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.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

HfM:Ch1 Looking at Buddhism

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 1: Looking at Buddhism 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 1: This chapter is mainly about looking at Buddhism in its present status from Buddhadasa's perspective.  If you are only interested in studying his core Buddhist principles, that teaching begins in the next chapter.  All principles referenced here will be repeated and explored more thoroughly in later chapters.

Summary - Chapter 1: Looking at Buddhism

Scholars have identified that religions originated out of fear; paying reverence to perceived forces that could harm you.  Eventually understanding grew such that fear of nature or deities seemed unreasonable.  Through the growth of knowledge, our great fear turned to that of 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.

Furthermore, we learned that dukkha results from our own mental imperfections, so we feared them.

Long ago in India, some wise people dispensed with the customary idolatry and rituals in search of what would eliminate dukkha.  Buddhism was born from that search, and was the fruit of seeing life the way it really is.  A Buddha is someone who knows the truth of life, and Buddhism is based on that knowledge.

Ironically, the first Buddha rejected the types of religious traditions, rites, and rituals which are now commonplace in Buddhism.  Real Buddhism has nothing to do with rites, rituals, or celestial powers.

Instead, real Buddhism involves identifying the true nature of reality for yourself through a growth of knowledge and understanding.

Buddhism, like all religions, is multifaceted thing, and can be looked at the wrong way.

We are each confident in our own opinions, and so naturally our "truths" are subjective.  Each person's ability to penetrate to the real truth is limited by intelligence, knowledge, and understanding.  Buddhism provides a process for continually expanding your intelligence, knowledge, and understanding until arriving at the ultimate truth, and thereby being liberated.

Any religious text is bound to be tainted by the additions of later authors, and the Tipitaka (the oldest extant Buddhist text) is no exception.  Similarly, customs, rites, and rituals have been incorporated into the teachings.  While these additions are widely accepted in Buddhism today as true Buddhism, in fact, they are often, if not usually, inconsistent with the Buddha's original teachings, and thereby obscure Buddhism's purpose and while inviting hypocrisy.

We must distinguish between the original Buddhism, which focused on purification of the mind and the building of right understanding, versus the divergent teachings and practices which have emerged and spread since after the time of the Buddha.

Even looking at the real Buddhism, there are several incomplete or otherwise partial ways of looking at it, such as a guide of morality, an intellectual realization of the ultimate truth, a psychological tool, a philosophy, or a culture.

However, a better way of looking at Buddhism is as a religion which provides a direct and practical methodology for understanding the true nature of things and for gaining complete independence from them.  This is the essence of Buddhism.

Perhaps the best way of looking at Buddhism is as the art of living in such an exemplary manner that it not only produces admiration, but also automatically encourages emulation.  It is the art of developing moral purity, concentration, and wisdom to such a degree that dukkha is completely replaced by an imperturbable bliss.

The truths and teachings of Buddhism enchant and encourage those who have a taste for them, even before full understanding is obtained.  That search for the relief from dukkha and the attainment of bliss will drive such people until they are completely liberated from the controlling influence of worldly desires.  For such people, stress, anxiousness, worry, sleepless nights, endless pursuits for money and things, and self-serving ambitions all diminish in proportion to their understanding of true reality.

In summary, Buddhism can be viewed from many different perspectives, but real Buddhism is not in books, repetition of sacred texts, rites, rituals, etc.  Instead, real Buddhism is the practice of developing the understanding of body, speech, and thought to such a degree that the true nature of everything is clearly revealed and fully comprehended.  When this level of wisdom is achieved, appropriate actions are readily perceived and effortlessly selected such that dukkha is never again experienced.

My Take

Buddhadasa sounded like a Buddhist equivalent of so many fundamentalist Christians I've heard.  Yet while Christian fundamentalists often have repugnant views, those views are usually founded in the text.  So I still give Christian fundamentalists a little credit for not sugar-coating an offensive message.  Likewise, I was then expecting that Buddhadasa would have a good handle on the texts and would recount them with unflinching honesty.

Although Buddhadasa preferred the term religion, it appeared that his approach would be stripped of myths, rites, and other superfluous bells and whistles so common in religions.  In fact, the way he described Buddhism, it sounded fairly reasonable.

I'll get into thoughts on the principles of Buddhism in the subsequent corresponding chapters, but I will say that I was happy to get this interpretation of the word dukkha because, in our discussions, Wasam had used "suffering", which is an incomplete rendering.  Something was definitely lost in the translation.  Accordingly, I will use dukkha throughout the rest of the posts so that the meaning is better understood.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Beginning of the Word - Holy Mackerel!

Some, but not all, Christians believe that Jesus was God's first creation, and yet was God, and that it was Jesus who created everything we know of in the big unknown universe. Where would they get such a crazy idea? Well, from the craziest Gospel, of course! In John 1:1-3 we find:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. NIV

The "Word" here metaphorically(?) represents Jesus, as the rest of John 1 will show you.  For those who try to deny the claimed divinity of Jesus, these verses are a huge stumbling block, at least if you place any faith in the Gospel of John.

Anyway, obviously Jesus and God are quite different, despite them being made of the same stuff, which is why this Sonfish looks nothing like the Holy Mackerel.

Finally, you'll notice that I made the Sonfish a bit larger than the Holy Mackerel; a nod to Christian "superiority" in the quantity of adherents over Judaism.  ;-)