for becoming a better person.  No duh, right?!?!  Well, hold on a minute.

I don't mean better as in good or righteous, but better as in a more complete person.  If acting morally becomes intuitive to you, that frees your mind, body, and other resources up even more to do the positive things that you want to do; like study, teach, mentor, volunteer, explore, create, etc.  These are the types of enriching activities which truly make life worthwhile.

In contrast, struggling with moral choices or acting immoral on a regular basis constrains your resources, and, depending on the types of actions, possibly puts you at risk for seriously negative outcomes, such as prison, or even death.

So I can understand the morality-as-a-foundation teaching.

The concentration aspect in this chapter is particularly interesting, because, in most of the book, the difficulties in achieving the "right" level of concentration are somewhat glossed over.  Briefly Buddhadasa mentions having to undergo various hardships during concentration training.  This conjures up one of the classic images of Buddhist rites of passage (at least, classic in my eyes); that of the Monk attempting to meditate while being pummeled by a frigid, two-hundred foot tall waterfall.

I can see the benefit of that kind of training rigor; the if-you-can-focus-here-you-can-focus-anywhere endurance test.  The natural translation is that such training prepares you for any situation.

Yet that seems a little extreme, make that very extreme, for people like me who are trying to gleam the most practical teachings from Buddhism.  I don't think that level of training necessary for us, and, given that Buddhadasa mentions it almost in passing here and all but calls it unnecessary elsewhere in this book, I wonder if he would have felt the same way in general.  But then, I am pretty sure I know how Buddhadasa would feel about me just selectively picking teachings!

So I can certainly see how concentration is necessary for insight.  I just don't think that much concentration is necessary for some benefit.  In fact, in a couple chapters, we'll discuss that idea in greater detail.

On a final note, it was interesting to see Buddhadasa close out the chapter in a fundamentalist/apologist manner, claiming Buddhism to the be universal religion, and better than all others.  Within the confines of Buddhist thought, I can definitely see his point.  But in the grand marketplace of ideas, philosophies, and religions, I'm not so sure that holds up.  Each major religion, from the confines of their doctrinal thought, appears to be the best for the world.  ;-)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Debate Tip #6: Choose Wisely

The wise prevail through great power,
    and those who have knowledge muster their strength.
Surely you need guidance to wage war,
    and victory is won through many advisers. NIV Proverbs 24:5-6

In any one theological debate that you've got the chance to effectively make only one or two points which will leave any kind of lasting impact.  Make that impact matter.  At least, do so whenever you can.  I know, you can't always choose the debate topic, but sometimes you can steer the conversation to something of more substance.

Don't debate a simple Scriptural contradiction.  Nearly every time, those contradictions can be rationalized away.  And if they can't, they'll just be ignored.

I advise against a debate about evolution (unless you're trying to defend teaching it in school!).  For faithful believers who don't believe in evolution, their belief in the Bible is founded on other stuff.  In other words, they believe in Creationism because it aligns with the Bible, not the other way around.  They will surely take God's word over yours!

For the same reason as for evolution, I would advise not debating about whether or not a god exists in general, because their god is not a god, but rather the God.

It comes down to this:  It doesn't matter if evolution is true or if a god exists.  It does matter if the Bible is true and if God exists.  At least, that is the perspective of those who put their faith in that least-read-best-selling Book.

So I would advise that, if you can, you center the debate around God and the Bible.  Not loosely though.  Feel out your opponent.  Get a sense of their core beliefs.  Then pick one or two and demonstrate to them how God or the Bible is not what they perceive it to be on those specific points.  Let other "advisers" argue other points to them, or simply save them for a later debate.

Of course, that does require some strength in Scriptures to do so, but I've made that a little easier for you.  ;-)

Maybe you, like most Christians ;-), have no interest in deeply studying Scripture, but you love evolution or the philosophical realm of knowing how to know if a god exists or doesn't.  That's fine.  Argue your strengths.  But know that 1) your impact on their faith is likely limited, and 2) a similar strategy of trying to find the core for their beliefs, and addressing them specifically, will probably be the most effective strategy as well.

At least, that is my perspective based on my experience in deconversion.  Your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

HfM:Ch4 The Power of Attachment

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 4: The Power of Attachment (Grasping and Clinging) here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 4: The Power of Attachment

In order to be liberated from all things, we must understand what causes our desires.  Our desires are the result of four kinds of clinging attachment:

  1. Sensual Attachment - From birth, we instinctively cling to what is pleasurable to see, touch, taste, hear, smell, or mentally envision.  Our sensual desires are only reinforced with time, becoming obstacles to acting appropriately.  All dereliction can be traced to this sensual clinging.  All of our motivation, be it positive or negative, originates from sensuality.  In turn, we can see then that all the trouble and chaos in the world has a foundation in sensuality.  And so sensual desires must be kept under some control to be good people, and must be completely eliminated to be free of dukkha.(Dukkha is an all-inclusive sense of suffering and unsatisfactoriness, defined in Chapter 2.)

  2. Attachment to Opinions - Stubbornly clinging to our own opinions is just as dangerous as sensual desires, as they can delude us from the truth.  We must work diligently to refine and correct our opinions to better align with the truth.  The most problematic form of opinions are those which are systematically supported, such as by religion or cultural tradition.  We must come to realize that our views are based on incomplete knowledge or ignorance, and further realize our own tendencies of not wanting to admit we are wrong and of rejecting truths which counter our opinions.  These tendencies are a real threat towards progressing in the knowledge of the true nature of things.

  3. Attachment to Rites and Rituals - Traditions and their associated beliefs are usually passed down from generation to generation without any thought.  Ceremonies, magical objects, homage to spirits, angels, and celestial beings, etc.  These things are commonly held as sacred, but are completely irrational.  Buddhists should be free of such things, but there are those who practice Buddhist teachings without understanding their original intent, resulting in errant views and magical thinking.  These errant "Buddhist" mindlessly follow the traditions and practices expecting it to yield status, power, and influence.  We must be sure to practice with proper understanding, or else our effort will be wasted.

  4. Attachment to the Idea of Self - At some level, belief in the self is a primal instinct observable even beyond our species, as seen in the drives to eat, avoid danger, procreate, etc.  These are drives to preserve and perpetuate the individual idea of "self", and they are needed for species survival.  Yet these drives, these desires are inherently a source of dukkha as we grasp at or cling to these goals of self preservation. It is from this perspective that the Buddha simply and profoundly summarized that life is dukkha, dukkha is life (usually translated as "life is suffering, suffering is life").  This understanding, unique to Buddhism, puts us in the position to completely eliminate dukkha.

    In order to eliminate attachment, we must recognize when it is present.  The concept of self, the basis for life, is instinctive, and so attachment to it is inevitable.  However, through employing Buddhist principles, that attachment can be curbed, and even eliminated.  The dukkha we experience will be reduced in proportion to how well we understand the truth of the self.

Understanding the nature of these four types of attachments reveals the sources of our enslavement to things.  Such understanding reveals the inherent danger in things; how our attachments drive us to inappropriate actions.  Employing Buddhist principles will help us do away with unskilful grasping and clinging.  Followed through, this insight liberates us from things and eliminates dukkha.  We'll be able to work and live in a state of peaceful equanimity.

The key to Buddhism is to develop "the mind free from attachment".  Freedom from attachment liberates us from the world of things which enslave us.  Such a mind is freed from the cycle of birth and death, freed from things, and has transcended the world.

My Take

Reading through to this point, it had become clear that Buddhadasa was not saying that dukkha was continuous and perpetual; an idea that I would find inconsistent with reality.  Rather, dukkha had discrete causes, just as our desires at any given moment are particular and discrete.

Taking a look at yourself, and how you handle sensuality, your opinions, and rites and rituals can be incredibly revealing.  I can say from personal experience that by going through a period of introspection, especially after acting in a way that you are not exactly proud of, you can identify your motivations, your strengths, your weaknesses, your triggers, etc.  Knowing these things about yourself helps you change your behavior for the better each time you bring these things to mind.

You weren't born with an instruction manual.  You have to invest some effort to understand how you work.

(Apparently, in this regard, I've been on a Buddhist path for quite some time already!  Although, I am a bit inconsistent about my "practice".)

The attachment to the idea of self was a little odd to me.  On one hand, self is necessary for life.  On the other, preservation of self causes dukkha.  It almost seemed like Buddhadasa was advocating suicide here.  In way, he was; the killing of your self.  This concept would become more clear as the book progressed, particularly in Chapter 6, and it was far from suicide.

On a final note, Buddhadasa briefly mentioned that with enlightenment would come an end to the cycle of birth and death; an end of reincarnation.  The idea there being that the mind, under the clinging influences of these attachments, re-installs itself into a birth upon its death, but an enlightened mind would let go of life completely at death, and thus not be drive itself to be reborn.  This is only one version of reincarnation out of many you'll find in Eastern religions, and one Eastern concept that I don't hold much stock in.  Until better evidence is exhibited, I reject the notion of reincarnation.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Debate Tip #5: It's Not About the Facts

How much better to get wisdom than gold,
    to get insight rather than silver! NIV Proverbs 16:16
Facts are critical to developing a right understanding of the world around us, but they don't always have much to do with our beliefs.  That is especially true with complex systems of belief such as religious faith.

Of course, that makes it rather difficult to have a meaningful, fact-based debate!

Beliefs serve various purposes, as well as truly creating a world view, even if that world view is false!.

Beliefs may comfort in moments of distress, provide a fundamental aspect of identity, provide direction and hope for the future, etc.

The world view constructed by beliefs may see the world as something rightfully under the dominion of man, conjure up images of invisible forces at work behind the scenes, paint any opposing voice as an instrument of Satan, etc.

So when you are in a debate, you should be sensitive to clues in your opponent's language which give away how their beliefs may be meeting deep-seated needs that they have, and how their world view is preventing them from seeing the world as it really is.  This is their foundation.

If you happen to detect aspects of their foundation, it is probably best to discontinue the debate on whatever you were talking about, and instead probe those beliefs more deeply.  Change is most probable when those foundational beliefs are affected.  On the other hand, correcting some other errant ancillary belief is not likely to alter their perspective much at all.

For example, though not engaged in a real debate, a recent commenter on the My Angle post by the name "BB" made this comment (edited for clarity):

"Atheists believe that life is simply random, and completely up to chance... If this is their truth, I pose the question; what's the meaning and purpose in life?"

If you see a comment like this, where there is a fundamental misunderstanding of life, either of the theist or atheist perspective, stop the debate about whatever topic and center on this misunderstanding.  In this case, BB misunderstood what actually provides meaning and purpose in life, which is a pretty big gaff!

Gently, but firmly, enlighten your opponent on a different perspective; you know, like the perspective that actually matches reality!  ;-)  The better they can understand the viewpoints of other people, the more likely you are going to be successful in changing their minds in the long run.  So it is worth ditching everything else in the debate just to show them that their foundational thinking is build on sand.  :-)

Friday, September 27, 2013

HfM:Ch3 The Three Universal Characteristics

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 3: The Three Universal Characteristics here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 3: The Three Universal Characteristics

The whole of the Buddha's teachings can be seen as an exposition that everything is impermanent,  not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves (non-selves); these are the Three Universal Characteristics.

Impermanence and unsatisfactoriness had been taught prior to the Buddha, but he revealed them more profoundly and related them to causation.  Non-self is only taught by Buddhism; that nothing is a self or belongs to a self.

One who perfectly understands these characteristics will not be deluded or deceived into thinking that something is worth having or becoming.  (This sense of "worth" is clarified later.)

You can't reach this level of understanding (seeing Dhamma) by simple reasoning.  However, if you have looked back on something that had you infatuated, and you then considered the trouble it had caused you, to such a point that you became disenchanted with that thing, then you can be said to have gained true understanding, and such reflection will lead you to liberation from all things.

The phrase "empty of self" could sum up the Three Universal Characteristics, and, indeed, all of Buddha's teachings.  If something is always changing, there is no permanent entity to call a self.  Perceiving this emptiness of self in all things reveals that nothing is worth getting or becoming.  This perspective prevents delusions and emotional attachment, and such understanding is truly liberating.

Now, "worth having" or "worth becoming" must be understood in a special sense.  Life itself necessitates that we will "have" and will "be" certain things.  However, we must understand the deeper truth; that this "having" and "being" are simply terms of convenience, like the sun "rising".  Truly, nothing is permanent, fully satisfying, or belonging to anyone, so we should not fool ourselves thinking that "I'm getting... I have... I'm becoming... I am..." because the thoughts of possessiveness are the source of our distress.

It is the desire in getting or becoming which causes dukkha.

Dukkha, translated usually as "suffering", and less often as "unsatisfactoriness", is pain, sickness, greed, hate, anxiety, frustration, anger, loss, discontent, sorrow, loneliness, dissatisfaction, delusion, etc.  It is anything you do not want to experience, but it also extends to positive feelings as well, given that they fail to yield lasting satisfaction.  So it is far more broad than just "suffering".  Instead, it is a status which results from the imperfection in everything.

The false instinct that things are desirable starts at birth.  We act on those desires.  If some desires are achieved, they give way to other desires.  If not achieved, we struggle until those desires are satiated in one way or another.  This cycle repeats endlessly.  Desire -> Action -> Result -> Desire...  If we can break this cycle, we can achieve Nirvana; permanent freedom from dukkha.  By contrast, anyone at any status is guaranteed to experience dukkha if they are in this cycle.  Morality alone will not break the cycle.  Right understanding will.

So desire causes dukkha, and it comes in three forms:
  1. Sensual desire (touch, taste, smell, etc.)
  2. Desire to be something (good parent, leader, healthy, respected, etc.)
  3. Desire not to be something.(foolish, wrong, sick, in trouble, incarcerated, etc.)
We will experience dukkha in proportion and degree of our desires.  Both evil and good people experience dukkha in accordance with their desires, even if those who do good sometimes experience dukkha in ways that they do not realize.  So we must go beyond good to attain complete liberation from dukkha.  This teaching is not in any other religion.

We can eliminate desire by carefully observing the Three Universal Characteristics in everything.  Ask yourself: what is there that does not bring about dukkha?  Every choice you make brings consequences, opportunity costs, or the burden of responsibilities.  Even things which appear good inherently drive us to maintain or protect them, or otherwise be anxious about their destruction or loss.

Once desire is replaced with clear understanding, attitudes toward things change.  For example, a person with clear understanding does not crave delicious tastes, but rather sees food as a means of sustaining the body.

Although people with clear understanding of the true nature of things inherently lose all desire, they tend to work harder, better, and more benevolently because they are motivated by wisdom.  These people make decisions not based on desires, but rather by objective evaluations which point to the most suitable actions.  While we may worry about the trials and tribulations that come with actions when motivated by desire, these people instead handle all perturbations with peaceful equanimity.

If we develop a full, intuitive understanding of the Three Universal Characteristics, we'll know that nothing is worth having or being, and so our actions will be insightful and logical as opposed to grasping and clinging at things as slaves to our own desires.  Worry and anxiety will disappear.  We can own things without being mentally encumbered by them.

That is not to say that we will not defend what we own.  We can and will resist what we own being taken from us, but we'll do so calmly and intelligently.  Should our property still be taken despite our resistance and the legal protections available, we'll still not be upset, as we understand both that anger will not help and that all things are impermanent anyway.

Consider being something.  Is there really anything that you can be that does not inherently have its own type of dukkha associated with it?  Child?  Parent?  Boss?  Worker?  Married?  Single?  No.  All states have some form of associated dukkha.

So when we know and understand the true nature of things, we will not be slaves to our desires, mindlessly pursuing things to have or become.  Instead, we will live wisely and direct our efforts appropriately.

When we have this understanding, we should share it with those close to us, and others.  The more widespread this understanding is, that everything is impermanent,  not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves, the more peaceful and wise the world will act.

Anyone who observes and studies these Three Universal Characteristics within their own lives can become a fully enlightened Buddhist, without ever having been a monk or studied the texts.

Both the worst evils and the highest goods are driven by desires to have and to be something.  No matter how good our desires are, they will still be associated with some from of dukkha.  The way to Nirvana is to completely transcend desires, both bad and good.  Then we will be free of all dukkha, and we will do what is right because we will understand the best thing to do, not because we desire to be good.

True liberation comes from fully understanding that everything is impermanent, not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves (non-selves).  With this understanding, everything we are involved in is handled intelligently and driven by insight, as opposed to being driven by desire and inherently yielding dukkha.

My Take

From this chapter, I had a sense of what this flavor of Buddhism was really about; becoming Spock-like.

For the non-geeks out there, let me explain.  Spock was a lead character from the science fiction drama Star Trek.  He was half-human, half-Vulcan.  The Vulcans were a species of humanoids who had powerfully destructive emotions, but had long ago developed a species-wide behavioral-management program to suppress all emotion, and thereby act only according to logical and rational choices.  Spock, with his Vulcan upbringing, served as a trusted adviser to the captain of the star-ship Enterprise, supplying recommendations based on purely objective evaluations.

While the Vulcans sought to eliminate emotional influence, the Buddha sought to eliminate the influence of desire.  These views are sort of two sides of the same coin, because desire implies an emotional component.

Spock isn't the whole picture of Buddhism, obviously.  Vulcans never claimed to be experiencing bliss by operating at a non-emotional level.  Furthermore, the Vulcans were working to suppress emotion, while Buddhists work to eliminate desire.  As any psychologist will tell you, there is a huge difference between suppression and elimination.

However, when you are reading Buddhist passages about not desiring to be or to have something, it may help to think of it in terms of human desiring versus an objective Vulcan-like selection of what to be or what to have.  Buddhism isn't saying that when you reach Nirvana that you will never have anything or be anything ever again, nor that you will never work towards having or being something ever again.  Rather, it's just that in the enlightened state, what you have, or work towards having, and what you are, or work towards becoming, will be the result of objective, emotionless decisions.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Debate Tip #4: Ignore Most of It

It is not good to eat too much honey,
    nor is it honorable to search out matters that are too deep. NIV Proverbs 25:27

Based on my experience, I think that there is an inverse relationship of how many topics you cover in a debate to its effectiveness of changing minds.  That seems counter-intuitive, I know.  You would think/hope that you could just dump out the evidence, have your opponent add it all up, and then come to the obviously natural conclusion that they've been wrong the whole time!  But, no, it doesn't work that way.

It can work that way for books, blogs, YouTube, etc., because they have all the time in the world to consider the data.  But when you are in a debate, you are in a discussion.  Dialog is key, and communication is essential, so you must press on without time for lengthy consideration.  Given that you and your opponent will be coming from completely different world views, true communication is going to be difficult, because you will use your words differently.

So keep it simple.  Focus on one or two points, or certainly no more than three.  Inevitably in defense of a position, other points will emerge which are worthy of their own exploration, but don't*.  The more you meander around, the more you just waste your time, because there is a good chance you are just talking past one another.

Instead, center on one or two points, and drive those through until you are absolutely sure that your opponent understands what you saying, even if they still disagree.  In fact, expect them to still disagree with you.  As mentioned in Tip #1, just because they disagree with you then, doesn't mean that there is no hope of them later coming around.

If your opponent protests, saying that you are ignoring his or her other arguments, just reply something to the effect that, while you are looking forward to discussing those points with them, you want to nail down the one or two points first before continuing on to others.

* There is an appropriate time to meander off topic, and we'll discuss that in the next Debate Tip.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

HfM:Ch2 The True Nature of Things

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 2: The True Nature of Things here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

NOTE on Chapter 2:  This chapter is essentially a brief introduction to several Buddhist fundamental teachings, made even more brief in this summary.  Most of these teachings are further discussed in later chapters.  I encourage you to suspend judgement on these principles until they are more completely explained.

Summary - Chapter 2: The True Nature of Things

Morality can make us good people, but it can't eliminate dukkha.

Dukkha, translated usually as "suffering", and less often as "unsatisfactoriness", is pain, sickness, greed, hate, anxiety, frustration, anger, loss, discontent, sorrow, loneliness, dissatisfaction, delusion, etc.  It is anything you do not want to experience, but it also extends to positive feelings as well, given that they fail to yield lasting satisfaction.  So it is far more broad than just "suffering".  Instead, it is a status which results from the imperfection in everything.

Buddhism aims to eliminate dukkha through revealing what is, or the true nature of things, via a practical and systematic approach.

Do you really know the true nature of things?  If you did, you would never act inappropriately, and inherently would not experience dukkha.

We all start life without understanding reality; that everything is impermanent, not fully satisfying, and not true entities in and of themselves.  This misunderstanding causes us to grasp for and to cling to things, but Buddhism, through revealing what is, liberates us from the controlling influence of things.

The true nature of things is understood through the Four Noble Truths:
  1. Dukkha is inherent in everything.
  2. Desire causes dukkha.
  3. Complete liberation from dukkha (Nirvana) comes through the extinction of desire.
  4. The Noble Eightfold Path is a method for eliminating desire.
Not knowing what is, we foster our desires and suffer the consequences.  Furthermore, we act inappropriately in self-serving, Machiavellian manners to get what we want.

We need to understand that phenomenon arise from causes, and we can eliminate phenomenon by eliminating the causes.

Nothing is permanently itself, indeed nothing is really a "self" at all, because all things are the effects of causes and are subject to change, based on the perpetual influence of causes upon them.  So we should not be fooled by appearances into liking or disliking anything, as that becomes a cause which affects us.

Before enlightenment, the Buddha chose to give up everything in search for the cause of dukkha and how to be liberated from it.  Buddhism was the result of that search.

Fundamental to understanding dukkha is understanding the Three Universal Characteristics briefly mentioned above:
  1. All things are impermanent - they change or decay with time
  2. All things are unsatisfactory - they cause dukkha
  3. All things are without self - they are not true entities in and of themselves
If all things are without self, that includes us, and so we can't rightfully call anything mine.  Possessiveness is invariably painful.

The chief of all Buddhist teachings is this:
Avoid evil, do good, and purify the mind.
Avoid evil by complying with the accepted moral standards and by considering things in light of the Three Universal Characteristics so that excessive desire and attachment is curtailed.

Do good according to how the wise understand "good".

Purify the mind by continuing to develop understanding of what is.

If you can't remain unmoved by things, then you are a slave to your likes and dislikes, and you have no real freedom.  A purified mind is independent of all things.

At the lowest level, we avoid evil.  At the intermediate level, we do our utmost to do good.  However, those at the highest level operate above good and evil.  Evil-doers experience dukkha appropriately, but good-doers also experience dukkha according to their good deeds.  Yet those at the highest level transcend even the dukkha linked to goodness.

Buddhism is the teaching of the enlightened Buddha regarding the true nature of things; what is.  When this knowledge is fully understood, desire ceases, and so dukkha ceases.

The practice of Buddhism is designed to bring about this knowledge so that anyone can attain this full understanding.  The first step in achieving this enlightenment is to consider all things in terms of dukkha.  We must take the time to study the things in our lives to understand how they cause dukkha.  This is infinitely better than trying to become enlightened by studying the scriptures.

Studying the scriptures can be of value if done so in a way that provokes introspection to help people discover the truth for themselves.  However, someone can become enlightened without having studied the scriptures by investigating the relation of dukkha to all things for themselves.

We live our lives and make decisions for ourselves without ever really knowing ourselves, and this guarantees that we will experience dukkha.  We endlessly repeat the cycle of acting on desires and reaping the consequences.  However, if we instead take the time to study ourselves, thereby studying the Buddhist principles, we will have the ability to learn the profound truth of the nature of things; the truth of what is.  Then the cycle will end, and we will be free of dukkha, thereby achieving Nirvana.

My Take

After reading this chapter, I could begin to see why my Thai friend, Wasam, thought that I have an Eastern flair to my life philosophy, in that I am fairly "thing" neutral.  I don't chase after the latest gadgets or the best cars.  I don't cling onto people in relationships, but rather let them leave if they want to leave, or stay if they want to stay.  But I still have desires... yes, indeed!  ;-)

Ironically, my Eastern-ish life philosophy was founded both by my Christian background and a later quasi-scientific understanding.

The type of Christianity I was raised with spoke of how this life was just a temporary,  unsatisfying, inconvenience; that the real life, the perfect life, the eternal life awaited us, to be delivered upon God's gracious timing.  If anyone really takes that message to heart, you realize that the things of this life are truly trivial.

Later, as my scientific understanding grew, as I better understood our place in this universe, I realized that nothing truly has any inherent significance beyond what we make for it.  So I have a degree of detachment with things, realizing that all of the value I place on them is born from a willing self-deception.  (This is spoken from the broad perspective of existence in general, not completely the view of my humanity or my life.)

Even with my perspective, I wasn't sure about this teaching.  Is dukkha really inherent in everything?  As I thought about it, I could kind of understand the "truth" of that statement of major life experiences: 
  • Like driving?  You have to put up with traffic, maintenance, and the DMV.
  • Love someone?  You have to put up with differences of opinion, even arguments, as well as having to deal with the loss of that person should they move or perish.
  • Love kids?  Don't make me turn this car around!  ;-)
and even of the more mundane things of life:
  • Have a favorite shirt?  It will wear out through washes, and you have to worry about it being ripped, stretched, or stained when wearing it.
  • Don't like the cold?  You worry about what to wear, trouble yourself with whether or not to bring a jacket or sweater to restaurants or theaters, and cringe at the aspect of going outside on a chilly winter's day. 
  • Have a sweet tooth?  You have to worry about/deal with cavities and potential weight gain, or suffer the longing of restricting your intake of those fresh, chocolaty, warm, chewy brownies with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a little hot fudge sauce, and maybe some whip cream... what was I talking about?  ;-)
So is dukkha really inherent in everything?  Yes.  To some extent.  I think that the question of the "extent" of which dukkha inherent in everything is an important one; one we'll discuss in the later chapters.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Debate Tip #3: Wear Teflon Underwear

A person’s wisdom yields patience;
    it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense. NIV Proverbs 19:11

It's going to happen.  Some of your opponents will attack you personally, ad hominem style, or even just basic name calling. In one debate I had recently, it seemed like the guy on the other end had a whole list of pejorative terms that he was working into the argument, one by one, just to get a reaction.

Whatever you do, don't react in kind.  Just let that garbage talk slide right off you, like you've got on Teflon tightie whities.

I've messed up a number of debates this way.  My opponent would fire a shot, and I instinctively thought of further belittling counter, and shot right back.  And it felt gooood!  And then he fired another shot with his next counter, so I did the same.  Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.  The problem was that the debate was unproductive.  By the end, I could tell I had done little more that stroke my own ego, while having him think much less of me... not that he had admired me before!

I've come to realize that I need to stay focused on the goal.  The goal is not to "win" in the theological equivalent to an "yo momma" insult contest.  The goal is to change minds.  Having your opponent think that you are a jerk is probably just reinforcing their same misunderstanding that they've already had about those without faith.

So when your opponent uses that kind of language, just ignore it.  Just let it go.  You'll actually feel better about it in the long run, and you may just have influence someone by changing their perception about atheists, if not about the debate topic.