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”?