Tag Archives: philosophy

On the Farcical Nature of Patriotism

I was always uncomfortable with patriotism (Germanic: Obeying the “father”). I thought it was just that little spark of rebelliousness I always had. But I have come to see it as a legitimately objectionable idea. And that’s just it. It’s an idea, a story, a fiction. The whole notion of national borders and cohesiveness is a comfortable and politically necessary, but nonetheless illusory, myth.

Not only is the diverse and multifaceted population in a continuous rise and fall, but the ideologies that these varied people hold are in constant flux. Due to uncountable reasons, the inhabitants that occupy the geographical space called a country, are inconstant, in all their disordered habits and in all their contradictory beliefs, and are thus, anything but cohesive…in anything. Is there a status, or position, at all? And if there was, what would it be?

I found comeradeship when I discovered political scientist Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Communities are imagined, since none of the members of even the smallest nation will ever know, or even meet their fellow-members. The members have only a mental idea of their membership in this group. The curious, and perhaps most disturbing part of this fantasy, is that these imaginings make it possible for millions of people to die on behalf of this community.

Breaking down the fallacy of the entity called a nation, is a bit like breaking down the entity habitually called a person. It is convenient to think in terms of a unified self, but upon investigation, there are but scores of systems and processes. Nervous systems, circulatory systems, digestive systems, all in flux, creating our bodies, minds, flickering consciousness, ever-changing moods, and endless desires—all in flux, which is to say, in a process of dying, but we are uncomfortable with that word, and with the very idea.

So, just as the fiction of the nation provides us with a sense of fraternity and belonging, the familiar concept of selfhood and personality supplies us with the needed sense of security and identity.

Can we give up fiction at the cost security? Even a false sense of it?

On Meaning

I am in the process of phasing out my old blog. But before removing it completely, I backed it up and pulled a few to the side that I thought should be made over and brought out for another curtain call.

Why not leave them exactly as they were? Because I’m not exactly as I was. Here’s a short and sweet one.

What is the meaning of life, philosophers ask.

It is rather like asking, what is the meaning of the sound of the violin.

The very question of meaning seems so very meaningless unless we understand that it is only according to our individual perspectives, shaped from the changing position of our conscious minds, that anything has meaning—even our very own lives.

There are 87 different meanings found in every breath we take, in every second of every day, in every one of our thoughts and in every action we take.

We shape the world with our thoughts—and our thoughts, in their turn, shape who we are.

The sound of the violin means one thing to the conductor, another to the lovers in the restaurant, and another to the feisty old grouch who doesn’t like anything. To many others, it has no meaning, at all.

There is meaning in every-thing, and meaning in no-thing. There is a profusion of meaning in every little thing, and no single meaning in any one thing.

Misunderstanding Religion; What Is its Purpose?

One thing students realize when they begin their readings for my class, is the lack of anything resembling unified agreement, among academics, on what religion is.

Firstly, if you’re looking for agreement among academics, you’re looking in the wrong place.

But in a more analytical vein, every attempt at a common denominator is defeated by a counter example. Even the belief in God, which isn’t embraced in the context of Buddhism, is frustrated. In short, we are hard-pressed to find one feature common to all religions of the world. So, rather than one solitary feature, scholars have taken to describing a collection of characteristics – things like community, beliefs and stories –
that are inevitably found, in some combination or another, in the world’s many religions.

One student expressed concern over the problem of interpreting those stories that are part and parcel of the world’s religions. In a disdainful tone, he alluded to the violence that is easily justified by a relativistic interpretation of religious writings.

A common and seemingly justifiable concern, considering the state of the world today.

Nonetheless, I find it lamentable because it stems from a massive misunderstanding of what the whole point of religion is and has always been. Arguing about scripture reduces it to nothing but philosophy—a discipline which is deep, difficult and meaningless, all at the same time. Joking aside, it’s not exactly meaningless, if we understand that its value lies, not in finding answers, but in the very act of asking questions. That is, meaning emerges when we stop misunderstanding its purpose.

Likewise, in the domain of religion, we get hopelessly caught up in the supposed contradictory nature of certain passages, especially where violence is implied. This is common in the context of the Jewish and Christian bibles, and in that of the Koran. But what if we were to consider the very purpose of these holy books differently? What if we were to assume its purpose lay in encouraging us to look upon our own violent ways?

Thus, rather than assume a breach between our virtues and those in the holy stories, we might consider the purpose of those stories. And more pertinently, we might let go of the assumption that these stories contain explicit instructions. In that way, the bible may become purposeful.

But perhaps the most profound problem lies in a different kind of chasm. There is an immense difference between the spiritual state of the reader and the nature of the divine. A holy book is of a different nature than a science book or a philosophy book or a car manual. Dare I say bluntly that its arcane nature will be missed by an unenlightened mind? Its higher truths will not be revealed to eyes that don’t yet see, to a mind that is not ready.

Or even more to the point, to a mind that pushes an agenda.

Anyone can misuse anything when guided by greed, selfishness, lust for power, and vengeance. A person whose mind is clouded by odiousness has eyes that are blind. He will misinterpret, misconstrue and misuse. He’ll abuse the land, other people, scripture, and everything he touches. Put that person in a position of power and watch the world crumble.

Which brings me around to the closure of the circle and to my final point, that of looking to the academics for a definition of something that does not lend itself to definition.

Just as looking for answers misses the point of philosophy—which values itself on the questions it asks, looking for definitions misses the point of religion—which treasures only experience as a means to truth.

No matter the religion, its purpose is to bring the practitioner to an experience of his or her own wholeness. When this underlying essence and purpose goes missing, it quickly and inevitably dissolves into empty rituals. How could it be anything else in the absence of an awakened consciousness? Even the meaning of the word religion betrays its supreme spiritual purpose—to remember your spiritual identity. But without clarity all we have is confusion, without heartfelt practice all we have is mechanized ceremony and without open eyes all that is left is the blind leading the blind.

Picking a Bone with Jobs’ Quote

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

— Steve Jobs

I like Steve Jobs. And I like to follow my heart. But, with due respect, I still think this oft quoted passage is problematic and needs a more balanced perspective—here are some of the reasons why:

1. Not everyone has the privilege of doing “what they believe is great work.” Millions of people in the world are doing jobs that may not have been their primary career choice—and that is putting it politely. For example, they may be making the small parts that no one sees, the parts that run the machines that guys like Steve Jobs envisions. They are the tasks many of us would call drudgery, but many are simply glad and thankful to have the work at all, at a time when choices are limited. Perhaps they’ll make a change later, but should they be miserable until then because they don’t believe the work is “great work?” (Changing their belief is therefore the place to start, which brings me to #2.)

2. And about the claim that “the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work,” it seems to me that what you believe can be changed. You don’t have to marry your beliefs. Beliefs are just beliefs and they change with our maturity level and with our experiences and with 150 other reasons. Heck, they change from day to day—they sway like the palm trees in the wind and can be influenced by our ever-changing perspectives. Thank goodness; that means we’re growing! Thus, I would change “the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work” to “the only way to be truly satisfied is to find the greatness in what it is you do.”

3. Finally, toward the notion that, “like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on,” I would like to serve up a reality check—what makes great relationships great, is when all parties understand that it’s not always fun and it doesn’t always “feel good.” All relationships have their ups and downs. And equally so with the work we do. It won’t always be the way you dreamed it would be, you won’t always feel like going, and you might one day feel like you don’t like your job anymore. It seems to me that the truly liberated and wise will take those days in stride and remember not to get caught up in those temporary feelings. And from a clear connection to the importance of what it is they are doing—because everything has its place and purpose, along with a good dose of gratitude, they will undoubtedly maintain a consistently cheerful attitude.

We might liken this cheerful person—who finds the beauty in what it is he does—to the Greek mythical character, Sisyphus, who continues to push his rock with a smile…without telling himself that the task is ridiculous and absurd.

The Mystery Realm

The philosophy of art was always one of my favorite classes, as a grad student. One evening, my favorite instructor was talking about the sublime—that quality of utter resplendence that so wholly defeats our capacity to contain it, describe it and formulate it in any way, that we find ourselves awestruck. It is a quality that supersedes language entirely.

In art, it is not found by examining the techniques of the artist. Vivaldi can give away his method and his tricks, but still no one will compose like Vivaldi. Renoir can explain his brushstrokes and color mixtures and still, all we’ve got is a good copy, which only makes good foodstuff for the philosophers, who can argue about whether a good copy is really art or not.

The understanding and the employment of technique can only, ever, take us so far. I was thinking about these things one night when I caught an interview with Jason Alexander, of Seinfeld fame. To the question of whether “technique can make you a good actor,” his reply was to the point: “No, it’ll make you a good technician.” It’ll make you a better actor, to be sure, but there’s a sort of magic to good art. There’s an indefinable something about the truly good artist.

Like the sublime, itself, there’s something you can’t explain about it. It’s the “it” factor. There’s a distinctiveness about the great artist that lies outside the qualities that we can enumerate.

Every instance of it is unique, like the finger print, every one of which looks the same to an untrained eye. But of all the billions of people that have ever existed and that will ever exist, there will never be two identical prints. Or the voice—each of which has its own resonance and tone.

Maybe that’s the key for the philosophers, as to the mystery of the good copy and the problem of calling it art. There is always the suspicion that something is missing. And I would suggest that it’s because the missing component is intangible—it too, is beyond the paint mixtures and brush strokes and techniques. It is creation itself. It is the idea behind it, it is the inspiration to do it and finally, it is the act of unfolding it into reality.

You are the universe unfolding, Zen says.

The artist unfolds a new reality by expressing the world in her mind’s eye, transcending all the while, her own experience, by revealing the one we share. She affords us a glimpse of our collective experience—she catches the ephemeral, like a dancing butterfly, and puts it to form as a subject for our gazing eye. She is a story teller. And it doesn’t much matter if it’s true, for our remembrance of anything is but a construction, subject entirely, to what we were able to apprehend and comprehend, at the time, to our maturity level, to our attention span and to our mood at the time. And as the future has not yet happened, what we take as true is always a creation in some sense.

It is the ineffable creative element that stops us short. It is the sublime. It is the realm of mystery.

Excerpt from Buddha in the Classroom (Our Fixation on Passion)

Excerpt from Chapter 19—Passion; Accept, Adapt, and Abandon Hope

The real problem with our fixation on passion is the near certainty that even a blazing fire will dim with time.

Then what?

Even when passion is pursued and found, the affair won’t last forever. Passion changes. We change. A dancer friend recently shared with me the common experience among the cast members of a famous musical. Far from reveling in prideful accomplishment for having been part of one of the longest-running shows, they’re sick and tired physically, and mentally jaded. Many are dancing on old injuries, and are scarcely able to find the motivation to go onstage night after night; yet somehow they manage to put themselves into their postures and glissade, on tiptoe, onto the stage, one more time, because it’s how they make their living. It is the same motivation that gets most of the world to work every day.

It reminds me of the ancient Greek myth about Sisyphus: He is condemned by the gods to push a gigantic boulder up a hill, over and over, all day long, even as it continuously rolls to the bottom of its own weight as soon as he gets it to the top. The gods understood the futility of wasted labor, so assigning it was the perfect, wicked punishment. In retelling the story, the French philosopher Albert Camus likens the absurdity of the task to the everyday predicament of every single one of us, pushing our rocks in our own way, as we struggle to meet deadlines, deal with coworkers and bosses, and solve the problems that are part and parcel of any workday, anywhere.

But Camus was an optimist.

Despite his fate, it is Sisyphus himself who decides to be happy. He can whistle and hum happy songs while he pushes his rock, or he can lament and endlessly curse his fate. The irony is that as soon as he realizes the power inherent in his own reaction, he is liberated. He makes his fate his own. It is he alone who decides to be happy or miserable. In a nod to our own capacity for liberation, Camus says, “We must imagine Sisyphus smiling.”

Dharma: The Lesson for Teachers

Sisyphus’s existentialist smile resonates with the Buddhist reminder to let go. Sisyphus smiles because he accepts his fate. To let go is to accept. And through acceptance, Sisyphus liberates himself from his sentence. To accept is to simultaneously stop resisting. When you stop resisting, you are able to enjoy your experiences, which is to say, your life.

Accept, adapt, and abandon hope, Zen says…

Close Your Books! Teaching Meditation in a Community College Classroom

I’m thrilled to be a part of elephant journal!

Following is an excerpt from my article, Close Your Books and Forget the Thinking: Teaching Meditation in a Community College Lecture Hall:

In the East, knowledge is all tangled up with the religious and so it is that the western categories of philosophy and religion don’t quite fit. Knowledge comes via direct experience, rather than cogent arguments. Truth is found in the stillness of the quiet mind, rather than on the pages of competing theories and the very pursuit is to drop the pursuit. We rediscover, rather, what we already know, uncover what was already there—what Zen calls your original face, what Hinduism calls your true self. But we have to get real still, so that we can see without looking and hear without listening.

I explained all of this. Then, I dimmed the lights.

“With your attention only on your breath, jot down, in your project books, each thought you become aware of. But don’t write me a composition! And, as strange as it sounds, don’t try to write stuff—because that means you’re following your thoughts. Just scratch out any key word and come back.”

I tiptoed around and stole glances over their shoulders. Some had no more than five words, even though five minutes had passed, even though we’ve got thousands of thoughts streaming by in the blink of an eye.

I interrupted the silence with two hits of my handheld meditation bell.

“Anybody care to share?” I asked. “Was there some thought you kept coming back to?”

“Yeah, that I can’t wait to eat, after class!” one said.

“Me too–I couldn’t get lunch out of my head,” a girl in the back added.

“Sounds like what we used to call ‘sick dreams’, as kids,” I laughed.

“So, we’ve got burritos on the brain. What kind of thought is that?” I asked.

“A future thought,” offered one quick student in the front.

“Exactly!” I said.

“So, here’s part two of our experiment: Next to each word, write a ‘P’ next to the past thoughts and an ‘F,’ next to the future ones.”

Read the whole article here!

A Charming Enlightenment Story

Once I heard a charming story about Shiva and Parvati, and it was lingering in my mind.

I remembered the good-hearted man who only wanted to be of use, and because of his pure, humble heart, and his service to Shiva–without knowing it was the Lord himself he was helping–he achieved spiritual liberation.

Here is the short and sweet story, as I transcribed it for Spirit Voyage (it will open in a new window).