Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

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Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith

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Sartre and Nagarjuna, Being and Emptiness

The impact of Buddhism on Western philosophy is still a relatively new field of study. J. Jeffrey Franklin of the University of Colorado in “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna” * delves into the subject.  According to the abstract, Franklin’s essay contends “that modernist nihilism owes a largely unexamined historical debt to the nineteenth-century ‘discovery’ of Buddhism. It demonstrates that Jean-Paul Sartre’s nihilism was influenced by a debate that occurred as part of the Western struggle to assimilate Buddhism: the nineteenth-century nirvana debate.”

I bring this up because Jean-Paul Sartre was a key figure in Western philosophy of the 20th century, a founder of French Existentialism, and today is the 111th anniversary of his birth.  Sartre died in 1980.

He was also a novelist and playwright.  During the early part of World War II, Sartre was imprisoned by the Germans, escaped and joined the resistance movement.

How deeply Buddhism may have influenced Sartre, I don’t know. And I can’t get access to Franklin’s paper. However, I am aware that Sartre’s ‘nothingness’ is comparable to the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in some respects, but we should not carry this comparability too far.

Hazel Barnes in the 1943 English translation of Being and Nothingness writes,

sartre2If an object is to be posited as absent or not existing, then there must be involved the ability to constitute an emptiness or nothingness with respect to it.  Sartre goes further than this and says that in every act of imagination there is really a double nihilation.  In this connection he makes  an important distinction between being-in-the world and being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. To be in-the-midst-of-the world is to be one with the world as in the case of objects.  But consciousness is not in-the-midst-of-the-world; it is in-the-world.  This means that consciousness is inevitably involved with the world (both because we have bodies and because by definition consciousness is consciousness of a transcendent object) but that there is a separation between consciousness and the things in the world.”

This comes close to emptiness and interdependence but doesn’t go all the way.  It seems dualistic to me.  For Nagarjuna, emptiness demolished all notions of separation and distinction, even though he recognized it was not possible to avoid using such terms.   An article on Buddhanet says, “All phenomena have a relative as opposed to an absolute existence . . . Nagarjuna used the dialectic method to ruthlessly negate all pairs of opposites.”  This is correct but I don’t understand how the article can go on to say that “Sunyata is the absolute reality.”

Emptiness is not a truth so much as it is a condition or state of existence.  We can say it is an aspect of reality, but even that is problematic.  Previously, I have quoted the famous verse from Chapter 24 of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, “Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.” These words summarize Nagarjuna’s whole philosophy as he identifies the non-duality of the relative and absolute or ultimate truth.  But the next verse in the chapter is equally important:

Whatever does arise through interdependency does not exist.  Therefore, something that is not empty does not exist.”

In his commentary on the verse, Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield** says,

Nagarjuna is asserting that the dependently arisin is emptiness.  Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two distinct things.  They are, rather, two characterizations of the same things.  To say of something that it is dependently co-arisen is to say that it is empty.  To say of something that it is empty is another way of say that it arises dependently.”

The way I see it is that absolute reality is the absence of an absolute reality.  The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.  And emptiness is relative, which, as I have also mentioned before, Nagarjuna expressed as sunyata-sunyata or the emptiness of emptiness.

Anyway, it’s Sartre’s birthday.  Thought I would pass that along.

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* Franklin, J.J.: “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna.” Religion and Literature

** Arya Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way,, Translation and Commentary, Jay Garfield, 1995

Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hazel Estella Barnes, Simon and Schuster, 1992

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Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley

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Champion of the World

I don’t care about boxing, it is a brutal and stupid sport.  But I cared about Muhammad Ali.  I admired him.  I admired his courage.

When you are the Heavyweight Champion of the World, it takes a lot of courage to risk all that you have trained and fought for and refuse induction into the military because you object to the immorality of a war. Standing by his religious beliefs cost him the title, and he was found guilty of draft evasion.  He didn’t box in a fight from 1967-70.

Ali96When you have suffered from Parkinson disease for over decade and your hands are trembling badly, it takes courage, and determination, to muster up the control necessary to carry the torch and light the Olympic cauldron, as he did in 1996.  I watched it as it happened and it was a trilling moment, inspiring.

You had to love his gift of the Blarney, and even early on, in 1964, just after he won the world heavyweight championship and he declared “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest,” there was something about the way he carried on that made you think he really didn’t take himself so seriously.  All the gab was put-on.  Like a few years later when Andy Warhol was to go on a lecture tour and he sent out an impersonator to make all the appearances for him.  I always thought Muhammad Ali was like the Andy Warhol of sports.

On the 11 o’clock news, I heard it said that Ali was much more than a boxer; he was a political activist, a global humanitarian.  I also saw one of his bodhisattva-like quotes:

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth”.

Parkinson’s was very likely caused by all the punches he took to the head during his career.  That’s why, like football, boxing is stupid.  You might want to ask whether there is any real difference between the basic violence of boxing or waging war, but not today.

A man who liked to talk, the disease silenced him.  An man of movement, action; the disease disabled him.  But Parkinson’s never diminished Muhammad Ali.

To the end, he was the champion of the world.

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“Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground”

Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died serving in America’s armed forces.

Have you ever wondered just how many have died in our country’s major wars?  According to estimates from the Dept. of Defense and the Veterans Administration, the figure is around 1.1 million.  This chart, from pbs.org, breaks it down:

01-military-deaths-03

Regardless of how one feels about the nature of war, remembering our fellow citizens who have fallen while serving the country is a good thing.  Like Peter Rothberg, writing in The Nation, “I’ve always been sympathetic to the argument that the best way to honor the fallen is to make every effort to prevent needless deaths in the future. That means engaging in combat and military strikes only as a true last resort.”

In 1916, the great American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), reacting to the horror of World War I, wrote a poem entitled “Grass” in 1916.  In this short and spare piece, he looked beyond the wartime deaths of a single country and time, and used the personification of grass, to invoke the universal ruin of war:

Grass

NormandyAmericanCemetery4Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
 What place is this?
 Where are we now?

 I am the grass.
 Let me work.

In Carl Sandburg, scholar and biographer, Gay Wilson Allen wrote that in this poem “the scars of World War I will be covered by the perennial grass, not in a Pantheistic transmutation of men into vegetation, but as nature erases the scars of human violation of life.”

Photo: Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France

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