Ask a Philostipher to Get to the G*&&@m Point, already

Part V, fourth and final instalment

At the end of last week’s post, I undertook to put on my serious face (see above), abandon wisecracking and left-field analogies (despite having devoted much of the post to arguing in favour of such things), and then to state as directly as I can how choosing to view the world, and trying to orientate my own existence in it, through the lens of Buddhadhamma, has been useful to me. Because philosophy must be useful, and for more than just appearing clever and deep at upper middle-class dinner-parties, or else there are plenty of other things we could more productively study, and which could also serve that same purpose just as well (if we really must).

I also undertook to make this the last instalment, for the time being, that aims at presenting in pure(ish) form, the bedrock theory of existence that underlies all the other Buddhist stuff, and to restrain my urges to keep adding detail and embellishment. Clearly, there’s much to return to and develop in the future, but I think I have hit you with more than enough theory for now, and that next week it might be good to return to developing themes arising from the ground up – from issues encountered in our worldly lives, and not necessarily framed in overtly “Buddhisty” terms. Well, never mind what I think – that’s how the Buddha taught us to go about these kinds of things, because that’s what they’re for.

Let’s see how well I do at that, then. I think I’ll start by trying to map it out quite technically, and then try to wrap up in language as plain, simple, and heartfelt as I can muster. Here goes:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 95436_slice_v2.jpg
“We are hyarr, at least in a conventional manner of speaking – defilements on three flanks, hyarr, hyarr, and hyarrr. We shall advance along the Eightfold Path and attempt to black Johnny Craving’s eye, approximately hyarrr” I didn’t promise to be solemn about the pictures, is that clyarrr??

I have asked you to try out regarding the self as a system, comprised of many aspects of being. That’s instead of self as a solid core at the centre of being. The good news is that this gives you numerous angles from which to examine it, while simultaneously getting to work on any or all of those aspects. That’s as opposed to hoping that one day you’ll stumble across it, recognise it, and it will somehow make all the other stuff make sense. In case that idea seems a bit esoteric, I have tried to “sell it” using the angle that ideas and stories of self-identity are considerable obstacles to uprooting harmful behaviours that have appeared in us. What might be seen as the bad-news tradeoff for these benefits is that this view has to abandon the hope of ever making this system completely stable.

Although there’s no fixed core, a system has to be constructed around something, so you’d better throw something in the middle there, and make it something that’s pretty wholesome, and pretty reliable. An undeniable truth is a very good candidate for that – a sound philosophy – and according to Buddha, if we don’t, then something else will bob up, and whatever that might initially look like; when you strip away the detail and decoration, it will turn out to be some idea of how suffering works. Why always suffering? Well – I don’t know, and I don’t need to – we don’t have unlimited time for speculation, so we just go with the results of trying out different views and strategies. That’s how we roll – empirically. Although if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that it’s because pain-avoidance is probably the strongest instinctive motivation that we have, tending to overrule any others. Why do slave-drivers carry whips, and not bunches of flowers? That’s good enough for me.

I should probably state at this point that this thing I have been calling “suffering” should more properly be called “dukkha” – the word that Buddha used. It has traditionally been translated that way, so I have gone along with that in the interests of immediate comprehensibility, and of maintaining compatibility with most other writings about Buddhism that you may come across. To be precise, it probably does consist largely of what you first think upon hearing the word “suffering” but also subtler stuff. As far as I am aware, the most accurate translation might be “stress”, but that word may sound a little weak as it is generally understood. Some translators have gone with “unsatisfactoriness”, which might sound even weaker, but emphasizes an important aspect, which is that it extends all the way up from the obviously awful things creating spectacular misery, to very refined kinds of malaise, where things might even seem objectively pleasant, but not like you thought they would be. The actual object of desire never quite hits the spot like the imagined one you were craving.

This is very important for understanding things like the subjective nature of suffering, the addictive nature of kilesa, and the proposition that our response to dukkha is a defining factor in existence. The mild sense of jaded boredom that a spoiled heiress feels upon acquiring her 1000th pair of shoes is, in this view, activating the same “circuits” that produce the more obviously sympathetic emotional crisis of a traumatised refugee feeling her only pair of makeshift sandals disintegrate, with hundreds of miles of dangerous and desperate journey still ahead of her.

Yes, I’m afraid that even “1st world problems” merit our compassion. We have to see that the distress of being unable to solve our problems, and the frustration of having done everything we can think of to solve them in style; and yet there they still are – are both miserable states. Which should, if properly comprehended, unite humanity, although it tends to divide it, mainly via envy on the one side, and contempt on the other (those being, by the way, two second-order forms of kilesa. More on that below..)

And just to get a little fancy now, we can take it even further. Any volitional action, from scratching an itch, to writing a symphony, to marrying someone, could be seen as the response to a notion that we’ll be less happy if we don’t, ie. suffering more. Long before I ever heard this idea, I had noticed a correlation that you often see between the highest achieving musicians and a heightened sense of dukkha, in that: when you’re in the studio adding the last few backing vocals, or mixing down [most of the hard work is done], and everyone seems very pleased with themselves, headbanging along, and high-fiving each other, but sometimes someone still looks a little constipated. It may be literally or metaphorically just precisely that. But often it is an acute sensation of pain, caused by listening to something that isn’t quite as good as they could imagine it being.

Driven by this very rarefied dukkha, this might well be the person who makes the lateral thinking leap, adding, subtracting, or changing some element that takes it from just very, very, good, to instant classic. Quite possibly also the most likely to kill themselves one day, either through conscious action, or self-neglect. “But why, oh why?” people ask, especially in cases of the very successful ones. Well, we can’t speculate about any one individual, but the demographic correlation, the simple stats, suggest to me that a factor is: simply because the world isn’t quite as beautiful as they think it should be, and they can’t endure that. Imperfection = abomination. This too is dukkha. There are even more refined varieties, but those should do for now.

One of my nerd-hobbies is that I like to rather unsystematically follow developments in neuroscience. Fascinatingly, there now seems to be a proposition gathering a lot of traction that all of what we tend to call “emotions” are refined adaptations of the earliest systems which appeared in simpler organisms to avoid pain and damage. So that’s quite tantalisingly close to what Buddha proposed, without the benefit of being able to look at maps of brain structure and activity. Thought-provoking stuff, I’ll be following it, so watch this space. And meanwhile you could also Google the work of Professor Lisa Feldman-Barret.

But why does Buddha insist that our default selves, in the absence of a better organising principle, have to be built around these rather crude, pejorative, and old fashioned-sounding things? Lobha, Dhosa, Moha; Greed, Hatred, Delusion. There are so many shades of idea/emotion/urge/whatever, and they are not all overtly “bad”, so why oversimplify like this?

Well, “shades” is a good word to use – you could think of those as primary colours that can be blended in various proportions. Say, envy – how could we make envy? Would you start with greed and mix in some hatred? So there’s a malevolent edge of not only wanting the thing, but also specifically to deprive someone else of it… maybe. Or it could be mainly hatred, wanting to defeat and dominate others, just finding its particular expression through material competition. Or how about a dash of delusion? You don’t really know what you want, so you become obsessed with something you see someone else enjoying and convince yourself that this is what will fill the hole.

Well – there really will have to be a bumper defilement special before long [come awwwnn lockdown kids…doesn’t  that sound like FUN???!!! ] but for now let’s just say that Buddha mentions many, but they all somehow boil down to three. And it is at this primary level that we are going to be most able to start developing a clear sense of what is in play, rather than getting hung up on precise definitions of more complex things, which will be elusive and quite subjective. Because when the mind grasps something, just like when the hand does – there are three basic kinds of action it can take: pull it towards you/push it away/neither. But “neither” in this case, doesn’t mean doing nothing – it’s still kind of messing with it, just with no clear intention beyond hanging on, not putting it down.

When you grasp something with your hand your whole body starts to align itself in preparation for what you think should be done with it. This is how mental grasping aligns the mind, creating a self.

Give that one some thought – I don’t wish to be guilty of perpetrating some kind of overly-poetic rhetorical trick, where I find some arguable similarity between two things, and then act as if I have “proved” that understanding one therefore means that the other is just the same. I think that holds up pretty well though.

“Put me down…NOW!” Selves can be a bit bossy

“Okay” you might say, “but what’s wrong with that? Maybe I’m just a greedy kind of guy – I know myself – I like nice things. High quality things, beautiful things, tasty things… if I can surround myself with enough of these, then I’ll be happy, and if I can get them fairly and honestly, what’s the problem?” In other words – create a sustainable, healthy, realistic self, still basically kilesa-driven but aligned with reasonable goals; and try to put that within ethical boundaries. Then try to keep everything just like that. Existence solved. That is basically, as I understand it, what underlies most modern Western thought about how to fix the happiness problem (as we tend to call the suffering problem).

Well, if you found you could buy into the mind/body grasping analogy to any useful extent, then I’ll push my luck a bit: As anyone who has ever done any kind of wrestling knows – even just playground wrestling, but also in something sophisticated, like Judo; the secret is – if someone is all ready to push, and instead of pushing back, you pull them; they fall over. We may have general tendencies, and breezily claim to “know ourselves”, but the centre of the kilesa-driven self-system can morph into something else very easily and often sneakily, either momentarily, or for longer periods. This results in people being unprepared for certain forces acting on them, that aren’t taken into account in the character they have been painstakingly writing for themselves to play onstage.

For example, the basically harmless, but bumbly and silly, hippyish delusion-based character I sketched in a previous instalment could one day decide to open his own organic yoghurt-weaving business, rather than just work in one for minimum wage. At this point, the greed inherent in business could completely wrong-foot him, convinced as he is that he is fundamentally anti-materialist and groovy, resulting in the most rapacious and ruthless of capitalist practices, and an absolute refusal to entertain the idea that the ethics of anything he is doing might need examining in such terms. That’s the kind of thing that other people do. You know – ungroovy people. So there’s the judo flip in action – the view changes along with everything else, but we tend to stick to our favourite stories, resulting in an inability to clearly see what is going on.

We could call that a large-scale, or “low-resolution” example, but kilesa also fluctuate and morph constantly, affected by even the smallest things – blood sugar, the weather, the last thing you saw on TV, whatever – and this is another reason why the self trying to regulate the self often doesn’t go so well. That then, would be a high-resolution view of the self-problem. Dealing with this level of detail can be approached in a number of ways, but principally among those is that thing called “mindfulness” – which I have just realised is going to warrant its own blog post fairly soon, as opposed to a whole swathe of half-formulated text that I have just deleted below, which was trying to briefly summarise how that then comes into this discussion. You see? This is how it happens! How I never get to end of this article.

So we’ll come back to that another day, as well as to the problems inherent in trying to create a solid and wholesome “self” as that is generally understood, contrasted with the Buddhist approach of still trying to fix the person, without the need to firm it up into some kind of sacred self-cow…. aaand probably a more detailed look at the coarse and subtle workings of kilesa. There are a number of loose threads there, so please take all the above as an attempt to define for reference all the stuff I have been talking about more anecdotally, up to the point we have reached. And let’s move on…

So now – and which is all I initially came back here to do, really – my plain-speaking, no rootin’ tootin’, epilogue to the core doctrine – the Four Noble Truths – entry-level:

A Peccary of Destiny
[Frank Zappa – as have been most of the other weirdo quotes]

Yes – there is suffering. We don’t have to like it, but stop getting personally offended by it, and stop acting surprised when it shows up. Then you won’t so easily fall for the populist propaganda of the kilesa – that indulging (or even enshrining!) them will be a quick and dirty fix for a more fundamental problem. Yes, bad things happen. For many people in this world, they happen from the day they are born, and don’t look up much thereafter. If you’re one of the lucky few who ducks a lot of the grosser manifestations of that, and maybe even has a lot of good things happen, then that all still gets taken away in the end, and that will hurt. Whether you’re a have-not, or a has-but-is-unsatisfied/insecure, it gets you either way, and all of that has to be looked square in the face, or madness results.

That sounds dramatic, but it could be a subtle kind of madness – Buddha seems to have regarded all of us as basically mentally ill – parasitised by kilesa, which hijack our minds, leaving us not truly in control. “Delusion” doesn’t have to mean: “seeing pink elephants”. This, by the way, doesn’t work like a defence in court of “diminished responsibility by reason of insanity”. If we all suffer from it, then it’s the “new normal”. If anything, it suggests that we need to take greater responsibility for our actions, perhaps akin to the difference between walking and riding a horse – you don’t get to trample people and leave crap everywhere, and then just say “the horse did it!”

I’ll leave it to the heavy hitters to explain any further ramifications, and deeper meanings of Ariya Sajja, the Four Noble Truths [see links in 1st instalment]. I’ll just emphasize that I have been telling here how they initially struck me as being a worthy organising principle for my own messy selves, and that those views (with some evolution, I hope) have been serving me well for the best part of two decades. They have guided me from being somebody who, at one point couldn’t endure much without being full of anaesthetics, or achieve much without being full of stimulants, towards at least – being someone who maybe can. Although I’m still working on it, since full insight into the Noble Truths is one (and one that I like – I dig specifics) definition of “enlightenment”. It isn’t just kiddie stuff.

“If I can just find the perfect cat to match my Buddha, I’ll be eternally happy and never want anything ever again..”

Post Script – Four Noble Truths

The piece above ends where it does. The following is to be taken as an addendum to the whole 4-part series on Buddhist philosophy.

I would like to return briefly to the Second Truth, because it can look a bit harsh on the face of it, and gives rise to one of the most common (sensible) objections to the Four Noble Truths view. One that may have occurred to you already while reading these pieces, and troubles many people new to Buddhadhamma, if it is not framed properly:

So, I’m saying that all our suffering is because of craving?

Firstly, I should just quickly point out, because there is sometimes confusion on this point; that this is not the same as greed (lobha). Craving, or the original Pali word “Tanha”, which literally means “thirst”, is broader, including any way of desiring things to be other than how they are. So yes, it also covers hating, and rejecting, and any kind of refusal to accept reality.

But are we saying that it’s all your fault? It’s all just something you could stop by stopping something that you are doing? Perhaps all very well for your “first world problems”, but how about people born into proper hellholes, grinding poverty, or systemic inequality? Disabilities, and congenital illness? After all – I just had to stop pumping chemicals into myself, and I banged on about how difficult that was, but you can’t just decide one day to quit childhood-malnutrition, can you? No matter how hobbity you get about that. Fair point. It’s a challenging and subtle problem, maybe a little bit beyond my pay-grade, so I refer you again to Buddha et al for a fuller explanation. And I also stress (although I hope it’s obvious) that there is nothing here that suggests that we should not bother to right wrongs where we can.

However I will just finish with this – and it isn’t my insight, it’s adapted from the ever-dependable Ajahn Sumedho – but I think I have lived with this one long enough to be able to say in my own words:

These are “Noble” truths. That means something very specific, not just that they are awesome, or something vague like that. Seeing things this way is what makes you noble. Nobility is often not an easy choice, or it wouldn’t be called “noble”, it would be called “common” – but nobility is what it will take to transcend suffering, and not become another whining eternal victim, traumatised perpetrator of more horrors, or to just check out.

You can instead say “it’s not fair”, “it’s dealt out randomly, and I just want my share”, “I’m no worse than anyone else”, “this is the way things are, buddy”, or a less-assertive “someone should feel guilty and fix it for me”, and you could make a case for all of those being truths. You could scoff at the naïvity of any philosophies that suggest another way to assert ourselves in the face of suffering – ones that don’t pander to, or lend itself to being hijacked by self-pity, envy, or vengeance. Okay, cling to those resentments, live those ignoble truths, swim in the sea of suffering. You may even be “right” in some way, which is something I really can’t be bothered to argue about.

The only worthwhile measure of your philosophy is to see where it leads you – not just in your imagination, but from day-to-day in the situations life throws your way – and to see how you like them apples. Buddha was a practical man, at the end of the day. Which also means that there’s a point at which pure theory is of little use in deciding whether to follow a doctrine or not – you just have to try it. See for yourself. Follow the evidence.

Furthermore, Buddha’s teaching was not only “upside down”, but also “inside out”, by which I mean that these are views for us to personally adopt, not to impose upon others, or to insist on becoming the societal norm. These ideas can certainly be misapplied. To look at another person who is overwhelmed by their suffering, and drowning in kilesa because these seem to offer the only route out they can see or imagine – and to then just glibly say that they could easily choose to be happy by following these simple instructions – is obviously monstrous. Uncompassionate. To be unmoved by suffering, is of course the exact definition of uncompassion.

Hang on – where does compassion come into it? Throughout these articles I’ve been talking about ways to fix our own acute sufferings, and now I’m slipping in that we’ve got to care about everyone else as well? Am I Dhamma-smuggling again? Well – compassion really should have its own dedicated post fairly soon, but to deal with it quickly:

As practice causes inner wisdom to arise, showing us ways to transcend our own suffering, seeing the true origins of it – with that comes the insight that we are all in this leaky boat together, acting as we think we must, according to the tyrannical directives of our mistaken views, our ignoble truths – which put kilesa in charge. Blame the organ-grinder, not the chained-up monkey. The sin, not the sinner.

This is constantly emphasized throughout the Dhamma – wisdom/compassion being two sides of the same coin, and this is one of the best field-tests for any supposed insight that we gain from practice – if it doesn’t come with a side-order of extra compassion, send it back to the kitchen, it’s not done yet. Once again though, we are approaching the turnstile where rational thought cannot enter alone, if unaccompanied by the wisdom of direct seeing. Buddhadhamma is on the whole very logical, but there are some P-rated parts that “contain scenes of mild profundity which ultra-rationalist viewers may find disturbing, unconvincing or confusing”.

But that is in fact another issue. We have been talking here only about how we must view our own suffering in order to not be enslaved by it. And that might require being a bit hardarse at times. The more suffering we have, the more noble we must be. There is no other way out.

Published by phrasuparo

I'm a monk at Wat Thamkrabok, Thailand. Go me!

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