Reverence for Life

He may not be so well known today, but at one time in the not too distant past, Albert Schweitzer was one of the most famous individuals in the world and his name was practically synonymous with the word “humanitarian.” He was a German-born theologian, philosopher, physician, musician, and medical missionary in Africa, who is also remembered for his work that challenged both the secular and traditional Christian views of the historical Jesus. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for the philosophy of ethics he called “reverence for life, and he was born on this day in 1875.

According to Dr. David L. Dungan, who teaches in the department of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Schweitzer read the great Asian religious texts not as a historian only, but as one whose profound sense of the failure of Christianity led him into a genuine religious quest. In fact, the concept of “reverence for life” occurred to him at a moment when, as he later told a friend, he was meditating not upon Jesus Christ but upon the Buddha.”

Regarding Buddha, Schweitzer is rather famously quoted as saying,

He gave expression to truths of everlasting value and advanced the ethics not of India alone but of humanity. Buddha was one of the greatest ethical men of genius ever bestowed upon the world.”

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer
Yousuf Karsh portrait of Schweitzer

When I was very young and Schweitzer was still alive, he was perhaps best known for his role as a medical missionary. But early in his life, Schweitzer enjoyed a somewhat distinguished musical career and also studied theology, planning to become a pastor. In 1905, at age thirty, he changed his mind and decided to go to Africa instead. He began to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg, and in 1913, obtained his M.D. degree. Soon afterward, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. In 1917 he and his wife became prisoners of war and spent a year in a French internment camp. In 1918, Schweitzer returned to Europe where he spent the next six years, preaching, giving lectures, musical concerts, and writing essays. He did not return to Lambaréné until 1924, and except for a few short periods of time, spent the remainder of his life there. Schweitzer died in 1965.

In a 1936 article, The Ethics of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote,

If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fulness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.”

The idea of “reverence for life” had occurred to Schweitzer as early as 1915. The basic thrust of his philosophy can be summed in a few words that are often used in Buddhism, “do no harm.” Schweitzer was deeply influenced by Indian philosophy and in particular the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which he acknowledged in his book Indian Thought and Its Development. In the chapter of that book devoted to the teaching of Buddha, he demonstrates that he had grasped the spirit of Buddha’s teachings, commenting on an aspect often misunderstood:

Thus in the world and life negation to which he was devoted, the Buddha kept some measure of naturalness. This is what was great in him. Whilst he mitigated the severity of world renunciation, he made a fresh and great concession to world and life affirmation.”

Although today is the 140th anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s birth, any day is a good day to recall the lives of those who have contributed to the greater good of humankind by demonstrating a profound reverence for life.

Learn more about Albert Schweitzer at


Philosophers and Cats

I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior.”
– Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893)

Most readers are old enough to remember the term “egghead.” It dropped out of common usage years ago, replaced by “geek”, although a geek is not quite the same as an egghead. In a recent article on Slate, “The Way of the Egghead Is Hard,” Rebecca Onion shared the classical definition of egghead provided by Louis Bromfield in a 1952 issue of the libertarian journal “Freeman”:

Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions. … Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. … Emotionally confused in thought. … a self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot.”

The article discusses a new book by Aaron Lecklider, Inventing the Egghead, and mentions that in “his influential 1963 work on the topic, historian Richard Hofstadter argued that anti-eggheadism—or, to strip the term of its slang, anti-intellectualism—had been pervasive in American life all along.”

einstein-lightbulbI don’t think that it is any great revelation that American culture has always had an anti-intellectual bent. At the same time, we have been a nation of thinkers and dreamers. But the sorts of dreamers we have traditionally championed are those whose visions produced tangible and practical results. Someone like Thomas Edison is a good example of what I mean. Einstein may have been one the greatest physicist the world has ever known, but Edison’s light bulb has benefited far more people than the Theory of Relativity.

Occasionally I see the question raised as to whether Buddhism is anti-intellectual. Indian Buddhism seems pro-intellectual for a couple of reasons. One is that Indian philosophy is a system of thought that, as described by Yensho Kanakura (Hindu-Buddhist Thought In India), “takes as its object of study the philosophical thought which arose in India . . .” It is to some extent a philosophy about philosophy. Secondly, like Western philosophy, it relies heavily on inductive reasoning, an empirical approach where progress is made step by step until the conclusion is reached. East-Asian Buddhism, on the other hand, appears to be almost entirely anti-intellectual because it is based on the deductive method of reasoning where the conclusion comes first and explanations follow.

One of the bridges between these two modes of reasoning is Nagarjuna. Taking his cue from what he inferred from the story of the silence of the Buddha, he maintained that philosophy should have practical value. He maintained that the Buddha offered a form of practice first, and philosophy second. In this respect, the Buddha’s dharma is both deductive and anti-intellectual. As Nagarjuna saw it, the Buddha didn’t feel the need to prove his declaration that existence is suffering, he simply stated it. He didn’t see that it needed to be proved or disproved.

Douglas Berger writes, in the entry on Nagarjuna on IEP,

Nagarjuna appears to have understood himself to be a reformer, primarily a Buddhist reformer to be sure, but one suspicious that his own beloved religious tradition had been enticed, against its founder’s own advice, into the games of metaphysics and epistemology by old yet still seductive Brahminical intellectual habits. Theory was not, as the Brahmins thought, the condition of practice, and neither was it, as the Buddhists were beginning to believe, the justification of practice. Theory, in Nagarjuna’s view, was the enemy of all forms of legitimate practice, social, ethical and religious. Theory must be undone . . .”

Philosophy to Nagarjuna was a tool. He used the reductio ad absurdum method (prasanga) to refute all views whether negative or positive on any subject. One is tempted to think that because he was so skillful at this, he might have gleaned some pleasure from the process. However, I suspect that he viewed it as a necessary task and was not attached to his own method. It was necessary in order to clear the air and remove the ground for philosophical contention (upalambha). Not only did he see endless philosophizing as non-practical and futile, he also considered it the root of suffering.

Philosophy has two fundamental purposes: to answer certain basic questions, and to formulate clear and comprehensive views of life and the universe. To be practical, philosophy should lead to an increased understanding of life, and when philosophy is little more than hypothetical conjecture and not directed toward the accomplishment of a specific end, its value is deceased significantly. In Buddhism, increased understanding of life comes from the realizations gained from practice, and in the hands of Nagarjuna, the philosophy exists not to theorize or justify or even really to explain those realizations but to untangle the conceptualizing that hinders practice.

This, I feel, is why Dogen, who viewed Nagarjuna as a spiritual ancestor, said, “Zazen is enlightenment.” Here is a statement that defies classification. It is neither intellectual nor anti-intellectual. It transcends reasoning, ontology, epistemology, and methodology. If you practice it, you will probably understand. If you try to analyze it, you probably won’t.

And here are the cats:



Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West?

The headline jumped out at me: ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’ to Give “Buddhism Naturalized” Talk. Wow. Most dangerous? Really? I had to learn more.

The man’s name is Slavoj Zizek, and he’s a Slovenian philosopher who will be speaking at the University of Vermont this Oct. 16. Now, what I wanted to know was why is he the ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’. Unfortunately the article, actually a press release posted on the UVM website, didn’t tell me. But it did say that Slavoj Zizek has also been called the “Elvis of cultural theory.” Whoa, that’s a big claim.

Sorry, Slavoj, but Elvis is still the ‘Elvis of Cultural Theory’ to me.

Naturally, I dug deeper. According to a post I found on what makes Zizek so dangerous is “his analysis of the worldwide ecological crisis, the biogenetic revolution, and apocalyptic economic imbalances.” Hmm, does that make him more dangerous than say, Al Gore? Maybe, but I’m not sure about it. Nor am I sure about why he’s the “Elvis of cultural theory” either. Maybe he swivels his hips when he gives talks.

Not yet satisfied, I went to Zizek’s Wikipedia page and found out that he was born in 1949, and that his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology (which makes me think of the 1977 Bunuel film, That Obscure Object of Desire for some reason) was published in 1989. He has a lot more accolades than just the two I noted above; he’s also “one of the world’s best known public intellectuals”, “the thinker of choice for Europe’s young intellectual vanguard”, and according to the Telegraph in the UK, “the hippest philosopher in the world.” Damn, he must be a force to be reckoned with then.

I also learned that he’s a dogmatic Marxist. Cool! Me too! Who other than Groucho had more insight into society, economics and politics?

I am the most dangerous Marxist in the world.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”

Yep, for my money, Groucho’s dogma can’t be beat.

If you go to Zizek’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see about half-way down a notice that reads: This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Well, that stopped me right there. I don’t want to read something I can’t understand. What’s the point?

I did learn one final fact, and that’s that Mr. Zizek is an atheist. Which begs the question, why is an atheist giving a talk on Buddhism? I wish people would stick to their own area of expertise. I’m a Buddhist so I don’t go around giving lectures on Zurvanism. Of course, one reason for that is because I’m not sure what it is. I have a sneaky suspicion that Zizek doesn’t know much about Buddhism either.

So, what does Slavoj Zizek have to say about Buddha-dharma? Here’s one example, from an essay titled From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism:

“Western Buddhism” is such a fetish. It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

I never thought of it that way before. I think when I was in college I thought a lot about the frantic pace of the capitalist game, but it was too frantic. I couldn’t keep up. I was 32 when I officially became a Buddhist (my kind of Marxism and Buddhist don’t conflict). Since then, I’ve just been trying to overcome some suffering, find some enlightenment, and maybe help a few people along the way. But now, I may have to rethink things, because I certainly don’t want to have a fetish.

And while I’m thinking about it, I would like to know where you can withdraw your inner Self. Perhaps at a spiritual ATM? My ego tells me I’ve given too much of my self away. I think I want some of it back.

Zizek also says that “Nowhere is this fetishist logic more evident than apropos of Tibet, one of the central references of the post-Christian “spiritual” imaginary.” I think that means he’s not too hip on Tibet, but I can’t really tell because that sentence makes no sense to me. It must be too technical to understand.

I should be ashamed of myself for making fun of this guy. Obviously, I don’t know anything about him. I’m sure he’s a fine fellow, a great thinker, and probably a blast at parties. But then, in my book anyone who allows themselves to be billed as the most dangerous philosopher in the world West is sort of asking for it.

Besides, I feel there are too many philosophers around these days anyway. I’m all in favor of a moratorium on new philosophies.  Do we really need any more? I can’t handle what we got now. I say just say no to any new “isms.”

Or, as Groucho put it, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

The one and only Groucho in Horse Feathers.


Herr Jaspers and Existenz

The German psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers was born on this date in 1883. Although he rejected the label, Jaspers is regarded as an founder of Existentialism and a thinker who had a considerable influence on theology, philosophy, and psychiatry.

Many observers have pointed out the similarities between existentialist philosophy and Buddhism.  I am not sure they are that similar, however, and personally, I am a bit suspicious of Western philosophy because I always seem to find some hint of theism lurking in the depths, as opposed to Buddhism, which I feel is quite atheistic.

I think Jasper’s rejection of the existentialist label had to do with his view of ontological systems, which he saw as restrictive. Jaspers called his philosophy Existenzphilosophie or “Existenz-philosophy.”

Although he maintained that no precise objective definition of “Existenz” was possible, it refers to a state of freedom in which authentic being can be experienced. On one hand, Existenz is the fact of human existence, and on the other, “Existenz is not a kind of being; it is a potential being.” This latter meaning implies freedom in that as the ground of being, Existenz is a field of possibilities. It also refers to a sense of responsibility for one’s actions. Existenz is transcendent, not an external object, and being transcendent it is a reality that is beyond our ability to fully apprehend it.

In On My Philosophy, Jaspers wrote,

Man, however, is not a sufficient separate entity, but is constituted by the things he rices his own. In every form of his being man is related to something other than himself: as a being to his world, as consciousness to objects, as spirit to the idea of whatever constitutes totality, as Existenz to Transcendence. Man always becomes man by devoting himself to this other. Only through his absorption in the world of Being, in the immeasurable space of objects, in ideas, in Transcendence, does he become real to himself. If he makes himself the immediate object of his efforts he is on his last and perilous path; for it is possible that in doing so he will lose the Being of the other and then no longer find anything in himself. If man wants to grasp himself directly, he ceases to understand himself, to know who he is and what he should do.

Again, we can see a number of parallels to Buddhist thinking. In fact, I probably would have paid little attention to Jaspers had it not been for his connection to Buddhism, specifically an essay he wrote on Nagarjuna. When I was first trying to fathom the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy of that 2nd Century Buddhist thinker I found the essay (in The Great Philosophers) immensely helpful. I have quoted from it before, and I do so again today. Here he discusses Nagarjuna’s concept of sunyata or “emptiness”:

Emptiness permits the greatest openness, the greatest willingness to accept the things of the world as a starting point to make the great leap. Indifference toward all worldly things also leaves every possibility open. Hence the tolerance of Buddhism toward other religions, modes of life, views of the world. The Buddhist lives with all theses as expressions of a lower, worldly truth, each equally satisfactory as a point of departure toward higher things. This unrestricted openness attracts men . . .

Western reason presents an analogy to this Buddhist mode of thought, which is as infinitely open as emptiness. Both listen, both respect the opinions of others. but the difference is this: the Buddhist Sage goes through the world like a duck; he no longer gets wet. He has transcended the world by dropping it. He seeks fulfillment in an unthinkable unworld. For Western man, however, reason finds its fulfillment, not in any absolute, but in the historicity of the world itself, which he gathers into his own Existenz. Only in historical realization, becoming identical with it, does he find his ground; he knows that this is the source of his freedom and of his relation to transcendence.

Jaspers loses me at the end because I am not sure if he is suggesting that Western reason is preferable, nor am I convinced that historicity, which I believe he means as an awareness of the past, is absolutely crucial for obtaining freedom. I think a sense of now is far more important, since now is where we are experiencing existence.

But that aside: Happy Birthday, Herr Jaspers!


The Operations of Thought

Karl Jaspers (1883 –1969) was a German  psychiatrist and philosopher. He wrote a book called The Great Philosophers. This is from his chapter on Nagarjuna, the first section, “The Operations of Thought.” I like it.

All existence is dharma. The goal of this thinking is stated to be “nonattachment” to the dharmas.

By breaking free, the Enlightened One “will stand outside appearance, outside sensation, outside concepts, outside forms and outside consciousness. “

A Bodhisattva does not learn any dharmas, “to him the dharmas are present in a different way.”

Detachment require a last step. I might suppose that at least the doctrine exists, that his one dharma has being, that the Buddha existed, that the Bodhisattvas who attain Perfection of Wisdom exist. Are they not reality? No, this too is empty.

“I do not see that dharma Bodhisattva, nor a dharma called Perfect Wisdom.”

Perfection of Wisdom cannot be perceived, it is not present as an existing thing. For we cannot speak of appearance in the face of that which is no perfection of appearance, nor speak of consciousness where there is no awareness of sensation, concept, form, this is the fundamental and radical idea: to detach myself from all things then from detachment; to cling to nothing.