Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

The Sea of Hype

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hype (informal) noun 1. extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion. 2. deception carried out for the sake of publicity. Origin 1920s (originally in the sense ‘shortchange, cheat,’ or ‘person who cheats, etc’): of unknown origin.

Last night as I was watching a current affairs program on one of the commercial television channels, I was struck by how many commercial breaks there were. It seemed as though the pattern was that the announcer would say a few intriguing words about a news story that would be coming up in just a few minutes, then two or three commercial messages would come on, followed by a brief news story, half of which had already been given in the “preview” to the story, after which two or three more commercial messages would follow. Most of the featured stories consisted of politicians delivering sound bites, about which one conservative and one liberal panel member made a partisan pronouncement. What struck me in particular about this format was that the entire program from beginning to end consisted of almost nothing but hype—extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion. The commercial messages were, of course, promoting products or services. The politicians were promoting a political agenda. The commentators were trying to persuade the viewer that the agenda being promoted by the politician was either just exactly what the country needs right now or would be a complete disaster for all concerned.

What is missing in hype, it hardly needs to be said, is a careful weighing of evidence and an impartial assessment of the evidence considered. Advertising agencies are paid handsomely, not to offer an impartial assessment of a product based on scientific tests but to convince the viewer that this product is preferable to similar products made by a competing company. Political campaigning is all about making the case that a particular candidate is the best person for the job and will do the most for the citizens—all citizens, not just those who vote for the candidate making the pitch. Rarely these days is a politician not campaigning. When elected and “serving,” a politician must keep an eye on the next election, which requires persuading the voting public that the policy the politician is advocating is one that will benefit the voters. The partisan commentators who participate in panels on news analysis programs continue to carry out the endeavor of persuading, an endeavor that nearly always involves at least some degree of deception or distraction or oversimplification.

What struck me as I was watching the current affairs program last night was not just that this program was mostly hype but that almost everything one is exposed to all day long is hype. Hype is the very fabric of modern culture. (Perhaps it has always been so. Perhaps hype is the very fabric of being human. Not knowing whether that is the so, let me focus only on modern culture.) To change the metaphor, hype is the very sea in which we swim.

While reflecting on the ubiquity of hype, I was reminded of a conversation I had decades ago with a friend who had just returned to Montreal from seven years of living in a Buddhist forest monastery in Thailand. He reported that as he walked along the streets of the city he felt as though everything was reaching out and trying to grab his arm to get his attention. In every shop window, on every lamppost, in every Metro station, at every bus stop there were posters advertising goods and services, every one of which he had learned he could live without. He reported finding it an exhausting experience to take even a short walk in the city, such was the feeling of being assaulted from all sides by persuaders. After a few months, he noticed himself growing used to it, and we had a conversation about how unfortunate it is that we who live in contemporary society simply grow used to all the hype rather than feeling outraged by it. Being outraged by something that one is for the most part powerless to change, we concluded, is probably even more detrimental to one’s well-being than being slowly poisoned by omnipresent hype.

I was surprised to learn in consulting several dictionaries that the origin of the word “hype” is unknown. I had always assumed that it was an abbreviation of the rhetorical term “hyperbole,” which according to Wikipedia comes from the Greek ὑπέρ (hupér, “above”) and βάλλω (bállō, “I throw”). The article goes on to say:

In poetry and oratory, it emphasizes, evokes strong feelings, and creates strong impressions. As a figure of speech, it is usually not meant to be taken literally.

As a rhetorical device, I am quite fond of hyperbole or overstatement. A good deal of humor employs it. A bit of hyperbole adds spice to conversation. Like spice, it is best used sparingly, not as the main ingredient. (An exception to this rule, of course, is green chile in New Mexican cuisine.) I am concerned that the hype to which most of us are exposed these days has become the main ingredient of the main course and that as a result our minds are not receiving proper nourishment.

Fortunately, it is possible to find respite from the pervasiveness of hype, even in the United States, the country that hardly any politician can resist calling “the greatest country in the history of the world.” (Why limit oneself to just the world? Why not say it’s the greatest country in the history of the Milky Way?) One can watch PBS or listen to NPR to get some hype-reduced nutrition. One can read any number of works of fiction or non-fiction. One can have conversations with carefully selected friends in some non-commercial setting, such as a home or a relatively remote rural natural setting.

Now that I think of it, I suspect some version of hype may have been difficult to avoid during most of human history. In ancient Buddhist texts, written long before electronic technology overwhelmed us all, followers of the Buddha are advised to seek isolation (viveka), that being described as a place far enough away from a populated area that one can no longer hear the sound of people’s voices. Presumably the chattering of birds and chipmunks and the occasional roaring of lions does less to undermine one’s concentration than exposure to human verbiage. I am not convinced, however, that birdsong is entirely free from hype, especially during the mating season. Be that as it may, the hyperbole that the flora and fauna broadcast to draw attention to themselves does not irritate most human beings as much as the hype put out by our own species.

Speaking only for myself—Heaven forfend that I would try to persuade anyone else to have the same taste as I— on most days I had rather listen to a male finch trying to attract a mate with his elaborate arrangement of notes than to a politician trying to attract my vote or to a pharmaceutical company trying to convince me that its product is the best remedy for moderate to severe jangled nerves caused by overexposure to hype.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 12:13

Posted in Social analysis

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“Nothing can convict me of sin but the evidence in my own heart. From this evidence there is no escape.”—Elias Hicks (March 19, 1748 – February 27, 1830)

A term often used in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is “convinced Friend,” which is explained on the Quaker Jane website as “someone who experienced a convincement (either quickly or evolving over time) and chose in adulthood to join a Friends Meeting.” A convincement, in Quaker terminology, is what others might call a conversion experience or metanoia (μετάνοια), a sudden or gradual transformative experience that results in a change in the direction of one’s life. A convincement, however, is more than that. It is also a feeling that one has been convicted, as of a crime, and that one is therefore a convict, imprisoned for the time being. This recognition of one’s shortcomings, one’s failure to live according to one’s highest ideals, often results in one’s being less prone to the negative judgment of others for their shortcomings, as is expressed beautifully in the poem of the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) entitled “Forgiveness”:

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

It would be difficult for me to point to any one experience in my life as a convincement, but early in adulthood a number of circumstances led to important changes in direction and alterations in perspective. A chance encounter with a collection of writings by the Stoics had an immediate effect on me, not so much one of making me change direction but of realizing that others had already said better what I was struggling to say about my outlook on the world. Not long after that, in the early months of 1967, I happened to attend two reading groups at a Unitarian-Universalist church in Golden, Colorado, one that was reading Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates and another that was reading several Buddhist writings. Reflecting on those readings had the effect of making me decide that I had completely lost all sense of belonging in the United States—there was hardly anything about the direction the country was taking on those days that seemed reasonable or moral to me—and that realization led to buying a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Oddly enough, I was convinced in those days that I was a Communist, and Winnipeg was a place with a number of Communist bookstores and members of various Canadian Communist parties. It took relatively little exposure to those people to make me realize I was not one of them after all. Fortunately, during those early days in Canada I also came into contact with members of the Religious Society of Friends. Despite a lifelong aversion to any kind of religion, and perhaps especially to anything Christian, I found myself so moved by the kindness, the thoughtfulness and the decency of Friends that I began to think it might be time to reconsider my antipathy. After attending unprogrammed Quaker meetings for worship for several months, I was both impressed by the quality of what was said when Quakers rose to give testimony in meetings and resistant to the notion that these communications were from where Quakers officially said they were from: Spirit. Whenever I heard an inspirational message in meeting for worship, a little voice in my head would say something like “That’s John speaking his own carefully reasoned ideas. It’s not Spirit talking.” I am not sure why it was so important to me to make that distinction in those days, but with time that little voice stopped insisting on saying that sort of thing. Perhaps a factor in my little inner voice’s change of diction was the fact that in those days I wrote fiction or poetry nearly every day, and many times would look at what I had written and would ask myself “Where did that come from? My muse? My unconscious? Reasoning? Spirit? Or does it really matter where it comes from? There it is.”

In those early days in Canada I was in danger of being overwhelmed by my anger with the United States and that country’s seemingly insatiable craving for enemies to blame and countries to invade. On a visit to a bookstore in Lethbridge, Alberta, I stumbled upon a copy of Edward Conze’s little tome on Buddhist meditation, which reminded me of how well I had responded to the Buddhist readings in the Unitarian-Universalist church in Colorado. I bought the book and hit upon a description there of a contemplative practice aimed at cultivating friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), and it was immediately clear to me that that was what I had to do. I had to change my attitude, quit being angry with perceived enemies, begin finding something to love and respect in everyone, and that practice was just the tool I needed to do the job that needed to be done. Fifty years on, I still do that exercise regularly. Practice, I have come to notice, does not necessarily make perfect, but it can at least make a little better.

Now in the early years of my eighth decade as a human being on the planet Earth, I am still not entirely comfortable with such concepts as sin or evil. Those are not categories that readily come to mind as I look at the external world or at the internal mindscape. What does come to mind is some notion that “things ain’t what they spose to be” and that ameliorative measures could be taken. As Hicks said so well, from the evidence of one’s own heart there is no escape. It is that evidence that convicts. And once convicted, one has no choice but to reform.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 12:55

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In the summer of 1986, I gave a public talk at a Zen center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After the talk, a woman who had been in the audience handed me a sheet of paper printed on both sides and assured me I would find it edifying. I read the front page of the sheet and learned the document in my hand contained the teachings of an entity named Lazaris, who lived in one of the dimensions that somehow had remained undiscovered by science and who sent messages to the beings in the dimensions that human beings occupy through a channeler. The dissemination of the teachings of Lazaris have progressed since 1986 from the crude and unhygienic medium of the printed page to the aseptic medium of the Internet. Lazaris now has a website, on which we learn this:

Since 1974, Lazaris has channeled through Jach Pursel, his only channel, offering his friendship and love and generating a remarkable body of tools, techniques, processes, and pathways for our Spiritual Journey.

Learning more than some basic information about Jach Pursel and his assistants and getting more than a few short quotations from the teachings of Lazaris requires going to the shopping page and buying access to audio recordings, which range in price from $7.95 to $74.95 for the basic teachings, although some basic teachings are free. Learning what Lazaris has to say about being prosperous and successful can cost up to $250. Prosperity is rarely inexpensive.

Another website gives more information about what Lazaris is:

Lazaris is a nonphysical entity who first began channelling through Jach Pursel, his only channel, on October 3rd, 1974. He is a spark of Light, a Spark of Love, who has helped tens of thousands of people to expand personally, metaphysically and spiritually on their Spiritual Journey Home.

Another page on that same website offers a taste of the wisdom of Lazaris through a few quotations

Your love has a fierce majesty that cannot be matched; your love has a tenacious magnificence that cannot be contained or measured. You of the Human Race stand alone among the many Races within the dimensional universes in your capacity to love and in your ability to care – in the way you care for each other. Others love, but none like you do… Others care, but none like you do.

Back in 1986, a friend who was with me as I perused the double-sided sheet of printed paper commented “I wonder why it is that some people feel they need a nonphysical entity to tell them the sorts of things they could probably figure out for themselves by paying attention to their own experiences in life. If people feel a need for help from others, there are plenty of ordinary physical entities who have given us more than enough good advice.” I wondered the same thing.

Thirty years later I am still wondering, although to be honest I have not given the matter much thought. It is not that we human beings need better advice, I am inclined to believe, but that we would do well to follow the good advice we have been given. The only reason I am giving the matter of the appeal of Lazaris and various other allegedly disembodied entities some thought right now is that the United States seems about to embark on an era of authoritarianism. The man elected to be the 45th President of the United States has said that he does not need extensive intelligence briefings, because he can be told about a situation for twenty seconds, and he gets a gut feeling about what to do. It’s as if he “just knows” what to do and how to do it. His way of just knowing does not require the careful gathering of evidence, the consideration of all the different conclusions that any body of evidence could support, assessing the limitations of the available evidence, and the painstaking weighing of possibilities and probabilities. No phronesis is required. All that is needed is to listen for twenty seconds and then let intuition and instincts lead the way. If others question the decision, they simply need to be told “I am very smart. I know things that no one else knows.” There is no admission that there could be any legitimacy to questioning the conclusions that such a method yields. It is absolute. In that respect, the pronouncements of the 45th President are like the statements of an oracle, or a nonphysical entity that channels wisdom through just one person.

In his book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, Shawn Lawrence Otto chronicles several of the human tragedies that have unfolded when authoritarians have suppressed both questioning and evidence that casts doubt on firm convictions. When, for example, unimpeachable leaders have insisted that particular agrarian policies would produce more crops, then have fired or imprisoned or even killed observers who dared to bring forth conclusive evidence that crop yields were in fact poor, masses of people have starved to death.

Authoritarianism manifests itself as an inability to accept that one has been mistaken. An antidote to authoritarianism is scientific method, which has at its very core not only the realization that one may very well be mistaken but the practice of trying to show that the currently accepted conclusions are mistaken, or at least incomplete and oversimplified and liable to be modified as new evidence comes to light. Failure to falsify a tentative claim reinforces the claim for now, but of course the claim can always be overturned in the future as better and more complete observations are made. It is falsifiability that distinguishes scientific claims from claims that are placed out of the reach of questioning or criticism. Authoritarianism and scientific method are fundamentally incompatible, which is why politicians with an authoritarian streak tend to be wary of science, scientists and evidence-based reasoning.

People, either individually or collectively, who have various kinds of vested interest have often used the greatest strength of those who practice science—their ability to replace a tentative conclusion with a more accurate one—against science. The tobacco industry, for example, sought to undermine public confidence in the conclusion that tobacco use entails numerous health risks by pointing out that what scientists say in one decade is shown to be false in later decades. If researchers are saying today that tobacco use entails health risks, suggested the practitioners of denial, ten years from now they may be saying something completely different. Exactly the same strategy was used by the pesticide industry to undermine public confidence in the finding that some pesticides and herbicides do damage to the environment and some health hazards to human beings. The same strategy has been used by the petroleum industry to manufacture doubt that the combustion of fossil fuels is a cause of changes in the climate that result in the melting of ice caps and glaciers, rising ocean levels, lethal acidification of waters, more turbulent storms and generally more unpredictable meteorological events. The transition team of the 45th president-elect tried to create doubt about CIA and FBI findings that Russia was involved in hacking into the email servers of both political parties by pointing out that those entities were mistaken in 2003 in saying that Saddam Hussein probably had, or would soon have, nuclear weapons. The doubt-creating strategy consists of making the fallacious argument that if someone was mistaken about something, then they cannot be believed about anything. That being the case, no one is to be believed but an infallible authority. But ordinary human beings are notoriously fallible, so the safest bet is either an extraordinary human being or a non-human entity.

If scientific method and authoritarianism are incompatible, then science is a way to counter authoritarianism, but authoritarianism is also a way to counter science. The authoritarian method consists in making claims, repeating them until people believe them, undermining the credibility of those who make contrary claims, deliberately silencing those who disagree with or question one’s claims, or by casting aspersions on the character of those who do not readily endorse one’s claims. A good many politicians practice all of those techniques. Probably every human being uses those techniques at one time or another.

This squib began with a reference to the teachings of Jach Pursel, which he claims are really the teachings of a nonphysical entity called Lazaris. Since I have no idea what these teachings are, because I am not inclined to pay money to find out, I am not at all in a position to suggest that there is anything pernicious in those teachings. In fact I suspect, but do not know, that the teachings are innocuous enough and unlikely to do anyone direct harm. They are probably not at all in the same league as the claim that nothing need be done by human beings to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. There is, however, a potential unintended consequence of disseminating advice by making the untestable claim that the advice comes from a nonphysical entity rather than taking the more straightforward route of saying “Here are some ideas I have that I would like to share with you (for free).” Claiming that the advice is not just the outcome of the thinking of another ordinary human being, but is the communication of a nonphysical entity who speaks through only one human being, makes the advice seem extraordinary and therefore (in the minds of some) more credible, less prone to the errors made by minds encased in meat, fat and bones. Presenting the advice in this way is an attempt to make an end run around critical thinking. In an age about to embark on an autocratic and authoritarian presidency, critical thinking is not something to try to run around. It is something to embrace and to use as well as one is able. There is no area of life that I can think of that is not enhanced by critical thinking.

Many a political and economic commentator has expressed the view that the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States is likely to be the beginning of a dark and dangerous period on undemocratic authoritarianism in American history. For what it’s worth, Jach Pursel, blogging on behalf of Lazaris, is inclined to disagree. His cheerful advice is remarkably similar to that of the President so many people are dreading:

Be a champion of change, a champion of the new future—a future no one has yet imagined.

Some, I think, may have imagined our future. Names such as William Golding and Eric Arthur Blair (alias George Orwell) spring to mind.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 at 14:25

Posted in Philosophical basis

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A narrative to end all narratives?

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Alice: But I don’t want to go among mad people.

The Cat: Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.

Alice: How do you know I’m mad?

The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn’t have come here.

A common feature of the kind of madness that modern psychologists call psychosis is delusion, that is, a perception of events that does not conform to experiences of the majority of people. A person with a psychosis may be subject to audial or visual hallucinations, that is, experiences they have that other people are not experiencing. It is not uncommon for a person with a psychosis to have a sense of self-importance or extraordinary ability, called a delusion of grandeur; this sense is sometimes accompanied by a feeling that one is so important that others are conspiring to thwart his efforts or bring him harm, which is called a paranoid delusion. People living with those who have been diagnosed with a psychosis sometimes report that the psychotic is convinced that he alone is sane and the the rest of the world is crazy. Whatever its content may be, delusional thinking involves a narrative, a story that the thinker is weaving to make some sense of his or her experiences.

The very idea of delusion presupposes a correct narrative, deviation from which constitutes fantasy. What is considered correct can vary considerably from one time to another—one need only recall that there was a time when the narrative that the earth was fixed in space and that the sun, planets and stars all rotated around it was so firmly established that alternative accounts of the relative positions of heavenly bodies was considered preposterous. Even at the same time, there can be significant differences among narratives. The Qur’ān, for example, claims to correct the mistaken narrative of the Christian gospels that Jesus died on the cross—Jesus was not crucified, says Qur’ān 14:157, it appeared to some that he had been. From the perspective of one who accepts the narrative of the Qur’ān as the true standard, the appearance of the crucifixion of Jesus may have been a hallucination, and the gospel narrative is an example of delusional thinking.

Consensus is not necessarily a reliable criterion of what is actually the case. Indeed, logicians regard the appeal to popular consensus an informal fallacy, called argumentum ad populum. It is absurd to believe that something must be true simply because most people believe it, equally absurd to hold the contrarian belief that something must be false simply because most people believe it.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900), who by popular consensus was, or at least was becoming, insane during the years when his most often-cited works were written, famously wrote “There are no facts, only interpretations.” If he was sincere in writing those words, of course, he cannot have believed that to have been a factual claim; it was merely a statement of how he interpreted things. It was his narrative of the moment, one that presumably helped him make some sense of what he was experiencing.

Narrative, the telling of stories, is most often done with language, although it is also possible through images such as wordless cartoons or mime. Language has been regarded with particular suspicion both by some individuals and some traditions. Consider the Daoist saying, “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.” Or consider the character Hugo in Iris Murdoch’s novel Under the Net, who says in chapter four to the first-person narrator:

“All the time when I speak to you, even now, I’m saying not precisely what I think, but what will impress you and make you respond. That’s so even between us—and how much more it’s so where there are stronger motives for deception. In fact, one’s so used to this one hardly sees it. The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.”

There were (and perhaps still are) some Buddhists who seemed to agree with Hugo’s claim that “the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.” The Mādhyamika philosopher Candrakīrti, for example, can be interpreted as having held the position that propositions and propositional thinking have a place in the world of commerce (vyavahāra) and other practical goal-driven enterprises, but they have at the very best an asymptotic relationship with the greatest good, nirvāṇa, the eradication of the causes of personal and social turmoil (duḥkha). A philosopher on one of whose principal works Candrakīrti wrote a commentary was Nāgārjuna, who praised the Buddha for having shown that liberation (śiva) consists in the silencing of narratives (prapañcopaśama).

I have written about prapañca as narrative before in a squib suggesting that the Buddhist notion of prapañca is that it is “pointless narrative.” Candrakīrti’s praise of silence (tūṣṇīm-bhāva) as the route to liberation suggests that he may have regarded all narrative as pointless and troublesome. If that was indeed his view, of course, he courted the same dilemma as Nietzsche would have courted if he thought it was a fact that there are no facts, or that the Daoist Laozi courted when he said in chapter 56 of Daodejing that those who know do not say and those who say do not know (知者不言、言者不知。)

Creating narrative is what people do. Every culture is a culture of story-tellers. It could even be said that what we call culture is little more than story-telling. There may well be no way of avoiding narrative so long as the brain is alive; this may be the case for spiders who build webs as well as for human beings who write books and then build cathedrals in which to asseverate what has been written. Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti were creating narrative when they said the the way to peace is to find a way to stop creating narratives.

It could be the case that narrative becomes a problem only when people believe narratives that create in their minds hopes that cannot be fulfilled or expectations that cannot be met. The Buddhist, for example, who uncritically accepts the narrative that the root causes of turmoil can be eradicated through mindfulness may be setting up an expectation that can lead only to frustration when the goal remains elusive. The ethicist who places an emphasis on the questionable premise that agents have freedom of will may be transmitting a narrative that leads to the avoidable condemnation of those whose essentially involuntary actions are unwelcome in mainstream society. Nations and would-be nations that take collective actions on the basis of the narrative that there are inalienable rights to which everyone is entitled may be promoting conditions in which citizens are constantly invited to be indignant about their rights (which are, after all, entirely fictitious) having been abridged.

A good deal of religion, philosophy and politics consists of pernicious narrative. To conclude, however, that because some narrative is pernicious, all narrative must be pernicious is to fall prey to the inductive fallacy, a form of thinking that, according to the narrative of mainstream logicians, may lead to conclusions that prove disappointing.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, September 2, 2016 at 20:25

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The cloud of forgetting

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And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.—(The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 23)

About thirty years ago, in 1986 or so, I attended a day-long workshop on Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices. During the day various Buddhists led meditations based on vipassanā exercises, Theravādin mettābhāvanā and Tibetan gtong-len practices, and an Anglican contemplative nun led a meditation based on the fourteenth-century guide to contemplative prayer called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author of The Cloud is unknown, but it is commonly believed that the same anonymous author wrote The Book of Privy Counseling that is quoted above. The session based on The Cloud of Unknowing turned out to have a profound and lasting influence on my own approach to meditation. In the present writing my aim is to reflect on one particular Cloud theme and how I have found it useful as a Buddhist practitioner.

First, for those who may not be familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing, the principal notion is that all the knowledge we have acquired in various ways eventually presents an obstacle to the only reliable way of truly knowing God, which is not through the intellect but through the experience of love. That experience of love takes place in what the author calls The Cloud of Unknowing. Access to that “cloud” is gained by first passing through what the author calls The Cloud of Forgetting. In practice, passing through this first cloud consists in making a deliberate effort to set aside all the beliefs and convictions one has acquired through indoctrination, teaching, catechism and personal study. All such intellectual knowing is to be put out of one’s mind so that the meditator can sit with a completely open heart to whatever may arise in the cloud of unknowing. The cloud of unknowing itself is simply (but not necessarily easily) sitting in complete silence with a mind free of thoughts, expectations, anticipation or personal concerns but with a loving readiness to receive whatever experiences may arise as if they were gifts lovingly bestowed. A Christian doing this practice will naturally speak of it in terms of loving and being loved by God, while a Buddhist may be more inclined to speak of it in terms of experiencing Suchness (tathatā) or the love of Amitābha Buddha, but of course to speak in such terms is possible only outside the clouds of forgetting and unknowing.

Since setting aside all dogmas and indoctrination permanently could prove to become socially awkward, or even dangerous to one’s health, within the context of a religious community that expects adherence to those dogmas, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing recommends again picking up the intellectual knowledge that one set had aside in the cloud of forgetting. After being in the cloud of unknowing, however, one is likely to hold all those views more lightly and perhaps even somewhat ironically. The contemplative who regularly practices this form of contemplative prayer may, for example, continue to say what he or she knows a Christian or Buddhist is supposed to say but is likely to have a profound sense of acceptance of the fact that others were given other lines to recite and are saying what they are expected to say. Believing in the sense of assenting to propositions, however, yields to wordless loving, and as practice deepens, loving becomes increasingly unconditional.

It has been my experience over the decades that there are more and more doctrines that I am prepared to leave at the threshold of the cloud of forgetting and to be disinclined to pick up again at the exit. Except in the most abstract and general way, I now find myself disinclined to recite the lines that as a Buddhist I was taught to say. Yes, I am still willing to say that attachment is a condition for eventual disappointment, and that is indeed a Buddhist teaching, but it is also a commonplace observation on which no tradition owns the copyright. Beyond voicing such commonly articulated observations as that, however, I am no longer led to speak as a Buddhist (or anything else that attempts to organize experiences into doctrinal structures).

Beyond a general disinclination to recite Buddhist dogmas, I feel a particularly strong resistance to repeat a few specific doctrines associated with Buddhism. There is one in particular that I have questioned so often that I have come to feel it is almost entirely useless,—at times even counterproductive—in contemporary society, namely, the doctrine of non-self (anātmavāda).

It is clear from looking at the canonical and scholastic literature of Buddhism in India that the original doctrine was a critique of one specific doctrine held by rival schools, namely, the doctrine that the self (ātman) is a simple, unchanging substance that has no cause, has no agency, is unaffected by anything else and produces no effects. A fairly typical Buddhist critique of that notion of self is that if there is such an entity, we cannot know about it, since it has no effects, including the effect of making an impression on our faculties of sensing and understanding. Moreover, even if such an entity exists, it cannot play any role at all in the task of primary interest to a Buddhist, which is the task of changing one’s mentality from one that sets up the conditions for frustration and disappointment to one that painlessly deals with whatever experiences may present themselves. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that the Buddhist doctrine of non-self is a critique of a view that hardly anyone in modern times holds. It is a razor in search of a beard. In the context of current beliefs about how the human mentality is constituted, arguing that there is not a simple, permanent, unchanging, uncaused, actionless and inconsequential self is approximately like arguing that there is no such thing as the fire-element phlogiston. Anyone standing on a soapbox and making such a proclamation is unlikely to meet any opposition. Such a safe proclamation is unnecessary and ultimately useless.

In the absence of an actually held negandum for the doctrine of non-self, modern Buddhists have tended either to absolutize the doctrine to mean that there is no self of any kind anywhere or to interpret it to be a warning against a particular notion of self called Ego.

The former of those options, saying that there is no self at all of any kind, is too obviously false to be worth more than a moment’s consideration. There clearly is a complex physical and psychological self that every healthy person experiences nearly every waking moment of every day, a self that is inaccessible to other selves and to which other selves are largely unknowable. The self of daily experience is so multifaceted that it does not admit of easy definition, but being difficult to define does not disqualify it from being something that most people devote most of their energy to making more or less successful attempts at protecting, nurturing, ameliorating and controlling. It is important to realize that being a self is not in any way contrary to the letter or to the spirt of Buddhist teachings. As one of the most treasured of all Buddhist texts, Dhammapada, says:

157. If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night.

159. One should do what one teaches others to do; if one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Difficult, indeed, is self-control.

160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.

163. Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.

165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.

166. Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

The second of the options, saying that denying self is really about denying Ego, is potentially more confusing that it would be to say nothing at all. That is because both in modern psychology and in ordinary language, the term ego has numerous meanings, so one must specify exactly which sense of the term one is taking pains to deny. In some discussions of abnormal psychology, for example, having a weak ego is said to be a characteristic of some types of serious mental illness. Given the polysemy of the term ego in modern usage, it is probably better not to present Buddhism as a set of antidotes against ego itself.

Buddhism may be presented as an antidote to egocentrism, that is, the inability to distinguish between self and other that manifests as an inability to grasp or appreciate any perspective or belief other than one’s own. Such an antidote, however, can be presented in a more straightforward way than by expounding the somewhat arcane Buddhist doctrine of anātmavāda. Rather than denying self (whatever that might mean) or problematizing the distinction between self and other in the mysterious language of non-dualism, it is probably more helpful simply to teach positive contemplative exercises such as the cultivation of friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), which begins with the recognition that one naturally strives for well-being for oneself, progresses to the realization that all conscious beings seek well-being for themselves and that there is no compelling reason why one should favor one’s own self over anyone else’s self, and finally extends the care that one has for oneself to an increasingly wide circle of other selves. While the cultivation of unconditional love for all beings is easier to say than to achieve, it is a task that is not in any way made easier by introducing the classical Buddhist doctrine of non-self.

Religious and philosophical teachings are better seen as invitations to discovery than as accurate descriptions of what one will discover. Teachings that prove useful to some people at some times may not be at all useful to other people, or to the same person at different times of life. In the culture of ancient India, there was a doctrine that all the changes of life are not to be taken too seriously, because they are not really the self, the true self being outside the realm of everyday experience. While some people no doubt found that way of thinking a useful way not to be overwhelmed by the world of change, others found it difficult to make sense of such a doctrine. It is said that the Buddha was among those who did not find the doctrine of a static true self (ātman) useful and sought to provide an alternative strategy, the dogma of non-self or even no self (anātman), to avoid being overwhelmed by the experience of constant change. That alternative is historically interesting, but that there is no simple, unchanging substance to be called the self now goes without saying. That which goes without saying is probably better left unsaid. Or, in the language of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is better left inside the cloud of forgetting.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at 20:06

Posted in Meditation

Tagged with ,

The barren landscape of originalism

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“The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living but dead, or as I prefer to call it, enduring. It means today not what current society, much less the court, thinks it ought to mean, but what it meant when it was adopted.”—Justice Antonin Scalia (March 11, 1936–February 12/13, 2016)

Justice Scalia was one of the leading proponents of a method of interpreting the Constitution called originalism, a form of textual exegesis that uses historical and linguistic scholarship to determine what the authors of a text meant by their words or what the first readers most probably understood the words of the text to mean. The original meaning, once determined as well as scholarship allows, is then regarded as the only meaning of the text, unaffected by the what later generations of readers of the text may believe. According to Scalia, while the patterns of thinking of society as a whole may change from one generation to the text, the meaning of the Constitution endures without change.

The method of textual interpretation called originalism is familiar to and widely practiced by scholars of ancient and medieval texts, even if that name is not commonly used by textual scholars. While I was being trained in the field of Buddhist studies, for example, students were advised to try to discover what the expressions found in the Pali Canon (the scriptures of the Theravāda school of Buddhism) probably meant to speakers of Indian languages at the time of the Buddha and to ignore what those same expressions came to mean to commentators in later centuries. The greater the temporal and geographical distance of a commentator from the time and location of the the Buddha, the more that particular commentator was to be regarded with suspicion. What this meant in practice was that my fellow students of the Pali Canon and I were unlikely to turn even to Buddhaghosa (who probably lived in the same part of India in which the Buddha lived but nearly one thousand years later), let alone to Bhikkhu Buddhadasa (a Thai monk who lived from May 27, 1906 until May 25, 1993). Despite the fact that Buddhaghosa’s commentaries on the Pali Canon came to be the interpretation that prevailed from the twelfth century C.E. onward, and that Buddhadasa was regarded as the most authoritative interpreter since Buddhaghosa, an academic scholar of the Pali Canon trained in Toronto in the 1970s would studiously avoid being influenced by them. Similarly, when reading a Sanskrit text written by Nāgārjuna in the second century C.E., a student in Toronto in the 1970s would carefully steer clear of writings by modern Tibetan scholars, such as the Dalai Lama, from schools of Buddhism based on Nāgārjuna’s teaching. In other words, in my academic training in Buddhist studies, I was taught that academic respectability diminished to the extent that one’s method of interpretation of a Buddhist text deviated from textual originalism.

If I had never approached Buddhist texts in any way than as a textual historian, I might hold originalism in high esteem. My interest in Buddhist texts, however, was never motivated principally by historical curiosity. What motivated me, probably to my detriment as a serious academic scholar, was a search for inspiration, a perhaps vain hope to find advice on how to lead a more useful life. As a seeker of inspiration, my practice was to read and reflect on whatever came into my hands and to let it have its way with me. Looking back now on my thinking of several decades ago, I realize how divided my mind was against itself. Without consciously setting out to compartmentalize my thinking, I unconsciously developed two distinct modes of reading. While in academic mode I would read a classical Buddhist text one way; while in spiritual seeker mode, I would read that same text differently—sometimes only somewhat differently and sometimes radically differently. It was rarely possible to be in both modes at once, and it wasn’t always easy to discern which mode I was in at any given time. Flitting back and forth between the two modes became a way of life and probably caused almost as much confusion in the minds of my students and fellow Buddhists as it did in me. The confusion both for me and for others was much less when I was in the midst of Quakers, for my Quaker faith and practice was almost entirely uncontaminated by a scholarly approach to either the Bible or the writings of George Fox and other Quaker authors. Looking back on it all now, I think it may have been easier for all concerned had I been just a practicing Quaker with an intellectual curiosity about the history of Buddhist thought. That, however, is not what I was.

My bewildered and bewildering life as a scholar-practitioner has no doubt had an influence on how I think about the Constitution of the United States. My interest in that document has never been that of a historical scholar. If my interest had been purely scholarly, I would probably have been inclined to be sympathetic to some form of originalism. My interest in the Constitution, however, is much more like my interest in the writings of George Fox. I read and reflect on Fox that I might be a better Quaker, and I read and reflect on the Constitution that I might be a better citizen of the particular constitutional democracy into which I happened to be born. Given that orientation to reading the Constitution, I have relatively little interest in how the people who wrote the text, and those who voted to ratify it in 1789, saw the world. Since they lived and wrote, the world has been exposed to and enriched by the thinking of Charles Darwin and the tens of thousands of scientists who take his work as a point of departure; and to astronomical research that has resulted in a view of the universe that the Founding Fathers could not even imagine; and to quantum mechanics, which has resulted in a view of the universe that no one can imagine; and to neurophysiology, which has resulted in transformations of how we view personality, agency, responsibility, and what people used to call the self, the mind or the soul; and to Hegel and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who have made naivety in most matters impossible; and to the Emerson, Thoreau, the Transcendentalists, the Pragmatists and numerous kinds of religious and philosophical pluralists; and to to depth psychology; and to generations of brilliant litterateurs, social commentators, political thinkers and essayists. Since the Constitution was written, the United States has expanded across a continent, been blessed with waves of immigrants from all parts of Europe, Asia and Africa and survived several devastating wars from which surely numerous important lessons have been (or should have been) learned. There is hardly any aspect of modern life that would be recognizable to the the authors of the Constitution. Why should the way we think and act in the world be recognizable to them? To expect people today to ignore all that has happened in the past two and a quarter centuries and to eschew all the wisdom gained from those happenings and to hew to the world view of the Founding Fathers is as unreasonable and impractical as it would be to expect great grandparents to continue thinking and acting as they did as toddlers.

There is no doubt in my mind that Justice Scalia was a deeply learned and highly intelligent scholar of the text of the Constitution. There is equally little doubt in my mind that an enduring or dead Constitution is no more than a historical artifact, as impractical in today’s world as a horse and buggy. What is needed is a method of interpretation of the Constitution that allows for changes in human thinking resulting from scientific discovery, developments in the humanities and social sciences and trends in the arts. The results of such interpretation would no doubt sometimes be wild and unpredictable, and occasionally discomfiting, exactly as life itself is. To be sure, not all change is for the better, but all change must be acknowledged to have taken place, for better or for worse. To ignore change is delusional. To resist it is futile. To embrace it is alone conducive to flourishing.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 17:32

Posted in Social analysis

The culture of self-promotion

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From both of my parents and all four of my grandparents, I inherited a distaste for self-promotion—even the indirect forms such as being patriotic or proud of one’s school or place of residence or of other members of one’s own family. Early childhood conditioning tends to be persistent, so to this day I inwardly cringe upon witnessing displays of self-referential praise.

Years ago, I was on an academic committee considering a faculty member for promotion. I knew and admired the candidate, and there was little doubt in my mind about his being worthy of promotion. That notwithstanding, I found myself put off by his supporting documentation. Rather than simply submitting the required teaching evaluations, he supplied an accompanying document quoting selected phrases from comments that students had made; these selected words of praise were isolated from the surrounding narrative by being placed in text boxes and formatted in a large and bold font so that there would be no missing how highly his students thought of him. Offprints of his publications were accompanied by a similar document, featuring laudatory remarks that reviewers had made of his work, also placed in text boxes and set in boldface type in a larger font size. The presentation felt like an advertising brochure, as though the candidate somehow believed that the only way to get an academic promotion by others was to display a capacity for self-promotion.

I was not the only member of that committee to be put off by the presentation. An older colleague, nearing retirement age, commented that universities nowadays are almost forcing their employees to expunge all traces of modesty and humility from their behavior, if not from their mentality. Department chairs are expected to write annual reports assuring the university administration that their department is filled with world-class scholars and universally admired instructors. By the time of the early 1990s, candidates for promotion in the academic world could no longer submit a simple letter and a typed resumé. They had to write 10-page descriptions of their goals as teachers and scholars, accompanied by ample evidence that they were accomplishing those goals and that their accomplishments were being recognized by others living near and far. When I sought my first promotion, it was still possible to submit a brief letter and a typed resumé. By the time I was at the stage of my career to seek a promotion to the next level, all that had changed dramatically. I found the new process so unpleasant to contemplate that I never sought another promotion after that first one—and I was amply rewarded by never getting another one. Putting together the expected sort of dossier was not worth the time and effort, but more to the point it was not worth the violence to my sense of dignity. Ironically, my sense of self-worth would have been undermined by having to present myself as worthy.

It is not only the academic world that has steadily gravitated toward a culture of vainglory. Far from being an unpleasant feature of a bloated ego, fulsome self-congratulation now seems to be expected. Just as no commercial product can afford to be presented simply as adequate to the task but must be portrayed as better than all its competitors and indispensable to the discriminating consumer, no person can afford to be seen as merely competent. Pretty good is just not considered good enough anymore.

During an election year in the United States of America, voters are treated to a parade of candidates who not only toot their own horns sans cesse but also boast about their country as the greatest country in the world, even as the greatest country in the history of the world. Some of the candidates go so far as to disparage political leaders who do not participate in their jingoistic frenzy; those not caught up in nationalistic fervor are characterized as actually hating their country and wanting to drag it down to the same level as ordinary countries. An ordinary country is one that has affordable health insurance and reasonably-priced medical services and pharmaceutical products for everyone; reasonable tuition fees and generous food, housing and transportation subsidies for students pursuing a higher education; a modest-sized military of men and women trained mostly to help citizens cope with natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes; and a prison system designed to reform and educate miscreants rather than punish them. An ordinary country does not have a bloated military budget that is used to send personnel and materiel to countries all around the word and to build permanent military bases in more than a hundred other nations. Americans these days who long to live in an ordinary nation are advised to go live in Canada or Northern Europe, for the United States is a nation for those who wish to participate in excelsior.

In the 1950s, the psychologist Carl G. Jung said in an interview broadcast in English that the United States as a nation is “extraverted like hell.” The quiet reflection of the introvert is deprecated to such a degree that the system of public education is skewed in favor of gregarious doers whose energy is dedicated to making changes in the world rather than in one’s own attitudes and expectations. The thriving industry dedicated to selling products designed to help people realize their dreams of “self-improvement” tend to focus on how to be more self-confident, more assertive, more aggressive, more successful by external standards of assessment, more admired by the crowd. Jung chose his words carefully; an overly-extraverted country truly is like hell.

Although the United States could be described as “extraverted like hell” in the 1950s, it appears not to have always been that way. Neither the New England where some of my ancestors were born and lived, nor the Midwest in which other of my ancestors made their way from the cradle to the grave, according to what I heard from family elders, had much room for the braggadocio narcissism that has become so prevalent in today’s culture.

It is possible that my elders’ memories of the prevalent culture of their early days were faulty. Perhaps they were just getting old and slowing down, as I have managed to do a few decades after they passed on. Perhaps the world always seems too fast-paced, too forceful and too brash from the perspective of a rocking chair on the porch with a commanding view of an array of bird feeders. Or perhaps a culture of modesty and moderation really has been mostly replaced by a culture of excess and hubris.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, February 5, 2016 at 18:09

Posted in Social analysis