Part V, first instalment:
Trigger Warning: May contain nerds, or traces of nerds. I fear I may have overdone the well-known popular-culture references in the previous article. To restore balance, this one instead leans towards niche-ey/obscure/high(ish)brow ones, starting with the title of the piece. Nerdy in-jokes, basically. Not too much import should be read into that though, since the main purpose of headings and subheadings (as far as I’m concerned, anyway) is to break up a solid block of text, making it look less scary – I could just as well use ice-cream emojis, although I do attempt tenuous relevance at times. But anything really important should be said in full sentences, not slogans. Anyway – the philostophical underpinnings of Buddhism [ahem] :
There’s a standard model for how monks are supposed to present Buddhism, based on the usual method used by the Buddha himself. For a start, you never begin with “Buddhism”. You don’t just stand up and start declaiming “The Truth”, expecting people to listen, and demanding their belief. You start with a problem. Buddha, teaching face-to-face, would often address problems brought up by his listeners, which is always a great starting point, since one can usually then presume that they’re at least interested in your reply.
In this context, I obviously have no idea precisely what might be currently bothering you, so I had to come at it via what had been bothering me, and count on there being enough empathy on your side to see how this stuff can work in the (allegedly) “real world”. I hope that’s working for you, and I suppose I’m assuming that – since this is the fifth article, and you’re reading it – we have some common ground of interest and engagement. Okay, that’s important – to engage with a real problem. Please bear with me a little longer –
After that, we are supposed to proceed with clear reasoning, not making any leaps, or missing any steps. That’s very important too, and you might think it sounds obvious, but when you start analysing a depressingly large amount of pontificating on religious (or philosophical, or political) themes, you’ll actually see a lot of this kind of structure instead:
- Here’s something that sounds impressive and/or inspirational
- Now here’s an unsupported statement or instruction, while you’re still buzzing from step 1
- Pause for applause, drink water, return to step 1
Put like this, you might think “what kind of idiot would fall for that?” but the thing is – people listening to such stuff tend to be somewhat self-selected for “has problems, looking for solutions”, so they very much want to find those in what they hear, and not to have wasted their time. They often have a strong positive bias, in other words. So it works horribly well, even with clever folks. We won’t be doing that, then.
We’re supposed to allow questions, and address any objections before moving on to a further point. In fact, when there aren’t spontaneous questions, you’ll often see in the scriptures that Buddha asks some himself, to stimulate a dialogue and test alternative points of view – instead of simply stating his own, and declaring it the right one. I have had to simulate this by the (perhaps slightly insane) means of publicly arguing with my imaginary friends. I hope this has not been too weird, and has been sufficient to anticipate any major queries. If not, please do feel free to drop me a line via the Contact page, or make a comment below.
Finally, we are supposed to conclude with some kind of practice or principle that directly addresses the original problem. This ensures that the discussion always remains rooted in our daily reality, rather than descending into some kind of intellectual pastime, or worse – mystical nonsense.
But why am I feeling a need to lay all this bare? If those are my guidelines then why not just shut up and write that way? Good question [well done, me]
Several reasons: Firstly, because I am admittedly feeling a little trepidation about this next bit, because up until now, I have simply been telling my own story. So I can’t really get that wrong, as long as I don’t lie, whereas here I’m feeling a lot more weight of responsibility, and like a representative of something larger. I’m afraid that the Buddhist online world is no freer than any other from the tendency for someone to take a difference of opinion as a targeted sociopathic attack on the core of their very being, and oneself to be therefore clearly beyond the pale – and quite possibly an agent of some shadowy, malevolent global organisation, to boot – but that’s that’s just modern life [deal with it..]. Which leaves me with a certain concern to be seen to be going about this in the right way. As does this:
More importantly – I’m no teacher, and no expert on anything besides my own foolishness, so I’m much more comfortable in the “fellow traveller” zone, when it comes to trying to say something that might be useful to another. So, although I will necessarily be wearing my professional hat rather more in these next few pieces, I hope that they can be read in a similar spirit.
What follows, then, is my understanding of the principles of Dhamma, incomplete and mistaken at times, I have no doubt, but all of this has been rigorously put through a filter of what has been tangibly helpful to me. I now humbly offer it in the sincere hope that at least some of it may be of use to others. But there’s yet another reason, which also serves as a neat segué into the subject matter:
Because I believe that keeping a tight focus on the value of Buddha’s teaching as a means to practically address our real existential problems in the here and now, is in fact inseparable from the philosophical core of Buddha’s teaching. See what you think –
“I teach only the truth of suffering, and the end of suffering” – Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya 22.86
I’ll lead with a favourite tactic of the man himself – which is to start by saying what Buddhism is not.
Buddha’s teaching is not a commandment, it’s a recommendation. Or perhaps an invitation. That’s because “Buddha” is not another name for God. Neither is he thought to be the son of God, His prophet, representative, or even servant. There is no external authority cited for these doctrines.
It is probably worth quickly mentioning at this point that this certainly does not mean that Buddha is picking a fight with God – far from it, in fact. Buddhism should be able to happily co-exist with other beliefs in the same space, and when it fails to, that’s a failing on the part of Buddhists. In China, for instance, it knocked along with Daoism and Confucianism, and in Japan it could live alongside Shinto, which has more gods per square foot than any other religion yet known to science, and managed to not upset any of them. They can co-exist within the same person – it is perfectly possible to practise Buddhism in parallel with a theistic religion. I know a few people who do this, including a fairly senior Catholic monk. There is no conflict, because the key premises don’t contradict each other – it is not logically necessary to deny either one, for the other to be true .
But as a standalone faith, in one way of looking at things – Buddha doesn’t seem to offer much. He didn’t promise to hang around hearing prayers or interceding in events. He made no bones about his death meaning that he was leaving us, and so it was up to us to carry on – or indeed not – alone. Neither does your own death mean that you now get to hang out with him, no matter how much praise you might have sent his way. He isn’t listening, and so also there are no extra points for beautiful devotional music, or any of that fun stuff, it’s just hard grunt work. He doesn’t even forgive sins. Your kamma is your kamma, and you have to own it – no last-minute divine grace.
So what’s the deal? Where’s the appeal? Well, if you quickly review that quote above, I’ll admit that – considered as a marketing slogan – everything before the comma is terrible.
Compared to the other major religions, Buddhism is upside-down. It’s a “bottom-up” teaching. It doesn’t begin with any ultimate truth, such as that the universe exists because a particular entity created it – and therefore also created its rules. Speaking as a Buddhist, about to (slightly apprehensively) attempt a concise explanation of our take on how things work, I’m quite envious of that second point. It is a very strong argument indeed if you accept the first premise.
We begin instead with a universal human problem, which requires only observing one’s own experience to confirm, and is perhaps impossible to deny – which is that we aren’t always having a very nice time. We suffer. There is suffering. And we don’t like it. So that’s a bulldozer of a first premise – always good to start a conversation on agreement. But where do we go from there? First, a bit of backstory:
“Man alone is born crying, lives complaining, and dies disappointed” – Samuel Johnson
Buddha, or rather Prince Siddhartha Gotama as he was originally called, didn’t like suffering. He renounced privilege and wealth to live as a wandering monk, and embarked on a very thorough investigation of this problem. Not because of anything dramatic that happened, but just because he grew up a bit, and realised that not everyone had it easy, like him. And furthermore, that even those who do have it easy still have to grow old and die – stripped of everything that had insulated them from this truth. That’s it in a nutshell – the root cause why “Buddhism” as we now know it, exists – but I should probably flesh that out a bit, it sounds a little throwaway and glib:
Siddhartha (so legend has it) was the eldest son of Suddhodana, king of Kosala – a small mountain kingdom in what is now Nepal. He appeared to be a gifted youth, but also to posess certain religious and unworldly tendencies, which might be alright in a second son, but not in the heir to the throne. His father decided to get rid of these by showering him in luxury – by making him fall in love with the world. He had the best of everything, even to the point where they made sure that all the people around him, even the servants, were youthful, healthy and beautiful. And apparently happy (or at least cheerful). He led a sheltered and spoilt life, and was intended to while away his time in delightful dalliance and partying, until the time came for him to take over ruling the kingdom.
I find it tempting to think of him as a potential Kardashian-in-the-making at this point, although other Buddhist-types of a more reverential nature may be (have been) scandalised by such a comparison. No disrespect is intended – in fact I find it all the more to his credit that he ultimately rejected a purely selfish, shallow and narcissistic existence, that was his for the asking. So now perhaps more in Russell Brand territory, to stick with modern reference points [and obviously even much MORE holier, and betterer..]. This came about due to a series of shocking encounters with reality, when he began to suspect, in his mid-twenties, that there was a lot about life that was being concealed from him.
He made an arrangement with his charioteer to smuggle him out of the palace incognito on a series of excursions, in the course of which he found out how the other 99% lived, and all about ageing, sickness and death, which had not been a part of his worldview until then. His servant put him straight on a number of issues, and he realised that his class ducked the harsh truths that others had to contend with by clinging to fleeting material pleasures and distractions. Which wasn’t a stable or good solution for anyone.
So a combination of compassion and existential angst – we could perhaps say – were the prime factors in his next decision: on his last secret fact-finding mission, he saw a wandering monk, and asked his charioteer (whose name was Channa, by the way – and perhaps should be celebrated more than he is) to explain what this strange person was up to. Channa replied that there were those who refused to play the dog-eat-dog games of the world, and were seeking a release from suffering that did not depend on scrambling over the backs of others to achieve a privileged, insulated status which would become meaningless towards the end, even if one succeeded in holding onto it. He decided to join them, and again persuaded the trusty Channa to sneak him out, but this time for good.
[Historical note: even in conventional, practical terms, this turned out to be a good gamble, since the Kosalan kingdom was overthrown and swallowed up by one of its larger neighbours just a few decades later – during Buddha’s lifetime, in fact]
“Is this where they keep the philostiphers now? With the rugs and the dust, where the books go to die?” – Frank Zappa
He went about it sensibly, apprenticing himself to two highly regarded spiritual teachers, and gained a lot from their techniques, but ultimately found their solutions inadequate – since they used temporary transcendental states to not really inhabit this world, rather than to gain any lasting wisdom that might allow a person to live in it with more equanimity. So – essentially a more austere and holy-looking version of partying the pain away, perhaps…
He then tried going very hardcore for a while, practising various kinds of extreme self-denial that were then widely thought to lead to enlightenment (whatever that might consist of). His precise reasons for rejecting this as well are a matter of scholarly debate, so I’ll just chip in my personal experience of having spent periods pushing myself too hard in practice and strictness – that they tended to result in exhaustion, with consequent impacts on mood, combined with a secret resentment of others who are easier on themselves. This in turn was compensated for by a strong sense of self-righteous superiority. Hangry, self-pitying, and smug – euw! Perhaps that’s just me though…
It also plays into a common psychological trap that verges on masochism – we are making SACRIFICES, we are giving ourselves an awful time, so we are now OWED something. A lot of sincere religious practitioners fall for this one, and privation certainly makes it feel as if something is definitely happening, whereas the progress towards genuine insight may well be at times a bit more sublime and intangible. And while a readiness to make sacrifices in pursuit of a higher goal than our own comfort is, of course, an excellent and admirable quality; it couldn’t be as simple as something like a “Deal with God” in which you pay blood, sweat and tears in advance for a guaranteed payout.
But that’s all just my speculation. I’m probably on safer ground to simply state that; at this point, having exhausted all conventional available options, Siddhartha formulated his first original doctrine, which became a keystone of the whole edifice that we now call “Buddhism”, which is known as “The Middle Way”. This concept is actually – as I have increasingly come to realise over the years – a subtle-yet-powerful all-pervading “big idea” that sheds light on the best approach to many things in life [for which reason it may get an article all to itself fairly soon] but in its basic form, as an approach to practice, it simply states that a practitioner should steer a middle-course between self-indulgence and self-denial. To not replace loving worldly existence too much with hating it, but rather to set these forces in balance, achieving a calm equilibrium.
I can’t help thinking that this doctrine would serve us well with some of the ructions and dramas the western world is currently grappling with, as it warns of the human tendency to turn away from something harmful, only to embrace something equally awful that appears to be opposed to it. But I’m veering off the point here, getting into politics (as well as inviting trouble) and besides – the most exciting and relevant bit to our main theme is just about to happen…
So then Siddhartha went his own way, now eating moderately but sensibly, using the meditation methods he had learned, and developing them, and clarifying his view of the working of the world until, during one particularly marathon meditation session, he detected something tangibly change in himself and his experience, and the change seemed to be permanent and profound.
There may be many wonderful facets to what that change precisely consisted of, but the most immediately “relatable” component, the one that sticks closest to that first premise and, to me, by far the most miraculous, was that: He could look suffering square in the face with no illusions and no fear. It had no power over him. He was still subject to normal human discomforts – in the later stories we see him dealing with persistent back-pain, for instance, but according to him, he had actually ceased to suffer. He then became a teacher for the rest of his long life, dying of illness at the age of eighty.
So the origin story is outwardly quite dull, as well. There are also prophecies and miraculous details, but few of these – and in fact very little of the biographical stuff prior to his awakening as the “Buddha” – comes from the oldest canonical sources [compiled by a council of his closest followers shortly after his death, and known as the Pali Canon]. I am obviously being a little waggish when I describe Buddha’s life as “dull”, continuing my theme of “how do you market this?” and of course, I find much that is instructive in it – some of which I have tried to convey above – but the vast majority of that is all in the realm of ideas, and long conversations about ideas. There’s no martyrdom, holy war, or “big reveal” of the founding principles from anywhere other than the mind and mouth of Buddha – wouldn’t make a great movie. But that’s okay – it seems that Buddha didn’t intend for us to be overly interested in him, per se:
In a text called the Vakkali Sutta [suttas are the collected stories of Buddha’s life, containing most of the teachings, recorded as direct speech] Buddha visits a monk called Vakkali, who is particularly devoted to him, personally. The monk is unwell, and also distressed, mainly because illness has prevented him from being in his hero’s presence. After enquiring after his health, Buddha first asks whether Vakkali has doubts, or regrets regarding his own ethical conduct. Finally he tells him, “He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma.” This oft-quoted exchange lays out clearly and simply where Buddha thinks effort and devotion should be directed.
The word “dhamma” means something like “phenomena”, but when capitalised like this, it is generally understood to mean Buddha’s teaching – his explanations of phenomena, so you could perhaps think of it as simply “how stuff works”. At least, according to “one who knows” (how stuff works), which is one possible translation of “Buddha”.
This Dhamma is triple combi of “virtue, concentration, and wisdom”, or ethics, mental training, and philosophy. The only source for any of Buddha’s ideas was his own direct perception of reality. The only justification for them was whether such-and-such a practice, action, or principle tended towards increasing, or reducing, suffering. He never claimed that the teachings were unique or exclusive to him, and in fact arguably the precise opposite – a perhaps somewhat “sciency” view that, if these ideas are indeed the truth of how things work, then they will be independently discoverable, and repeatable. You can get there by another route, or even hack your own trail.
Buddhists however, are people who have chosen to take advantage of the very comprehensive structure established by the Buddha, consisting of both the Dhamma, and the Sangha – the community who maintain and practice it. Buddhists tend to do things in threes – three bows, lighting three incense sticks – when paying respects. This is in order to always remember that these three things are interdependent, and so homage to the Buddha alone, will get you nowhere. In fact, the earliest known Buddha-images are from some four centuries after his death (in Bodh Gaya, India) so it may well be the case that all the devotional practices of bowing and prayers are a later compromise with people’s seemingly strong natural tendency to want to do stuff like this as an affirmation of their faith. Fair enough – as long as this context and caveat are not forgotten.
Three bows can also be seen as representing the three aspects of the training, where Sangha = virtue, especially your own; Dhamma = concentration, so you must apply yourself to understanding and actualising it; Buddha = wisdom, which you can acquire for yourself, as well as referring to the notes, and ultimately that will bring you to the same liberation from suffering achieved by Buddha. So that’s perhaps better news for the Marketing Department – gives them a bit more to work with.
Enough faff already – what did he say???
Buddha had a teaching career that spanned 45 years, and so in that time he generated a lot of content. The essential core, though, as he stated a number of times in the suttas, is a doctrine called “Ariya Sajja”, the “Noble Truths”.
These were stated in the first formal teaching Buddha ever gave, and they are a fairly concise sequence of four linked ideas, and a few subclauses within those. You could speed-read the original exposition in under five minutes. And I strongly recommend that you do (perhaps a little more thoughtfully) so here are some links to the source scripture, and an excellent analysis of it by a wiser and more accomplished monk than me, Ajahn Sumedho.
Really? All that buildup to just tell you to go and read it somewhere else? Not quite – please bear with me a little. There is another extremely important principle of explaining Dhamma, which is that the only teaching that has any validity is that which comes from the speaker’s direct experience. It is always very tempting to push this boundary and repackage things that we have heard, or read, wonderful explanations of, but this way we will soon become pretentious at best, or fraudulent at worst.
But what I will attempt, is to convey how even the crudest level of starting to take these ideas on board first lifted me out of the swamp I had sunk into, and subsequently enticed me into the monkhood, to see how much further I might be able to run with them.
In brief then, the Four Noble Truths look like this:
- There is suffering
- Suffering has a cause – craving
- Suffering has an end – the extinction of craving
- The extinction of craving can be accomplished by restructuring one’s view, thinking, speech, actions, way of supporting oneself, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
To a (very) recently quit drug addict, this all looked highly applicable, especially the bit about craving, or at least as I then understood that word – there’s a little more to it than immediately meets the eye. Initially, I thought “gosh! so that’s the Buddhist approach to recovery, how very sensible” but I was quickly corrected to understanding that this is, in fact, Buddhism.
All of the rest of the teaching, all four-and-a-half decades of it, can be seen as either more sophisticated explanations of this process, or in the most part, explorations of various ways to go about working on those eight categories in the fourth Truth, which are called the “Eightfold Path”. But essentially, there it all is, on day one – Buddha gave the goods away, there is no “unlock secret level” that you get to later.
This lucky fit is no coincidence though, since I think that taking addiction as a metaphor of how Buddha saw the entire human condition and what makes it difficult, and how most of our attempts to ease it are self-defeating – holds up pretty well. But before exploring any more of this, since it is all a logical process with each step proceeding from the one before it; we had better take a really good look at that starting point. A little underwhelm-ment, could perhaps be forgiven. So – “there is suffering”, is there? That is the big reveal? Really?
Yes, really. It is a massive reveal, when we look through the lens of Sajja [integrity] – we can say that we perceive or believe something, but do we act as if it were true?
“The difference between theory and practice, is that in theory, there is no difference.” – various attributions, wasn’t Einstein
If I reverse-engineered my existing beliefs from my actual behaviour, then my version of the First Truth was that really I thought my life (at least) should not contain suffering. For that reason, anytime I became aware that I was displeased about something, deep down on some level I felt it to be an outrage, a gross injustice, and an emergency. This made me terribly narcissistic, and morally flawed. Special rules for me – because I’m suffering!
Naturally, of course, if you had some theoretical gathering of people, and all of them were absolutely fine except one who was having a very difficult time, then civilised people would prioritise that person’s needs and expect less of them. Forgive them if they seemed a bit self-centred, irritable, or distracted. The problem comes when everyone in the room thinks that they are that person.
So I tried to take that on board, and it seemed to work very well for considering moral questions in a vacuum and feeling like I was already a better and wiser person. But then things would come up – external annoyances or internal longings, and I would be immediately in their grip, feeling very hard-done-by and very special, because things were hard for ME. Then I would catch myself with the self-pity and remind myself that I was wise now. Round and round we go.
But this is where we need to connect the world of ideas, with the world of actions, or we become what Nietzsche called “bloodless scholars” who are terribly wise and good right up until the point that something actually happens. We need to unify the mind, via the word, with the body – with action. But that can be tricky, largely because thinking this stuff through, and figuring out how it applies to unfolding events, is relatively slow compared to some other things that can leap up and start directing the show.
…And we will take a look at what, and how they do it, and what we might do about it, in the second instalment, coming very soon. In the process of rewriting and re-imagining the original magazine article for this online version, it has grown quite considerably. So I will publish the second and third sections over the next few days.
Dedicated to: the Very Rev. Daniel Jonas. Unquestionably the greatest living Sephardic C*ck-Rock philostipher.