the four thoughts that revolutionize the mind: second and fourth thoughts. maybe.

So I got some sleep and some coffee and reread the third chapter of Sachs’ The Buddha at War (and that apostrophe at the end of Sachs indicating possession? that used to be grammatical. I was taught that with names ending in “s,” one could either add an apostrophe-s for possession or just the apostrophe. Sometime in the recent past some organization or other that thinks it has the power to legislate grammar in a language still in use and therefore always evolving stated that the only legitimate form of possession was apostrophe-s. But I think it’s sloppy both in appearance and pronunciation: Sachs’s is both too much to say and too much to write. So I’m sticking with the old-fashioned Sachs’, and will continue to do so until something even neater comes along.

I was going to add a lengthy treatise on using the third-person plural pronoun to avoid the sexist use of “he” to indicated the generic individual, but I decided it was too pedantic. I’ll just say that I think it is fine to use “they,” “them,” “their,” etc in place of either “he” or “she,” as it is probably the least cumbersome solution to the problem. The end.)

and anyway it seems right off the bat that I have less to say about Thoughts Two and Four than I did about One and Three but with me I never know until I start writing just what is going to come out and since at the very least it might be somewhat enlightening just to hear what the other two thoughts consist of I will say that much and then see what happens.

The Second Thought that Revolutionizes the Mind is that of Impermanence. I guess one could say that, for Buddhism, impermanence, suffering and desire are the central di–er, trilemma in human experience, so rather than focus on just impermanence, I’ll also go into a little of what Sachs says about desire, or Craving. He has a slightly different take on it from what I have heard in the past but it turns out to make a fair amount of sense to me especially approaching it from a Nietzschean angle like I do pretty much everything because Nietzsche was quite simply Right. Even up to the point where he says that his most faithful followers will not follow him at all but destroy what he said–much as, I’ve heard, that if you meet Buddha on the road, you should kill him.

Which is not really at all tangential to the cycle of impermanence, craving and suffering, for both Nietzschean and Buddhist thought finger impermanence itself–the ceaseless restlessness of the universe, change as the only constant in life–as the source of much human agony, precisely because we crave permanence, security, and above all, Truth. See this is where things get interesting in Sachs, because it seems that he might have read “Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (“Extra-” here means “Beyond-” rather than, you know, extra: intensified or redoubled) before he wrote about this craving for the things we have and know to remain the things we have and know. But he skips over the whole metaphysical story that Nietzsche outlines there and says simply that what we crave, or what we are attached too, are our own biases.

“You have to understand that you suffer from your biases,” he writes, because they obscure not only the infinite number of ways in which the world can be, act, do, happen, proceed, be interpreted, etc etc ad infinitum, but also the infinite number of possible consequences of every act, no matter how small (55-57). Thus we suffer from unforeseen results, among other tricks that infinity plays on finite beings. What he leaves out of his explanation is the story you can find in the Nietzsche essay: that biases themselves, our assumptions about how reality is put together, our received and devised (but they are all devised–we’ve just forgotten that) truths, are all responses to the anxiety that change and impermanence, the only inevitables in this universe, create in us. Think about religion itself: presumably we have been telling ourselves stories about deities and spirits and the moral proscriptions they hand to us for millennia, out of our need for something foundational upon which to base our worldview, for a platform which supports us in our fear of change and tells us that this, finally, this truth that we ourselves have devised, is the one permanent feature of life that guarantees all the others that we are so afraid of losing.

And then we take our truths and make sure that everyone else agrees with them, or else. Sound familiar?

If there is one thing the “religion” of Buddhism is not allied with, it is fundamentalism. Of any kind, including Buddhist fundamentalism, which is why we are instructed to kill the Buddha if we meet him. See this is interesting to me, because it follows quite perfectly from the proposition that we suffer from impermanence and the desire we feel in reaction to impermanence, but I hadn’t thought it out to this extent myself. “Attachment” is not love–that is, we are not supposed to struggle against our love for other beings–quite the contrary. Rather we struggle with our attachment to Truth, which, as peculiar as this might sound, often makes it impossible for us to love other beings as they are.

Now, I can see the Analytic Philosophers jumping up and down in the back because they’ve caught us all: Buddha, Nietzsche, Sachs–and even me, that is, nobody–in a performative contradiction, in which we claim that it is true that there is no truth. Well, for one, that’s an inadequate summary of this argument: there are truths, for certain–it’s just that they are fabricated. “Truth,” as conventionally defined, is a convention. The question of correspondence to some metaphysical reality “beyond” human perception itself postulates a convention: that there even exists a metaphysical reality independent of human perception–and so it doesn’t escape the convention of truth to ask about something more fundamental.

Turtles all the way down. There is no escape and the question of “what is the case” always already refers to a convention: the question of truth is self-referential and ungrounded. Even that statement conforms to the conventions of language. And that one. And the one just before. One would need an infinite amount of time to reach the ground, using language, and one would never arrive. This is language’s shame: its nonsense.

And its tendency to run off in all directions. Where was I?

Nietzsche, as well as Socrates, recognized that in order to have a sensical conversation, certain assumptions had to be agreed upon, or the conversation would get nowhere. At a profound level, truth is a function of language and the desire to communicate: without shared meaning, language would be useless and we could not communicate a single thing. Language, however, is limited in what it can convey–or at least the languages I am familiar with are–because they rely on a bipolar, or negative logic for meaning. That is, a thing or concept is defined by what it is not. A tree is not a cow. A tree has certain characteristics that differentiate it from everything that is not-tree. This is the basic premise upon which meaning and logic rest in Western reckoning.

I think, though, that a mini course in linguistics is not the direction I need to be going in here. My basic answer to Analytic Philosphy is that a symbolic system that relies on bipolar logic is simply–or complexly–inadequate to express the “beyond dualism” that Buddhism tries to indicate, and that Nietzsche also struggles to indicate from within a language that relies on just that sort of logic for its meaningful distinctions. If we can allow that the universe might be more complex than a logic which must choose between “true” and “false,” that there may be “things” floating around–events, occurences, happenings–that correspond to neither truth nor falsehood, then we can proceed.

See? Even here we have to find an assumption and go with it, even if only for the sake of argument. Language–at least, prosaic, propositional language–is funny that way. Otherwise, to be true to the spirit of Buddhism is to distrust its claims to truth, and to understand this deeply, at the level of experience, is to experience a vertiginous dropping away of everything that keeps us anchored to some sort of concrete assurance about–something. anything! And this is an experience that tends to elude language even as it is intimately caught up with our being linguistic beings, for it calls into question our ability to articulate anything, and demands of the faithful a commitment to infidelity.

Needless to say, this sort of thing drives fundamentalists batshit crazy. As well it should: it’s dangerous stuff, absolutely amoral but deeply ethical, and quite possibly the step we will all eventually have to take to avoid killing each other off in the name of Truth.

The vertigo, I want to say, is a profound experience of radical impermanence. I mean, to speak like a Buddhist. And what it does in the service of ethics, but not morality, is to point up exactly how exquisitely fragile we are, how fragile is everything we think we know, and thus how exquisitely careful we need to be in order not to make some very, very big mistakes and end up breaking everything. This exquisite care would be mindfulness, if one were to talk like a Buddhist.

That’s right. I had very little to say about the Second Thought. I haven’t actually said anything about it at all, but nonetheless I’m going to move on. I think though that I should put Thought Number Four in its own post.


respond to this

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s