karma

The book that changed my life

penguin dhammapada from the 1970's, translated by juan mascaro

In the late 1970’s, between finishing high school and going to university, I opened a small book of ancient verses, and my life changed forever.

I’d been interested in Buddhism for years, but my local library only had one book on the subject — a rather dated “Teach Yourself” guide to Zen Buddhism. I’d read the book, and found it both intriguing and baffling, but struggled to get a sense of what difference Buddhism would make to my life. And I was looking for something life-changing.

One early autumn day I accompanied my parents on a shopping trip to the nearest large town, which was the possessor of that rare and precious thing — a book shop. I’d inherited a love of reading from my father, and so the two of us went (more or less) one way while my mother went hers. And after a period of browsing, I happened across a slender black-spined volume: “The Dhammapada,” translated by Juan Mascaró. I can still see exactly where in the bookshop, on which shelf, and where on the shelf the book sat, as clearly as I can see the book now on the desk in front of me.

I’d heard of the Dhammapada, and knew it was an early Buddhist scripture. I knew it was the real deal — the teaching of the Buddha — as opposed to being merely about Buddhism. And sitting in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, waiting for my mother to return from her bargain-hunting, with my father beside me listening to the droning incantation of the days’ football results, my eager hands slipped the slim book from its brown paper bag, and skipping past the introduction I read the following words:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.

Despite the fact that these verses had a big effect on me, this is a terrible translation. Nevertheless, these clear and simple words were revelatory. We have choices. The key to happiness and suffering lies in the quality of our thoughts, words, and actions. Reading these verses, I knew I was a Buddhist.

Inherent in these few lines is everything we need to know about what it means to live a Buddhist life. We can find out for ourselves, through experience and observation, which thoughts, words, and actions lead to suffering and which to joy. These choices lie before us in every moment of our lives: the skilful or the unskilful; joy or sorrow. Which are you going to choose? In every moment you make choices that change your life.

Choose wisely.

PS. A better translation would be:

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a corrupted mind, suffering follows them like the wheel the hoof of the ox.

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves.

Since this is a bad translation, I suggest either Narada Thera‘s version (available free in various formats), or Gil Fronsdal’s. Buddharakkhita’s translation is good, and is available free on Access to Insight. Bhikkhu Sujato’s is excellent, and is available free on Sutta Central, along with other translations.

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Roles of karma and dharma in Buddhism

James Stuart, Demand Media: Dharma and karma provide the the basis for Buddhist morality, but also influence the religion’s concept of justice. They form a cosmic path that guides the soul through reincarnation and toward the ultimate goal of enlightenment. This is possible because the two concepts are connected, with dharma teaching individuals to live in harmony with the world, allowing them to accrue positive karma and experience favorable events in this and the next life.

Harmony

The concept of dharma, or dhamma, posits that the natural state of the world is one of harmony, and humans should do everything in their power to preserve it. Acts…

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Fourth reminder: The defects of samsara

ocean

Samsara
Is an ocean of suffering,
Unendurable,
Unbearably intense.

Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

So what is Samsara? Most of us have heard of Nirvana. And assume Samsara is the exact opposite. Nirvana is more the juxtaposition of Samsara that can give a feeling of balance. Nirvana and Samsara are here, in this present moment. Both of them right here, right now. If we have suffered from an addiction we would have experienced a taste of what Samsara could be.

I’m not sure it is helpful to define either concept. Though of course Samsara is some of what I have alluded to before. Our lack of recognizing that we have had a precious birth, our denial of our own death, the karma of taking a human body, all this is Samsara. It is the cycle of life, and it’s consequence of decay and death.

All beings have suffered for eons, and will continue to do so until Nirvana is attained. Nirvana is more than a state of bliss or peace. It is indefinable. But I would say that we are moving towards it if we can cultivate, equanimity, simplicity, stillness and contentment in our lives.

The Four Reminders

I’m aware of having spoken much about the finality of life, or the part of the cycle of life which is death. But there are many of us who will get sick for a prolonged time before we die. Many of us who will age, and loose much of our mobility and even our faculties before we die. Samsara is right in this moment of not accepting, old age and sickness. It is possible to be happy in sickness, happy in old age, and happy at the point of death.

How can this be? The Buddhist path offers a path of liberation, a path of ethics, meditation and wisdom. This threefold path can lead us to the point of seeing that there is an end of suffering, and if we take this path it will lead us away from suffering. It will point us in the direction of Nirvana.

There is much hope in life, if we take the opportunity and invite the full cycle of life into our hearts and minds. I find myself reflecting on the following questions often.

  • How do we hold death lightly?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may be diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to an old age with little mobility?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to be a 100, be well, but have no friends or family alive around me?
  • How do I live?

I must live in the now. Moment by moment without the distraction of the past or the future.

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Actions have consequences — reflections on karma

Man casting shadow

‘We act, and positive or negative consequences will follow. Just as our bodies move in the world, our shadow will follow us too. Just as we are born, death will follow too. We cannot escape this law of cause and effect, it is with us in every breath that we take.’

From the new book, Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teaching to Overcome Addiction, Publication date 2014, by Valerie Mason-John (me) and Dr Parambandhu Groves

Speak and you have spoken. As soon as you have spoken your words have been heard.

Think a thought and you are thinking. As soon as you think a thought you have acted, creating grooves in your mind.

Wish a person harm and you have harmed. That person may never know, but you will know.

And don’t be fooled! When you harm a person, you may think you’re not harmed, but when you harm a person, and then turn to a drink, or food, or some other distraction to take your mind of your thoughts and actions, you are harming yourself.

Karma is what we create ourselves and not what some demon throws at us.

  • Let feelings arise and cease without emoting
  • Let thoughts arise and cease without thinking
  • When a thought arises let it come down into nothingness
  • Trust in the law of gravity
  • Take time to reflect

If somebody heard all your thoughts what do you think they would do?

How many of your thoughts would you be willing to share with people you work with, or socialize with or who you live with?

Who would you be without your thoughts?

It has been said that the only thing we own in this world are our thoughts. Are your thoughts full of kindness, love and compassion?

If not, it may be the reason why you are unhappy in your life. It may be the reason why you experience resentments, anger, jealousies, hatred, and other toxic emotions.

Change your thinking and you will change your karma.

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Happy New Year

Vimalasara

Many of us in the world use the new year as an opportunity to let go of the past and make new beginnings. I thought I would acknowledge the new year as one of those GIFTS — a Great Indicator For Throwing Stuff Out.

We are the fortunate ones to be reading this right now, because for some people the world did end on December 21st or thereafter. So here we are, having survived another end of the world date. There have been many such apocalypses predicted in the past and none, of course, have come true. We could spend the rest of our lives worrying about predictions of the end of the world, or we could begin to think about how we truly want to live our life.

  1. What direction do you want your life to be heading towards? Aspirations?
  2. What conditions need to be cultivated to make your aspirations true?
  3. What is holding you back? Externally? Internally?
  4. What are the steps you need to take to help support your aspirations?

If we are wanting to live a more mindful life, more in sync with Buddhist teachings, we would be placing every efforts to transform our body, speech and mind. We would be aware of our actions having consequences and would apply mindfulness to recreate actions that only promote kindness.

The Four Reminders

Perhaps go back to the four questions and see how many of your aspirations are to do with body, speech and mind? Ask yourself, will your aspirations lead you in the direction of moderation? A direction that is free of self indulgence or denial and self mortification? The Buddha taught us the middle way – the path of ethics, meditation and wisdom to free us from our suffering. Perhaps that could be an aspiration to investigate the middle way in 2013.

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The third reminder: Karma

Wheel of Life

Karma can be scary. Does it mean if we get sick we have done something wrong in our life? This was one of the question on my friends lips in her dying process. ‘What had she done so wrong to get pancreatic cancer?’

Nothing, she had done nothing wrong. The only karma in her dying is that she was reborn as a human, and if we take a human birth we will inevitably get sick, or age, and die.

If I get a cold it does not mean I have been unskilful. It could mean though that I went out in the cold, didn’t wrap up well, and so I caught a cold. Hence my action had a consequence. But someone else may have done something unskilful, gone out in the cold weather without wrapping up well and not catch a cold. Their actions had a different consequence. They may well not have been under the weather. There can be so many factors to why if we commit the same action, why the consequence is not the same.

In 1999 the captain of the England Team preparing for the world cup Glen Hoddle was sacked because of his misguided and ignorant views on karma. He believed that the: ‘disabled, and others, are being punished for sins in a former life.’ This was also once an ignorant view of black people and sadly today some people can think this of the Dalits of India.

The Four Reminders

Most Buddhists do not talk of sin. We speak about unskilful and skilful actions. And furthermore there is no devil to punish us for our sins in Buddhism. There is only the mind that can haunt us like a tormented ghost. The leader of the Dalits, the late Dr Ambedkar once referred to caste as nothing more ‘than a notion of mind.’ Most definitely not a sin, or a punishment due to past lives. Therefore he believed we could liberate the mind, and he changed the Karma of his people by converting to Buddhism because this was the religion that would emancipate their minds. His mass conversion in 1956 allowed hundreds of thousands of people who were called ‘Untouchables’ to rename themselves as Buddhists. It was the beginning of the uplift of his people. If we were to recognize the potency of the mind we would be able to step out of the confinements of the body we are born in and free ourselves from societies oppressions.

My karma as a black woman was that I used to let society’s prejudice oppress me. I in fact oppressed myself with my own thinking.

Karma is about our actions having consequences. And each consequence may be a gain or a cost. That’s it, in its simplicity. It’s not that if you do an unskillful deed you will be punished by the wrath of God. But yes, if you do an unskillful deed there will be a consequence, which may mean that it will prey on your mind, prey so much that you turn to another unskillful action to get rid of the thoughts in your mind. Creating a vicious cycle.

My karma is this. My actions will have consequences. Full stop. If I don’t accept reality, see things as they really are. If I don’t accept that I am going to die, my living will be full of suffering. My dying will be full of suffering. This is the law of karma. My actions of denial will have a consequence.

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Karma confusion in Malaysia

Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings, even among Buddhists. For example, a number of medical students in Malaysia reportedly decided to quit their studies because they’d been told by a monk “that patients should not receive medical treatment for their condition as sickness is the result of their karma.” The had become convinced “that they should not become doctors as the act of treating patients [would] interfere with karma.”

The monk seems to be rather atypical, and “allegedly claimed that he had supernatural power and was able to tell the past and predict the future of the students.” It’s possible that he’s a charlatan, or even that he’s mentally ill.

But ideas like this do tend to pop up from time to time, and so here are a few arguments against this particular take on karma.

First, the Buddha specifically stated that not everything that happens to us in the present moment is a result of karma. He pointed to physiological and environmental factors as affecting us, as well as the actions of other people. The earlier Buddhist commentators enumerated a number of forms of conditionality that included physical causality (physical and chemical laws), biological causality (which would include things like viruses and other diseases), mental causality, karmic causality, and also a form of transcendental causality. I won’t go into all of this, but it’s clear that neither the Buddha nor early Buddhists believed that karma was the only thing affecting us. Certainly our mental states and the choices we make can affect our health, but even Buddhas get ill.

Secondly, the Buddha stressed compassion, himself took care of the sick, and encouraged his monks to take care of the sick. “Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick,” he is reported as saying.

Thirdly, following from this, there are ample provisions in the monastic code of conduct allowing for medicines. Our unnamed monk would be well aware of this!

Fourthly, the Buddha said that trying to figure out what’s the result of karma is an “unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” Although perhaps it also works the other way around: that people who are mentally ill are more prone to have delusions about karma.

And lastly, if it was indeed the karma of sick people that caused them to be sick, then wouldn’t it also be their karma that brought them into contact with a doctor?

The Buddha taught compassion. He taught us to recognize that other people’s sufferings are as real to them as ours are to us. And on the basis of this we should empathize with others and seek not to cause them suffering but to relieve suffering when we can. Here’s Dhammapada verse 20:

All tremble at violence
Life is dear to all
Putting oneself in the place of another
One should neither kill nor cause another
to kill.

This is the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule.

And in the Saleyyaka Sutta the ideal practitioner is described like this:

There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.

Now I’m sure that this monk would argue something like “it’s more compassionate to let being suffer from sickness because it allows their past karma to come to fruition,” but a view like that is very far from the kind of compassion that the Buddha advocated.

In a conversation on the now-defunct social network, Google+, Denis Wallez pointed out the corollary that is karma determines everything then it brings sick people into contact with doctors and suggested that the antidote to such gullibility (thinking here of the medical students rather than the monk) was to get people to read more of the Pali canon, which contains ample evidence to contradict the idea that the sick do not deserve treatment, and more importantly to encourage critical thinking. The Buddha himself, in the Kalama Sutta, famously encouraged us not to believe something just because some monk says so!

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A path to live life to the fullest

Path through golden woodland

In Buddhism there are four reminders, things we should consider to make the most of our lives and to prepare us for death.

The four reminders are:

  • our lives are precious
  • we are not immortal
  • our actions have consequences and
  • we can learn to transcend pain.

These reminders can make a difference in how we live our lives, if we keep them in mind and reflect on them each day.

1. The preciousness of life – our lives are precious and our physical and mental health, energy, freedom, food, and money give us opportunities to make the most of each and every day. So each day, we might ask ourselves, “Am I making the most of my life?” “Am I using my time wisely?” “Am I aware of my thoughts, speech and actions?” “Do I react by habit or respond creatively to situations and people?” “Am I working at a job that is ethical and helpful to people?” “Am I spending as much time with my family as I want to?” “Am I spending as much time with my friends as I want to?” “Do I take time for leisure activities?” “Am I getting enough rest and sleep?” There may be other questions you would add to this list.

2. We are not immortal, although, in our culture we do not think about death until a loved one is very ill or we hear of someone dear to us who is dying. One thing is for certain — we will all die. We cannot avoid death. We all age, day by day we get older. We may think we are immune, but we are not. And there are other causes of death: illness, accidents, natural disasters and violence. We may die after an illness or we may die suddenly without being able to say good-bye to friends and family. Facing death takes courage and a clear conscience. We become more alive when we contemplate death.

3. Actions have consequences. We are the sum of many influences: family, religion, culture, education, relationships, friendships, diet, exercise and more. We are also the sum total of all the many choices and decisions we have made; our actions and our emotional lives. There may be some things we cannot change and we must accept that we cannot change them. We can, however, change the way we think (rather than letting the mind think in a random, unrestrained way). We can become more positive and loving by practicing meditation and yoga. When our actions are honest; when our speech is kind, helpful and harmonious; when we are positive, generous, loving and wise — all this will affect how we feel. We can commit to acting in a way that is beneficial to ourselves, to those around us, and to the world.

4. Learning to transcend pain and suffering.  Each day there is stress and striving. We are always searching for something: a faster, newer car; an updated computer; the latest technological toy; something different in our marriage; a new relationship; more fashionable clothing; a different job; an understanding boss; people to act differently; a bigger house; or greener grass. The list is endless — take a few moments and consider what you strive for, what you would like to be different or new in your life. Along with striving and stress — there is illness, injury, depression, fear, mental anguish — all of which contribute to feeling that we do not have enough, we are intrinsically not enough, we wish things/people/situations were different. Our bodies continue to grow older, our thoughts never end and keep us awake at night and distracted during the day. This is life, what the Buddha called samsara. We search for happiness and fulfillment in what we do not have, rather than finding contentment and joy in what we do have.

This dissatisfaction often brings us to question the meaning of life, or to a spiritual quest. We often need a wake up call to be jolted out of our complacency. We need to wake up to the truth – that we will not live forever, our actions have consequences for ourselves, others and the world, we can find happiness and joy, and we need to be aware enough to make the most of this precious life.

There are different ways of reflecting on these four reminders: meditation, silent reflection, writing and discussions with others.

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Drops in the ocean: Buddhist reflections on David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”

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cloud atlas book cover

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a ripping good read with plenty of action and suspense. It’s also a cautionary tale of karma-vipāka (how our actions set up complex results, short- and long-term) and how failing to choose is itself a choice just as much as a conscious decision is.

Populated by clever and colorful characters from different places, pasts and futures, the six stories making up this diverse sampling of human experience nonetheless weave together, surprisingly, into a poignant and epic tale of suffering and kindness. From the story of a rather naïve young man on a return voyage to San Francisco from the South Pacific, in perhaps the 1800s, to a nearly Lord of the Flies reorganization of tribal life in far-future Hawaii after humans have pretty well trashed the environment, the reader is zoomed from one kind of crisis–ranging from the personal to the global–to the next. Each of the characters have challenges unique to their time, place and situation. Yet these challenges, specific as they may seem, do not eclipse their all-too-human needs and desires, which all of us share.

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-037-55072-5-0
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

When you have a landscape that covers this many diverse stories over such a sweep of time, the main point(s) of the overarching story could get lost. But Mitchell makes us care about the characters, and their grappling with their fates, not just by evoking all the richness of lived experience but by helping us connect our hearts to that of each character. In the end, what I was left with wasn’t just another display of the whole gamut of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. In each story, most of the characters realized something more about themselves and their world, prompting me to examine myself, my values, and the world around me. Putting myself in their shoes, I wondered: how can I better use awareness and kindness to respond to the confusion and unsatisfactoriness in and around me? A book that makes you question, maybe makes you squirm — that’s an excellent use of one’s reading time, no?

I felt richly rewarded with well-evoked characterizations, some who could rightly be called “a piece of work,” who employ all manner of picaresque language such as:

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Agog is one of the basic human states, I think; it was a pleasure to live there while reading this book.

Though Cloud Atlas is not a Buddhist book, I found certain Dharmic themes reflected in the prose. The strongest of these is the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence (impermanence, non-substantiality and unsatisfactoriness), which seem woven throughout the narratives. Or maybe, like when I first fell in love with old Volvos, I just see them everywhere. In one brief scene, from a time maybe 200 years from now, a humanoid fabricant being, somni-451, is being shuttled from safe-house to safe-house, avoiding the corporate/government authorities. She is being hunted down as the (reluctant) figure-head in an emerging revolution of the have-nots against their ‘beloved masters’. She is taken to what had been, centuries before, a monastic complex with many temples and shrines somewhere in Korea, perhaps. Visible across the river gorge is a carved, serene, seated, cross-legged figure, the worse for wear and tear, in huge bas-relief. Somni-451 comes out just before dawn, and sees the elderly headwoman who is sitting, contemplating this figure. She is the abbess, who, as a young girl, had trained briefly as a nun and is the only survivor from the time of rehabilitation (or death) of those who practiced the old, now-banned, religions. She tells somni-451 about this Siddhartha and how he taught freedom from suffering. But she can’t really tell her the stories, because they have all been lost. Nonetheless, she abides, and helps those who come to this place seeking freedom.

Cloud Atlas, written as a palindromic enigma, reveals itself gradually. Each chapter focuses on the story of a particular character, time and place, starting with the past (roughly the early 1800s). Working forward in time we reach a time in the far future (maybe 500 years?), and then the order reverses where we find the denouement of each character as we proceed, backwards in time. However, words, phrases, shadows of names, and roles of characters reverberate back and forth among the chapters. It’s exciting and also uncomfortable. I find myself once again sucked into the vortex of a dystopian vision, and find myself wondering why I am drawn to this. As the survivor of a personal apocalypse or two (although thriving now, thankfully) perhaps I can’t help being fascinated by fictional apocalypses. Even though I know there is no safe ground in saṃsāra (the world-as-we-know-it: the ocean of suffering and beauty we inhabit), and even though I deeply believe that no one is free until we’re all free and saṃsāra is emptied of the suffering of craving, aversion, and confusion, I can’t quite look away.

This is a book of disturbing conceptions, but of such conceptions that we ought, ethically, to be disturbed by. In the paired sections named “An Orison of Somni-451,” a dystopian future is presented wherein the population of “purebloods” exists by the caring grace of the “corpocracy” and cannot survive without their “franchises and gallerias.” Meanwhile, fabricants from corporate wombtanks live in complete servitude, unable to survive without a special nourishing but soporific substance , and poisoned by regular food. They labor, die, and then become — Soylent Green-style — the food that supports the whole enterprise.

This book has riled my inner revolutionary. I want the victims rescued, injustices revenged, and the evil punished. But also it takes genuine talent for a writer to make a reader care that all the villains, no matter how contemptuous and evil, are really just so sadly deluded. This makes for some painful reading in certain moments. The truest revolution is the wish for all villains to see with new hearts and be transformed.

There is a sad eloquence generated by beings not considered by others as sentient. Somni-451 is not alone. It doesn’t matter if that being is different by way of gender, age, color of skin, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or genomic construction. All of that is portrayed here and often it is wryly funny. As one character, the only slightly decrepit yet elegant Veronica explains, “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back… We–by whom I mean anyone over sixty–commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.” Ow. And I say this partly, yes, but not completely because I, too, am over sixty.

Another treat this book offers is a sort of comparison of technologies past, present, future. From our current vantage point, we can never see very far how our choices play out in the future, but maybe we should keep trying to see. Science and technology have brought wondrous things to pass. Many have been the entrepreneurs who by connecting dots have opened the way for people to make a better living for themselves and their families. Leaders and organizations can help whole communities flourish and creatively respond to challenges to the common good. And it can and has and will all go horribly wrong unless we’re smart about it and practice good ethics.

But what to do, as a practicing Buddhist, since I cannot look away–from this book, from ongoing life? I am riled, I am moved–but to what? How exactly, does the bodhisattva save living beings? I wanna know; I’m also afraid that the answer might be that it is beyond me. Truly, it does seem beyond the abilities of “me,” this un-Enlightened, ordinary, human woman.

Adam Ewing (our young guy from the 1800’s), who had both observed and suffered much cruelty from his fellows aboard ship makes it home to San Francisco determined to use his newly-awakened passion for justice for the abolition of slavery. He intends to spend his life

shaping a world I want Jackson [his son] to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit…[yet] I hear my father-in-law’s response: ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam, but don’t tell me about justice. Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the rednecks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites!…You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!…He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Well, okay then; whatever! But the last line in the book, the son’s silent answer to his father-in-law is strangely comforting, and perhaps our next-step-clue: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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Jettisoning the notion of the “true self”

tom and jerry angel and devil

Joshua Knobe has a thought-provoking article in the New York Times on the topic of what we believe to be our “true self.” Knobe is an associate professor at Yale, where he is appointed both in Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. He is one of a new breed of philosopher — the kind that not only takes account of science, but actively participates in scientific exploration.

In the article, In Search of the True Self, he explores the thorny problem, just what is the “True Self” anyway? Take the example of a Christian who believes that homosexuality is a sin, but comes to realize that he is homosexual. As the article says,

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, [he] is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

You and I will almost certainly come down on one side or the other, but we may end up with diametrically opposed views of what it means for this man to be true to himself. The decision about what is someone’s True Self seems to be a subjective one.

According to Knobe, one answer, “endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways” is that “what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection.” That seems fair enough, but then he goes on to say that from this viewpoint our conflicted Christian would realize that “his sexual desires are not the real him … If he loses control and gives in to these desires, he will be betraying his true self.” This seems highly questionable. A reasonable person might say that if he has been born with an impulse to love others who happen to be of the same sex, and that if acting on this impulse harms no one, then it is the Christian restriction on homosexuality, and even the entire belief system of that religion, that is irrational. But as it happens, this isn’t what particularly interests me about this question of the “true self.” What does interest me about it is something I’ll return to later.

Also see:

Knobe points out, however, that the very idea of our rationality being the True Self is incomprehensible in our wider culture, where our more base instincts are seen as who we really are. (I blame Freud. The Id is seen as being what’s really gone on, while the Super Ego (our values) are seen as fake, and as a front.)

So we have two opposed viewpoints, and Knobe highlights that the “trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology.” He says that the matter is “more complex” although the study he cites (one he conducted with his colleagues George Newman and Paul Bloom) doesn’t seem to point to anything very complex at all. The study simply shows that what people identify as the “True Self” is subjective, and based on their existing religious and political views: “The results showed a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self.”

As a Buddhist I find the concept of a True Self fascinating. I experience myself as being composed of competing impulses: on the one hand I want to be kind, while on the other I’m inclined to yell at my kids when things don’t go the way I want them. I have a clear sense that being kind is more aligned with who I want to be. But is either of those “my true self”? Actually, I could say either “both” or “neither.”

In a practical sense, both kindness and yelling are parts of my behavior. I have to own them. No one else can take responsibility for my behavior. And in this sense I am, as the Buddhist suttas tell us:

the owner of my actions [karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

So from that point of view the answer is “both.” Both acting kindly and yelling unkindly are equally “really me’ although I may choose to prefer one over the other.

Why do I choose one over the other? It’s because, in my experience, yelling leads to suffering for myself and others, and I do not like suffering or causing suffering. Kindness, on the other hand, leads to a sense of enrichment and happiness, and I enjoy experiencing those things. And that’s why I’d prefer to act kindly rather than yell. It’s not that one is “the real me” and the other is not — it’s that they have consequences for my sense of well-being.

This follows the Buddha’s advice to his son:

Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

What is “unskillful” is what does leads to suffering rather than happiness. Rather than have some abstract principle leading us to look at what is “true” or not true in ourselves, we simply look at what leads to suffering or happiness. The Buddhist path is purely pragmatic, as this sutta shows:

I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm & suffering, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit & happiness, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’

You may note that what is unskillful is not what is “bad.” To say that an action is unskilful is simply to point out that it leads to suffering. There’s no value judgement involved.

But what of my assertion that as well as both kindness and yelling being “the true me,” neither of them is the true me?

Pragmatically, both skillful and unskillful tendencies are truly me, and I have to take responsibility for them. Saying that one side or the other is “not truly me” is a bit of a cop-out. But when we look at the factors that cause suffering, we find that at the core of these is a sense of self-identification that leads to self-definition, reinforcing a sense of the self being static and separate. Ultimately we let go of any identification of any part of ourselve as being “the real self.”

Nothing that we can identify as a constituent of the self defines the self, and so our selves are essentially indefinable. We’re told that our form is not the self, and neither is feeling, perception, our habits or even (despite what some Tibetan forms of Buddhism say) our consciousness is not the self.

In the end, we have no “true self.” Whatever constitues the self “must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.'” The very effort to identify a “true self” is a cause of suffering, and is to be abandoned.

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