Between the word and the flesh

This post is a little late, but as I may or may not have made clear the other night, my administrative day runs from about 8pm till sometime after sunrise, so to me it is still the third, and this post still counts. To demonstrate, I will most likely post my fourth post later on the fourth, local time, but to me it will be tomorrow, which is the fourth, as far as I am concerned.

If that makes sense.

Not that I am writing in order to make sense. At the moment, I am pondering three things: the US Presidential Election, the why of writing, and the state of the blogosphere as it appears to me. I do tend towards metacommentary, as you might infer from two of the three things preoccupying me. At any given time some portion of my brain is evaluating what language is doing. I mean, what it is doing in my head, what it is doing in the media, what it is doing online, what it is doing for lunch–you name it, I’m thinking about how it is talked about. This is my own fault for getting a degree in Rhetoric, but of course I chose Rhetoric because I’ve been in a death struggle with language my entire life. Ok maybe that’s not an “of course” statement: I could have chosen Rhetoric for any number of reasons. But the fact is I did choose it because language and I have been in a love/hate relationship since my first attempts to form words in my head.

But I think I’ll talk about that another day.

Right now, I cannot think of anything to add to the shitstorm of writing about the Election, not because I have had no thoughts on the subject that might be novel to someone, somewhere, but at the moment I am incapable of thinking any of them. This Election has me on pins and needles to an extent as yet unforeseen. I am not sure exactly why this is; the older I get, the worse politics seem to get, and the more important to try to influence what goes on around me. But I do not know if this is a function of age or a function of the particular–that is, wrong–direction the country has been headed over the last horrifyingly ill-advised eight years of neo-conservative rule behind our face puppet president. Whatever the cause, right this second I am unable to speak coherently on the topic.

Every act, though, is political, and every act of writing is a political act of writing. Perhaps it would be a good time to undichotomize speech and action, that dilemma of political life and the basis of much of the antipathy between intellectual circles and the American populace as a whole: the view that book-learnin’ isn’t worth the paper it is printed on but that decisive action is somehow always to be looked upon as honorable, if not downright heroic.

Why is this important now? Well, for one, I think that by this time tomorrow either the country will breathe a collective sigh of relief or people will start to pour into the streets and begin to act in ways that are unpredictable right now. And it will be time to write furiously, as we have never written before.

This is not because thought guides action, or because writing can be a prelude to deciding what to do, but rather because thought is already action, and that writing is already a choice as to what to do: both have real consequences for those who undertake them and for those with whom they might be shared. Theory is not something one consults in order to figure out how to behave: it is behavior’s primary gesture, determining not merely the “beliefs” behind what we do, but inhabiting the core of every movement.

Just as the empirical event is emergent from the encounter between perception and its environment, and is so to the extent that perception and environment turn out to be inseparable, constantly oscillating around one another and interpenetrating one another, one could say that action is the working out of physical theory, or that theory is the unconscious of every muscular movement.

Let me see if I can explain. We are–or, it seems, most people I meet are–used to dealing with concepts such as “frame of reference” to explain why a given situation (which is never given without the frames: hint.) will appear and/or be interpreted differently by the various individual points of consciousness that are involved with it (think of “individual points of consciousness” as a fancy term for “people,” but one that does not disallow the possibility of non-human frames of reference). The way that most Anglo-European-American minds are trained, this makes sense to us only insofar as we introduce frames of reference as an independent term from that which they frame: as though they were literally picture frames, except that they might contain something like inscriptions that a person will refer to to translate what is inside the frame in such a way that they, from outside the frame, can understand it. Put a frame of reference around a painting and embed within it the voices of art critics, and perhaps this model could be made concrete (No really. Do it and see if you can get a grant or something).

But the frame of reference model is too simplistic and too compartmentalized, when in fact the entities that meet at the frame, as a kind of boundary, actually communicate through it, to the degree that neither remains completely independent of the other, the frame itself starts to dissolve, and soon what one has is an encounter that sparks an event: an event that contains neither the painting nor the observer, but which confounds them at the place where they meet.

Think of it this way: when you encounter an object, it impinges upon you. Light hits your retinas, your hands are blocked at points where the object will not let them pass. You stub your toe on the base of the thing and the resultant boing-oing-oing assaults your eardrums. All these things happen in a region where the difference between your perception and the physical bluntness of the object is not easy to make out: if the object is blue, it is so only because your retina is sensitive to a certain wavelength of light striking a nerve, which sends a signal to your brain where, through processes I cannot pretend to understand fully, you “see” the color you have been trained to call “blue.” Without you, the object may or may not be blue. It may or may not be hot. It may or may not be soft, noisy etc.

So what has this to do with the difference between theory/words/speech and action? When you move, you theorize. You process information about your environment and you synthesize “hypotheses” about what you can and cannot do while enmeshed with that environment. Conversely, when you theorize, you move. You not only change the way in which neurons in your nervous system fire in concert with all the others, but you change your perceptions according to whatever modified frame of reference proceeds from your theory/thought/writing/speech. If you are speaking out loud or theorizing publicly, the same thing happens to those around you, whether or not they agree with you. We say we are “moved” by a speech, or that the play was flat and “unmoving,” as though we recognize intuitively that change actually results from the way in which language and other signs affect our perceptions, and thereby, our environment and the events which arise when all of these moments coincide.

Tomorrow then, or tonight–however you yourself experience the way in which hours pass in this world–when you decide what to do in response to whatever your environment presents you with, be aware that speech and action both have consequences in reality, that motion can be achieved in thought, and that the right word–Flaubert called it “le mot juste,” which we can understand as both “precise” and “just”–is perfectly capable of motion and carries with it a specific energy. I cannot say, myself, right now, exactly what you should do with this thought, or how it should move you, but I think that beginning to understand the way in which even language is tangled up with the world of phenomena might be of help in understanding how a butterfly moving its wings can cause a windstorm on the other side of the world.

To sum up: take care. It is both the easiest and hardest thing for those of us brought up in a post-platonic world to do.

I will explain more on that later, but by all means, give it a whirl yourself.

the four thoughts. the last thought, I promise.

ahhh. whatever other life forms there may be in this universe or in other universes, I hope they are able to experience something as unambiguously and uncomplicatedly Good as cool sparkling water.

someone somewhere probably thinks the same thing about boiling ammonia.

Because this is another post on the same topic but I want to keep them all cross-referenceable here is the name of the book that inspired this verbal onslaught: The Buddha at War: Peaceful Heart, Courageous Action in Troubled Times, by one Robert Sachs, formerly unknown to me. The topic is The Four Thoughts that Revolutionize the Mind and in a minute I will stop writing as though I were reading into a tape recorder or making podcasts.

Somebody needs to do “Krapp’s Last Tape” where Krapp is fumbling with podcasts using an ancient version of iTunes.

OK maybe not. Bad idea. Nevermind.

The Fourth Thought, which isn’t articulated in an easy-to-encapsulate form, is really a restatement of the other three in a more succinct phrase or two, or a conclusion to the argument they present, or perhaps both. Sachs’ section heading reads “Thought 4: No time to waste and nowhere to run,” and then a little further along he refers to Pema Chödrön’s book, The Wisdom of No Escape (50-51). Between these two headings seems to lie the sense of the Fourth Thought, although he doesn’t make it clear exactly what the Fourth Thought states in so many words, or that is it is this many words that state it but I don’t know what a direct translation of it would be.

(For that matter I’m not sure where in the Buddhist canon these Four Thoughts come from. He doesn’t really say, beyond stating that “these four notions are called by different names.” I’m not yet familiar enough with either the written or oral tradition of Buddhism to be able to say who might be doing the calling. He does include a bibliography, which is very unlike the Zen Buddhist texts I’ve mostly read. Funny thing about Buddhism: the origins of its precepts are often obscure. I’d read some significance into this but there isn’t time.)

For some reason this Thought reminds me of Giorgio Agamben’s statement in The Coming Community that the world is forever both contingently necessary and necessarily contingent. Sorry I can’t tell you what page number that occurs on but it is early on in what is a very short book anyway. Right now I cannot seem to locate it in the proliferation of stacks behind stacks behind stacks of books in my general vicinity. But without going too deeply into the Western philosophical notions of contingency and necessity, which in classical thought are opposed and therefore mutually exclusive, I’ll just observe that here they are combined as modifiers of each other when usually they occur as a dichotomy and I think that Agamben does this quite knowingly and deliberately. Briefly, what this statement means is that the universe is pulled together completely by random chance and yet it is determined through and through by those chance-determined relations. For Nietzsche, this is the divine dice throw: the opening gamble that is our world, and we in it, “thrown” here–if one doesn’t mind Heidegger too much to use that word once and never again mention him–completely beyond our own agency and against inestimable odds, and yet we are caught in the matrix of forces and actions that have unfolded ever since the very first thing went “right,” in a way that is both deterministic and unpredictable.

I guess these three and a half thoughts are related to each other in that they describe our “irreparable” condition of being caught in an infinite web that we cannot untangle and yet for which we are responsible insofar as whatever we do will send waves through this web and will change it just as irreparably as we are changed by the waves that roll through us. Between these thoughts and the thought of impermanence, it seems as though we are short on both time and space in a certain way, those metaphysical dimensions so dear to Western existence: the moment is all we have to act in, and we are so tightly bound to other beings that, not only is our absolute distinctness from them questionable (trust me on this one for now), but whatever we do will have an effect on everything else, forever. In a way that we cannot predict.

There are lots of questions about free will begging to be asked here but I’m not going to ask them for now, as I think the distinction between free will and the lack thereof is another dichotomy whose paradoxical dimensions have not been thoroughly explored by anyone I’ve yet met. And although I do have thoughts on the subject, ultimately they are tangential to what we’ve been looking at. But perhaps I should say this much: I think it is entirely possible that we can believe we have free will even while suspecting that we don’t, really. And I think that it is possible that the notion of free will is one that arose according to certain necessities. That’s as much as I think I can quickly say on the subject without stopping to interrogate this dichotomy as to its absoluteness. So. If you want to do this I’d love to read it.

But you do see how this Fourth Thought gathers the first Three together. Or perhaps the First Thought is the one we have to go back and read after we’ve read the Fourth: to love this life, to love the place in which we are caught, to love that we are caught, responsible yet entirely without our own consent, in a space where nothing is certain, few things are predictable, and every moment is crucial. And to love it with the “peaceful heart” in the title of this particular book. But I haven’t quite gotten that far yet, so I can’t say for certain what this peace consists of, but I think it might have something to do with a conversation I had earlier today in which it was offered that growing older yet becoming less and less sure is itself a way of becoming comfortable with our existence, jammed up as we are against the unknown and the unknowable. So much so that we are on intimate terms with what we cannot know. For psychoanalysis, what we cannot know is sometimes the unconscious and sometimes death; for Buddhism, what we cannot know is, among other things, the source of compassion.

If you would like, think about that for a little while.

the four thoughts that revolutionize the mind: thought three revisited. then four?

I had meant to come back and finish the fourth thought last night but I ended up doing something else. what was it? oh. I shaved and showered. wo0t!

I need to finish The Buddha at War because I think it might have some more interesting things to tell me. I just looked at the Third Thought, though, and I realized that there was not a lot in Robert Sachs’ account to explain my reaction to how he explains karma and responsibility, as he does so in a fairly simple manner: one reaps what one sows. I think, though, that reading a few pages later that he views Craving as an attachment to bias, or truth–that provisional “immutable” truth that we construct to protect us against the predations of impermanence–caused a chain reaction even before I got to that part. It may be that his apparently simplistic rendering of karmic responsibility is at odds with his more subtle analyses of loving one’s life and the nature of desire/craving, and that if one reads along with those analyses, one comes to karmic responsibility with all sorts of unruly notions flying about, ready to challenge this principle of Buddhist thought.

Or maybe I’ve just reached a point where I want to kill the Buddha of karma and responsibility because the Nietzsche in my head is quick to point out that here is an “immutable truth” rising in the middle of a system of thought whose central tenet of impermanence implies that the number and variety of “truths” are infinite and thus any single truth is provisional and transient. That and I cannot bring myself to take a reincarnation confined to individuals on Earth seriously in a time when it seems fairly certain that there is, was or will be life elsewhere in the universe and that it might be so different from the life we know here as to be unrecognizable.

That is, life itself may be infinite in variety and individuals themselves infinite in number. Even life “itself” contains no “self” for life: it emerges as already heterogeneous and multivariant to a degree of complexity so high we cannot compute it, and may never be able to, if that degree is an infinite one. But so what I’m meaning to say here is that I don’t believe that individuals are reincarnated: I think that the events that are habitually recognized as an individual, the intersection of energy and matter that results in a compartmentalized, relatively discrete being or creature, do not recur in such a way as to produce the “same” individual “within” a different body. Even with infinity in front and behind us, there is no reason not to suppose that individuating events are also numberless. Who “I” am now is a highly improbable and yet quite singularly determined sequence of events. Any relationship between future individuating events and the individual who currently speaks itself as the “I” of this body is non-essential–and by that I mean that the essence, the unity of being supposed of the “I,” is not only illusory, but the illusion itself is fleeting and non-continuous with any other “I,” past, present or future.

On the other hand, for there are always at least three hands to anything worth thinking about, karmic responsibility underscores the interconnectedness of all beings, which, though it may also be a contingent truth, makes more sense to me in the here and now, so I’m going to take my metaphor and run with it. The short version of all of this is that for me, karma is not about regretting the past or trying to figure out what “bad” actions in a past life or even a past phase of this life are responsible for the mess I am in now; with Nietzsche, I do not want to leave my actions in the lurch. Whether they were always wise or not, they were always the best I could do with the knowledge I had and the circumstances I found myself in. Especially having been brought up under the sign of Original Sin, in which humans, especially young humans living in my house, were responsible for every evil in the universe, I find that responsibility is generally overplayed in Western culture.

At the same time–the third hand if you will–what karmic responsibility is good for, in my opinion, is keeping us watchful over our present actions. As mentioned in the first post regarding reincarnation, the past is the past and unchangeable. We can only mourn it, suffer it, regret it, or let it go. What we do have right now is the responsibility to act in the present in a responsible way: a way which, given all that we know and to the best of our ability, will result in circumstances that reduce suffering. All suffering–not just “mine,” or especially not “mine”–the eternity in which a decisive act reverberates will surely be visited by so many beings that “I” will no longer matter, except to the extent that my actions contribute to the overall web of circumstances that inevitably affect one another and will continue to affect one another long after “I” am a faint memory of the shadow of an anonymous speck of dust.

This is how impermanence and the abandonment of immutable Truth is amoral yet deeply ethical: the fragility with which the universe is invested as a literally inconceivably complex causal mechanism, the fleetingness of all that might be thought of as good, should, if one thinks as a Buddhist, lead one to extreme care over one’s actions in the present, even though one, and one’s present, is finite and relatively insignificant in comparison with the infinitude with which one interacts. I will disappear, completely and irreversably and forever, but what I do will have effects which cascade outwards from my current time and place for as long as there are times and places. My acts will work in concert with a host of other acts to determine the future–and although the vastness of the whole (which is not a whole but a whole broken open where infinity shoots through it–see Emmanuel Levinas for an ethics that arises in response to infinity rather than to the unity of being) is so great as to make my estimations of those effects abjectly inaccurate, I am still responsible for them.

I’m beginning to venture outside of strictly Buddhist territory here, but I just want to mention that I am at one and the same time abjectly unable to predict the effects of my actions and abjectly responsible for them: that this is paradoxical is reflected in the tension between irresponsibilty and responsibility, a dualistic conception that, in Buddhism as in postmodern ethics, would be reinterpreted so as to cause the two terms no longer to be mutually exclusive, but to be in intimate and intermingled communication with each other.

Now, the edict to act so as to prevent suffering in the future (or whatever dimension might stretch out from one’s current coordinates) can certainly be seen as arbitrarily chosen. That may be Buddhism’s particular aesthetic choice in constructing ideal relations between beings. Once one removes the inevitability of reincarnation from the equation, self-interest won’t even assure that one acts to prevent suffering. And yet there is something deeply compelling in the coincidence of self-abnegation and working to end suffering in Buddhist thought: that if the ego is no longer the arbiter of ethical thought, then it is not a huge leap to consider that preventing the suffering of other beings would become almost an instinctual imperative, if one considers suffering to be the result of egoistic attachment to Truth, and if one takes seriously the application of non-dualistic thought to the very “opposition” between “self” and other.

I’m going to leave that as is, for I could go further into the paradoxical relations between self and other in a situation where the distinction between self and other has been called into question, but I’m not trying to rewrite my dissertation. Or, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. For now, I think that might be enough food for thought simply to consider what would happen if egoistic acquisitiveness were abandoned as a motive for action.

Are we There yet? If you’re still listening I’d be most appreciative of a wink or a cough. I’m saving this file and taking a short break. Go get yourself some coffee or some nice cold sparkling water. Oh dear. OK I’m going to the store. Hold on.

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.

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.