Archive for July 2010
Why do most people like the smell of a rose, but not the smell of a skunk? Why do some people enjoy the thrill of a scary movie, or the burn of hot pepper sauce? In this segment, we’ll talk about what’s known about the science of pleasure. What’s going on in the body and brain to make things seem appealing? (NPR’s Science Friday, July 23, 2010)
Ever since I first encountered the Indian Buddhist philosopher in 1969, I have not been able to leave him alone for long. I wrote my B.A. honours thesis on him, a 100-page essay that caused me more sleepless nights than anything I have ever done, and I returned to him in graduate school and have taught numerous courses on him. Although his presentation contains some faulty reasoning, his principal conclusion has always struck me as correct. One statement of his conclusion is that seemingly paradoxical claim that the essential nature of all things is that they have no essential nature. It is acting as if things have essential natures that occasions most of the avoidable kinds of human dissatisfaction with life.
While I think the conclusion that nothing has an essential nature is without a doubt correct, what has puzzled me about Nāgārjuna is his claim that one can be liberated from discontent by learning not to think that things have essential natures. One way I have articulated my puzzlement is to say that Nāgārjuna seems to be offering a cure to a disease that no one actually has. Who, I kept asking myself, would ever believe that things have essential natures? Since people are much too clever to believe in essential natures, it just cannot be the case that their unhappiness stems from foolishly believing in essences.
After listening to the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom being interviewed by Ira Flatow on the Science Friday mentioned above, I was intrigued by Bloom’s claim that a key factor in whether or not a person finds something pleasurable is the person’s belief about what the thing is. If one believes that a performer is famous or that a physical object has an interesting past, then one tends to find that performer’s singing or playing or acting more enjoyable than if one believes the performer is an ordinary person; if one believes a shirt used to belong to a celebrity, it becomes much more interesting than an indistinguishably similar shirt on the shelf of one’s closet. This all reminds me of something that people used to say about forty years ago, namely, that the most important part of the body for having pleasure is the brain. It may not be the case that pleasure is “ all in the mind,” but a great deal of pleasure is indeed in our thoughts about our experiences.
Also intriguing is Dr Bloom’s observation as a developmental psychologist that children begin very early forming notions that things have essences. Not too surprisingly, there is an intimate connection between the notion of essences and the use of language. It is Bloom’s contention that it is a person’s conception of a thing that influences whether the thing is found pleasurable. A child might, for example, form the idea that some things are dirty and disgusting—parents are often instrumental in the formation of such ideas—while other things are pleasant and fun. The notion that the child forms of a thing being pleasurable becomes part of the child’s idea of the thing’s essence. And these notions of the essential natures of things are very difficult to change, except through something dramatic, such as a traumatic experience.
Nāgārjuna and some of his commentators were convinced that one of the means of breaking the habit of thinking that things have essence is to break the habit of talking about things. More important than simply holding one’s tongue is to silence the mind, especially that part of the mind that is constantly trying to figure things out and understand how they work and how they came to be. Coming up with narratives is one of the things human beings do almost constantly. And once a narrative has taken shape, it is difficult to let it go. The narrative becomes not simply a story; it becomes the story.
The kinds of narratives that one allows to take shape in one’s mind has a great deal to do with whether one finds experiences pleasurable, disturbing, intolerably painful, frightening and so forth. The Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti tells the story of a man who hears something tapping on the outer wall of his hut and becomes so terrified that he dies. Investigation later reveals that the tapping was caused by a branch of a nearby tree bumping into the side of the house on account of the wind. A narrative can be fatal!
I find pleasure in standing corrected. For decades I have told myself a narrative about Nāgārjuna having some fanciful idea about people falsely thinking that things have essential natures. Now I am less convinced than before that his idea was fanciful. Perhaps people really do think in terms of essences, and perhaps this kind of thinking really is troublesome. It may be worth thinking about.
On the other hand, if Nāgārjuna is right about the pernicious effects of forming explanatory narratives, it may be best not to give the matter any further consideration.
manaḥ śamaṃ na gṛhṇāti na prītisukham aśnute
na nidrāṃ na dhṛtiṃ yāti dveṣaśalye hṛdi sthite
The mind does not attain peace, nor does it experience the pleasure of joy,
nor does it find rest or stability, so long as the arrow of hatred is stuck in the heart.
Those words from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra 6.3 are part of a chapter dedicated to the necessity of cultivating forgiveness and patience. Being the victim of someone else’s harmful behavior, whether the harm was deliberately engineered or the by-product of carelessness and negligence, is pain enough to deal with. Nothing good comes of magnifying the pain by harboring ill will or desires of revenge. When people are harmful to others, says Śāntideva, is precisely when they most need our compassion, our active attempts to alleviate their suffering. Given that contented people do not try to bring misery to others and indeed usually try to establish harmony with others, the best strategy for finding relief from those who are making others miserable is to help them find relief from what is making them miserable.
In the past few days statements have been made by well-known people that show very little understanding of the importance of forgiveness as part of establishing peace and well-being for everyone. One statement was Sarah Palin’s plea to Muslims to drop their plans to establish a mosque near the site of where the World Trade Center used to be in New York. The other was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s strongly expressed disagreement with the decision of the Scottish Parliament last year to allow Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya rather than die of a terminal illness in a Scottish prison. Mass murderers like al-Megrahi, said PM Cameron, do not deserve compassion.
Both Mrs. Palin and PM Cameron seemed to be voicing the views of those who say forgiveness of wrong-doing would add to the burden of pain borne by those whose loved ones died in the airplane bombed over Lockerbie or in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. What they apparently believe is that people are more likely to be pained and vexed by compassion than by their own inability to cultivate compassion. But that is surely not universally true. Without a doubt there are those who have found transformative comfort as a result of finding a way to love those who have harmed their loved ones, just as there are those who will carry their bitterly vindictive feelings with them to the grave. The range of response to deep misfortune is as varied as any other aspect of being human. There is a saying in Sanskrit that hardship is like a rapidly spinning grindstone; when clay is touched to it, it crumbles, but when gold is touched to it, it gets polished. When it was announced that al-Megrahi was being allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds, some Scots who had lost loved ones rejoiced at the nobility of the decision, while others ground their teeth and spoke venomous words. It is disappointing to see public figures who have attracted the attention of wide audiences siding only with those who are unable to find forgiveness in their hearts.
The displeasure that has been voiced by those who would like to prevent a mosque from being built in the neighborhood of what has come to be called Ground Zero is psychologically understandable, but it is such a raw emotion that it is difficult to know what kind of decision would not be offensive to those who harbor their unwillingness to forgive. The issue seems to be that placing a mosque near Ground Zero would be a desecration of the memories of those who died. But what distance would be far enough away for these people? Should the nearest mosque be at least a mile away? Or should it be off the island of Manhattan? Outside greater New York City area? One hundred miles away? There are probably some individuals so overcome with bitterness that they would like to see an America entirely free of any publicly visible signs of Muslim worship. Should they be the ones whose feelings determine public policy? If so, one can hardly imagine a deeper tragedy for American culture, since it would be a sure sign of the death of the values that lay at the heart of the formation of the American republic.
There is no calculus for compassion. No one is any more or less deserving of compassion than anyone else. Everyone who is in pain needs relief. Those who cannot forgive need the help of those who can. Those who blame others and attack those whom they blame need the help of those who have no need to find scapegoats. Those who suffer from the arrow of hatred stuck in their hearts need the help of those who have learned to love. Contrary to what some theology says, love is not a grace. It is not a gift that God gives to some and withholds from others. It is a skill. It is something one can learn to do. Like all skills, it is one that improves with practice. The more one loves, the more one can love. The less one forgives, the less one can forgive. The less one can forgive, the more unbearable becomes the burden of life.
There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)
Myth is usually more suitable than history at conveying ideals and values. The often-repeated story of George Fox’s advice to William Penn illustrates well the Quaker approach to the Quaker testimonies, for it shows that the testimonies to strive for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship are not approached as absolute commandments but as ideals toward which each individual Friend moves as she is led by her reflections on her own experiences. If one’s experiences have been of the unhappy consequences of violence, and if one reflects on the nature of violence, then one is likely to seek alternatives to the violent solutions to problems that present themselves. At one point in one’s life, one may seek to protect oneself by having a sword (or a pistol or an assault rifle or a strong army or a nuclear arsenal), but if one comes to see the very stockpiling of weapons as a threat to peace, one may follow the example of William Penn in the mythical story and leave one’s sword at home. One may seek to protect oneself by being the kind of person others are unlikely to attack.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Quakers are not invariably pacifists who refuse military service. The peace testimony, like all of the Quaker testimonies, has been formulated in different ways in different times and is always evolving as different communities of Friends discover what the demands of their particular circumstances are. (There is a nice blog posting about the testimonies on The Quaker Ranter). Typically, the testimony is worded in a way that draws upon the words of George Fox, who wrote in his journal that he testified to the Commonwealth Commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars…”
The occasion, or as we might now say, the causality of all wars is complex. Among the causes are such external factors as social injustices and maldistribution of the world’s resources. More fundamental causes are the internal psychological factors that give rise to social and economic injustices. Xenophobia and other fears of those who act and believe differently give rise to such behaviors are invading the homelands of others, colonizing others, converting others to one’s own religion and marginalizing those who don’t comply. The ancient Hebrews justified their genocidal campaigns in the land of Canaan by portraying the inhabitants of those lands, the Philistines and so on, as godless barbarians and uncultured savages. To this very day, the word “Philistine” is used to describe an uncouth person who has no higher interests; stereotypes die hard if they ever die at all. The reputation of the Philistines has been permanently smeared by the negative stereotyping enshrined in self-congratulatory Hebrew propaganda.
Unfortunately, there is no need to go back to the time of Joshua to find examples of brutality justified. The United States of America has become the land it currently is through several centuries of genocide, enslavement and colonization, most of it justified on the grounds that the victims of European territorial expansion were either benefiting from the largesse and advanced culture of the Europeans or so backwards that they deserved to be killed or banished to nearly uninhabitable lands. The behaviors of the Americans of European descent were rooted primarily in greed, fear of the other and ignorance.
Buddhists would use the terms greed, hatred and delusion to identify the occasion of war. These psychological traits—not other people—are the occasion of war. Since all human beings have to some extent inherited the characteristics that enabled their ancestors to survive long enough to procreate, and since those survival mechanisms of earlier generations were usually manifestations of greed and fear and benighted thinking, most human beings are genetically predisposed to those traits. The fact that those traits worked in the past, when the human population was very small, is no indication that they will continue to work in the present and the future. We may have come to the point where the very traits that promoted the survival of our ancerstors will promote out own demise, perhaps even the guaranteed extitnction of our descendants.
During the past year I have been reading the Bible every day. I have been following a lectionary that assigns passages to read every day. There are many kinds of lectionary, but the one I am following now is one that begins with the book of genesis and reads straight through to the book of revelations; by following it one can read the entire Bible in 365 days. I have to say that most of the reading has been unpleasant and disturbing. There is so much warfare, so much rationalized cruelty, so many prayers for the destruction of one’s enemies. Who can read a passage such as “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you, as you have served us. Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” without wincing at the cry for bloody revenge against those who have treated the Hebrews in Jerusalem as the Hebrews under Joshua treated the inhabitants of Jericho? So much of the sacred writings of the Hebrews—then the Christians who had inherited much of the mentality and many of the enemies of the Hebrews, and then the Muslims whose sacred revelations continue in the same general spirit—focuses on external enemies. The message repeated constantly is that the world would be peaceful if only other people were not evildoers bent on tormenting the lovers of God.
There are alternatives to the war whoops found in so much of the sacred literature of the world. There have always been people who have realized that our greatest enemies are not the evildoers from other lands but rather our own minds and the habits we have acquired through the indoctrination of mainstream society provided by war-mongering governments. Most of the Stoic philosophers of the Hellenistic world realized that. With only a few scattered exceptions, almost all the literature of Buddhism and Vedānta and Daoism is an invitation to find the true enemies that disturb the peace, namely, the acquisitiveness, the fear and suspicion of others, the anger that arises when things don’t go as one had hoped, and the hasty conclusions that are formed through lazy and self-centered thinking.
Although Quakerism was originally a form of Christianity based on a deep familiarity with the sacred texts of the Jews and the Christians, many modern Quakers find more inspiration in the inner-enemy theme of Asian religious literature than in the outer-enemy preoccupations of so much of the literature of the Abrahamic religions. The writings and sayings of Hindus, Buddhist and Daoists often require less hermeneutical manipulation to bring them in line with the inward leadings to peace and simplicity of life and thought that seems obviously called for as we emerge from one of the most destructive and soul-destroying centuries in human history.
Is the story of William Penn and George Fox historically accurate? Probably not, but that is not the best question to ask anyway. The better question might be “Is that the right story to tell in our times?” By my lights, it is.