January 6, 2011
A. I discovered a book called A Whole New Mind, by Daniel H. Pink. It’s a business book, published in 2005. It’s very popular, a bestseller. It argues that the Information Age is giving way to the Conceptual Age, and logical, linear thinking is becoming less important than intuition and “big picture” thinking. Does it intersect with what I call The Philosophy of Today?
B. There’s a new book on Montaigne, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Click here for a New York Times review.
C. I saw a movie called Best in Show (2000). It’s about dog shows. It’s called a “mockumentary” — that is, a tongue-in-cheek documentary. It has some funny scenes, but on the whole, I don’t recommend it. It’s saturated with sex, and has the low taste that is Hollywood’s trademark.
D. As I watch my daughter’s basketball games, I’m reminded of Gulliver’s Travels. Girls who are stars in the less-competitive town league are bench-warmers in the more-competitive school league, as Gulliver is a giant in Lilliput, and a midget in Brobdingnag. Parents are often heard to say things like, “my daughter scored 20 points in a town-league game, but never took a shot in the school-league game.” Parents are often baffled that the same girl can perform so differently. Like Swift’s novel, sports illustrate the principle of relativity.
Saw an exciting documentary called Irish Escape, part of a PBS series, “Secrets of the Dead.” It tells how six Irish revolutionaries (“The Fremantle Six”) escaped from a British prison in Fremantle, Australia. Highly recommended.
Another episode in the same series is called The Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone. Livingstone was a famous Scottish explorer, doctor, and missionary who mapped central Africa, and was the first European to see Victoria Falls. One of his main goals was to find the source of the Nile, but he failed to do so. He did, however, expose the brutality of the slave trade, and helped put an end to it. He also developed remedies for diseases like malaria, remedies that were used by overseas Brits for many years. (For more on Livingstone and other explorers of Africa, see The White Nile and The Blue Nile, both by Alan Moorehead. Moorehead also wrote about explorers in Australia and the South Pacific, several books about World War II, The Russian Revolution, Darwin and the Beagle, etc.)
Lost in the Amazon is another episode of “Secrets of the Dead.” It describes a 1925 expedition by British explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett was attempting to find the “Lost City of Z,” which he thought was in central Brazil. Fawcett and his cohorts disappeared; it’s assumed that Fawcett was murdered. Many people journeyed into central Brazil to resolve the mystery of Fawcett’s disappearance, and many of them never returned.
Fawcett may have been inspired by Hiram Bingham’s 1911 discovery of Machu Picchu in Peru. He may also have been inspired by Madame Blavatsky, who believed there were wise men in remote areas, especially Tibet, and in lost cities. Fawcett believed that Brazil’s interior once had a larger population, and this belief has received some confirmation from the discovery of earthen mounds constructed in large squares; such construction projects seem to require a substantial population.
Before his 1925 expedition, Fawcett had traveled extensively in South America. Once, when his party was attacked by natives, he pacified the attackers by playing music. Fawcett was friends with Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle; Doyle’s novel The Lost World was apparently inspired by Fawcett’s adventures.
The American novelist John Dos Passos is rarely read today, but perhaps he deserves more attention. He was born in 1896, before Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe, and he outlived all those writers, dying in 1970. In 1936, Sartre called Dos Passos “the greatest writer of our time.”1 Dos Passos was a prolific writer, producing 42 novels, as well as historical books, travel books, and a memoir. His fiction has been described as experimental, non-linear, a collage. One of his most popular novels is an early work, Manhattan Transfer, which deals with life in New York City. Perhaps his magnum opus is U.S.A., a trilogy that he wrote in his thirties.
Dos Passos’s father was a wealthy lawyer of Portuguese descent. Dos Passos attended a boarding school, The Choate School, toured Europe with a private tutor, then attended Harvard. During World War I, he and his friend E. E. Cummings volunteered for the Ambulance Corps, and were sent to Europe.
In the 1920s, Dos Passos strayed from his father’s pro-business creed, became sympathetic to socialism, and studied socialism in Russia. In the 1930s, however, he went to Spain during the civil war, and became an anti-communist, partly because he blamed the Soviets for murdering his friend and translator, Josť Robles. While he was in Spain, Dos Passos broke with Hemingway, perhaps because Hemingway didn’t share his anti-communist views. In the early 1950s, Dos Passos admired the anti-communist crusader Joe McCarthy, and in the late 1950s, he wrote for the conservative National Review. This drift to the Right probably contributed to the decline of Dos Passos’s popularity, but it wasn’t the sole cause of this decline; according to Wikipedia, “there is a consensus among critics that the quality of his novels drastically declined following U.S.A.”
Dos Passos was a painter as well as a writer. “While Dos Passos never gained recognition as a great artist, he continued to paint throughout his lifetime and his body of work was well respected.”2
Though I haven’t read Dos Passos, his photo on Wikipedia persuades me of his genius.
Sinclair Lewis was born in Minnesota in 1885, so he was about ten years older than Dos Passos. Lewis was the son of a doctor, and he attended Yale. In his late teens, he had spells of religious enthusiasm (religious and moral enthusiasm is often found among adolescents).
Like Dos Passos, Lewis is rarely read today, but in his time, no American writer, not even Hemingway, was more prominent or more widely read. Lewis was the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize, and his novel Main Street sold millions of copies; Main Street has been called “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.”3 Published in 1920, Main Street is “a realistic novel about small-town life.”4 Among Lewis’s other novels are Babbitt, Dodsworth, and Arrowsmith. Several of his novels were made into movies; Dodsworth is especially esteemed by film critics.
Lewis drank heavily, and died at 65.
Sinclair Lewis should not be confused with Upton Sinclair, who was born in 1878, seven years before Sinclair Lewis. When Upton Sinclair was 28, he published The Jungle, a novel that exposed the Chicago meat-packing industry. A champion of left-wing causes, Upton Sinclair ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket. He was interested in the occult, and in 1930, he published a book about telepathy called Mental Radio. He lived to the age of 90, and wrote close to 100 books.
I read the chapter on Buddhism in Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. It’s an excellent introduction to Buddhism — as good as the chapter on Hinduism. Smith begins with a sketch of the Buddha’s life. Perhaps we can summarize the Buddha’s life with a quote from Blake: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” The son of a king, the Buddha began with excessive luxury, then switched to excessive asceticism, then preached a Middle Way, avoiding the extremes of both luxury and asceticism.
Smith describes the Budda as “a man of enormous will-power,” and says that, during his ascetic period, he was passionate in his self-denial: “He ate so little — six grains of rice a day during one of his fasts — that ‘when I thought I would touch the skin of my stomach I actually took hold of my spine.’”5 His breakthrough came after he gave up on asceticism.
Then the Buddha spent forty-five years preaching and teaching. He was a busy man, but he took time to step back, and “recharge his batteries.” His life followed
Smith is much impressed with the Buddha:
Smith speaks of the Buddha’s “strange power of soul, which, even when he did not speak a word, gripped the hearts of his visitors and left them transformed.”9
Smith compares Buddhism to Protestantism. As Protestantism rebelled against Catholic perversions, so Buddhism was “a religion of reaction against Hindu perversions.”10 Smith tries to explain Buddhism by contrasting it with Hinduism, and with religion in general. This leads him to set forth six characteristics of religion:
Having set forth the characteristics of religion, Smith proceeds to say that Buddhism, in its original form, lacks all of them. Perhaps we should call Buddhism “the un-religion.” The Buddha’s revolt against authority was a revolt against the Hindu clergy, against the Brahmin caste, which maintained a monopoly in religious matters, and kept religious knowledge secret. The Buddha kept no secrets, and insisted that rites and ceremonies were of no account.
He also steered clear of speculation, of metaphysics: “his practical program was exacting, and he was not going to let his disciples be diverted from the hard road of practice into fields of fruitless speculation.”12 The Buddha’s focus was on suffering, and the remedy for suffering. He compared the suffering individual to a person hit by a poison arrow; we should pull out the arrow, says the Buddha, and heal the wound, not argue about what kind of wood it’s made from, etc. Don’t let intellectual debates distract you from the chief matter, which is suffering.
The Buddha wasn’t preoccupied with tradition, and he abandoned the traditional priestly language, Sanskrit. He taught in the vernacular, as Martin Luther abandoned Latin, and translated the Bible into German.
In the Buddha’s time, a kind of fatalism had settled over the people; “many had come to accept the round of birth and rebirth as unending.”13 The Buddha tried to rouse people to take charge of their own life; he preached “self-arousal and initiative.... ‘Here is a path to the end of suffering. Tread it!’”14 Our past experiences, and past lives, influence us, but don’t control us. “People remain at liberty to shape their destinies.”15
The Buddha was no friend of the occult; he regarded it as a distraction from his practical program.
After the Buddha died, his “un-religion” became a religion: “After his death all the accoutrements that the Buddha labored to protect his religion from came tumbling into it, but as long as he lived he kept them at bay.”17 As time passed, Buddhism grew closer to Hinduism, and Hinduism adopted some Buddhist reforms, so it was difficult to distinguish one religion from the other. Buddhism died out in India, but some of its beliefs and practices lived on within Hinduism.
Smith sums up the original form of Buddhism thus: It was empirical, it avoided reasoning and arguing, and it appealed to personal experience. It tried to solve practical problems. It was psychological, focusing on the individual, not the universe. It was egalitarian, directing its message to both genders, and to all castes. According to tradition, the Buddha’s last words were, “Work out your own salvation with diligence.”18
The Buddha taught “Four Noble Truths.” Though they each require explanation, we can start by listing them in concise form:
The first Noble Truth (life is suffering, dukkha) might be interpreted to mean that Buddhism is pessimistic. Smith argues, however, that it isn’t pessimistic because it thinks suffering can be alleviated. Furthermore, the whole tenor of Indian thought is optimistic: “Everything in Indian thought,” said Heinrich Zimmer, “supports the basic insight that, fundamentally, all is well. A supreme optimism prevails everywhere.”19
The second Noble Truth (the cause of suffering is desire, tanha) might be interpreted to mean that Buddhism advocates apathy (“stay in bed, don’t do anything”). In fact, the Buddha approved of certain desires, such as the desire for spiritual growth, and the desire for the happiness of others. What he disapproved of is selfish desire, “the desire for private fulfillment.”20 Since the world is one, since life is one, other people aren’t really “other,” they’re extensions of ourselves, aspects of ourselves. We shouldn’t see ourselves as separate and single, and we shouldn’t nourish selfish desires that accentuate separateness.
The third Noble Truth says that we can overcome suffering by freeing ourselves from selfish desires: “If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-interest into the vast expanse of universal life, we would be relieved of our torment.”21
The fourth Noble Truth says that to free ourselves from selfish desires, and overcome suffering, we should follow the Eightfold Path. But before Smith describes the Eightfold Path, he says that the Buddha emphasized the importance of “right association” — consorting with people who can further our spiritual growth. If you want to become enlightened, you should associate with one who is enlightened.22
Now let’s turn to the Eightfold Path:
In a section called Basic Buddhist Concepts, Smith says that nirvana is sometimes translated as extinction, but actually it means extinction of the ego, the finite self, and the beginning of the “boundless life.”31 Smith also discusses the Buddha’s conception of God. He says that the Buddha didn’t believe in “a personal being who created the universe by deliberate design.... If absence of a personal Creator-God is atheism, Buddhism is atheistic.”32
Next Smith discusses the Buddha’s doctrine of anatta, which says that man doesn’t have a soul. In the Buddha’s time, the soul was conceived as a “spiritual substance that... retains its separate identity forever.”33 The Buddha denied the existence of this spiritual substance, as quantum physics might deny the existence of substance. So the Buddha’s so-called denial of soul is actually closer to a denial of substance than a denial of what we would call soul. When we speak of “soul,” we’re contrasting it with matter or substance; the Buddha may well have shared our conception of soul. So I find the Buddha’s doctrine of anatta congenial. It would be a mistake to say, “The Buddha denied the soul, therefore he’s a materialist.” The Buddha accepted reincarnation — something a materialist wouldn’t do.34
The Buddha denied not only spiritual substance, but substance in general. “It is impossible to read much Buddhist literature without catching its sense of the transitoriness (anicca) of everything finite, its recognition of the perpetual perishing of every natural object.”35 This reminds us of quantum physics, and in earlier issues, we pointed out the many parallels between Eastern philosophy and quantum physics. The Buddha spoke frequently about transitoriness, anicca:
After the Buddha died, Buddhism split into sects. One sect said that Buddhism is a full-time job, and you should join a monastery. Another sect addressed itself to society as a whole — the layman as well as the monk — hence it was called The Big Raft, Mahayana. The first sect was dubbed The Little Raft, Hinayana. But the Hinayanans preferred to call their sect Theravada, The Way of the Elders, suggesting that their way was original Buddhism. “The sangha (Buddhist monastic order) is at the heart of Theravada Buddhism.”37 Monks and nuns are
The Theravada sect predominates in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia, while the Mahayana sect predominates in China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.
The Theravada sect was more inner-directed, and emphasized wisdom (bodhi). The Mahayana sect was more other-directed, and emphasized compassion (karuna). The ideal, for the Theravada sect, was the lone seeker, the solitary wise man, the arhat. For the Mahayana sect, on the other hand, the ideal was the boddhisattva, who postponed his own entrance to nirvana in order to help others. Smith says that the best-loved boddhisattva is the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin (Guanyin). He also says that the Dalai Lama is regarded as a bodhisattva.39
Now Smith turns his attention to Zen, an offshoot of the Mahayana sect. Zen was brought from India to China in 520 AD by Bodhidharma, and it spread to Japan in the 12th century. In China, Zen was influenced by Taoism. Thus, Zen blends India and China, Buddhism and Taoism.
Like other Buddhist sects, Zen traces its origin to the Buddha himself. But while other sects cite scripture, Zen claims to embody the Buddha’s subtler, unspoken message, conveyed in (among other things) The Flower Sermon, when the Buddha said nothing, but simply held aloft a flower. Zen sages are men of few words, or none; they prefer to act, or gesture, lest the disciple get bogged down in words and concepts. Zen aims to “force the student to crash the word-barrier. Minds must be sprung from their verbal bonds into a new mode of apprehending.”40
Zen uses koans to baffle reason; “Zen tries to drive the mind to a state of agitation wherein it hurls itself against its logical cage with the desperation of a cornered rat.... It counts on a flash of sudden insight to bridge the gap between secondhand and firsthand life.”42 The koan is like a Zen dissertation, and a Zen student may wrestle with his koan for many years. Twice a day, he meets with his master to discuss his progress (these meetings are called sanzen). One of the master’s jobs is “to keep the student energized and determined during the long years the training requires.”43
For centuries, Zen has been transmitted from person to person; a master (roshi) is chosen not for his writings, but for his state of mind. Smith mentions one master who taught 900 students, of whom only 13 completed their training, and only 4 became roshis and were authorized to teach.
Zen training may lead to sudden enlightenment (satori), which “comes in a flash, exploding like a silent rocket deep within the subject and throwing everything into a new perspective.”44 Experiencing satori has been described as being in the everyday world, except two inches off the ground. “Being’s amazingness must be directly realized.”45 A Zen master might experience satori dozens of times, and he may feel that the bliss of satori compensates him for long years of training.
Zen is positive, affirmative:
Such a person no longer hates and loves, he accepts everything, accepts the sunshine and the rain. “The experiencer has passed beyond the opposites of preference and rejection.”47 He even passes beyond the opposites of life and death:
Tibetan Buddhism (also called Tantric Buddhism) claims that it can reach nirvana in a single lifetime. How do they intend to reach nirvana so quickly? While other sects keep still, the Tantrics utilize the energies of the body, and they’re known for their chanting, dancing, and sexuality. They believe that while the sensory world can be distracting, it doesn’t have to be so, it can be put to good use. “The Tibetans’ bodies are always moving. The lamas prostrate themselves, weave stylized hand gestures, pronounce sacred syllables, and intone deep-throated chants. Audially and visually, something is always going on.”49
Their chants are called mantras, their gestures mudras, their icons mandalas. So adept have they become at chanting that “by a vocal device found nowhere else in the world, they reshape their vocal cavities in ways that amplify overtones to the point where they can be heard as discrete tones in their own right.”50 So adept have they become at visualizing, that they can see the gods they’re invoking, and they try to merge with them “the better to appropriate their powers and their virtues.”51
Even their clothing is sensual: “...wearing headgear that ranges from crowns to wild shamanic hats; garbed in maroon robes, which they periodically smother in sumptuous vestments of silver, scarlet, and gold...”53
Smith laments the damage done to Tibetan culture by the Chinese: “As rain forests are to the earth’s atmosphere... so are the Tibetan people to the human spirit.”54
At the end of the Buddhism chapter, Smith gives “Suggestions For Further Reading.” He recommends The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau, and he recommends Peaks and Lamas, by Marco Pallis, calling it “one of the finest spiritual travelogues ever written.”
Smith also recommends Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, by Lama Govinda. Govinda was born in 1898 in Germany, where his name was Ernst Lothar Hoffman. Wikipedia says that he
Smith also mentions a German-Jewish convert to Buddhism, Siegmund Feniger, who took the name Nyanaponika Thera. While Lama Govinda left Sri Lanka and switched to Tibetan Buddhism, Nyanaponika Thera stayed in Sri Lanka, and remained a member of the Theravada sect. His best-known book is The Heart of Buddhist Meditation.
Another convert to Buddhism is Anton Gueth, who was born in 1878, and took the name Nyanatiloka Thera. He wrote various books on Buddhism, and an autobiography that is contained in a biography called The Life of Nyanatiloka: The Biography of a Western Buddhist Pioneer.
Consider also Introduction to Tantra by Lama Yeshe.
A popular book from the Hindu tradition is Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), which has been translated into 28 languages, and has sold more than 4 million copies. Another popular book from the Hindu tradition is Be Here Now (1971) by Ram Dass; Be Here Now has been called a counter-culture Bible.
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|5.|| Ch. 3, p. 85, paperback edition back|
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|40.|| Ch. 3, p. 132. Smith compares Zen’s scorn for theories with Kierkegaard’s scorn for Hegel’s metaphysics. And he compares Zen’s emphasis on paradox with Kierkegaard’s view that the most rewarding Christian exercise is pondering the paradox of the Incarnation. back|
|41.|| Mumonkan is also known as The Gateless Gate, and it’s part of a book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones; in my Realms of Gold, I discuss Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and I describe The Gateless Gate as “highly obscure.” back|
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|49.|| Ch. 3, p. 142. Tantra isn’t exclusively Tibetan, or exclusively Buddhist; there are also Tantric schools within Hinduism. These schools regard “meat, wine, and sex — things that had formerly appeared as the most formidable barriers to the divine — as but varying forms of God.”(ch. 3, p. 149) back|
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|52.|| Ch. 3, p. 141. In an earlier issue, we discussed The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which (if I remember correctly) doesn’t talk about dancing or sexuality, though it does mention gurus who had ‘spiritual wives.’ back|
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