Of Fish and Sacred Truths

Otto West: Apes don’t read philosophy.

Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

The above is an exchange between two of the characters in the wonderful film, “A Fish Called Wanda.” I happen to adore that movie, the writing, and all the performances in it. It’s a gem of a flick. That quote especially sticks in my head because of my long career as a spiritual seeker, and my admiration for Buddhism.

I recall laughing at this scene in particular. I was in full agreement with Wanda (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) when she railed at Otto (as portrayed by Kevin Kline) in this relationship defining exchange. Wanda was right, Otto had missed the point of Buddhism entirely. Or so I thought…

You see, aS I studied Buddhism, and the life of the Buddha, I came to realize that Otto might not be as far off as Wanda thought. There’s a funny little thing about what the Buddha taught. People often associate him with achieving enlightenment. The odd thing is, he didn’t speak about enlightenment all that much. Not in a direct way anyways. He spoke a lot about Nirvana (which is often what people sort of mean when they use the word ‘enlightenment’), in the sense that he spoke about how someone who had achieved nirvana might comport themselves. He spoke a lot about suffering, and a way to end suffering (with the eight fold path) but it’s not altogether clear whether the end of suffering is nirvana, or whether the end of suffering is something that those who have arrived at nirvana happen to have. He also was fairly clear that his offering to humanity as a way to end suffering was an offering, not a cure all. Many times he stressed that those who followed him needed to test his assertions in their own experience, and he specifically admonished his followers to never take what someone else said as true if it didn’t prove true in their own lives. Lastly, the last words of the Buddha were for his followers to work very hard towards their liberation, and that they should each be a “light onto yourself.”

Another distinction that I think supports Otto’s claim has to do with the concepts in Buddhism of the Bodhisattva and the Arhat. The former is much more familiar to most Buddhists. Especially those lay Buddhists who are mostly exposed to the Dharma through “coffee table books” on the subject (like I was for many years.) The Bodhisattva is a Buddhist who defers the last step in the achievement of Nirvana so that they can stay on the Wheel of Reincarnation and help all other sentient beings achieve Nirvana first. For that type of Buddhist, Otto’s idea is a far stretch. The other type, the Arhat, actually pre-dates the concept of being a Bodhisattva by several centuries. The Arhat achieves Nirvana as quickly as possible, and then leaves the wheel. They don’t stick around to help others. They might help spread the dharma of the Buddha in their current life, but once that is over they do not return. (This is all a bit of a simplification, and these two poles are more like ends of the spectrum of how a particular Buddhist might be.) In the light of the Arhat path, Otto’s “central message of Buddhism” makes much more sense.

I am not saying that I am certain that Otto was right, and that Wanda (and all the Buddhists who agree with her) was wrong. What I am suggesting is that there is a way to look at part of the teaching of the Buddha that exhorts to a radical self-reliance. Time, and again, he urged those who would study his philosophy and practices to prove them in their own experience, and to accept the authority of no others.

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Know That You Are Using Your Words

A while ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson pissed me off. Let me first say that I have immense respect for Neil. I consider myself a fanboy of his. However, no one is perfect. Not even the Tyson.

People who follow Mr. Tyson will know that he has no love of philosophy and philosophers. I think he would echo the words of Steve Martin in saying, “That shit can really fuck you up.” (In fact, I think Neil paraphrased that very bit in one of his interviews.) He often goes on about how studying philosophy is a waste of time when you could be studying science. On the day he pissed me off whoever, the example he used wasn’t even philosophy. He used the example of the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That doesn’t come from philosophy, strictly speaking. It comes from Buddhism in general and Zen in specific. It is not a question to be answered. It’s a statement meant to stop the student’s mind for a moment. In other words, it’s not philosophy, it’s more like psychology. This stuck in my craw, but I didn’t quite realize why until today.

You see, I am veteran of many conversations where people claim that Buddhism is a religion, and then I (which is typical of most Buddhists, from what I’ve seen) answer something like, “Well, sort of, but not really. It’s more of a philosophy.” But on the other hand, I have also had many conversations where people make the claim that Buddhism is a philosophical system, and the context of the conversation made me say, “Well, sort of, but it’s a bit more like a system of psychology.” In these different conversations, I was correct(ish) for as far as those conversations went. But, this begs the question: What is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Yes, in a way. Is it a philosophy? Yes, in a way. Is it a system of psychology? Yes, in a way. Sort of. Kinda.

The trouble here is not with Buddhism being schizophrenic. The problem is not with Buddhism being very varied depending on the cultural context it lands in. (Though that is part of it.) The real culprit is me. I forgot I was using English. Buddhism predates English. By a lot. It started out mostly in the Pali language, then migrated to where Chinese was more popular, did a foray into Tibetan, then got some Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese in there long before it got any English. What I am saying is that the difficulty is not that Buddhism is hard to identify. The issue is that English does a poor job of identifying Buddhism.

I am not going to suggest a better way to refer to Buddhism and Buddhist practices and techniques in English. Frankly, I don’t have one. My point is that our language can very easily prejudice us against concepts and distinctions from cultures in another language group. Terence McKenna used to say that language is thought, and your thought can’t evolve faster than your language does. Language is what you have to think with. It’s best to not let that become a limitation on your exposure to the wider world of ideas floating in the human space.

So, it would appear that Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes me think deeply, even when he pisses me off.

Being mindful of your words can help you to stop the little buggers from biting off more than they can chew.

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Don’t Make A Big Deal Out Of It

The Buddha was not the first buddha. The Pali word “buddha” means “awakened.” The term existed before Gautama Siddhartha became the person we know as, “The Buddha” and founder of Buddhism. This happened during a period in history that some anthropologists refer to as the “Axial Age.” This was a turning point in where human beings looked for answers to the big questions in life:

“What does it all mean?”

“Why are we here?”

“What is the purpose of life?”

“Why must we suffer?”

It was at this time that people started looking “within” for answers, as opposed to looking to figures in the sky, or the spirits of their ancestors. It came slowly into general conception during this time that humanity might find solutions within itself.

The Buddha was not the only figure of note during the Axial Age. Other people held up as examples of this trend in humanity include Lao Tzu, Confucious, Plato, and Jesus Christ. There were many people through this period that made the transition to looking within for the solutions to life’s big questions. This was a momentous occurrence in the history of humanity. The again so was the wheel.

I don’t want to make light of the shift represented by the Axial Age. Far from it. I personally regard this as the time when humanity first got the opportunity to actually grow up. That being said, I do think that far to big of a deal has been made out of it. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it has been said that even to hear of the word enlightenment is as fortuitous an event as if there were “an ageless turtle who lives on the bottom of the sea who comes to the surface once a century, and that upon the sea there is floating a single life preserver, and hearing of enlightenment is as great a stroke of luck as if the turtle surfaced accidentally within the ring of the life preserver.” That’s a lot of luck, right there! This treatment puts way too much pressure on the whole issue, in my humble opinion.

I don’t think that everyone can become a “fully realized enlightened master forever free from suffering” on a weekend retreat. Note that there is a lot going on with that title. What I am suggesting is that the fruits won during the Axial Age, here in the Information Age, are available to everyone. The entrance way to that solution is as easy as realizing that there are solutions to find, and discoveries to be made, by looking within your own process. Over time the number of methodologies for doing this have multiplied. Psychoanalysis, meditation, yoga, philosophy, general semantic, etc. All of these are entry ways that are viable to begin this investigation. Each of them has their own fruits to offer, and they don’t require years of effort.

The great sages of the past were great. I do not mean to denigrate their accomplishments in any way. Rather the opposite. It is my assertion that part of their greatness comes from the accessibility of the methods. The Buddha, for example, did not put forth a teaching that only those who give up everything can benefit from. The teachings and practices are meant to be a gift to the world at large and not the sole purview of a dedicated few. This confusion is exacerbated when we make a big deal out of it. It may be true that not everyone can be a fully realized Buddha. Then again, not everyone gets to be a concert pianist. That does not mean that a person cannot benefit from meditation, nor does it mean that a person cannot enjoy music.

As long as these matters are cast upon pedestals, we will loose the pervasive benefit they could have. That would be a shame.

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