Thursday, November 20, 2014

On Contrasting of the Ancients and Materialist Buddhism




It is absolutely astounding at-times how much improvement our world would gain if its populous had the intelligence and earnestness to listen to select views of the ancients.  Really almost any philosophy that separates itself from the Abrahamic tradition would be a slight improvement in some areas (though I’m compelled to mention Hinduism as an exception to this) but the three where if followed to their logical conclusions one would have fundamental and immense improvement in all aspects of life and the ones I wish to write on tonight are Cynicism Epicureanism and Buddhism.
The connections ‘tween (oh, one of the main reasons why I’m writing this is to connect the Greek philosophies with Buddhism; I know I didn’t have any indication of that in my segway – would it be a segway then if its ineffective? – so I just wanted to let you know so you weren’t saying to yourself, ‘why the fuck is this guy comparing Epicureanism and Buddhism when he was talking about their un-noticed value?’) the teachings of Epicurus and the first Buddha are overall obvious.  Both encourage ascetic living and speak of greed and an unexamined life as main causes of suffering.  Both are “atheistic” or lack any notion of faith to a God or particular text – to my knowledge the Buddha didn’t write anything down and there are numerous texts where he says that he shouldn’t be worshipped but merely wants to be a mentor or guide of sorts.  But that’s more-or-less where there similarities end. 
While Epicurus has a foolish belief in free will from the notion that atoms swerve randomly, the Buddha holds that we are “caused beings” and that one of the reasons we should view all beings with compassion rather than contempt is they did not choose to be who they are and therefore are not the ultimate source of their actions in some sense.  This is one reason why Anarchists like me reject the notion of punishment altogether, and is one of the many examples where Anarchism and Buddhism see eye-to-eye; but I’ll get to this in greater detail later.  A minor distinction ‘tween the two is while Epicurus stresses that friendship is essential, though he of course speaks of the value of being autonomous, Buddha speaks of a monk as being an “island upon himself” and this seems to be the proper mentality in my view.  For most people perhaps benefit would be received from frequent contact with those dear to him or her, but it would also have draw-backs, particularly in-regards to examining one’s life and reflecting on the world.  Not only are there limits (particularly in over-worked countries like America) on one’s time, but the two create very distinct frames of mind that influence who a person is.  Philosophers, or reflective souls in general, need large amounts of time alone to reflect, to expect wisdom to come to those who spend the majority of free time with acquaintances is akin to expecting a caterpillar to metamorphose into a butterfly though water is constantly being poured on it.  And quickly, this “island upon one’s self” is important not only for lifestyle but view of art and activity.  Buddhism obviously stresses compassion and social aid of others (which Epicureans don’t which is another area where the Epicureans are lacking) but it should be understood that in art the thing of importance is brain activity and the process, intent and quality of creation, rather than the product itself and its potential utility.  This is seen in Buddhist monks creating amazing art works using sand (if memory serves) and then quickly sweeping it away (and not liking photos to be token of it) after they believe it is finished.
As I’ve alluded to earlier, both Epicureans and Buddhists view Hedonistic pleasures as conventionally understood as craving detrimental to the self – both have this view and that of “Enlightenment” being the solution, but for both the problem and the solution.  They do in-fact differ in the what the essential problem of humans are, though in a quick glance they seem more-or-less identical on this issue.  The main distinction is that Buddhists view suffering as coming from craving and ignorance, while Epicureans view suffering as deriving largely from a type of lacking or fear.  Epicurus was not involved in politics because it was unpleasant to him, and the Epicurean is taught to avoid anything that is deemed unsatisfactory in his or her eyes.  This is clearly evasion – which is the antithesis of the impulse of the philosopher.  Buddhism however views Man’s fundamental problem as that of ignorance and the wrong frame of mind (which creates craving).  This incorporates science and psychology clearly into tools for his liberation.  
With Epicureanism, we are to strive for absence of pain in a Hedonistic context.  In Buddhism, we are born yearning animals, but we are to break free of this Hedonistic context and strive for higher forms of relations and assessments of reality (in theory truer) based on Enlightenment.  For Epicurus, once a person realizes that there are no Gods to smite him, and realizes that everything is made of atoms (though that actually has very-little significance in his outlook asides from opposing a religious point-of-view; while in Buddhism a atomistic approach is crucial in defying the view that we have a constant “self.”) all that is left of him is simply to refrain from harming others (which makes him in some ways more of a Right-wing Libertarian than a Socialist or Anarchist) and meet all of his material and psychological needs.  Existential concerns don’t arise in such a pastoral philosophy and neither do questions of how to avoid the temptations of Positive Hedonism.  Epicurus argues we’ll suffer more in the long-term but people for-the-most-part (smokers being the prime example) are well-aware of this; leaving him to be in-regards to Hedonism little more-than a “just-say-no” of philosophers.  Such naiveté is seen bluntly in the profound ignorance necessary for a human being to write:  What is terrible is easy to endure.
There are also clear similarities between Cynicism and Buddhism and perhaps in some ways more-so than with the doctrines of Epicurus.  For though all three recommend asceticism and are counseling philosophies instructing us on why we suffer and how to both alleviate suffering and improve our lot in life, both the Buddhists and Cynics focus on using reason to determine that either we suffer from wanting what we shouldn’t have (for the Cynics) or wanting what we shouldn’t have, can’t have or have but are attached to (for Buddhists).  In Epicureanism, there is no conception of something one shouldn’t have outside of pleasure and pain.  In Cynicism all things conventionally valued are deemed as unnatural and detrimental to Virtue which is simply seeing the Reason in Nature and living according to its dictates.  There is clearly a political philosophy attached to the everyday that is lacking in Epicurus.  For the Buddhist, suffering stems from attachment.  Attachment itself can be seen as embodying or internalizing the values of a materialistic culture or one that has any type of system of value-judgments that one is psychologically attached to.  Being attached to the notion of a loving god that clearly doesn’t exist, and needing to frequently reinforce such delusion for example, which all three philosophies would find faults with one could contend.
Distinction ‘tween Cynicism and Buddhism (among other things) being that in Buddhism the things we crave are seen as forms of suffering that we must dispel because suffering is painful.  In this way Buddhism is more Hedonistic (in that it is focusing merely on eliminating pain – so technically Negative Hedonism – rather than pursuing ethical conduct for non-pain or non-pleasure related reasons) along the lines of Epicureanism than the Cynics being a largely non-Hedonist philosophy; making it plain why such a wise foundation will create the roots of Stoicism.  To clarify, in Cynicism the thing we crave is seen as detrimental because it is detrimental – not merely the suffering.  However, that is not to say that Buddhism is fundamentally Hedonistic, because for the Buddhist to alleviate pain one must alleviate the very Hedonist framework itself by pursuing the Eightfold Path.  Leading to the main distinction ‘tween the three.  While Epicureanism and Cynicism (particularly the latter) are brilliant philosophies the world could take great benefit from, Buddhism is a far more intricate, complex and completed framework that one can understand how so many people take great value in not only as a passing read or thought-experiment but as something so deep and intricate as to base their very lives on it – unlike the other world religions which how anyone could believe let-alone found their very existences on I can’t begin to understand. 
Though a trifle, another difference between Cynicism and the teachings of the Buddha is the Cynics seem to view Nature as an all-embodying constant and universal – it is clear how such a view could lead to the Stoics’ Pantheism.  However, the Buddhists do not suffer from the naturalist fallacy (nature being incredibly cruel and not overall the basis for ethics unless one is to be incredibly vague and selective in the findings of nature) and notice that all things are impermanent and particular – not speaking of universals unless to speak of the universal of human suffering which is safe to assume.  And though this is the smallest of quarrels, the Cynics seem to be quite absolutist in believing one should live without possessions (and though asceticism is healthy and wise, it would be quite unhealthy and dangerous to live without any items of clothing or shelter; holding back intelligence, progress and creative work which are three of the main virtues of existence) while Buddhists speak of the Middleway  and how food and possessions (I would assume possessions) necessary for health and virtue are not only acceptable but essential.
Now I would like to briefly expound on Cynicism in a way that isn’t inherent to the Cynic creed itself.  The tenant itself is:  (Arrogance) is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires, and a vicious character. 
If one simply continues with the assumption of Virtue is possessing the reason to see the universality of Nature than there is wisdom in this stanza but not much substance.  It’s essentially saying:  don’t want what you shouldn’t have because it’ll make you unhappy and unethical.  However, if one takes the leap from Aristotle to Nietzsche that is from general virtue to particular virtues or “the Good” for particular people it seems there is a potentially profound truth of the human mind and social relations possible to extract.  In life we have all craved someone we couldn’t have.  I would argue that in many cases they are someone we shouldn’t have had and wouldn’t wanted to be with for very long once we “had” them.  Though there are many quotes from the Stoics that reflect this sentiment of removing ourselves from viceful desires, and much of what we crave is more of a detriment to us than a liberator, I have chosen this one from Epictetus for its succinct wisdom:  "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire.”
Social situations themselves naturally (when not dictated or influenced by prejudice or the artificial and vicious character of class, authority or ideology – but even these aspects of our society ultimately in this regard depict a psychological characteristic that though their ultimate result is human suffering can also be seen as a sign of an individual’s nature by their physical and mental position to that embodiment of psychological character and whether or not they are apt for our Virtue.  In other words:  though social prejudice may create a world where it is frowned upon for a white man and black woman to be together, whether or not either are willing to ignore and inevitably suffer for the ignorance of others shows whether or not they are candidates of virtue that at-least to that extent we’d benefit from interacting with) tend to construct natural barriers directing what is preferable for certain characters (e.g. Hedonists pursuing pleasure, lonely scholars pursuing the life of the mind, various social clichéd clicks interacting based on common interests and character traits, religious people seeking others who conform their views and reflect their sentiments, the same can be said of political ideology) that they pursue and find themselves in by the extent that they still are of that mental character. 
That of course does not stop the irrational craving of something that is either deemed valuable in society or is yearned for by a more base trait of humanity or one that is (like a yearning for companionship) not base but only finds inadequate or incompatible associates to spend time with.  Now of course this is not to say that the mind or society naturally gives the individual all that he or she needs (according to either their own personal interests or general human interests) to become the best version of themselves; just that merely not getting much of what one wants is actually a benefit, both because of the character it builds and because what we longed for would be likely detrimental to our nature.  We must remember that when we fail in life it very-often is not a sign of weakness or lacking on our part but a simple incompatibility or contrast between fundamentally different natures of human beings or the corrupt nature of society that permeates through essentially all social relations – particularly with religion.  As Thomas Paine points out that natural economy gives human beings the resources to aspire all we require and fantasize of (or something along those lines) so our own specific nature equips us to perform adequately all the tasks our higher nature has us aspire towards – asides from cases of mental illness or physical handicap.  Both Buddhism and Cynicism (and in its own more narrow way Epicureanism) instruct a lack of attachment to social norms out of this understanding.  That essentially you can’t always get what you want – but if you try sometime you just might find you get what you need.
On Materialist Buddhism or “Secular” Buddhism
I’m not sure if writing what I’m about to as I’m about to write it is the right way to go, but here goes:  About four days ago I spent several hours of introspection and research and came to the conclusion that I’m a Buddhist.  Not that I became a Buddhist – I want to make that distinction clear.  But if you look back at my writings you’ll find (like Sartre claimed with Anarchism) that more-or-less over the past few months I was increasingly Buddhist-esque.  I don’t believe in Buddhist demons or other worlds.  I don’t have a literal or mystical belief in Karma, Nirvana and reincarnation as conventionally understood.  I hold these things as brilliant metaphors and with a belief in the Four Noble Truths and a certain interpretation of the Eight Fold Path I can say without deluding myself that I’m a Buddhist – a science-based or Materialist Buddhist.
Viewing free-will as a delusion of the self is a distinction between Epicureanism and Buddhism that I believe I already glanced at.  But it is crucial and in numerous ways so I’ll reiterate.  Once you realize that we aren’t fundamentally free, and that we are caused beings (as Buddhism claims) then compassion is the natural response for any psychological healthy individual.  Rehabilitation or social reform (both for the individual and more importantly for the state of society in general which is one in many links between Buddhism and Anarchism) is merely the rational fall-out of such a view as is completely abandoning the idea of punishment as childish or outlandishly primitive and barbaric.  Also Buddhism contains one of the most brilliant elements of Existentialism.  Namely that we’re different selves in different relationships.  Our selves are determined by our feelings and our social context among other variables.  I’m a different self around my parents than I am around friends or professors a litany of other people who I’m in relation with in a litany of different ways.  Continuing I’d like to focus on some of the central elements of Buddhism, follow with some minutiae and then end with some stuff that at-least to myself is unique.  Sounds good? – Good.
First – though I’ve already mentioned it in-a-sense – there is the general attitude of Buddhism.  This is a mentality that is in contrast not only to Christianity but to the largest degree with Nietzsche.  Nietzsche was a materialist who didn’t believe in free will, and yet he had no qualms with making savage and sweeping remarks about the slaughter and enslavement of millions in the conquest of the Will to Power.  Nietzsche holds this as “life-affirming” and Buddhism and Christianity as “life-denying,” and if he was speaking of a view of Nirvana that seeks for the end of existence then I would agree.  However, it seems that Nietzsche’s Aristocratic views are “life-denying” for the potential of millions, to claim the obvious, and there is a metaphorical interpretation of Nirvana that is perhaps the very-essence of “life-affirming.”  Buddhism holds what first and foremost in-regards to humanity?  Life is suffering.  Why is life suffering?  Because of attachment.  What is one of the primary ways of removing the suffering involved in attachment?  Realizing that we have no “self” as conventionally understood.  All we are is a conglomeration of senses, thoughts and experiences – to make a remark very-much in-league with Sartre’s Existentialism.  We change from moment-to-moment, having thoughts that we do not fundamentally control and we are not the authors of in the most fundamental sense – at-least not consciously.  How then can a self be re-incarnated if there isn’t a stable one in one’s life-time let-alone throughout the millennia? 
Instead, I hold that Karma, Nirvana and reincarnation are analogies towards the shifting nature of the self, a remedy of suffering and a reward for ethics.  Reincarnation can be seen as nothing but the long-term shifting nature of our selves over time.  Buddhism holds that what rung we’ll be on depends on our actions as understood through the mechanism of Karma.  This can be seen simply as a phenomenogical account of the individual and his or her “self” effected by his or her own ethical action.  Compassion in its own right is a feeling of enlightenment, love and acceptance of life that is one of the highest states of mind a sentient being can attain.  This is what the Buddhists speak of when they talk of Nirvana.  Simply the lack of constant pleasure-pain squabbling of constantly searching for satisfaction and constantly being disappointed or underwhelmed as described astutely by Schopenhauer.
Nietzsche’s Amor Fati is enlightened only if it involves an understanding of life as fundamentally malleable and capable of creating a life for all of relative happiness, freedom and purpose.  However this is the exact opposite of what he speaks of which is one of the many things which makes him look like the prick of all philosophy – unless one includes Ayn Rand perhaps.  “Oh, I’m so profound because I accept the suffering of millions as a necessary consequence of my awesomeness, I’m so cutting-edge!”  Yes I know Nietzsche suffered tremendously in his own life, and I still have a great deal of respect for him for various reasons.  But ultimately regarding social affairs and human interaction, you couldn’t have a more divisive set of views than those of him and those of the Buddhist or compassionate determinist and materialist. 
Nietzsche appears to be someone who views his attitudes towards people, namely arrogance and misanthropy as completely justified.  This is another thing that is a consequence of being a slave to the automaticity of confined or “unenlightened” thought.  You are in that moment the content of your thought, and in your thoughts and rationalizations you feel utterly justified – you search for ways to be justified in your value over others.  Losing the notion of self and realizing that both we are caused beings and that we own our thoughts just as much as we own the earth that allows us to have any thoughts at all immediately destroys the delusions of pride and blame.  Now don’t get me wrong, people should still celebrate success and place blame on people when it can be proven (or strong evidence shows) that they caused the unjust suffering of any person or animal of consequence (that is one with a complex nervous system and can feel pain which studies shows insects cannot) but realize that no one is the author of their actions fundamentally.  Therefore instead of vengeance against the guilty (which is the Nietzschean reaction and that of every Western known to Man) the Buddhist mentality understanding the nature of causality will instead try to console or aid the victim – whether individual or collective. 
However, a slightly Nietzschean critique of the Four Immesuarables may be necessary.  I’m speaking of course of wishing all to be eternally in a state of bliss or without pain.  Nietzsche writes incredibly well on how forms of suffering are essential to growth.  Once again I don’t view Buddhism as an infallible dogma or lists of tenants and doctrines that need to be followed to the letter or comma.  I don’t hold the Three Jewels to be anything substantive.  For Buddha should not be admired outside his wise teachings and ethical actions.  That is, should not be deified and separated from his texts and seen as a holy figure, as he is in the Three Jewels.  Also, monks should not be admired any higher than any other ethical or wise human being, and to the extent they are peddling religious garbage, should be distrusted to the same extent as an Imam or Priest.  Simply, when stripped from all the metaphysics and incomprehensible jargon of nothingness, Buddhism is simply a philosophy that preaches compassion, understanding of others and a deep understanding of how human beings normally do and can experience the world and themselves.
A, if not the, main thing to be criticized in Buddhism as a religion is its solipsism and general mysticism.  It’s amazing how easily some notions (whether they are the original interpretation or intention of the Buddha is irrelevant outside of historical understanding and accuracy) of Buddhism fit perfectly within modern science, which is something that the film Mindwalk shows in the dialogue ‘tween three people, and how much of it is utter bat-shit lunacy when token as metaphysical claims of the nature of reality. And these notions are not only stupid, they’re dangerous.  Or, to reference what I say about the existence of God, these beliefs simply aren’t incorrect, they’re wrong.  There are Buddhists and Hindus who do in-fact rationalize rape as a just punishment given to someone for a misfortune performed in a past life.  Real compassionate right?  To quickly state the more irrational elements of Buddhism (once again seen as a religion that is making un-scientific claims; rather than claims about phenomenology or ethics) the twelve Nidanas are idiotic and (at-least in my mind) unsalvageable in-terms of being anything accurate and coherent.  Pureland Buddhism seems to be essentially a cult; based largely on chanting and viewing a different Buddha as this pinnacle figure that to my Western eyes seems to be comparable to a Joseph Smith to the faith.  The notion of “Buddhist Eras” is not only not useful but not meaningful in any line of thinking whatsoever.  It would be comparable to Christianity having a “Jesus Era” and it stays Jesus ‘til the end of time except perhaps the Mormons who argue that because no one can really live a life comparable to Jesus that we’re living in the age of Joseph Smith.  Also the series of nonsensical Mahayana beliefs which include but not limited to a belief in Buddhas in other Universes (which shows creativity and large-mindedness but foolishness if believed without evidence), celestial or fictitious Buddhists (who exist in our Universe I assume), the Buddha being only a essence or material manifestation of some higher intelligence or “never-reaching thought” tantamount to a Pantheist god.  Sorry Mahayanas, but the goal of Buddhism is to be liberated from ignorance, not be immersed in it.
Also the very-practice of mediation should be disputed depending on definition.  If one is talking about thought experiments or forms of reflection – great.  But as conventionally understood as a form of epistemology and enlightenment in-and-of-itself what we have is dangerously close to Transcendentalism in its belief that if something is felt profoundly enough its evidence towards the validity of the belief or source of sensation, or in any other way it can in-and-of-itself be a method (rather than simply reflection being a tool for sharpening the mind and aiding the scientific process) of discovering the fundamental nature of things.  Yoga has health benefits, this is empirically verified, but religions are social structures based largely on strict tenants and rituals; philosophies are schools of thought based on ways of seeing the world and thought out systems of logic, ethics, epistemology and so on.  Like Stoicism a “secular” or materialist Buddhism that involves meditation and other rituals to be performed daily is treading dangerously into the waters of religious prescription.
However, one of the main reasons why I’m attracted to Buddhism is the nature of its “particularism” which is something I (not in Buddhism however) I mentioned in my essay on Transcendentalism.  It leads me to my theory on ethics.  I already described a distinction between the general and the particular.  The difference between calcium being essential for strong bones and the importance of calcium in the diet depending on their profession for example.  But there is another distinction in life that is largely understood implicitly but never stated.  Namely the virtue or good in the moment.  Even for individuals, pursuing their unique good based let’s say on creativity, there is never a uni-directional march towards higher and higher creativity.  Sex is an obvious deterrent to what immediately becomes an impossible task.  There are moments where hunger creates the momentary good of eating.  Tiredness creates the good of sleeping, and so on.  It is Man being a circumstantial being, and a caused being, one who not only can live only up to his individual potential and promise (for himself and others) but his potential and promise in the moment.  We create in-some-sense the moments of our live yes, but they are largely created for us, and we can only contour them to the extent we can (which isn’t by much much of the time) to reach preferable circumstances and reach scenarios where we can reach higher forms of individual and general goods, rather than simply the “best good” that is available in the moment.  Making the best of bad circumstances which is the very essence of ethics in some sense.
Despite the arguable focus on vegetarianism which I don’t follow (and don’t view as essential to Buddhism considering tending to an animal before killing it quickly doesn’t contradict the essence of compassion) the only other thing I wanted to illustrate was the central question of whether Materialist Buddhism is valid.  Being:  Is suffering the central aspect of existence and is attachment its cause?  I would obviously say so.  The reason?  Because we tolerate unjust and irrational schemes and systems (e.g. Government, Capitalism, religion) because of our attachment to our way of life, the ease of apathy, others in a religion or practicing a certain view of the world and other aspects which have us rationalize our tolerance and for some support of evil against what the findings of common sense and basic reasoning to even the simple.  Not only do institutions create existential problems; the problems and unwillingness to either face reality (destroy ignorance) and lose our Ego is what has us continue the constant cycle of consumerism, self-centered tolerance of force (when it doesn’t impede one’s progress to one’s own desires)  in complete apathy or vitriolic and moralistic contempt towards others, and the religious notion of salvation that has nothing to do with saving others from the cesspool of ignorance and suffering we have created by tolerating religions, governments and capitalism, but entirely with saving ourselves.  It could also be argued, that by being attached in a deep and primal way to our very lives we continue out of fear of jail or death to tolerate the conditions and forces that not only could produce our deaths, and our ignorance if we aren’t so fortunate to be enlightened largely by forces outside of our control, but even worse produce without an ounce of doubt the suspension of doubt, critical faculties and the overall existence of shame, vitriol, suffering and ignorance we see the world over.

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