Sunday, May 15, 2005

postal scrotum: mindfulness and compassion

Lorianne writes with reference to my other recent post:

The fruit of mindfulness is compassion. If you pay attention, you'll realize all things are connected; when you realize all things are connected, you'll love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor IS yourself.

This isn't a do-good prescription; it's an empirical description. If you pay attention, the way you interact with the world will change, guaranteed. It's a natural evolution: "Spring comes, grass grows."

Your comments on "bi-shim" remind me of my favorite phrase of the Homage to the Three Jewels, where the Bodhisattva way is described as "dae ja dae bi." Typically this is translated as "great love, great compassion," but it's just as accurate to translate it "great love, great sadness." If you pay attention, you'll realize the world's great suffering, and that too is the seed of compassion.

I hope you're doing well!


This sounds a bit like mindfulness being logically prior to compassion if compassion is the "fruit" of mindfulness. I'm OK with that, though I suspect that this, too, isn't meant to be a schematic rendition of How It Works. I told Lorianne privately that this discussion reminds me a bit of theological discussions of the trinity-- what emanates from what? What causes what?

I should also note something before the philosophers jump down my throat: I'm aware that my previous "transitive property" ditty isn't the whole story. The copula "is" doesn't always mean "is identical to."

For example:

1. Kevin is a mammal.
2. Pamela Anderson is a mammal.

THEREFORE, Kevin is Pamela Anderson.

The reason the above doesn't work is that the copula "is" doesn't represent identity. The "is" simply means, "falls into category X" or "has the property of X."


1. The half-Korean fat person who works at Smoo in the mornings is identical to Kevin.

2. The half-Korean fat person who blogs on BigHominid's Hairy Chasms is identical to Kevin.

THEREFORE, the half-Korean fat person who works at Smoo in the mornings is identical to the half-Korean fat person who blogs on BigHominid's Hairy Chasms.

With linguistic precision comes clarity.

(And dryness.)

So if I say:

1. Mindfulness is attentiveness, and
2. Compassion is attentiveness,

I'm not necessarily saying, "Mindfulness is identical to compassion."

I have no clue why I'm exploring this issue so minutely. I can't imagine that it's of interest to anyone. Philosophers will yawn at the 101-level insights. Zen masters will yawn at the triviality of applying strict logic to everyday living. I lose either way, and end up getting flak from all sides.

Damn, I'm good! I revel in my multivalent wrongness!

I'm going to reprint something I wrote privately to another friend re: Buddhism. I'll catch hell for doing this, but it contains a fundamental disagreement I have with Buddhists, and it's TIME FOR THE TRUTH TO COME OUT (said he dramatically).

FRIEND: Life is not simply the pursuit of happiness and I think it sophistry to tie all human motivation to the pursuit of this as a fundamental root. I do not seek enlightenment by escape from the cycle of hunger and suffering- I seek my path through it instead.

ME: It's a hard topic to discuss because I doubt we're all on the same page about what constitutes happiness. It's easy to present happiness in the abstract, but the moment you begin to examine it, you realize that people differ widely in the details. Is happiness the equivalent of physical pleasure? Is it a deep satisfaction resulting from painful effort? Is it a quiet, serene contentment underlying our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions? Is it a combination of these things? Something else entirely?

I don't think a Buddhist, especially a Mahayana Buddhist, would disagree with the idea that one seeks a path through hunger and suffering. From this perspective, the transcendence of suffering isn't done through avoidance, shunning, or escape: it's done by confronting the basic facts of the human condition-- and of reality-- and seeing those facts truly, seeing everything in its suchness.

If, however, you're saying that you disagree with the very notion of trying to transcend suffering, then yeah, that's not merely a cosmetic disagreement with Andi's post but a deep and substantive one.

My own quibble with the First Noble Truth is that it strikes me as far too gloomy an assessment of things. Life doesn't reduce to suffering for me. In this case, I side more with philosophical Taoists than with Indian Buddhists. Taoism tends to be more world-affirming whereas the trend in Indian thought tends to be world-denying. Zen Buddhism, which probably harbors the truest spirit of philosophical Taoism, doesn't focus on world-avoidance, preferring instead to train the mind to be a mirror-- not holding on to anything that passes in front of it. Ostensibly, this is to relieve suffering, but the overall thrust of Zen isn't consistent, to my mind, with the original spirit of Indian Buddhism.

[I imagine scholars would quibble with the idea that Indian thought is pessimistic. I admit I'm making a value judgement here by spinning Indian philo negatively, but the phrases "world-denying" and "world-affirming" are used by some scholars of Indian and Chinese philo and religion, so I feel I'm on solid ground to take those terms and run with them.]

It should be noted, though, that the Sanskrit term "dukkha" doesn't imply just the melodramatic notion of suffering, like Christ on the cross. Even something as simple as wishing for an extra package of ketchup is included in the semantic field of "dukkha." And the Buddha tried to make his case for the human condition airtight by noting that all humans experience old age, sickness, and death. I sympathize with his argument and see a lot of merit in it, but the deepest part of me isn't convinced that the argument's reductionism is justified. Why is it that many people can, on their deathbeds, proclaim themselves happy to have lived the lives they did?* I don't think the First Noble Truth addresses this very well.

FRIEND: My role is to experience life- to try to see each experience with new eyes, as if I were a child or a fool.

ME: Here, too, there's a lot in common with Zen seeing. Direct seeing involves the stripping away of preconceptions and judgements, allowing the mind to be totally immersed in the moment.

As for mind-altering substances... yeah, I agree that many artists take this path as a further step on the road to deepened or expanded perception/insight, but I can't relate to it. Maybe it's because I'm too much of a control freak, but I have real issues with the belief that those substances bring a person closer to true perception, especially because the taking of a chemical substance doesn't include much in the way of sweat and effort. This is what separates meditative discipline from drug-taking, in my mind, and gives the former more moral value.

I don't therefore condemn drug-users, though, and I'm agnostic about the "artistic value" of drug use. Some drug-inspired art is quite fun to look at and contemplate, after all, so it'd be hypocritical of me to disparage the art's origins.

FRIEND: To follow the buddhist way seems valid to me, but not valid for me. For this reason, it seems that the path is, at best, only ONE path and not THE path.

ME: Yeah, and here, too, many Buddhists would agree. Buddhism contains the notion of "upaya," or "skillful means." You do what works for you. And besides, Buddhism itself is a label for many, many paths.

[end exchange]

*I don't think my email made clear what I meant. The assessment "life is suffering" strikes me as reductionist, insofar as suffering is "privileged" over happiness in the Buddhist ethical schema. Happiness isn't a pressing problem. If anything, it's more like a goal, though "goal" may be the wrong term to use here. Suffering, on the other hand, is viewed as our "default condition." Happy moments come... then we return to suffering. I disagree with that assessment. My point about the deathbed avowal is that, at the end of a person's life, if that life truly did boil down to suffering, then an honest person would have no choice but to characterize his life as having been one of suffering. To do otherwise would be to lie optimistically for the sake of the loved ones. "Focusing on the positive" isn't the same as "telling the truth."

I tend to think, though, that such people aren't lying. They've sincerely weighed the events in their lives and come to a positive conclusion: my happiness outweighed my suffering. Suffering wasn't my default condition.

I also tend to think that Zen masters, who in general strike me as an extremely jolly lot, know this truth: life isn't suffering; life is life. It is what it is, not-good, not-bad. Rare indeed is the funereal, lugubrious Zen master.

It's been said that the major religious traditions share a conviction that there is something fundamentally "not right" about the human condition. We live in a state of sinfulness, or a state of ignorance (avidya). Do you agree with this conviction? Do you believe this is humanity's default condition? Why?


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