Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Gospel of Existence (Redux): The Problem with Spirituality

It so happens that when you read and write about things sometimes someone might send you an article with the note "You might like this" attached to it. Such happened to me yesterday. Whilst the precise motivations of the sender are unclear (but it was gratefully received anyway), I did get to read an article from the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. "The Tricycle Foundation", so I read, "is dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available". And so its fair to say that what I was about to read is written from an insider point of view. But I am not a Buddhist neither do I particularly wish to be persuaded of Buddhist truths. Truths that seem true to me will do. Nevertheless, I took the article that was offered to me in good faith, not least out of respect for the person who did me the favor of offering it to me to read. Reading what I say about it below, he may or may not recant of the fact that he ever did so. At this point let me say that for those who want to read the original article they can do so HERE and let me reassure any readers that what comes next isn't just about either Buddhism or religion. 

The article is entitled "We Are Not One" and concentrates on a Buddhist explanation of its doctrine of interdependence, something I touched upon in my last blog when mentioning The Heart Sutra and its seeming notion of a flux of interdependent becoming. Here the writer, who is a Buddhist abbot from California called Thanissaro Bhikkhu, writes concerned to show why this does not mean everything is "one". Of course, as you might expect, he has reasons for wanting to do this and, it seemed to me when reading, these seemed to be Buddhist religious reasons that, if you are not a Buddhist (as I am not), you simply would not share. As I began to read the article I was set out on the path of regarding the writer as untrustworthy immediately in an "argument" he supposed was against the idea of there being a god. This argument boiled down to "If there was a god he would have done a better job than this". Well he might have and he might not have but I doubt the creature would get to decide what the creator did or did not do in any case. Such a viewpoint would also overlook theist explanations for the world we live in, such as Christianity's suggestion of its fallen nature and its need to be saved. Our writer glosses all this with his simplistic assertions and this gave me what I suspect was a fatal first impression. (You should know that, as with the Buddhist writer, I don't believe in any god either.)

It didn't help me in reading his article that the major concept the writer was trying to discuss, "Oneness", was never defined. I don't know if this was because it was assumed the presumably Buddhist readers would know what he was talking about (although in a subheading to the piece it was suggested the subject is something many Buddhists get wrong) or simply because he didn't bother to define it. In any case, this lack of definition was fatal as far as the piece was concerned and his lack of definition regularly had him arguing against a shadow foe all the way through it. This didn't endear me to what he was saying because half the time I didn't have a clue what he was arguing against. Instead we got what were to me silly arguments that were perhaps of concern to intra-Buddhist debate but of no use to those outside the fold. Bhikkhu is especially fond of suggesting that the interdependence we biological beings endure is one of "inter-eating" (i.e. living creatures eat each other to survive) and this somehow shows that everything is not one but simultaneously that this inter-eating is no cause for celebration. I must admit that I found this point lacked force and I'll come to why shortly. 

Bhikkhu used what were, to me, a number of non-sequiturs and his argument came across to me very much as a discussion amongst Buddhists where I imagine he would of thought he could have assumed the readers shared certain basic beliefs. Besides talk of casting off "ignorance" in order to progress to something called "clear knowing" he made what I thought were a number of mistakes. He argued against those who identify us with the cosmos but I thought he made a mistake there because the cosmos is not an identity or an entity in the first place. We are. So its a comparison of like with not like. The writer seemed to me to not have thought through what he was saying but, instead, to be locked in his train of Buddhist thought concerned, as he demonstrated again and again, to vindicate the words of his holy man of choice, The Buddha (which means "enlightened one"). I thought that he did his cause no good in making arguments for things that seemed manifestly false to begin with. Let me give you an example.

Bhikkhu writes:

"The first distinction is between the notions of Oneness and interconnectedness. That we live in an interconnected system, dependent on one another, doesn’t mean that we’re One. To be One, in a positive sense, the whole system would have to be working toward the good of every member in the system. But in nature’s grand ecosystem, one member survives only by feeding—physically and mentally—on other members. It’s hard, even heartless, to say that nature works for the common good of all."

Bhikkhu's use of "in a positive sense" is his only get out clause in this paragraph for I find myself asking "Why does the system have to be for good or bad at all?" It doesn't. What Bhikkhu imputes into his piece here is a moral impetus given from a human being. The cosmos as a system is not moral and knows absolutely nothing of morality. It is without sentience. It is neither an entity or an identity as Bhikkhu has assumed before already in his piece. Thus, it need not and, indeed, cannot work for good or bad at all, either for the one, the many or the all. It just operates - beyond good and evil. And so here interconnectedness and interdependence, the relatedness of all things, can indeed be seen, casually, as a Oneness (contrary to Bhikkhu's desires) - although I don't think it means much to say it. It is, to me, benignly obvious that all things are related, interconnected, and, thus, One. Only if one has a doctrine to protect would one even bother to question this casual notion. So we must note that morality is human and not of a universe invested with an identity it doesn't possess. If a fox eats a rabbit in the woods and no one is there to hear it… it doesn't matter a fig. We do not live on the front cover of The Watchtower magazine and have no need to dream up lurid moral imperatives concerning all the creatures living happily together for all of being and time. Bhikkhu, in his desire to escape the carnivorous nature of life on Earth, seems to want such a thing and to say that the carnivorousness means we are not One at the same time.

And here is really the first problem I had with this in a more general sense. It is a point against all religions and forms of organized spirituality (which I regard as the same). The problem here is that all these notions involve ideas of right and wrong and often in a "one size fits all" kind of a way. I do not really believe in this at all and see no reason why one size should fit all. It may be that you could persuade me that there are contingent versions of these things that will do service for us for the here and now. But, then again, I might also be persuaded that morality is a man-made irrelevance that always services some power base first and foremost and that, in the end, all paths lead to the same place anyway: the grave, the dark recycling bin of life. What no religion or spirituality ever convinces me of is that its moral truth is the moral truth and this is because I find it highly coincidental that this group of religious people just happen to have got all the truths together where others somehow managed not to. Hence the regular spiritual concentration on special insight or knowledge. Without it such religious groupings would have no basis for their teachings. What can be said, as Nietzsche prophetically saw, is that religion and spirituality can basically be boiled down to morality, a way of living, judgments based in designations of good and evil. This, in turn, gives birth to what every spiritual person wants in the end: some kind of salvation.

Of course, one problem for the moral, as Bhikkhu very much wants to be here, is freedom of choice. Its hard to preach for morality if people don't have the freedom to choose the good over the bad. So a belief in morality necessitates a belief in freedom of choice. Bhikkhu duly notes this and tries to provide one but it seems to me to be a hodge-podge idea that is utterly unconvincing. Bhikkhu says:

"If we were really all parts of a larger organic Oneness, how could any of us determine what role we would play within that Oneness? It would be like a stomach suddenly deciding to switch jobs with the liver or to go on strike: The organism would die. At most, the stomach is free simply to act in line with its inner drives as a stomach. But even then, given the constant back and forth among all parts of an organic Oneness, no part of a larger whole can lay independent claim even to its drives. When a stomach starts secreting digestive juices, the signal comes from somewhere else. So it’s not really free."

Note the adjective "organic" there which Bhikkhu has sneaked in (for he doesn't always use it). His analogy is clearly ridiculous. But who says we have "freedom of choice" anyway? There is much literature and comment to the effect that "freedom of choice" is often illusory and always within set parameters.  You have the freedom to be who you are much like Bhikkhu's stomach. Freedom's not free (not least from within pragmatist or existentialist readings of existence) and this dents the argument here for it is assumed and not argued for noting objections. Any system can have a set of choices within it for various parts of the system that operate along a sliding scale of "freedom". But, actually, it is better here to talk of possibilities rather than freedoms not least because the latter term is frequently misleading and taken to mean "without condition". An example is Bhikkhu's ridiculous stomach/liver analogy. Freedom, if we must use the term at all here, is always a matter of possibilities and opportunities otherwise we must recant our knowledge of the universe and wonder why ducks don't decide to become mountains or windows decide to talk. They don't because they can't. In a physical universe all things are defined by their possibilities not their "freedom". The speaker would have been better to explore his realization that things aren't really free. Indeed. But that would lead to more system-friendly conclusions pertinent to Oneness that our writer here certainly does not want to find much less explicate.  His morality mandates freedom.

And here's the jump: "For the Buddha, any teaching that denies the possibility of freedom of choice contradicts itself and negates the possibility of an end to suffering. If people aren’t free to choose their actions, to develop skillful actions and abandon unskillful ones, then why teach them?.... How could they choose to follow a path to the end of suffering?" Are we starting to get the writer's angle on things now? Now we find out why freedom of choice must be preserved. Its a doctrine. The Buddha said it therefore we good Buddhists must defend it. The Buddha apparently sees freedom of choice as a path to the end of suffering which is surely salvation.

Bhikkhu has argued that Oneness condemns you to no freedom of choice (freedom of choice being something he has assumed or needed due to his moral stance in the first place) and to being a part of the carnivorous system of inter-eating. But what if you or I, his readers, see no problem with inter-eating or if, as I, see no problem with death, decay or even fighting over resources (which all living things do in their various ways) in this universe of our's, a physical, finite universe? Surely these are just ways the universe works? Sure, they can be seen as problems. We can wish it was another way. We could hope, in the Christian phrase, that the lion would lie down with the lamb. But that doesn't make it so. Physical things are always limited things and an abundance of life will always fight over those things - because it must. Life generally tends to want to live and does not always have scruples about how. The issue here seems to be that as a Buddhist the writer wants to escape from the universe he finds himself in to some other one. It is this spiritual impulse (common to many spiritual and religious people) which creates the dilemma. It becomes a moral issue so, again, the problem here is that the spiritual/moral human impulse interjects. (The math is "suffering is bad so suffering must be escaped". But compare that critic of Christianity, Nietzsche, who says "that which does not kill me makes me stronger".) Again, I must retort that the universe is not moral and knows no moral imperative. So where Bhikkhu sees that "each of us is trapped in the system of interconnectedness by our own actions" I just see the conditions of life and existence. He sees something to escape from. I say there is no escape possible, let us make our surroundings as fair and equitable as we can as we have opportunity since we must all, somehow, get along.

The issue then is that Bhikkhu's spiritual/moral impulse keeps interjecting, finding problems and seeking (doctrinally acceptable) solutions. Yet the universe isn't moral: we are. The problem is ours, is existential, not its. But if the universe isn't moral then suffering cannot be either good or bad except as we say so for the reasons we give. Morality becomes rhetorical. It changes from a problem of all Being in general to a local one to do with our form of life or existence. It becomes not a universal problem but one that we must deal with as the people we are. It is, as far as I can see, not about enlightenment and escape to something more real and less illusory but more about recognition and acceptance of what human being is. This is why I have said before in something I wrote that the problem for humans is not to cure cancer, it is to be a human being whether you have cancer or not. Whilst the human being labours under a moral impulse, one which designates goods and bads and seeks escape from the bads to a world constructed only of goods, then we as a species condemn ourselves to never find the very things we seek in any ultimate sense. And we will always be running. This is true whether you are a Christian seeking cleansing in Christ, a Buddhist seeking to flee illusion and find enlightenment or a Transhumanist wanting to escape biology (which must ultimately be the wish to escape the physical world of decay).

We are back to a theme I've had before. We want to become gods or touch divinity. This is nothing more than escaping time and chance. Bhikkhu's Buddhism becomes about salvation (awakening) without a savior. And this is why any language of essentialism is always wrong and talk of "illusion" and "real" worlds is misguided. It trades on the idea there is something better waiting for us if only we could reach it. And that is nothing more or less than the religious false promise that all religious and spiritual people have offered since human beings could first look at themselves and wish that things were different, better. It is nothing more than the human wish to transcend itself, our impulse to dream. We are never more fully human than when we do this but never less the gods we wish we were in needing to do it. This is why Bhikkhu seems to have got it all wrong for me. He has been seduced by Buddhism's narrative of salvation and I have not. He seeks to overcome all things and register some kind of win on the cosmic scoreboard whereas I am happy merely to have been if I must be at all.

I, in contrast, offer no way of salvation or "positive" message (where "positive" is, once again, a moral denomination). I, in contrast to the mainstream of humanity under the influence of religion and spirituality, say there is no win for us humans to have whilst simultaneously recognizing that this is what such thinking is really always about. Humans want some kind of win out of life. I say that existence is pointless and mundane and this does not sound like a win at all. It isn't. It turns its back on the very idea of one. This idea of winning, somehow, is what motivates all the escapes and salvations human beings seek. It can surely be a reasonable explanation for them. Being human creates the desire to create a win. Human desire, something identical with us, is the motivating factor here. But, as Buddhism teaches about other things, this too must be viewed dispassionately and given up. We must be emptied of it or forever run after it, seduced by its Siren song. Put away childish desires, become who you are, creatures of the void in an amoral universe, rhetorical beings responsible for yourself and your environment. You do not need some moral/spiritual win out of life and any you did find would be hollow anyway.

Here endeth today's lesson according to Dr Existenz.

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