Part V, third instalment:
This third instalment is intended to be the last, for the time being, that discusses the philosophical basis upon which Buddhist beliefs and practices rest. It takes quite an effort of will to decide to draw a line here, since this philosophy section has been growing exponentially out of what was originally a single magazine article in the original series. At the time of publication I remember feeling that, in order to fit the space-constraints and projected attention span of the casual reader, we had made some editing decisions that seemed a bit brutal. I was concerned that we might have dealt rather too breezily with some weighty concepts, sometimes coming close to just saying: “that’s one thing that Buddhists believe, okay – got that? Well, here’s another…”. This may well have been the right thing to do in that context, but then when the idea came up of putting these pieces online, with an assumption of perhaps a little more specific interest in the subject matter, I found myself looking forward to “de-editing” and expanding it somewhat, and then found that every time I sat down to “just add a few details, polish and wrap it up”, it grew. And grew…
What’s my excuse for that? Is it just “Ha! No editor to boss me around, it’s my website and I’ll rant if I want to!” [whilst fantasizing vast crowds, hanging on my every word – the interwebs are great, like that] Well, I’m trying to check myself for that tendency on a regular basis – never think you’re too big and clever for delusion, that’s one way it gets you. But there is another reason. There are two, in fact:
Everything of substance that I have been embroidering around the basic cloth of “say what the Four Nobles Truths” are – which is admittedly at the cost of some “tidiness” in terms of summarising a single topic – has been because I feel that such an exercise is usually pretty meaningless. That’s a strong statement. I should probably add something like “except in specific circumstances, such as producing a reference guide for academics, or perhaps for experienced practitioners to use within a context of solid practice over time, and who already have a good understanding of the function and purpose of these ideas.”
So – purpose. None of these ideas exists for its own sake. All of this is for something. Even if someone were to argue that – as in physics – true principles just are, and so it would be arrogant and humanocentric to suggest that, for example; what we might call laws of aerodynamics exist so that we can fly; their being so named and formulated, and studied and perfected in written form, certainly does. So remembering this at the start and then actually flying at the end, to me, is bloody philosophy in the Nietszchean sense – meaningfully and practically engaging our intellects with our realities. The rest is just bloody philosophy – best enjoyed with a fat spliff, some drunken friends, and no important issues on the horizon.
This means that a useful idea will usually need to be presented attached to at least the back end of something else – which will be whatever gave rise to the need for it – and at least the beginning of where it is then leading you. What it does. And if you can’t say what those two things are, then you might well ask yourself why you’re studying this thing, and – fascinating as it may be – whether there is some more useful way your precious and limited time could be spent. Studying highly dissected, tidy philosophy strikes me as being akin to a medical student trying to understand how a single organ works, while knowing nothing of the body.
This then, is why I set out to summarise the Four Noble Truths, but actually devoted more time to their ignoble mutant cousins, inbred and deformed by the mental poisons we call kilesa (principally greed, hatred and delusion), which I suppose could make the Noble Truths be – kind of the liver. Which you could only properly understand if you first knew all about all the various stuff that gets ingested, and what that’s going to do to you unprocessed. So then [set that metaphor to WORK!] out from the philosophy-liver flow many detoxified and nutritious substances, but first amongst these should be a clear sense that our philosophising is helping us face up to our challenges. To see what we need to do, understand it better, and to do it.
Two Parables: one from Buddha, one from me
In the “Parable of the Arrow” a man is rushed from the battlefield to a surgeon’s tent with an arrow, suspected to be poisoned, sticking somewhere in his tender regions. A conversation ensues, asking various questions about the range, the type of bow, and by whom it was shot (which might give clues to what kind of poison it is), and these continue to get increasingly detailed and refined until at a certain point, when we are beginning to feel that the next question will be concerning the marksman’s golf handicap or favourite Netflix series [to update the parable a little], the patient dies. No comment necessary.
In the “Parable of the Moshpit” a crowd is rowdily demanding of the covers band on stage that the encore be “Smells Like Teen Spirit” [Nirvana – see what I did there?] and so the lead singer shows them the sheet music. That is indeed the requested song, and quite possibly a more accurate version than an unrehearsed rendition by a pick-up band. But does that hit the spot? Well – pretty soon it may be urine-filled water bottles that will be hitting some spots unless they can do a bit better than that. He could tell them that it’s an E chord strummed with a dotted-quaver/semiquaver/crotchet rhythm, followed by a quick bit of muted chugging before changing to an A chord, and then the same thing but with G and C, all repeated… and this will likely be answered by the ominous sound of many trouser zips opening in unison.
He could get on the mic and say “Ringgg-ge-dick, [ticky-ticky] Ding, Ding…[etc.]…BLAH!-dum-do-BLAH!-dum-do-BLAT! brrrr-ROWW!!!” which is getting closer, because it is (just about) arguably a rendition of the requested tune, and furthermore could be taken as a cue by another musician who knows the song to join in and actually play it, but it’s still not right, is it? The little steamy missiles will be half-full by now [I’m an optimist – a piss-bottle only half-full kind of guy…] but I don’t know – how far shall we take this? A note-perfect performance on pan-pipes? Wouldn’t recommend that in the Walkabout on a Friday night.
It’s probably clear to you by now that I’m working up to “play the damn song already”, so I shouldn’t bother milking this any further – but there’s a little bit more to it than that. Just trotting out an ad hoc version of the song still isn’t Kurt, Kris & Dave back in ’92, is it? You might get away with it – enough to save on the dry-cleaning bill anyway, especially if they’re drunk enough – but on some level they’ll still know that wasn’t necessarily quite it. The thing is: they don’t exactly want just Teen Spirit per se, even though they think they do. Still, maybe you could deliver the goods even if you don’t really know the words [nobody really does – “a Gazebo – wearing Speedos…” that’ll do] as long as your drummer can keep smashing out the kick/snare paradiddles at triple-forte like some kind of highly accurate rampaging buffalo. What they truly want is what Teen Spirit most meaningfully is, which is what it does to them, for it is – distilled essence of headbang. You could equally hit them with “Enter Sandman” if your drummer’s not up to the original demand – which would do the same thing. And Nothing Else Matters (I was tired, okay? Long gig). Get the heads banging, no piss bottles, everybody happy.
Parables, like jokes, should never really need to be explained after the punchline – or they’re not good parables. Hopefully those will suffice to convey the proper Buddhist view of fancy metaphysical, speculatin’, philosophisin’ table-talk. And that strikes me as a good lead-in to addressing another core doctrine that really can’t go overlooked. It’s included in the Four Noble Truths’ bullet-points, for a start. I’ll admit that I’m not really looking forward to broaching this, because it’s a tricky one and, if misapprehended, can sail very close to the foul and stinky wind of pointless pseudo-intellectual psychobabble that I have spent the last thousand-or-so words loudly eschewing. I have however, and as I hope you will see, been hinting at it for quite a while now:
Getting Down with your Bad Self
In an act of blatant Dhamma-smuggling, in a few of the preceding articles I’ve been obliquely trying to plant a few seeds of another important idea in Buddhadhamma, which goes by the name of “Anatta”. Go ahead and look that up, and see how the definition strikes you. Or let’s say the top ten Google hits. I just did that, and while most of those did indeed refer in some way to this core Dhamma concept, there were also a couple of wildcards, including an “eCommerce Development Agency” where ponytailed nincompoops offered to “scale my digital brand in health, wellness, and sustainable fashion” and to be brutally frank: that seemed to me only slightly more nonsensical, and less relevant to anything I cared about than much of what I found in the other nine hits.
Or, put more directly: it’s a subtle concept, easily misunderstood or misrepresented. Much of what you’ll see or hear about it is – hidden beneath complexity and detail – vague, cryptic, or just plain wrong. Not all, and I’m not dismissing more scholarly takes, of course. If you show the sheet music to a musician who can read it, then that’s another way to communicate, and a very efficient one in the right context. But heads must bang. If not – then let fly the stinky vessels of yellow opprobrium. And much of what isn’t wrong can still be pretty hard to get a handle on, and even then it can be difficult to see how to carry over into having a meaningful impact on how we live our lives. I’ll try very hard to not add to that confusion…
What it basically states is that: as we strip away various layers of idiocy, ignorance, neurosis, trauma, resentfulness, greed, hatred, delusion…(I could go on…) and weird pretentious theories of “who we are”; if we’re hoping to at some point get down to a “True Self” that will be shorn of all of these, but leaving the bits you like, and that this will be a stable and enduring thing – the end of your spiritual journey – well, prepare to be disappointed. There is no such thing, you never get to it. We no more possess a “real me”, or even eternal soul, than does a table. A table, of course, is only called that for ease of communication, and only insofar as we are looking for, or pondering, “things to put other things on”. From other points of view it is equally firewood, trash, a barricade, a part of a matching set of furniture, a part of a tree, a cluster of molecules, or if you’re a termite it could be “home”. All that anyone, or anything, actually is, is no more than whatever story we are currently telling about it.
And why do I think this rather elusive and esoteric-seeming concept might actually matter to someone with a real problem to deal with in the here and now? Well – let’s get out of the theory-zone before trying to answer that: I quit using hard drugs two decades ago, and subsequently spent slightly under half that time hanging around a monastery containing a detox facility. And slightly over half that time hanging around in the music industry. That all adds up to a lot of hanging out with people who have some kind of substance-dependency that they need to tackle, in varying degrees of urgency. Which further means – because it’s just the nature of the beast – that I have seen a lot more failure than I have success.
There could be many different reasons for failure, and we can often not say with any certainty what they might be in individual cases. However. If I were to identify a single common symptom that I have met with more often than any other, it would be a kind of stubborn, mulish resistance to any positive suggestions of useful changes that could be made – all the kinds of things that I have been talking about in previous articles – which sometimes baffles the addict as much as it does the person trying to help them. “Why do I keep self-sabotaging?” they’ll ask, ruefully, in moments of calm and clarity. Before enthusiastically discussing more strategies for moving forward – which will either fail to be implemented; or perhaps be implemented for a while, followed by an equal-and-opposite backlash into lethargy; or even provoke outright hostility and rejection. Or in less confrontational types, they’ll revert to carrying on much as before, only more stealthily.
Why indeed? Admittedly, some of that is because we see a considerable amount of the manipulative types of personality disorders in addiction-world [which is also just the nature of the beast] who may tend towards viewing any apparently kind person showing concern as: “Game On!!!” So all that talk was horseshit from the start, and they knew it was. Or at least half-knew. I’m still trying to formulate a good constructively compassionate response to those – it’s a tricky problem.
But even among more sincere quitters, we often see a similar thing. I have spent time with people experiencing what I believe to be genuine distress and frustration over these kinds of snakes-and-ladders cycles. And I don’t just mean the major relapses – which could possibly be blamed on “the strength of the addiction” – but in smaller things. Things that aren’t even all that hard to do, and might even be pleasant and rewarding. Steps towards freedom and beyond that are clearly beneficial, clearly desired, and among people who are in no doubt anymore that relapse offers nothing but more misery and degradation. So that’s weird. But immediately familiar to anyone who has worked with, or just been around, addiction – it’s very common.
A Dhammic reading of that could be that it’s just a self that doesn’t want to die. It is in the nature of living things to fight back when threatened with destruction, no matter how rotten, weary and joyless they know themselves to be. As long as you identify with a self, then you’ll feel that as an existential threat on a very deep level, whatever the more sophisticated parts of your psyche might have to say about that. So help=harm, cutting pieces off me. Survival instincts come into play, triggering hard-wired defence and defiance behaviours. Time and again, I have dealt with people expressing a heartfelt wish to be free, and yet meeting every proposition about changing any element of the system that enforces their enslavement with desperate clinging – with ready excuses, anger, spite, or deception. And feeling powerless to stop that, even to the point of being suicidal.
Wisdom from outside the Buddhist world often recognises this – mythical representations of death, or a symbolic descent into the underworld, being the only path that leads to a phoenix-like arising anew. Yep – there’s a harsh truth that this self is not your friend, even though it is your closest companion. It is weighing you down, dragging you into the earth. You must kill your self (not kill yourself!) in order to live. That takes huge courage and faith, or desperation in the absence of faith. It can, of course be done…
But it might be easier for a mythical hero (and we’re all mythical heroes when we’re taking on a dragon like this) to plunge the sword in when they have already at least started to dissociate their dysfunctional self-software with “me”. And for someone who has established a meditation practice in which they regularly quiet, still, or even dissolve the ego – to find that all the elements of value remain, consciousness remains, and that this little death ain’t so bad – definitely a lot easier.
Every time you watch these elements drift apart in the absence of an organising self-principle, is an opportunity to see that they don’t need this parasitic tyrant cracking the whip in order to exist. Is an opportunity to see that “hating yourself” (often justifiably!) doesn’t have to mean punishing this collection of elements (some of them wonderful!) that has the job of walking around and answering to your name, and paying your taxes. Every time you “come back” after an hour on the cushion is an opportunity to re-assemble all of these in a better and more functional configuration. You can think of meditation as a rehearsal for this mythical death [maybe even for the actual, physical one as well] that you have to painfully submit to every time you face a self-generated obstacle that has to be cleared first if you are to live, and thrive, and flourish.
Alright, I realise that’s all a bit much to take on trust. Of course it is – it is what we call an “insight”. That’s something that can only be properly experienced directly. You have to live that, and live it as really and tangibly as you do off the meditation cushion doing anything else – from scratching your nose, to eating lunch, to cutting your own flesh, and of course – to taking another hit of whatever poison is feeding you living-death by the millilitre. It usually starts to happen during meditation, and I don’t mean after a few months, or as the result of a weekend mindfulness workshop. And it doesn’t just happen with a bang, and then you’ve “got it”, it’s progressive, and usually has steps backwards, as well as forwards. So it probably isn’t worth spending much more time right now on trying to explain technically what full insight might mean, and what it might then do. I’m not sure I could anyway, and I’m certainly not being patronising to you here.
Between you and me – many of the people who are supposed to get this, and even teach it, don’t get it at all, or at least their explanations seem to suggest that. And that isn’t being patronising to them either – it’s nothing to do with how clever or learned you are. You have either had insight or you haven’t. And when you have had a taste of it, it is unmistakeable, and as visceral as what starts happening in your neck when the big bad riff drops. Which is also quite hard to explain – I can’t quickly come up with any logical explanation for headbanging. And I certainly can’t persuade you to headbang if you’re not feeling it.
So now what? Fortunately, there are some far more immediately familiar and implementable ways to start approaching anatta. So let’s get moshing and sloshing. What might that look like?
One of my Dhamma heroes, the late Venerable Buddhadasa, was a masterful headbanger, along with possessing a breathtaking amount of learning and analytical ability. So perhaps kind of like one of those Scandinavian super-technical Symphonic Metal bands [although my jury remains out on Heavy Metal keyboards] with Lemmy as a guest vocalist.
Even on the printed page, even in English [he has been very well translated actually] you will find encyclopaedic knowledge developing into highly erudite reasoning, but always grounding these in immediately relevant ethical matters, or things related to the nuts and bolts of practice. And if you (like me) decide that you’re a fan and read a lot of his stuff then you’ll see huge flexibility in his teaching style, depending on who he is talking to, and what they are aiming at. He was one of the first Thai monks to become well-known for connecting with foreigners, for instance, and there are talks of his where he shows his ability to drop all of the cultural references, vocabulary, and assumptions that he could rely on with a Thai audience, adopt the language and pre-existing ideas of his listeners, and still get his point across brilliantly.
By his fruits shall ye know him, even if you may occasionally get a bit lost in some of the complex twiggery from which they invitingly dangle. For anyone who feels inclined to get proper nerdy about understanding this concept that I’m currently (slightly) floundering with – here’s the man himself explaining it.
But that rather technical lecture is a bit atypical for him. Usually, when Buddhadasa discussed anatta he, well – mostly he actually didn’t, as such. The word you’ll see most often being used when he gets into these areas is a pretty straightforward “unselfishness”. Someone might jump up and say that anatta is much more than that, which it may be, but at the same time, it will never be not that, and that is something we can see. That is something that has a useful meaning to practically any listener, and perhaps we may infer that this was the angle that had the most meaning for him. So if he’s my hero, why don’t I just say what he said?
In a sense, I’m kind of trying to, in that: I speak in the most meaningful terms to me. That’s why musical comparisons occur to me often, and I’m afraid that does also include all my tangents, off-beam references, and clowning around. And not only because that’s how I tend to talk about other things, so that’s how you know it really is me talking, as opposed to quoting some book, but also: It’s how I know that what little wisdom I may lay claim to really is stitched into the fabric of my life, not existing on some “wisdom channel” hosted by a notionally wise version of me complete with special wisdom voice. You might be amazed at how many practitioners and even monks seem to think that the way to defeat spurious identities is to create another one – one that would be hip to spurious identities. And pretty quickly he’ll start to feel even more special and important because of that. The first year of my own monkhood was pretty well that all the way – Delusion slam-dunk. I hope that I’m doing a bit better now.
I nearly died, not of drugs as such, but of self-importance. Of narcissism and pompousness. Of the belief that frustrations and injustices in my life required the regular administration of a painkiller more properly prescribed to terminal cancer patients. And then I inflicted a lot of collateral damage enabled by a belief that the havoc and squalor this gave rise to was a minor detail in my grand narrative, and a small price to pay, that nobody of any consequence should quibble over. To me now, not taking myself very seriously is a very serious business, and another crucial outcome of practising anatta, so if anyone thinks I’m a trivialising idiot – well that’s probably a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
But at the same time I have a fairly robust faith that anyone who I really need to be talking to – you’re going to get it. You know these are serious matters – they don’t have to wearing their serious trousers for you to take them as such. And if they do, well I’m going to pull a little sneaky “who smelt it dealt it” here and suggest that maybe it is in fact you that lacks sufficient seriousness where it matters. Kind of the opposite-but-equivalent of a comedy show with a canned laughter track. A few years hanging around a detox will soon cure any lack of seriousness, as it begins to dawn on you how many relapse, and how many of those die. It’s impossible to not review the last conversations you had and wonder whether there was anything different you could have said or done. I don’t always have to be chasing the chuckles, I have a serious face I can use (have to in this job), but behind that has to be that lightness, because it is this, rather than any more obviously pious kind of “light”, that pushes the darkness out.
“You is what you am. A cow don’t make ham”
That is how the joy of Dhamma practice often finds expression in me, but it obviously isn’t the vibe you want to bring into every situation. There are other tools in the box, but this is one of the best that I know in many of the situations that we have so far mainly been discussing in this blog, and it comes naturally to me. It’s a small piece of anatta – it can start to pull the arrow out. If that’s not your style, then find your own. You may copy elements of the design of your creature from your teachers, but you will have to breathe life into it yourself. And you can do that with your behaviour, your ethical choices, and your meditative practices – not so much with discussing or pondering theories.
Here’s another perhaps controversial idea – many academic Buddhists will confidently assert that anatta is the defining doctrine of Buddhism. The only one that it clearly does not in any way share with any other related or unrelated religion or philosophy. I disagree. I think that Buddha may have been the only religious founder, prophet, or whatever, to map it out, but also that I have felt some sense of it, some flavour of the insight of practical anatta from every noticeably “wise”, “good”, or even “happy” person I have ever met, read, or heard about. Whether they’d recognise or admit it, or not. They might not express it in the officially defined terms, or even declare fervent belief in other ideas, which are supposed to be incompatible or even anathema to it, such as the belief in an eternal soul. But I am talking about philosophy where it counts – in the moshpit.
Let’s drop the analogies – I see anatta in unselfishness, I see it in humour, in humility, in tolerance, patience, compassion, generosity, and in virtue. Now, let’s bring them back again – these are the bang of the head. If you’re not getting these, then it’s Teen Spirit on pan-pipes. A novelty busking act, perhaps, but no more than that.
Maybe we’ll come back to anatta some other time. I did say (a lot) earlier that I was going to “touch on it” here, so let’s say I’ve done just that, and really much of the above was more my attempt to summarise more generally what the word “philosophy” means to me. So, to wrap up – here follows my more technical summary of the key Buddhist philosophy that has been most useful for me in fixing the worst of my horseshit. I’ll keep this mostly straight-faced, just so you know that I can:
Aaaannd… Perhaps rather predictably, this is not in fact the final instalment. It hardly seems necessary now to explain how this has come about. I thought about going back and re-writing the introduction, but then I thought…nah. See you next week.
Dedicated to Lynn “Oakenshield” Galliano, the Queen Under the Mountain. Long may she reign!