Blog

Being Laced With

The reality is that our selved experience is laced with dukkhaDukkha, a Pali term used by the Buddha, refers to the basic unsatisfactoriness of experience, the feeling, as I’d say, of something being off, if only a little bit.

When we say that “X is laced with Y,” we mean that Y occurs in small or trace amounts in X. Why is this analysis significant?

Because we’re willing to grant, I think, that one may enjoy eating ice cream (or whatever), finding it pleasant, only later on to feel the pain of having eaten too much. So too with other selved experiences: pleasure follows pain or pain precedes pleasure. Our egoic experience, indeed, reveals to us that pleasure is transient.

This, of course, is true, but it’s not yet profound. What is profound is the more nuanced understanding and feeling having to do with dukkha insinuating itself even, if only a tiny bit, into whatever it is that is going on providing that one is egoically engaged.

And this is disturbing. It’s disturbing because it feels as if everything we touch is tainted somehow, stained in some way, painted with poison. Therefore, I say again, “The reality is that our selved experience is laced with dukkha.”

But, you reply, surely this does not describe all my experiences? Quite so. You’ve probably, if only rarely and fleetingly, had non-egoic experiences, experiences when you “lost your self.” You tasted something indeed, something very special or, if you prefer, very ordinary.

Enlightenment, the total losing of one’s self, is therefore the experience of freedom and purity. The experience of this not being laced with dukkha.

Ecodharma And Our Climate Emergency

During an interview with the Buddhist scholar David Loy yesterday, we were speaking about ecodharma, a neologism that tries to synthesize the teachings of the dharma with a commitment to ecological engagement.

Loy thinks we have every reason to believe–and so he argues in his book Ecodharma–that we’re right in the thick of a climate emergency. What does this mean for a socially and ecologically engaged Buddhist?

On the one hand, he says, “It looks bad.” We might, he says, liken caring for the earth to hospice care. You don’t cease caring for someone who is dying. On the contrary, you act so as to reduce their pain and suffering and with a view to hearing and feeling them with all your heart.

On the other hand, he goes on, as Buddhists, we really don’t know what is going to happen. In this sense, we are, as we must, be open to the Great Mystery.

Some ecologists have gone into despair and thence into hiding. Some Buddhists have retained a single-minded focus on attaining classical, individual enlightenment. Neither will do for Loy. As we spoke, what stood out to me was his resolve: we must “do the very best that we can,” he observed, without “knowing whether it will make any difference” while accepting that “that’s OK.”

But what does this enigmatic commitment mean? One, you act while “abandoning all hope of results” as the Tibetan Buddhist slogan from the lojong training would have it. Two, you accept that everything you do may amount to nothing in the end. That is, you don’t delude yourself into thinking that any collective effort will contribute in any significant way or at all to the viability of the earth and to the well-being of future sentient beings, whatever these might be, that inhabit it. And, three, you embrace non-attachment in the fullest sense of the word. “Basically,” Kyogen Carlson states in Zen in the American Grain: Discovering the Teachings at Home, “nonattachment means all-acceptance with willingness and positivity of mind. All-acceptance means complete willingness to admit that things are exactly as they are.”

Ergo, act with resolve; act without knowing; act while being all-accepting. Wise words these.

What Wisdom Is

The word wisdom is thrown around a lot these days, especially in business circles. This person is wise; that was a wise thing to do; what wise leadership; such wise counsel indeed.

The explosion of interest in philosophy in Silicon Valley (I’m thinking of Stoicism, Buddhist philosophy, and to a lesser extent Aristotelianism but also of philosophically minded people like Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman, among others) has resulted in the word wisdom getting bandied about even more.

It would, let’s say, be wise not to speak bullshit, however, when we’re talking about wisdom. Better yet, it would be wise not just to want to be wise but also, actually, to be wise. Therefore, it would be good to go back to the beginning and ask: what is wisdom?

Here’s one pithy definition I’ve come up with: wisdom is right conduct flowing directly from right understanding. 

Start at the back. Right understanding refers to empirical, theoretical, and experiential knowledge of the nature of the cosmos and human nature.

Right conduct refers to almost always doing the right thing in whichever situation one finds oneself.

Flowing directly from means that right conduct is neither willy-nilly nor shot out of a cannon. It wasn’t a lucky guess, a good shot, or a spot-on intuition. No, the conduct came directly from the understanding. It’s as if the understanding were the gentle hand guiding while supporting the action.

Is this right?

Tests and Observations: (1) See that we often use maxims (“Be kind.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”) when we’re referring to wisdom. Each maxim embeds within itself a kind of knowledge that the wise person actually, remarkably embodies. (2) See that a single act of compassion (e.g.) can only be said to count as a wise act if it really was based on right understanding. (3) See how wise people are often quite spontaneous because their knowledge is so aligned with their habits that they don’t, in many cases, need to deliberate. Simply, they act laudably. (4) Even so, wise persons are also, when need be, capable of ethical deliberations, which enable them to harmonize their understanding with their resultant conduct.

If this definition is correct, then plainly most people are not wise. Ourselves included. In a good sense, this is humbling. Maybe, just maybe this insight will loosen–or shatter–our egocentrism.

This Is Contemplation

“Always,” he said,”I’ve got to do this or that.” “Always,” he said, “what is next and what is next.”  “Always,” he said, “when I finish this or that, then I say to myself that I’ll be fulfilled.” “But,” he said,” I am not fulfilled and there is no peace.”

Yes, because peace cannot be had this way. Peace does not come from achieving this or that. It can only come when departing from the seemingly unceasing structure of resistance and amelioration, of desire and satisfaction, of action and transient completion. Departing, therefore, from the ego.

What is eternally before, after, and beneath the question of what is next? What ever-sees the one who feels that there is, and can be, no peace? What, who peacefully abides amid the tumult of this particular human life? What, who peacefully extrudes itself into forms while also, and at the same time, being beyond form?

What, who am I?

The one who acts must ask himself what comes before all action. The one who thinks must ask himself whence thought arises. The one who has taken himself as the center must ask what is the Source of all thought, feeling, sensation, and perception. The who has taken himself as the source must find what is the Source of all apparent sources. The mystery comes before everything, including the questioner. Therein, that is, herein is peace, the peace that surpasses all human endeavor, all human thought, and all human understanding. Fall back and rest here.

This is contemplation.