the four thoughts that revolutionize the mind: first thought

I’m just going to spill out some percolating thoughts here in what might also turn out to be a blog post which might itself–the blog that is–turn out to be migrated to wordpress soon because I got robotospammed and had to turn off comments and that’s no way to run a blog but it has finally sunk in that I am not going to program php for a living anytime in the near future so continuing to develop my own php blog does not seem to be an efficient use of my time right now. if somebody offers to pay me to debug their php or help to develop php applications, then I’ll resume learning about it.

the other preamble is that I’ve run out of bookmarks. I’ve been saving every free bookstore-advertising bookmark I’ve picked up for the last fifteen years and I just put the last one in a book. the others are all stuck in other books stacked here and there in my room and around the apartment. if I had ever inventoried my bookmarks I could tell you exactly how many books I’m currently “reading” but I never counted them. I think, though, that I had at least 50; maybe more. last time I counted my books I owned 450 of those but I’m fairly certain I’ve acquired at least 100 since then. which means I’m reading, what, 50 out of 550 or more books? so 8-9% of my books I’m in the middle of and some other percentage slightly higher than that I’ve not even started yet.

although I have to say that if I’ve actually started half of the books I’ve bought since 2005 I’m not quite as embarrassed about my compulsive book-buying.

but clearly I need to buy more books so that I can stock up on bookmarks. you know, if you wanted to send me a present that would be very inexpensive–and that would help me not to buy more books (ha. like you have that kind of power), you could put all of your unused bookmarks in a business-sized envelope and mail them to me for the cost of a letter. I’m more than halfway serious here; I’d love to have bookmarks from all over. I prefer the ones that independent bookstores give out for free, so that they have region-specific information on them. well-used, bent and fuzzy bookmarks are fine as long as they don’t have questionable substances staining them. you can send me stained ones if you autoclave them first. :)

if you want to do this but don’t have my snailmail address, email me!

Today I picked up The Buddha at War: Peaceful Heart, Courageous Action in Troubled Times by Robert Sachs, whom I’d never really heard of before but he does buddhisty stuff in the UK apparently so he’s not one of the locals. I bought this book a long time ago because I liked the apparent paradox in the title: Buddhists aren’t known for being particularly combative, at least not these days in the US. What it is turning out to be is a very plain-spoken yet subtle guide to basic Buddhist teachings and an interpretation of them according to the question of how one might act if one perceives that one is living in a kind of “Dark Age,” which has been postulated more than once by “Buddhist masters” about our time, as Sachs claims, and he names a few but they are all Something Something Rinpoche and I didn’t immediately recognize any of the Something Somethings so I’m finding the question of exactly who has been saying this not so important.

But so I picked it up today because I wanted to read something light. Yes my idea of “light reading” is perverse in the extreme but I honestly thought I could read this without having to think too deeply about what was being said but I don’t understand why I assume this with Buddhist texts because it almost never is the actual case once I open them and start reading. The only book that I’ve been able to breeze through was Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx, which I found too inflected with puritanism for my liking but if you weren’t traumatized in a fundamentalist protestant church you might have a more sympathetic response to it.

The chapters are short but in an aphoristic way: he says a lot with few words, something I’ve never been able to do, but that’s not really my project with language anyway, so I’m not going to pretend that I’m worried about using too many words. He starts talking about specific Buddhist precepts in the third chapter, starting with “Four Thoughts” that have been called different things, apparently: The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Dharma; The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Spirituality; and The Four Thoughts that Revolutionize the Mind. He likes the last name best and so do I because I am a perennial malcontent and “revolution” resonates like an ever-receding promise every time I read or hear the word.

The Four Thoughts are relatively simple, and doubtless they’ve been interpreted to infinity and beyond already, but I hadn’t really looked at them closely or had them explained to me from a point of view that was not itself seemingly caught up in Western Puritanism, with its passionate love of black and white thinking. One thing that is interesting to me about Buddhism is that one has to read it non-dualistically even though, in English at least, it is spoken about in dualistic terms: “negative” emotions, or “right” thinking, acting, etc always seeming to imply their opposites are to be taken in the way Westerners habitually take opposites. That is, one is “good” and the other “bad” and they can usually be lined up in exasperatingly predictable ways.

But either Sachs doesn’t do that or he leaves his interpretations open enough that one can look at them with more subtlety than: do this, mustn’t do that. So they made me think, which wasn’t what I was planning on doing, but I did, and I thought I might like to write down some of what I thought so that is what I’m doing here.

I’ll start by going in order and see if that is sufficient to contain the connections I was able to see in what he was saying and what I write about when I’m doing my “serious” writing. The Four Thoughts are, like everything, interconnected and in conversation with each other, so it is not so easy to keep them as discrete entities but one has to write, so: the First Thought “deals with what the Buddha called ‘precious human birth'” (42). Sachs doesn’t spell out the literal translation of the First Thought, so I can’t say for sure whether it consists of analyzing this idea of precious human birth or simply states it or what, but what I got from the section was this, that one needs to accept with a certain equinamity the circumstances of one’s birth, upbringing, and subsequent position in life, insofar as those circumstances provide one with the means to reduce suffering for other beings, to cultivate compassion, and generally anything else that one might wish to be able to do out of a spirit of generosity, which so far pervades this book to such an extent that I can’t help but think that Nietzsche was a closet Buddhist even though he claimed to be opposed to its “life denying” philosophy. Because it seems to me that only a very superficial account of Buddhism can bring one to that conclusion, but that would be a lengthy tangent to explain so I won’t right now.

So in Sach’s account, this phrase struck me particularly: “You cannot hate your life and despise what resources you have been gifted with” (45). I find this provocative because on the one hand it seems quite a prevalent attitude in progressive circles to express almost a resentment of having been born with the privilege that many of us in the US enjoy, relative to what others are born into; but on the other hand I also thought that one could take this edict as an alibi to complacently celebrate one’s privilege and to start, say, preaching the Prosperity Gospel in which it is a sign of heaven’s blessing to be materially well-off, or thank one’s lucky stars that one was born a boy and not a girl, or some such contented response. I think, though–and this will become clearer in the Third and Fourth Thoughts–that, especially to the degree that Buddhism might be seen to present a possible “Middle Way,” that neither of these extremes are accurate interpretations of the First Thought, but that one has to keep in mind that one might love one’s life circumstances precisely to the degree to which those circumstances allow one to be actively generous and compassionate, rather than self-satisfied and complacent.

Consider the responsibility that comes with privilege: not the White Man’s Burden, which is an expression of the imperialism of bias–which itself will figure very interestingly in Sach’s interpretation of the Craving that causes suffering–but rather that responsibility which deliberately and cautiously takes into account every possible consequence of one’s actions as a privileged being, with an eye especially to whether or not one’s actions cause suffering to other beings. To the extent that our wealth is predicated on the suffering of others, we cannot be complacent about it; we must use it to reduce suffering wherever possible, in whatever ways might be most amenable to our particular circumstances. I would think that, in regard to cultural privilege, that if my privilege itself is predicated on the suffering of other beings, then I must use my privilege to, ironically perhaps, oppose the very mechanisms of privilege.

The Thought that “you cannot hate your life and despise what resources you have been gifted with” is also provocative if one is not so privileged in one way or several or if one is not privileged in any way at all. On the one hand it might seem that we are being urged to resign ourselves and be grateful for whatever scrap of non-suffering might come our way, not to resist or even try to subvert any system in which we have been pinned as less than acceptable, morally faulty, crazy, or even completely inadmissable to the conversation at all: so abject as to be without any label whatsoever. But again, loving one’s circumstances is not the same as wanting them to remain always the same–and of course Buddhism is at least partially a method for coming to terms with impermanence anyway: your circumstances aren’t going to remain the same no matter what you do. But if I am in any “outsider” position, what may be valuable about that position is that I am able to see outside of cultural norms since that is where I live, or it may be that I can turn whatever anger or resentment might attend my position into a positive effort to reduce future suffering: mine or that of whoever comes after me. Far from being a call for resignation, the Thought to love one’s circumstances is yet still always to love them for what they can produce in the way of a better life for all beings.

I’m going to skip ahead to the Third Thought very quickly because I want to get something down about reincarnation, which is not something I’m particularly inclined to believe in as a feature of individuated life. Or maybe I’ll just make this a note and refer back to it: karmic responsibility is the topic of the Third Thought, but it occurs to me that it is not useful to see karma as “payback” for the past–that is, to use it as a way to regret what has come before. Instead I’d think it much more productive to take an active responsibility for what comes after: the past is the past, and no matter whether you believe that karma follows one from one life to the next or simply from birth to death, it seems that the important thing to learn from karma is neither that some obscure “bad” actions in the past are causing my current suffering, nor that “bad” actions will cause future suffering to my own ego–for isn’t that a strangely egoistic way of interpreting a Buddhist concept? Rather the connection between one’s present actions and a range of possible consequences is what seems to me to be the question of responsibility: if I make this move now, will any being suffer in the future? Of the many ways in which this thing might play out, what risk is there that it will introduce more suffering into the world, rather than less, and how far into the future will the consequences extend?

In this way, karma is not egoistic and not limited to what one is putting one’s own self through, but rather recognizes that actions now will reverberate through many cycles of life and death, whether or not any of them are “your” life or death. In fact I was thinking here of the possibility of interpreting reincarnation as inessential, or not connected to a continuous self, but rather to reflect a Thought of the Eternal Return of biological reproduction (on the microcosmic scale anyway; who knows what larger cycles are operating in the larger universe or in other universes?): the continuing process of birth and death through which a species continues to evolve and develop in consequence of its own past and present as a species. One could even abstract this out a few more steps to include all of life on earth, or in the universe, for that matter, but certainly the complexity of empirical facts that needed to be considered would explode exponentially the more universally the principle was taken. And complexity tends against the universal, at least at the level at which we usually apply the term.

OK. I’m going to come back to this later because it is getting a bit longish. Perhaps tomorrow with coffee I’ll tell you what I was thinking about Thoughts Two and Four. And if you are still reading, hi! Brave soul.

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