In this post I want to take a path that starts with some thoughts about classical Buddhism. These thoughts are far from being based on extensive knowledge or scholarship, but this very lack enables, I hope, a freedom to break free from tradition, and seek a meaningful relevance for our times. Consider the following:
He whose desires have been throttled,
who is independent of root,
whose pasture is emptiness—
signless and free—
his path is as unknowable
as that of birds across the heavens.
I came across this verse in the heading of the first chapter in a sci-fi fantasy book, Lord of Light by Roger Zelasny. The book, incidentally, won both the Hugo and Nebula science fiction awards the year it came out. The hero, a reincarnation of the Buddha, who goes by the name of Sam, is “great souled”, but is also a crafty, scheming fighter for a cause of freedom, which involves defying the Lords of Creation. If there were such a concept as “heresy” in Buddhism, he would perhaps be eligible. But that is somewhat beside the point. I’m concerned here with the verse itself, not the book; though the book is one I love and read repeatedly.
In the book the verse is credited as Dhammapada (93). Consulting Wikipedia one finds that the Dhammapada is part of the Pali Canon, the extensive writings from the early days of Buddhism, forming a tradition called Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of South East Asia. A second great Buddhist tradition which developed later is that of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of Northern India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Zen Buddhism is part of this latter tradition.
It seems to me that the Dhammapada verse summarizes many of the great themes of Buddhism. The first line is echoed in a great poem of Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium whose
3rd stanza reads,
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
In both of these selections “desire” is a word for all the negative emotions that beset us as human beings: longings, fear, rage, depression, selfishness, egotism; and perhaps too, emotions considered as positive: joy, happiness, complacency, satisfaction. The question arises: Does Buddhist discipline involve trying to “throttle” all of these emotions head on, by leading a disciplined, saintly acetic life, devoid of pleasures? My answer is no, and I have the feeling that an affirmative answer to this question involves a misunderstanding, a putting the cart before the horse so to speak. Certainly discipline is required in following any spiritual path, but discipline, if misdirected is futile and ultimately frustrating. My view is that effective Buddhist discipline lies in an indirect approach to dealing with “desire”; a direction of becoming aware of one’s beliefs and addictions, and of trying to relax ones grasp on them. Ideally one would have no beliefs whatever, and would be totally free in the universe. That is, however, for most of us a distant goal. As unenlightened humans we can’t help having beliefs and addictions. What we can do is to try become aware of them, to relax our grip on our beliefs, holding them lightly, recognize our addictions, and work on bringing them under control.
In our culture a very common attitude is to tighten our grip when one of our beliefs is challenged, to never admit a mistake, and to “double down” if our judgement has proven faulty. If we eye such behavior dispassionately, we see that it is egotistical and basically immoral, a rejection of “truth”; nevertheless, owning up to fault can be very discomforting. If one has ever been a professor, lecturing to a class, one has inevitably been in a position of having a sharp student who is closely following, raise his or her hand and point out a mistake in one’s reasoning. I remember several occasions when this situation happened in a math class taught at Stanford by Professor George Pólya, a distinguished mathematician of the early 20th century (see Wikipedia). Pólya’s lectures were a model of clarity and he always payed close attention to how his students were reacting. When a blunder was pointed out, he would exclaim in his Hungarian accent, “Oh! How stupid of me!”, and then correct his error. I wondered at times if he deliberately made mistakes to keep his students alert, but think it more likely that in concentrating on clarity, he sometimes lost track of a logical connection. Later, when I was a professor, often while teaching elementary physics to future engineers, Pólya’s example stood me in good stead. I would admit to screwing up, congratulate the student who pointed out my blunder, go back over what I had done and correct the error. I did experience some intellectual discomfort in doing this and I’ve noticed that many professors are simply unable to admit their mistakes and try to weasel out of them.
In trying to guard our beliefs when they are challenged, we are obviously hoping to protect our egos and sense of self-worth. However, I think there is more going on than simply ego protection. Our beliefs, especially those which are only partially conscious and which we take for granted, form a foundation for our life, a comfort zone, a cozy nest into which we can relax, the very basis of our being. When these beliefs are questioned, the underlying floor of our security is threatened with break-up. Such beliefs are the psychic equivalent of the safety net which protects a trapeze artist or tight rope walker. Letting go of such beliefs or even relaxing one’s grip on them, is similar to a performer abandoning his or her safety net and moving to the next level where a fall would likely be fatal. The big difference, of course, is that letting go of one’s beliefs is not fatal, but can actually give one a sense of freedom. Such freedom is not a license to act without restraint, but is, instead an openness to see and reason clearly and act with creativity. One does become aware of the difference between social conventions and a deeper fundamental reality. This doesn’t mean that one necessarily defies convention, but simply that one understands that conventions are constructs of the society one lives in, not absolute moral dictates. One role of meditation, besides its calming effects, is to help become aware of our unconscious beliefs and loosen our grip on them. One guide to meditation that I’ve long ago lost track of mentions that as thoughts begin to fade away, a chasm looms in front of us, what Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia calls “an abyss of non-being”. The guide recommends that one mentally hop over it and continue to meditate. Later one hopes to float in this abyss while meditating and lose one’s fear of it in ordinary life by so loosening the grip on one’s beliefs that they no longer act as a support of one’s being above a meaningless void.
If one attains such a free and easy state in one’s life, does that imply a cessation of desire? Or should it? I think that the key to understanding such a question involves the concept of addiction and the relationship between addiction and a tight grip. Surely Buddhism doesn’t forbid joy in life or reveling in pleasure. The problem arises when a pleasure becomes addictive. In dealing with such matters I think that present day psychotherapy has as much to offer as ancient Buddhist ideas, though relaxing one’s grip would seem helpful when undergoing psychotherapy for both the patient and the therapist. See the interesting book Tales from the Couch by Bob Wendorf, a clinical psychologist with 36 years of experience. Trained in behavior modification therapy, Dr. Wendorf discovered that to be successful in practice he needed to relate directly to his patients using whatever theoretical psychological basis seemed appropriate for a particular patient. In other words he was able to see that humans are more complex than any current psychological theory, relaxing his grip on beliefs formed during his training. I’ll have more to say on this subject in a later post. For the moment the point to be made is that while Buddhist ideas may be helpful in this and other areas, they need not, indeed must not, necessarily replace Western ideas. Instead one hopes for a creative amalgam of West and East.
Does a meditative practice help one to loosen one’s grip? Perhaps. What loosening one’s grip really means is allowing a questioning of beliefs that one thinks are correct, a step up from admitting one’s blunders. Such a questioning is the ideal of scientific thought, but seldom actually practiced by scientists when their own beliefs are concerned. Fortunately, in science, one’s colleagues are ready and eager to fill in with doubts and skepticism about one’s latest pet theory. One can claim that this is why science works, to the extent that it actually does. Outside of science, however, we are left to our own awareness and resources.
So where does this leave us? I use the word “us” advisedly, for I assume that you, the reader, have been following along with your own understanding and questions.
Or to put the question another way: What parts of Buddhism in all of its different manifestations can be taken over into our Western culture, helping us to think clearly and ultimately to give us a deep religious understanding which is harmonious with the path our culture has been taking?
Or still another contrary way: Shouldn’t Eastern religion in general and Buddhism in particular be totally rejected as being incompatible with the direction our Western culture should be going?
In considering these questions, in what I’ve written so far in this piece and in the entire blog, it is clear that there is considerable complexity and a danger of getting bogged down in details. There are many directions I could take and enough material for considerable writing.
For now I’ll consider just one area that is amendable to a relaxing of one’s grip. This is the matter of the so-called “two cultures”, the culture of science and of the humanities. There has been a conflict and so much writing over such a long time about these “two cultures” that one would think that there is not much left to say on either side. I became aware that there was supposedly a conflict between humanities and science back around 1960 when I was a graduate student in physics at the University of Virginia while my wife, Barbara, was studying for a degree in English literature. At about the same time the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow had given his influential 1959 Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures”, which pointed out this gulf in our scholastic culture. Snow came down hard on the “side” of science. I quote C.P. Snow from the Wikipedia Article, “The Two Cultures.”
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
“I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”
On the other hand many of my lit major friends at the University of Virginia referred me to writers in the humanities who pointed out that as far as they were concerned, beginning with the 17th century scientific revolution, much of the rich meaning of our culture, constructs such as “the great chain of being”, had been destroyed by science and a richness had been reduced to joyless gray empty facts without meaning.
I was shown John Donne’s famous lines from An Anatomy of the World (1611):
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
John Donne lived from 1573 to 1631. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and, more to the point, with Kepler (1571 -1630) and Galileo (1564 – 1642). Galileo was born two months before Shakespeare and died the year that Isaac Newton was born. During his life ideas of the new natural philosophy, later called “the scientific revolution” spread throughout Europe.
At the time rather than getting very upset about any of this, I felt that I understood both cultures and luxuriated in being a “bridge” between them without feeling any compulsion to take sides. Surely, this conflict was simply the aptly called “tempest in a teapot” and would go away with time.
In many ways the conflict has subsided. Awareness of quantum mechanics, though not always very well understood, has spread to humanists who have taken it as deep and fascinating. Many scientists are well read and take great joy in the poetic, in the arts and in music. Nevertheless, in some respects the conflict is worse than ever. From the science side, it is no longer simply annoyance with the ignorance of the educated, an ignorance much reduced, but the growing contempt for science and the emergence in magical thinking among people at large. For the key point of the scientific revolution was the rejection of magic as an explanation of what went on in the physical world. Now people seem to be totally ignorant of the facts which have led to their cell phones, tablets and TV, and take superstitions such as astrology as having serious meaning. Are we at the point of descending into a new dark age?
From the humanities side the concern is “scientism”, the belief that valid knowledge and meaning comes about only through the application of scientific methodology. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein’s biographer, writes
“Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretense which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterized by bogus theorizing, spurious specialization and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.” https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/ray-monk-wittgenstein
In my view these quotes, on both “sides”, reveal grasping motivated by two things: fear and laziness. The fear is that our treasured world view is under attack. Not only is defense needed, but also an attack on the “other side”. The laziness comes about because it would take work to relax our grip and grapple with the task of feeling and understanding the meanings of a wider, multi-cultural world including all branches of science, the humanities and arts, history, economics and popular culture. It is easier to relax and allow one’s grip to stroke one’s ego.
The rewards of a more relaxed, aware view would include a flourishing of creativity, a combination of ideas that seem antithetical. Consider the thought of humanizing science, mythologizing about its meaning and mystery. (In future posts I will try to understand the proper place of myth in our culture.) The best science writers are already close to this mythologizing. Does such constitute an attack, a belittling, or even a refutation of the “scientific method”? Certainly not. Actually, “scientific method” itself is far from being a set of cut-and-dried formulaic rules that can be applied blindly in any situation. A beautifully clear exposition of this fact is Richard Feynman’s essay “Cargo Cult Science” in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! “Cargo Cults” arose among the natives in certain South Pacific islands as WWII drew to a close. These people had seen giant airplanes land on the newly made runways and disgorge an incredible array of “cargo”: weapons, living quarters, food, bulldozers, and other amazing materials. Then, suddenly, it all stopped; the people left, the islands were deserted and the runways disintegrated. The people wondered, “How could the largess be restored?” And cargo cults resulted. Quoting Feynman:
“So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas – he’s the controller – and they wait for the airplanes to land.”
They’ve recreated the form, but with a naïve theory about the relation of form to “reality”. Lest one feel a smug superiority about these natives, I should point out that this sort of mistaken understanding occurs all the time in science; not only in the pseudo-science noted by Ray Monk, nor in the soft sciences, but in the so-called hard sciences as well. Much of the time one’s ideas are just not right. Even when they are right and experimentally verified, “truth” is not established for all time, but only provisionally and subject to a future scientific revolution. This is not to denigrate science, but rather the opposite. Science is truly difficult and theories usually not obvious when first conceived. When scientific theories do finally become well-established, they really work, and they do bring the miracles and the nightmares of “progress”. Clearly, “scientism” is nonsense, but so is a lack of awareness on humanist’s part for the deep humanistic meanings which may arise from science.
The Buddhist idea that is useful here is that of relaxing one’s grip on all kinds of belief, not simply credulous belief, but skeptical belief as well. One takes in the whole panoply, miracle and craziness of modern life with clear-headedness, joy and awareness, reveling in its diversity, taking action against what seems like mistaken ideas, but without “attachment” to any of it. If one cares to go further on a Buddhist path seeking the “great peace” in the “emptiness” beyond words and beyond the panoply, one should do so in a relaxed manner, with a loosened grip and without attachment or expectations.