The “Many Views” View of Buddhism

May 1st, 2015

Goodness, where I have I been. It’s been too long — more than two years! — since I’ve updated this blog. I’ve had plenty of thoughts I felt suitable to blog about. I even, recently, wrote a draft of a post, but it came out to over 10k words, so I’ll have to figure out how best to break it up before putting it up here. I’ve started lots of other drafts, but have found them leading to incomplete lines of thinking. I’ve written and had a couple of papers published. Mostly, I’ve been working on a book that will serve to clarify my thinking enough to sort out the difference between what I see as well worked out, and where there are questions with answers I am still unsure of. There will always be questions with answers I am unsure of (as there should be) but what’s important is knowing which is which, as well as coming to recognize which answers I am quite sure of, or even relatively sure of, that I still need more evidence for, to support my ability to get the concepts across to others.

Looking at Buddhism from a fresh perspective is tricky enough on its own; trying to communicate what I find to others is even harder. A lot of the problem comes from the difference between traditional views of Buddhism being so similar — all of them to each other, and mine to all the rest. There seem to be a multitude of ways of interpreting what the Buddha was trying to convey, and there is a strong tendency, when I try to explain any one difference in the way I am seeing what was said from the way others do, of judging the newness in terms of whatever larger understanding the listener has of the whole — which is, really, the natural thing to do. Since the Buddha’s lessons worked together to create one whole understanding — one dharma — the teaching is perhaps best explained as a holographic image, in that any little piece we pick out actually contains information that significantly affects the whole picture. This is why any one small piece I try to describe won’t fit comfortably into someone else’s understanding of the dharma. And this is why the blogpost I wrote at 10k words still isn’t complete — because, to be fully understood, it has to be supported by all the other slightly-changed pieces that fit together to make a beautifully integrated understanding of the Buddha’s dharma.

One of the things I believe I am seeing in this new way of looking at the Buddha’s teaching is that he very intentionally provided multiple paths through his lessons to get to the heart of his dharma — different strokes for different folks, as we hippie-types have been known to say. The amazing thing to me is the skill with which the man made these multiple paths blend together — this is what that lengthy, unposted post discusses: one set of threads through the tapestry he wove.

His skills in presenting multiple ways through may have had the unfortunate effect of making it more likely that confusion would abound, as different people picked up different threads, and declared theirs the one and only “right view” of what the Buddha meant. Ironic, given that what the Buddha seems to me to be pointing out as key, is that we need to let go of dogmatism over views, not just of the Cosmic Order, but of what is the right way to grasp his teaching, as I pointed out some while back in my post on The Raft over on the Secular Buddhism blog.

A variation on this theme occurred to me today as I was reading a pamphlet called “The Faith of a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist”, by James Ishmael Ford. In this very well-written piece, the author says something I have heard many times before but rarely put as succinctly:

When asked what I meant by ‘Buddhism’, I briefly outlined my belief that the human condition is marked by dis-ease, dissatisfaction, angst. There is some fundamental sadness to our human condition.

The Buddha examined this apparently universal human experience closely. He came to believe this pervasive unrest occurs as a natural consequence of our human consciousness.

I think I understand this perspective, but whenever it is presented, I find I can’t actually relate to it. I would agree that in given instances I experience dis-ease and dissatisfaction, but angst, which the Urban Dictionary defines beginning with:

Angst, often confused with anxiety, is a transcendent emotion in that it combines the unbearable anguish of life with the hopes of overcoming this seemingly impossible situation.

sometimes in descriptions of the Buddha’s point described as “existential angst” — I can’t relate to at all. For me there is not now nor has there ever been any strong feeling of an “unbearable anguish of life”. Looking at what I experience, and what drives me, even now, after years of being a practicing Buddhist, I can find nothing deep within me that is even remotely like that. At the very base of my thinking about my particular life, what I always find, is great joy and pleasure in the richness and complexity, a feeling of gratitude for the opportunity to experience all that I do — both ups and downs — and, sure, there is the wish that I might go on enjoying the fullness of life for a long, long time, probably longer than the time I will have. I would not mind at all if this same consciousness of mine went on to other things after this body dies but I have no expectation that it will, nor any huge sadness facing the likelihood that “I” won’t exist after death.

I have long accepted that this is very likely my one and only existence, and this means for me that I had damned well better make the best of it. And if it is not? Without direct and convincing evidence of the ways in which my behavior now would affect my life after this death, I cannot know “the rules” for affecting that possible future. So I am left to do the best I can with this life, and I find nothing wrong with that, certainly nothing anguish-making.

What I find, in the first-quoted portions of the pamphlet above, is writing representative of people who do feel this underlying anguish that I don’t feel, accompanied by the assumption that since that is what they have found deep in their hearts, it must be what everyone will eventually find deep in theirs. I have spoken to people with this conviction who tell me that I haven’t found it because I haven’t “gone deep enough yet”. And I’m sure if I were surrounded by people who only saw the world that way — and if I were not so familiar with my glass-half-full way of looking at things — that I could convince myself if I tried hard enough.

But why would I want to?

I tend to think I am already (and have been fortunate to always be, by nature) at the place the Buddha wanted us to get to, where we stop worrying so much about what comes next — where, certainly, we stop fighting with each other about it — and just go with what we can see for ourselves, and let what will be, be. This is not by way of saying that I am already a fully enlightened being, just that in this one aspect — it being an attitude toward life that is one of underlying acceptance, maybe even satisfaction, with the overal situation — I am fortunate to have been born or to have acquired early an attitude of life that doesn’t incorporate that “fundamental sadness” but instead I have a fundamental happiness, with lots of situational confusion and attendant upsets to keep me busy practicing.

So what I wonder — back to the theme of this post — is whether the Buddha was addressing both kinds of people, those angst-ridden types, and glass-half-full types like myself.

When I debate with my friend Mark Knickelbine, about how the Buddha was defining dukkha, and what he was saying about it, in Mark’s writings I hear him describing existential angst as what the Buddha was talking about — inescapable suffering that we must learn to accept as part of life, but not cling to; there is no escape from the angst but we can lessen its effects through a change in attitude toward it. When I define what I believe the Buddha meant by dukkha when it gets translated as “the end of suffering”, it is that this dukkha (by definition) has to be escapable suffering (because he says it can end) — it *is* the attitude, or more exactly, dukkha is what results from a certain attitude toward the inescapable. It is not the painful events in our lives — loss of loved ones, loss of ability, the ultimate loss of our own lives — that are dukkha, but it is the attitudes we have towards these things that cause us to suffer in completely unnecessary and avoidable ways. I have often remarked, during these conversations, that Mark and I arrive at the same place: there are painful events we can not, while living, escape from, and what the Buddha is saying is we have to change our attitudes towards them; this will give us relief.

But what I am wondering about today, is whether the difference between Mark’s view and mine is based on two different attitudes towards life, the one that sees the world through the lens of existential angst, and the one, like mine, that doesn’t concern itself much at all with inevitable losses, doesn’t feel a deep and constant angst over the situation, but does recognize that individual situations could be handled better than they are. And if the two different views of dukkha are perceived through two fundamentally different views of life, could it be that both are woven into the Buddha’s teachings because he recognized that different sorts of people have these different views, so he wove both into his teachings, so that each of us could find a thread that matched our view, to pull us across — using the metaphor of the Raft — to “the other shore”?

10 Responses to “The “Many Views” View of Buddhism”

  1. Thanks for the shout out. You really need to read that Sue Hamilton book, “Early Buddhism, a New Approach.” Unfortunately, it’s hella expensive, but Kindle has an edition you can rent.

    At any rate, her reading is that the khandas=dukkha, to the point where she translates dukkha as “experience.” She gets there by pointing out that Gotama says in the DA chain that the khandas are dependent upon ignorance. That ignorance amounts to the subject-object split that is built into the perspective of an experiencing subject — how she interprets “making manifold.” Because we have not achieved awakening, we continue to perceive the world as me amid a myriad of things, each individual and stable; and because that’s not the way things really are, we keep making mistakes, such as craving for things to be different than they are. The more we act out of this mistaken perception, the more we cultivate the conditions that lead to our continued cyclical existence as experiencing subjects. When we lose our ignorance through awakening, we stop this kind of behavior which in turn leads to the cessation of rebirth (which is the end of dukkha).

    First off, you will see in her analysis your reading of the Vedic creation myth as a metaphor for how the self arises. Hamilton goes into a pretty detailed psychological analysis of how experience leads to the subject/object split and how that leads to continued existence, but she keeps it grounded in the Nikayas. I think you would really find her work a useful adjunct to your theory.

    She is an academic, however, not a Buddhist. She tends to stick to the classic/Theravadin interpretation of the texts, and so she runs into the same contradictions. For example, if conventional experience = dukkha, and the end of ignorance therefore equals the end of conventional experience, what was going on with Da Buddha for the last 45 years of his life? Or any arahant who must continue to feed herself after awakening? She devotes a couple weak paragraphs to this issue.

    She also draws out the implications of this reading for issues like ethics, the centrality of the Brahma Viharas to awakening, non-duality, and other stuff. At any rate, I thought about your work often while I was reading it and I think it’s really complimentary to what you’re doing.

    Finally, you really don’t experience life as tragic? You have no emotional reaction to the fact that we are so ignorant, and that we hurt ourselves and one another through that ignorance? You can see what’s going on in Nepal, for instance, and not feel pain? You don’t mourn any loss in your life? Maybe you’re already enlightened!

  2. For instance, you might have seen the stuff I’ve been posting about my friends Julie Lindeman and John Shimon, the photographers. I’ve known Julie since we were both kids, and she’s in the end stages of terminal cancer. That fact fills me with sadness, that she has to leave when everything she’s worked for is just coming to fruition, that her partner who has been with her for 30 years is struggling to know how to live without her. I love her and I know I will go on loving her, and that she will always be a presence in my life. But when I open my heart to that situation it fills with grief and compassion. The joy of compassion is there, but it would not be without the pain of grief. In fact, I can say truthfully that the greatest joy in my life now comes from allowing myself to fully experience my own suffering (tough) and that of others (getting easier). I would not want things to be otherwise, even if they could (although if I could give my friend some more pain-free time with us I would do almost anything to achieve that). It is through recognizing how my heart responds to others that I know that my notion that I am somehow an independent creature isolated in an alienating world is only an illusion. What lies beyond that is a mystery, and that’s ok.

  3. I have that Sue Hamilton book, and have even read most of the way through it. I agree that dukkha can be seen as experience. That matches with my understanding that at its absolutely most essential, what the Buddha is trying to get us to understand is our own experience and what we do with it, and why we do what we do. The basic idea being that the better we understand that, the better we will understand that it is the mismatch between what we want to be, and what is, that causes unnecessary suffering.

    Do I not feel that it is tragic that people are killed and maimed in earthquakes? Or the effect those deaths and disabling will have on the loved ones of those who were hurt? With “tragic” meaning “characterized by extreme distress or sorrow” in one sense it has to be tragic, as it will cause extremes of distress or sorrow. Do I feel distressed by it? I am at too much of a remove to be distressed — I am sorry for those who have to go through it. But I don’t have any sense that the life we lead should be any other way than it is. I have no sense that it does any good to even wish it were any other way than it is. Largely because if it weren’t earthquakes, it would be something else — if it weren’t cancer it would be something else. To love someone is to risk loss. One way or another, the loss is inevitable. It cannot be any other way. To choose to love fully is to accept that we will not only feel the joy of love but — to love well, to live fully — to accept that we will also experience the loss.

    I think that’s wisdom. And so once again, Mark my friend, we come to the same conclusion.

    All I am suggesting in this piece is that some of us, perhaps just naturally, or perhaps through upbringing, don’t find angst (defined, maybe, as a tendency to fight the perceived injustice of the fact of human suffering?) to be the underlying tone of our lives. I suppose I have a natural affinity for Buddhism in part because it not only aligns with my natural tendency to see the ups and downs as inevitable and expected and necessary to accept with grace, but it explains to me why this matters, and how it is not always the norm, and gives me the skills to see when acquired habit doesn’t quite align with the way I see the world. This gives me not only skills to practice, but the strength and inspiration to do the work to bring the way I live more in line with the way I see the world.

    Though I find this beautifully poetic:

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    — Dylan Thomas

    I don’t actually find kicking against the inevitable all that useful. Though, hey, here I am, wanting to help more people understand the cure Buddhism has for the ignorance you mention, though it may well be inevitable that too few will gain the help they could well use from it.

  4. I agree that raging against the way must be and must end is a waste of time. The Ford quote uses three adjectives (four if you count sadness), and only one of them is angst, which in any event I had never considered to have the connotation of resistance (free floating anxiety would be closer to my understanding of the word). Perhaps another term is more fitting, one that Batchelor likes to use : poignancy. The recurrence of pain and loss is what makes joy possible, because it reminds us that we are joined at the heart with everyone. But for it to do that, it has to be real pain and loss. That’s what it means to open your heart — it is usually shut (at least mine is) because we think we must defend ourselves against the suffering that is everywhere if we allow ourselves to be touched by it. One can rationalize about one’s responsibility or lack of responsibility for tragic occurrences, or what one can or can’t do about it, but that’s part of the defense mechanism too, part of the story about that person over there isn’t me and so I don’t have to care about them.

    Did you read the Hamilton book before or after you wrote yours?

  5. I read most of Sue’s book long before I wrote mine. I stopped reading when I realized she was on the right track — she has many amazing insights in it — but was (like Nanavira Thera and Buddhadasa before her) blocked from seeing to the bottom by the certainty that having rebirth be The Cosmic System was necessary to understanding what the Buddha was saying. But she contributed to my understanding, as so many have (Jayarava, for example, and even Bhikkhus Bodhi and Thanissaro).

    Maybe I’m not getting what angst is. But even leaving it out, at the base, I don’t find my human condition to be one of dis-ease, dissatisfaction, and sadness. My baseline is still joy at being alive at all. I recognize what you’re saying — that a deep experience of joy can only come about through a deep experience of its opposites — but what I am saying is that I have always accepted that this is so, so that there is no overall sadness over the fact of the one having to be experienced to have the other. I guess I am separating out two kinds of sadness: the sadness that one necessarily has to experience to fully experience joy, and the feeling of poignancy that one has to ever feel that sadness.

    Does that make it make any more sense?

  6. But of course, I am lucky to have had a very easy life by comparison to many people in this world. If I lived in a different time or place, where suffering was my dominant experience, I might see things differently.

  7. I guess I understand what you are saying but I can’t relate to it. I hope I would never be arrogant enough to suggest that my insight is more profound than somebody else’s. I spent a lot of years being intermittently depressed, so I would have agreed with the proposition that life is suffering. But I remember times when my heart was touched by the poignancy of life; and now that I have been practicing metta, tonglen and dzogchen that reaction is much stronger and more readily available and my perception of it is more nuanced. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have it there, which may be a failure of my imagination.

  8. star says:

    Wow, Mark. Sorry if you are taking what I am saying as me being arrogant, and suggesting that “my insight is more profound than somebody else’s”. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I am not speaking of my insight, I’m speaking of my nature. And apparently not expressing myself in a way that makes what I’m saying understandable at all.

  9. Heavens no! My profound apologies if my comments were even interpretable in that way! No I was referring to the people who tell you you don’t “get” dukkha because you haven’t “gone deeply enough.” Trying to “pull rank” on someone that way is the height of arrogance — unfortunately, one hears people judge other people’s attainment and practice that way frequently.

  10. Glad to hear it. So here’s the thing. Most of what I speculate on, in trying to understand why the Buddha said what he said the way he said it, I can check against my own experience of the practice, but when it comes to this one, I definitely can’t. This blogpost is mostly me wondering aloud if I’m really seeing something, or if I’m imagining it. I really only have my experience to try to see into two different “natures” of attitudes, though.

    I was realizing that I can sort of understand the “lives of quiet desperation” way of being through my experience of a little more than a decade of shallow but very wide depression. It took a while for me to recognize my attitude had changed, and that it *was* depression, not necessarily a permanent change that was making me turn away from just about everything but the bare necessities, and my kids. This is how I know that I am, by nature, not the sort to live a life of quiet desperation — I recognized the depression as “not me” and struggled to come back from it. And, at last, have done so.

    So I know this side but really only this side. And on this side — often called “naive” by my less cheerful friends — I do find, as you have said you do, that turning and facing human suffering makes me a better person (capable of greater compassion) and makes life richer in general. So even as someone who tends to be satisfied with life, the process of not hiding from or ignoring pain (mine or other’s) that I see the Buddha as indirectly describing as part of the skillful process of living, does help.

    I guess what I am wondering is whether, as far as the practice of Buddhism is concerned, there really is any difference in the way my view of life affects practice, from those who recognize an — apparently quite common — feeling of dis-ease, dissatisfaction, and sadness. We both — you and I — find value in accepting that in order to live life fully we need to experience “negative emotions” fully. The difference seems to me, from things you have said, just in the way you perceive that you are (pardon me if I phrase this badly) accepting the inevitable sorts of suffering, something that I perceive, in myself, that I just about came into the world accepting (well, as an adult anyway — not so much as a child!).

    Both of us get, I think, that there is another kind of suffering that is caused largely by trying to escape from inevitable suffering (physical pain) and necessary-to-feel suffering (experiencing some grief if one is to live and love fully) — that other kind being the stuff we experience by pretending it could be otherwise, and ignoring pain, or drowning it, or dwelling on it by feeding it.

    So what I’m wondering is if there is, really, any difference at all. Or if I’m just imagining one. So hard to accurately imagine other people’s experience when there are subtle differences.

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