Buddha's Brain

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha


Posted on June 23, 2014

When I asked students in our teen Dharma study group to submit an essay discussing their beliefs, they shifted uneasily on their cushions.
“What if I don’t believe in anything?” One young man asked with genuine concern. He wasn’t the type to manufacture a bratty excuse to evade an assignment. Others echoed his apprehension as they struggled to generate ideas.
As they left the study group, several students asked….without a hint of irony…..if I could suggest a topic to them. Although I did consider dispensing one of my beliefs, plugging a favorite cause or two, I was too unsettled to act even in my self-interest.
If the honors-level high school seniors in my Dharma study group are typical nonbelievers, then the power to believe is in danger of extinction. More frightening is my Orwellian nightmare that schools may be leading the charge to vaporize belief. Like most cognitive skills, the development of a belief….what Virginia Woolf calls the “fierce attachment to an idea”….requires careful cultivation. It needs a rich soil and ample space to extend its young shoots. It needs a network of roots to sustain it through inclement weather. How can a belief breathe in the tight spaces of Scan-Tron forms (SAT & PSAT forms)? In the formulaic five paragraph essay? In the mad rush through exercises that race to the top and leave no child behind? How can it cleave its way through misconceptions if students are never asked what they think?
Invariably, the first question almost every adolescent writer asks when they begin a writing assignment such as this is whether first person pronouns are permitted. After all, most style manuals discourage the use of “I” in academic writing, insisting on third person, on objectivity, on detachment. But isn’t detaching students from a topic tantamount to denying their right to believe? Removing the “I” from “I believe in this….” leads not to neutrality but to tyranny.
The Buddha taught us in the Kasibharadvaja Sutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, that we ought to have a relationship of belief, practice and wisdom:,
Belief is the seed, practice the rain,
And wisdom is my yoke and plough.
Modesty’s the pole, mind the strap,
Mindfulness my ploughshare and goad
Such belief, it is said, can lead towards liberation. Indeed, a person who is “released by belief” can well, in consequence, be “on the path to arahantship”. It is for such reasons that belief is stated by the Buddha to be appropriate as “a person’s partner” and to be “a man’s best treasure”.
John Stuart Mill said that “one person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 with only interests.” Surely, he never had a college counselor advising him to build a resume of extracurricular interests instead of contemplating his beliefs. Were Socrates teaching in today’s schools, would his students, too, ask whether their pursuit of wisdom would shine on their school transcript?
Given some time to mull over the assignment, my students eventually unearthed a cache of wonderful beliefs buried under years of schooling. They believed in magic and science, in God and poetry, in friendship and true love…..even in the NY Yankees. Liberated by the freedom to express their values, they were also terrified of their peers’ disapproval, for once they attached an “I” to a claim, they could neither hide behind impersonal generalizations nor string together a clothesline of quotes from other sources. As they went around the room sharing their beliefs, they felt their power surge.
The prospect of finding myself in a room of believers would not have appealed to me 20 years ago, but now I say bring on the credos, the manifestos, and the philosophies…..the more, the merrier. All students, regardless of ZIP Code, are entitled to a rich education which includes finding belief. Imagine an academic resume that highlights candidates’ beliefs instead of test scores and activities. This, I believe, could trigger a new era of education…..and maybe even a revolution.

Blinded by Views

Posted on June 11, 2014

Recently, I was told of a big argument that ensued in India among three different lineages of monks. They fought so fiercely for what they “thought” was the absolute correct way to study and practice Buddhism, in its purest form. From what I heard, the argument got so out of control, that the monks began pushing and shoving each other until and Elder stepped in to break it up. Hearing this brought me back to a story I briefly shared a year or so ago, but in a very simplified version. I’d like to go further with it today.
The Buddha tells the following story in the Khuddaka Nikaya (Udana 6.4): Once upon a time in the city of Shravasti there lived a king. One day, the king instructed a servant to round-up in one place a gathering of men who had been blind since birth. “The blind men have been assembled, your majesty,” said the man. The king further instructed him to introduce an elephant to this group of men, such that each could examine it for himself. “This, sir, is an elephant,” the servant said to each of the blind men in turn. But to the first he presented the head of the elephant, to the second, the ear, and so in turn to the rest of the blind men he presented the tusk, trunk, body, foot, backside, tail, and tuft of the tail. At this point the king approached the blind men and asked of each, “Tell me, sir, what is an elephant like?” Each answered according to his own experience, saying in turn that the elephant was like a water pot, a winnowing basket, a plowshare, a plow pole, a granary, a pillar, a mortar, a pestle, and a broom.
This much of the tale is generally well-known. But how it ends, and the point the Buddha was making by telling this story, is less commonly recognized. We understand the point that any single thing might have multiple different components and perspectives, and that our understanding of any particular issue is going to be limited by the extent of our own direct experience. But in its original telling the story goes on to say that these nine blind men began quarrelling about the nature of the elephant, each one saying, “The elephant is like this, not like that,” and “The elephant is not like that, it is like this.” Eventually they came to blows and began striking one another with their fists. The king who had called them all together sat back and watched, we are told, with great amusement. The entire enterprise had been, from the start, a form of entertainment for the king.
The Buddha told this story in response to a conflict between many teachers of different traditions living in the same vicinity. Not only did they all have differing views, opinions, and beliefs, but they also depended upon these differing views for their livelihood. And it may not entirely surprise us to hear that “they lived arguing, quarreling, and disputing, stabbing each other with verbal daggers, saying, ‘The dhamma is like this, it’s not like that,’ and ‘The dhamma is not like that, it’s like this.’” Does any of this sound familiar? What the king seemed to know is the extent to which views, beliefs, and opinions in human beings link directly to very primitive instincts for defending what belongs to oneself and attacking what is regarded as belonging to others. The whole enterprise of creating “belonging” as part of our construction of reality, along with the sense of “self” to which it all belongs, is perceived by the Buddha to be the root cause of the suffering we inflict upon ourselves and others. It is one thing to have a difference of opinion with someone else; it is something else entirely to have this difference become the basis for stoking the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.
It is natural that most issues are complex, and that people will have different perspectives on them. It is also inevitable that most perspectives will derive from a limited range of experience and are unlikely to embrace the whole. It may be further understandable that people express their differences of opinion, engaging in mutual dialogue and debate. What is utterly unnecessary, the Buddha seems to be is saying here, is that such differences need to escalate to stabbing each other with verbal daggers, striking one another with fists, and worse. At that tipping point, something profoundly unhealthy happens, as primordial mechanisms of aggression and defense kick in. Once this happens, the original content of the dispute is lost and the impulses of the self take over: the need to establish oneself, defend oneself, aggrandize oneself, and generally attack and injure anything viewed as not in agreement with oneself.
The problem, as usual, is not with the content but with the process. So the solution is to be found not in what we believe, but in how we hold those beliefs. The solution to differing views is not some objective standard by means of which those with wrong views can simply learn what is true and change to right views. Such a reference point does not in fact exist in our postmodern world of diversity and the local construction of meaning. Rather, the key to harmony is learning to differ in opinions without engaging the fatal move of saying, “Only this is true; everything else is wrong.”
In the Canki Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 95), the Buddha outlines some of the ways we gain knowledge: accepting it on faith, going along with what people generally approve, receiving a tradition that has been handed down through generations, working it out through reasoned argument, or accepting a view after careful reflection. He then goes on to say about each of these that regardless of what one believes, it may turn out to be “factual, true, and unmistaken,” or it may turn out to be “empty, hollow, and false.” Since one can seldom ever really be sure which is the case, truth is best served by recognizing a viewpoint as only a viewpoint, and refraining from taking that extra step of regarding it as true to the exclusion of all other views. In other words, all views….even correct views…..are best held gently, rather than grasped firmly.
The point of the story is not just that most things have multiple different perspectives, but the absurdity of being attached to only one viewpoint and the harm that can ensue when one does so. So by all means let’s disagree on things, and even, if need be, let’s do so vociferously. But let’s also try not to take it all personally. That’s when the fists start flying.


Posted on June 5, 2014

Saturn (Courtesy of NASA)

Saturn (Courtesy of NASA)

Last night, I was thumbing through an Astronomy periodical that seemed intellectually “over my head”. Much of the jargon used seemed unfriendly and unapproachable, but I managed to surrender to the truly beautiful and amazing photos that were poised throughout. Photos of sunbursts and comets. Star bursts and meteor showers. Galaxies, auroras and solar storms. Photos of the Mars mission and how amazing the face of Mars looks….much like a Southwest desert. And then there it was…the most beautiful photo of Saturn and all its rings! Spectacular! I’ve always had a fascination with Saturn…perhaps because it’s the oddball of the bunch…a sentiment easy enough for me to relate to! After a short while my mind began to wander…..space aliens, robots, and clones don’t have belly buttons….this is a common trope and test of otherness on TV and in the movies. Yet I remember finding this devastatingly clever when I first encountered it on TV as a youngster. Did ET have a belly button? I don’t think so. It was interesting to me that you could be perfectly human in every way (a glowing heart; finding common ground in music/sound in Close Encounters), but if you lack this one tiny, seemingly insignificant detail, then you are revealed to be not of this world. It felt like an important lesson: little facts that are easily overlooked can turn out to be crucial. By the way, did Adam and Eve have navels? How could they? Yet what did it mean if they did not? This silly little mark turned out to be a door to mystery.
In the same way, the Buddha’s three marks or seals of existence can seem like insignificant details of our lives, no big deal…until they are. The first of the marks is that all things in this phenomenal and temporal world (including you and I) are impermanent. Everything changes yet nothing disappears completely…the state of things change. Secondly, all things in this world (including our mental constructs and machinations) lack a separate and inviolate selfhood….everything is subject to causes and conditions, everything is influenced by other things and made up of other smaller parts that themselves contain smaller parts. The third mark or seal of existence is knowing that such a changeable, a dependent world is bound to lead to frustration, anxiety, unease, suffering…..“dukkha” in the language of the early Buddhist’s texts. Nirvana is waking up from the fever dream that we can control such a world.
Life is precious. Our job is to figure out why. So we sit on our cushions and breathe. One breath ends, the next begins. We sink down into the earth, where the inhale and the exhale meet….head into each other….exchange positions, dying over and over for each other: giving life to us, like the seed that dies in order to become a tree. We’re dying and being reborn every instant of our lives….blink, and your 21st birthday becomes your 70th, your dimples now wrinkles, your face a map of everywhere you’ve been and all you’ve done in that blink of an eye. It’s a beautiful world.
As I finish this, the sun is rising overhead, which means it’s setting somewhere else. A jet is gurgling across the sky, going from here to there, and back again. Droplets of rain float down from that same sky, where it will return once more. And Saturn surely is out there spinning in all it’s magical, oddball beauty! Everything is as it should be….except for me, and maybe you. But don’t worry, we are getting there too…..

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