Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Quotes: Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma

Here are a selection of quotes and notes from the excellent book 'Why I am A Buddhist', which I reviewed yesterday.

- The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, ate meat - he even died eating meat. My Buddhist friends in Cambodia eat meat. Most Tibetan Buddhists eat meat. Meat, contrary to popular opinion, is not the problem for Buddhists. The problem is causing unneeded pain to animals....

- Zen is a Japanese permutation of a Chinese school, called Chan, which takes its name from the Sanskrit Dhyana - all of which mean 'meditation'. Generally speaking, Zen ignores all of the metaphysical and even moral aspects of Buddhism, and concentrates on meditative awareness. True meditative practice is focused, in its purest form, on the present moment. ...Making tea, shoveling snow, cooking dinner, and so on can all become quite transcendent (describes as a more meaningful state of extraordinary consciousness vs a metaphysical shift)  if we rigorously attend to the activity and refrain from thinking about the past and future.

- Buddhism made me think that the solution to suffering is not to run away from, or escape, this world, but to run straight at it even harder.

- Mindfulness is a meditation on the impermanence of all things (annica), but it is a systematic method. It proceeds sequentially through four domains: mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feeling and sensation, mindfulness of our conscious thinking patterns, and mindfulness of our 'mind objects' (i.e., our beliefs and ideas).

- ... meditating on your own impermanence is the way to liberate yourself from a common delusion. We suffer greatly, the Buddha thinks, because we want our bodies to last forever and to always be beautiful, but they cannot. We cling to our bodies because we are clinging to immortality. In doing so, we make the error of thinking that an inherently impermanent thing will last.

- Our subjective feelings of pain and pleasure are also objects of our ego-craving tendencies. We seek to hold on to those feelings of bliss that come with intense pleasures like sex, food, drink, and even aesthetic pleasures. But we must, like Buddha, get a reality check about these transient joys. Accept them for what they are and enjoy them. But don't obsessively chase after them in a state of denial about their fleeting nature. 

- The Four Noble Truths:

1. All life is suffering (dukkha)
2. All suffering is caused by craving (tanha)
3. Letting go of craving liberates us from suffering (nibbana)
4. The Eightfold Path is the way to let go of suffering

On dukkha - The avenues by which these painful experiences travel - body, feeling, perception, disposition (will), and consciousness - are called the five aggregates (khanda).  ... The 'person' or 'self' is more identifiable with the five aggregates, or 'bundles of experience', than with a traditional 'ghost in the machine' type of soul. These aggregates are the organs of pleasure and pain, and it is in relation to pleasure and pain that human craving can begin to arise.

On tanha. Craving is a partly conscious, partly emotional, partly physiological 'knee-jerk' that starts chasing the sensation after it has entered the system. For example, it's not the sensual experiences that money affords us - fine food, fancy clothes, travel, new cars and the like - nor is it material objects that themselves that are problematic. It's the craving (tanha), which becomes obsessed with repeating and sustaining those experiences, that actually causes the suffering - in this case, of greed. Suffering flows from the clinging attachment that mistakes impermanent things and sensations for lasting and permanent realities. Attachment or craving is a kind of confusion in the mind and the heart, one that tries to capture something that inherently can never be captured.

On nibbana - The Third Noble Truth states that the cure for suffering is non attachment, or the termination of craving. Freedom is not the renunciation of all emotions and feelings, it's the ability to rise above the incoming sensations. You still feel pain and pleasure, but you no longer cling to these fluctuating experiences. ...Understanding and acting as if pleasure and pains are impermanent, like clouds forming and dissipating, leads to a liberation form our obsessions.

On the Eightfold Path - The Eightfold Path is a set prescriptive attitudes and activities that will lead to the extinction of suffering, it is the path to freedom. The path is divided up into three basic areas: ethical action or sila (right speech, right action and right livelihood);  mental training or samadhi (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration); and wisdom or panna (right view and right thought).

- The Buddha rejects this (eternal soul) picture of reality...It has been argued many times, East and West, that the immortality of the soul is a requisite assumption for a moral society. 'If God does not exist, then everything is permitted', Dostoyevsky is thought to have said. ...The Buddha disagrees, and suggests just the opposite. Virtue that is based upon the promise of divine rewards and punishments is nothing but selfishness...a self-centered view of ethics and one that makes ethics derivative of the desire for self-preservation. ... Real compassion, he (Buddha) argues, is better than egocentrism... We are threads in a web of living relationships, each one connected to and dependent upon others. Our individuality, especially our supposed eternal individuality, is just a fiction. And it distracts us from seeing the suffering around us and prevents us form applying compassion. True compassion does not ask: What do I get out of it?

- Neurobiology, genetics, embryology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology are opening up new successful ways for us to understand ourselves and the environment. This engagement with the natural world is exhilarating. Studying the Book of Nature can be a spiritual endeavour.

- Unlike all the dualistic views, which see consciousness as luminous and possibly immortal power, Buddhism says that consciousness is always merged with body, sensation, perception and volition. Consciousness does not ride along in the body for a time, get out when the body dies, and then go on to Heaven, or reincarnate, or merge with the Brahman, or even vibrate into the undulating fields of blissful quantum consciousness. Consciousness and other aspects of mind (e.g., volition is bodily and mental) are always bundled with matter and perception - the five aggregates cannot be disentangled form reality.

- Reflection, habit and greater understanding of the brain can all help the Buddhist to retrain the mind, or at least slow the jumps from impulse to action. In that sense, Buddhism has always been a science of the mind. But it is not an unrealistic, naive celebration of the mind over everything -it is not a mystical subjective idealism.

- The Buddha claims that there is no evidence for a controller self, only the desire to be one. Once we give up on this exaggerated delusion of control we attain some degree of liberation - we stop trying to own everything; this is my experience, this is mine, this is I, this is myself.

- If there is a felt sense of self, and surely there is, then it is metaphysically like the shadow of a tree. If you remove the impermanent tree, there is no leftover shadow.

- Buddhism and science share a similar approach to phenomena, an approach that can be called naturalism. Naturalism rejects (or at least brackets) supernatural explanations of the world and its occupants. Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not find itself in the awkward position of having to reconcile metaphysical assertions of faith with the experimental findings of science.  ... First it is metaphysically agnostic (and practically atheistic) when it comes to God and the soul. Second, it is not a tradition of revelation, but an experimental approach to knowledge and truth.

- The Four Noble Truths, for example, should be considered as a testable hypothesis. Their truth or validity can be ascertained by anyone willing to run the experiments. Does detaching from craving actually reduce one's suffering?

- The Buddha goes so far in the direction of pragmatic empiricism that he even warns us to avoid dogmatising Buddhism.

- Life is sacred for Buddhists - all life, not just human life. But it is not sacred because a deity breathed life into it. Rather, any living thing is comprised of the five khandas and is therefore susceptible to pain and suffering. It is everyone's duty then, to understand their connection to all life and to imply compassionate action for the alleviation of the suffering. In Western religions, however, there is usually a yawning chasm that separates we humans from the nonhuman creatures. We are made in God's image. They are not. There is something miraculous about we humans. Buddhism does not share this species elitism, not do Buddhists believe that life can only happen miraculously.

- The cultural aspects of Buddhism are extremely diverse and have a very tenuous logical relation to its psychological and philosophical dimensions. It's no different in the West - one will search in vain, foer example, to find Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in the philosophical doctrines of Christianity, and yet they are significant aspects of Christian cultures.  ...despite Gautama's constant refrain, that he was only a man and not to be worshipped, he was nonetheless deified in almost every subsequent culture of Buddhism.

- Two glaring exceptions to this empirical approach can be found in the doctrines of karma and rebirth. Karma means 'action', but usually means the law of action that rewards good deeds with good consequences (the fruits of karma) and bad deeds with bad consequences. Rebirth (samsara) means 'to come again and again' and Westerners usually refer to it as reincarnation. Both these ideas are caught up in Buddhism and Gautama sued them frequently in his lectures, but they are much older ideas and date back to Vedic and Upanishdad Hinduism. In Hinduism, these ideas actually make more sense because Hindus subscribe to the idea of an eternal soul (Atman) that goes from one life to the next, creating and receiving karmic rewards and punishments.

Many Western and Eastern apologists for Buddhism do conceptual backflips to defend the reasonableness of karma and samsara. I see no reason to join them. There is no good evidence that karma, for example, is real. ..The idea that there is a cosmic force that functions like a law of nature and ensures that everybody eventually gets what they deserves seems more like wishful thinking than fact. I wish karma were true. But I also wish I  could fly and make myself invisible.

- Buddhism has a more obscure doctrine of rebirth. The soul does not go on after death, because there is no soul in Buddhism. ...the Buddha says we should understand that the give aggregates (khandas) continue on. Body, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness are like flowing streams of energy. They coalesce for a time and make up persons, but they keep flowing when persons cease. It is like our contemporary scientific idea of the conservation of matter - matter/energy gets rearranged but it does not disappear during these transformations. ..Perhaps the most famous analogy to make sense of this flowing rebirth model is the flame simile. When challenged on the coherence of his doctrine, the Buddha and subsequent philosophers  have described a candle or a lamp. Imagine that we light a candle and it burns for a time. Now we use the candle to light another candle and blow out the first. After a time we do the same with a third, forth and fifth candle. It does not make sense to, the Buddha suggests to ask whether it is the same flame at candle five as it was at candle one. It is not even the same flame as it burns on the first candle, as it is a dependent convergence of combustion processes.

- is a lamentable fact that many later Buddhists fell back to a more Hindu notion of reincarnation. ...Here is my somewhat radical suggestion. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about either of these metaphysical doctrines - karma and rebirth. Yes, we hear Buddhists regularly intone such doctrines, but do they have any necessary connection to the Four Noble Truths? My contention is that they do not. They are leftovers from pre-Buddhist religion and found their way onto the Buddhist plate for cultural, not philosophical reasons.

- The idea, dominant in Daoism and Zen, is that one should try to find the natural way of doing something and then conform or align oneself to it, as opposed to forcing a human conventional effort onto some process. For example, the butcher should carve the animal at its joints, not in arbitrary locations. A sculptor should work with the grain of the wood, rather than against it. A martial arts master should find the most economic use of his energy, and turn his opponent's own force to his advantage. ...Finding this natural way is not effortless, but requires great work. Once it has been mastered, however, then one finds a unique presence of mind in these activities. The actions are turned into artistic expressions.

- ...Zen insight that one's whole life can be a kind of artwork. Attending carefully to one's actions and choices - owning them, so to speak - brings authenticity to life. Rather than a theological or moral approach, it is an aesthetic approach to meaning.

- After we have reached the bottom layer and grasped the emptiness of all things, then we return to daily life with new eyes. We no longer see the layers of metaphysical, political and ethnic nonsense that have accumulated like barnacles

- Let's remind ourselves of the purposes of mindful training. First, it is the freedom from unhealthy attachments to anxieties - simply put, peace of mind. But also, in mindfulness, one begins to realise that the ego (the self) is a habitual fiction - it doesn't really exist, so stop acting in a self-ish manner. Contrary to your everyday consciousness, you are not a stable being that exists through the past, present and future moments, you are just a temporary aspect of the flow of becoming.

- Our senses are drawn toward whatever is momentarily strongest. We are locked in an internal struggle - a roped-up, six animal tug of war.

- The tendency is always to focus forward in time toward the future, when we will get off work, or get our paycheck, or get our promotion, or whatever. For many of us, work is the time we spend waiting to live. But if you can sink down and be more present in your activity, then you will discover the subtle joys of quality labour and the oblique happiness that comes accomplishing something with excellence. ...If your work demands so little of your abilities that a chimp with a hammer could do the same job effectively, then you can't solve this problem by forcing yourself to 'be here now' all the time. It seems reasonable for you to want to 'be somewhere else now'. So, there has to be some Middle Way. The Zensters think you can make anything, including assembly-line repetition, into fulfilling meditation. Instead, I recommend some job that meets you halfway, by posing some real challenges for your to actualise your potential.

- Like Epicurus in the West, the Buddha claimed that it is better to train oneself to enjoy simple foods rather than fine gourmet meals, because economics, political and even weather changes could suddenly rob us of our exotic spices and delicacies. ..We are advised to focus on more stable and reliable sources of happiness: simple fare, friendships, family and intellectual cultivation. There is nothing inherently wrong with certain foods, pleasures or even wealth itself. There are only problems of attachment. ...Buddhism does not want you to be poor. ..Moderation is the successful path.

- Money is potentiality. So the dangers of craving (tanha) are palpable around the issue of money, and money itself is a primer-pump for zombie levels of appetite. We chase the money, and the money chases stuff. I'm not on a soap box here. I struggle with this daily.

- Money makes the illusion of self-sufficiency more persuasive, and we are lured into the erroneous belief that we are independent, autonomous, free and sovereign. But Buddhism disagrees and stresses the inter-dependence of all human, indeed all beings.

- On advancing marketing technology: As these insidious technologies increase, it will be interesting to see how well we can attain and maintain control over our cravings.

- First, integrity in an activity is how you own it - it's how you become the activity, or how you become the ingredient in the product you're making. Otherwise, you're just dancing with yourself outside the real action and pretending to be valuable. Second, becoming the activity is how you transcend your little ego - and that only happens when you're genuinely going for it, not when you're going through the motions. Finally, there is something inside you, that you carry around with you like a flame, when you have a hard-won set of skills. ...External acknowledgement can come and go, but the internal happiness that comes from skillful action is intact either way.

- Buddhism is a philosophy of moderation - the Middle Way. It's so devoted to human liberation that it is willing to give itself up, if it is getting in the way of human flourishing.

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