Friday, July 17, 2009

Funniest Buddhism joke ever.

I think I just found the funniest Buddhism joke ever. It's pretty dark, but if you're Buddhist, you should be used to at least a little bit of nihilism. And, you probably shouldn't take offense to it. =P

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cartoons - #769

Monday, July 13, 2009



An interesting thing about yoga and Buddhism is their inherent escapist stance. Anyone who denies this is either referring to a much later branch of yoga/Buddhism, or has not read any of the original teachings on them. When you look at the popular modern religious notions, people are either very interested in traditional, orthodox, escapist stances or they are very turned off to the idea of religion. They may choose to be agnostic or atheist, take refuge in science, or choose beliefs from non-traditional sources. Either way, there's not much going on the "progress" department.

Let's take an in-depth point of view on the Indic meditative paths. We can adjust them a bit later.

Yoga's basic beliefs are based in dualism, that life is inherently "not good," and that there exists some other, transcendant state which is the goal of practice. Yoga's dualism derives from its sister-school, saaMkhya, or "enumeration." This school establishes the components of the physical world so that one can understand what prakRti, or "matter" is. By understanding this, one can understand what puruSa, or "the underlying Self" is. As stated in the upaniSad's, one can only describe this higher Self by saying "neti neti," "not this, not this." Well, prakRti is what it is not. These two, puruSa and prakRti are two seperate things. puruSa manipulates prakRti, but is not fundamentally changed by it. The traditional metaphor for the interplay of these two are the "viewer" and the "dancer." prakRti is the dancer that captures the attention of puruSa, who sits entranced. Once the viewer realizes what the nature of this divine play is, the viewer can cease to be enraptured and be free. This state of awareness, where the viewer can see beyond the performance, is the transcendant state of mind that is the goal of yoga. Once this state is attained - which, by the way, is composed of many stages, each with its own tricks and hazards - one is freed from the bondage of the cycle of karma and lives to which we are all suffering from. This can all be found right in the yoga sutras of pata~njali. sha~Nkara's monist views diverge from traditional yoga noticeably, but he does a lot of work trying to justify, explain, and defend his point of view in technical terms that are beyond the scope of my post. Suffice it to say, there are both monist and dualist approaches.

Buddhism is even easier. Let's take a look at the Four Noble Truths:

1) Suffering is omnipresent in life.
2) Life's suffering has a cause: desire.
3) The cessation of desire causes the cessation of suffering.
4) The way to cease desire is through the Eightfold Noble Path.

Negative view of life: check.

Next, the Buddha describes in the dharmapada (I prefer saMskRta to paali) that once desire is subdued, then one can experience a happiness that is enduring, limitless, and beyond all other happiness: nirvaaNa. Transcendant state: check.

The last one is a little tougher. Buddhism has many forms of non-dual/monist thought as well as dualist thought. The Buddha himself discouraged theological or philosophical theorizing, at least without a direct reason for it. He refused to comment in depth on the existence of Gods and demons, heavens or hells, insofar as it was for the sake of understanding some sort of afterlife or beyond-human power. The Buddha was a "self-effort" kind of guy, and that was his approach. His definition of nirvaaNa does imply that there is a state of mind or a state of being that is monist in some way, but he does not discount dualism in any physical way. As Buddhism was heavily influenced by yoga, and the Buddha was supposedly taught yoga, it would make sense that dualism was present in some major way, especially considering it was not properly discounted (like the buddhist stance of anaatman, which explicitly states its dissenting stance).

So, when we look at yoga and Buddhism, we can clearly see the roots of escapism in them, or perhaps they take their roots in escapism. I find this to be a little pessimistic and a little misguided.

While I wholeheartedly value the teachings and the paths noted above, I feel that if the goal really is "true" "enlightenment" ("true" meaning final, complete; "enlightenment" meaning mokSa and nirvaaNa for yoga and Buddhism, respectively), then it wouldn't direly avert normal, everyday life. I feel there should be a balance. After all, for most people, the breadth of the human experience is what teaches them. In the sense of pure accessibility, they don't have much, despite tempting us (yes, the irony of my word choice here is not lost on me) with very lofty, yet awe-inspiring, goals.

Sufiism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity provide some very interesting models for us to look at. Eastern Orthodoxy strongly encourages meditation/contemplation among lay followers and provides avenues to guide those who take to that approach. It tries to provide a balanced experience of life. Sufiism goes so far as to say that those who do not have families, take jobs, or contribute to their communities are not only spurning valuable aspects of life, but they are missing out on valuable opportunities for spiritual lessons. It says that those who take an ascetic approach are ultimately at a disadvantage. How's that for some food for thought, eh?

I feel that escapism doesn't quite fit the nobility of these spiritual traditions. It is, perhaps, a slightly ignorant idea of what we should be striving for. It's from an old and drastically different age, and yes, I suppose there ARE certain spiritual "universals," but I definitely think we can improve the model at the very least. Yes, suffering still exists, and yes, desire is still the cause. But, ignoring what's right in front of us isn't exactly a good answer.

There are those who will argue that once you are "enlightened," escapism stops. I suppose that's true, as I don't quite know any better, but who's to say that we can't have a path that gets us there that's not based on escapism? Buddhists, think 'upaaya' here. There are many ways to crack the nut of universal, transcendental truth.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Sacrifice of the Senses, and controlling desire

The idea of practical sacrifice is apparent throughout the bhagavad giitaa (especially throughout chapter 4; see verses 23-24, and 26-33 for relevance to this rant/entry).

In chapter 4, verse 24, the idea of the vedic sacrifice is related to brahman, or Universal Self.  As Shukavak N. Dasa points out (in his translation and analysis), this is a metaphysical interpretation of the Vedic sacrifice.  Because of this, two important conclusions can be drawn.  First, the Vedic sacrifices and rituals, with the essence of this verse in mind, become acts that pertain to brahman, or the Supreme.  That is to say, they cease to be inadequate materialistic rituals that fulfil contractual obligations to Gods, but instead become actions that are directed to the Supreme.

Secondly, we see a further extension of this.  By keeping this mindset, the nature of the sacrifice (yajn~a) is changed.  Consequently, we can change the nature of all actions we take with this same mindset.  Every action we perform can be considered a sacrifice, and thus we fulfil the description of proper action in the giitaa;  we act out of sacrifice, and so we act without attachment, which means the results of those actions no longer bind us.  We then are performing perfect karma yoga, and we can reach liberation from saMsaara.

From this, the giitaa also mentions that if one performs austerities, it cleanses us and counts as further sacrifice.  Fasting, controlling one's senses, and even breathing all become sacrifices to the Supreme.

So let's take a look at the class of renunciates, such as yogii's, swaamii's, and saadhu's.  As ascetics/monks, they forego many different things for a life of renunciation and penance/sacrifice.  But, let's analyze this a little more closely.

Ascetics are supposed to forego possessions, luxuries, and the like.  This is all well and good, but when things turn awry for others, we have to re-evaluate the process, right?  In the SwaamiinaaraayaNa sect, at least in all instances of common practice that I've seen, there is a rule for ascetics that they are not allowed to view members of the opposite sex.  This is very strict, and includes family (sisters, mothers, aunts, etc.).  From my experience, they do not allow women (though that may be different by sect) to join the ascetic orders, and so we're left with sexist circumstances.  That's not to say they do not respect women, but it's hard to teach gender-equality when you have role-models who follow this practice.  Often, improper conclusions can be drawn by lay people.

My problem with this is that they're taking the easy road.  It's simple to avoid sexual impulses (at least if you're heterosexual in this example) or the desire to buy things if you never see any women or have no money or means.  If you put yourself in a situation where you are not ABLE to give in to desires, then you can in no way give in to them.  This isn't really controlling desire, is it?  If we don't have the free will to desire and act on those desires, can we really say that we're controlling them?  If, however, we do have the ability to act on our desires and we choose not to, then we truly are controlling them, are we not?

There's a practicality, of course, to putting yourself in that kind of a position.  Yes, desire is a massive fire that seems impossible to control.  So, putting yourself in such a position to control it makes sense.  Or does it?  Often, you hear about not relying on external means for spiritual contentment, yet isn't your way of life directly affecting it?  In my opinion, it makes sense to learn to curb desire when you know you can't act on it, at least for a time.  Once you master that, you have to take it to the next level, which is controlling it when you are able to act on it.  That's true discipline.

So my charge to yogii's, svaamii's, and saadhu's alike is to put yourself in the real world.  Escapism is a topic for another day, but while it's on my mind, I'd like to point out that Sufis are strongly encouraged to have families, work at jobs, and contribute to their communities and societies.  What's more interesting is that this isn't considered to hinder them; on the contrary, without those very things, they'd have a much more difficult time reaching their goal.

My charge to everyone is to develop self-discipline.  But, don't be pretentious or arrogant, or act self-glorified when you know that the only difference between you and others is that you're forced to not act on your desires.  If you were voluntarily sacrificing, then perhaps it would mean something to you, and maybe you wouldn't be so self-righteous.  Maybe, just maybe, you'd remember how hard it really is, and maybe you'd harbor some compassion.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Secular extrapolation

The Hindu orthodox schools of thought have always been geared to strict adherents. Back in the day, you had people who studied this stuff for the sake of studying it and they devoted their lives to it. You didn't dabble in it from time to time, and you certainly didn't separate it from its elements. I think it's pretty apparent that things don't work that way, especially now. It's not so practical for people to completely devote themselves to learning yoga, or saaMkhya, or taantra yoga or something. But, that doesn't mean we can't still benefit from it.

In the past century, you have a large influx of "Eastern thought" and most of that has been adapted in some secular form. "yoga" conjures up images of crazy body positions and breathing exercises, not of traditional meditation or the austere ascetic lifestyle. On the one hand, you lose some of the original meaning. This may or may not be a problem for you. On the other hand, you gain a lot of benefits, like healthier life choices. This may or may not be a plus to you. Bottom line is that this secular extrapolation and development provides many avenues for many different people. For those "soccer moms" and "serious atheletes" who love haTha yoga (deva: हठ योग), they can perform their postures. For those "intellectual students" and "introspectives" you can find plenty of meditation centers for raaja yoga (deva: राज योग).

One of the larger problems that occur with this is that many unique concepts lose their distinction. If you look at the migration of Buddhism into the US over the past sixty years or so, you can see that in many cases entire schools of Buddhism are misinterpreted. You have Zen/Chan Buddhism mixed up with Taoism, and Vipassana Buddhism often losing its core methods of meditation. Words and concepts get mixed up and infused with entirely different meanings (partially leading to my four part post on karma). You lose distinctions that are important in the context of specific schools, and while they may not be important to the people who are frequenting the monastery, it is important in the larger scheme of things. This is because as students progress, they reach important teachings which have a context. Having no context, or having the student relearn concepts integral to that context, provides a steep incline for the learning process.

It may be that for this reason, we should think of a tiered system. One tier for concepts common to all schools, and the next diverging into branches based on concepts. Not unlike how high school, college, grad school, etc. form a tiered educational system.

I'll post more on this another day. I just really feel that things need to be reorganized, or at least thought out in a better way. Secularization is not new, and it's fairly inevitable, especially with the way trends are going now. But, if we put some thought into things, we can shape it in a way that makes much more sense. If we can avoid something like this, then why not?

karma, III

karma has a lot of interesting subtleties. It's been expanded upon for a long time, but that doesn't mean we can't find modern metaphors for older concepts.

Credit for the translation of the concepts and the application of the metaphor go to my sanskrit teacher, "Dnyanada" (no last name, and in fact, she had a great story about how she got rid of it years ago, and when she came to the US, no one could comprehend the fact that she chose to not have one. The computers had a field-day with that one!).

My sophomore year at Rutgers was when I took sanskrit, and Dnyanada often went on tangents about certain tidbits of information. She took a stance against "sanskritizing" and recreating etymologies for words in modern Indian languages, for example. While these tangents didn't directly correlate with our lessons, they did provide a useful boost of interest for others in the class, but I loved the trivia.

One day in particular, she talked of karma being misused and happened to mention two interesting types of karma. Now, I don't know her sources, but she was a well-read woman and so I will take her word as a secondary source to this, especially considering just how much she knew of everything we brought up. She described how further developments on the theories of karma led to what we might in this day and age call "credit" karma and "debit" karma.

"Credit" karma is what we face when we act on something, spontaneously or not, and for which we will later reap the fruits of. Whether we're eating dairy and we're lactose-intolerant, or we're gossiping about the coworker two cubicles down, it's all credit karma here. This doesn't mean that we are acting completely originally; when it comes down to it, nearly everything is a reaction. The distinction here, however, is that the real, dominant fruits are forthcoming.

"Debit" karma, on the other hand, describes the karma "used" when we react to something. Here, we're acting from fruits we have come to acquire without having actually acted. Revenge is an excellent example. Let's say actor A does something horrible to actor B. Actor A created credit karma. Some of the fruits of this action have gone to Actor B and motivated him to seek revenge. When he finally acts, it will have been out of debit karma. This situation primarily applies when actor B did not instigate actor A, or if actor B somehow acts out on a third actor, actor C. Otherwise, it really is no different from standard reaction.

To extend the metaphor, we can act from our checking accounts or our savings accounts. If we act from our checking accounts, we are acting on karma that is marked "to spend." This is often recent karma. When we react on things that are more or less direct, then this is from checking. This applies in the above case when actor B happens to be irate from actor A's actions, but takes it out on actor C. We can say that his acting out on actor C was because he was still under the influence of A's actions. He was still angry and so it passed on this way.

For a moment, let's take a look at a completely different example. A husband gets home late from work irritated about his boss. His wife cooks him a meal, but he doesn't like it. They argue. That's from his checking karma. But, let's say his wife takes a cheap shot at him during an argument when she's right. He doesn't argue and goes along with it because, after all, she is right. A week later she argues with him about something else and she's wrong. In his anger, he suddenly remembers the lousy feeling from her comment previously. He's further infuriated by this and now he says something that crosses the line. This action is savings karma. For a week, he was not bothered by her comment, thinking that he had let it go. Then, in a separate event, that comment comes up and helps to propagate whatever he's thinking at that time. Because of the comment's dormant period, we can say that it was put into savings. Later, he remembered it and used it to fuel something else, i.e. he transferred it into his checking account before using his debit card.

Why on earth is this useful to us? Aside from being yet another tool that lets us further analyze and understand our actions, it directly calls into question our motives. Direct karma (credit karma), redirected karma (debit, checking), and forced-direct karma (debit, savings) help to explain why we do things. The danger here is not unfamiliar, however. People have a way of using whatever they can to justify their actions.

karma, however, is a law of the universe. We do not have a choice to participate or withhold in its games. No matter what actions we take, we are most definitely influencing something and that yields reactions. The benefit to us would be to see patterns and tweak our behavior to benefit us. It's fine that things go into our savings accounts. We shouldn't spend on stuff that's frivolous, though. If we're saving for something, like fuel during our workouts, or inspiration for songs, or something else that acts as a positive channel, then we're hacking the system to our benefit. And, we need to know when act and how to make it productive. And, when to let go.

I'll bet this really brings more meaning to the old adage, "Don't write a check your butt can't cash."

karma, IV

One of the more "artistic" interpretations of karma is related to choice-making.

The idea is that karma doesn't doom us to relive things just as they happened before. It makes us relive those moments in which we made a "wrong" choice, or a choice we're bound to by regret or sadness, or habit, or pleasure, and presents itself until we make a choice that frees us from this bondage.

This is definitely a modern concept of karma, and definitely not one I'd mark as "authentic," but it is very thought-provoking. It also raises a good point in that karma is not meant to be so concrete. It's not something that forces us to undergo the reciprocity of an action we previously made. And, it's something we bind ourselves to. It's more like a bias, really.

Let's take some simple: every guy named Larry you've ever met was a jerk. The next time you meet a Larry, you could assume that he's a jerk. Or, you could take a page from David Hume and take this is a separate, unrelated event, and take it as is.

If any of you have ever played Enter the Matrix, you may recall a scene between Niobe and Ghost. The weapons program loads up, they choose their weapons, and Ghost checks the cartridges in his guns. Niobe mentions that the program loads the same way each and every time, yet Ghost never fails to check his guns manually. She asks him why. In response, he says,

Hume teaches us that no matter how many times you drop a stone and it falls to the floor, you never know what'll happen the next time you drop it. It might fall to the floor, but then again it might float to the ceiling. Past experience never proves the future. (source)

Not a bad way to approach things, I might add. Going about things this way allows you to approach things from a fresh perspective each time. While it's quite an exercise, it forces you to shed biases and often makes it easier to peel apart layers from things when you're feeling very overwhelmed.

Bias is very useful. If we touch a hot stove, we get burned. We learn not to do it again. However, things aren't so black and white in every case. I don't think I need to point out how irrational it is to assume the next Larry you meet is going to be a jerk. But, that is how our brains work, sometimes even if it happens sub-/un-consciously.

karma can work in a similar way. If we're faced with one situation over and over, we can very easily take a pitfall and assume things will unfold the same way. We often have to work to realize that we can actively make a different choice, or influence the event in different way.

There's also another choice, one that's "neutral." We can let go. Instead of waiting for a karmic credit card bill or tossing something into our karmic bank accounts, we can choose to just let go. We can accept something as is, react without emotional attachment, and move on. Notice that I said "without emotional attachment," and NOT "without emotion." There's a large difference here that amounts to more than one word. If we bind ourselves to things and have to unbind ourselves from them later, we can also choose to not be bound in the first place.

Personally, I feel that part of life is having these bound experiences, and part of it is learned to act without having to bind yourself. Your mileage may vary, of course.

In nearly all of the various schools on Indic philosophy, orthodox and heterodox, you see that people who have attained their respective goals do no produce karma. That is not to say that there is absolutely no interaction with karma, as they can just be spouting out a balance of zero. I think I previously mentioned that it does not necessarily imply causation, either; by tweaking your karmic output to zero you may not find "liberation," or "enlightenment" or what have you. But, that doesn't mean you can't improve your life.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Giitaa-based philosophy and death

Two more posts on karma and a book review of Palace of Illusions pending, I felt particularly introspective in a different way whilst reading the giitaa tonight.

It occurred to me that in some simplistic way, a great deal of philosophy from the early chapters of the giitaa can be distilled. Once, in a Buddhist Philosophy class, a classmate (who majored in philosophy) asked how something would apply in a life or death situation. While other bemused classmates (myself included) snickered, she raised the point that any philosophy, at its basis, can be tested most easily and pertinently by looking at the ramifications it has in a life or death scenario. While that's not to say that there is no point to living by a philosophy, it does make sense to test its boundaries in such a way.

Thinking along those lines, it's pretty easy to simplify the giitaa's philosophy (at least from the earlier chapters). The idea of knowledge of renunciation of action, meditation (that knowledge's application), and so forth can be applied at the point of death to ease one's passing, karmic accumulation, etc. There are quite a few problems that arise such as remembering that stuff when dying, to say nothing of our ignorance of our deaths. What we practice is what comes to us almost instinctually, and so if we live via those ideas then we will also remember them upon our death. And, if we practice them in life, we can perhaps gain some sort of insight into our elation and suffering alike. Maybe we can make better decisions and learn to live with our mistakes.

While some are inclined to think of rewards of cosmic proportions after death, many of us are just looking to cope with various aspects of life, are we not? For us of the latter persuasion, desires of lofty Heavens and fears of stupifying Hells doesn't help much. We want some sort of elixir that makes it easier to live with the horrible things that we've done (or had happen to us) and helps us to appreciate the finer, subtler pleasures in life. Not fine wines, mind you, but the fine aroma of a summer evening, even if it is just outside the sweatshop/cubicle-farm. And, while some of us search ceaselessly for this magical elixir, I don't think there is one (though if there is, please let me know!).

For me, I'm content to try to figure out some of life's great awe-inspiring, though usually mundanely simple truths one at a time. When things get really rough, it's nice to have some help remembering. aadi sha.nkaraacharya said that our two best friends should be Death and Knowledge, as they never leave our side. Death reminds me to be in a constant appreciation of what's going on. I feel that maybe the knowledge gained from the giitaa's philosophy (Chapters Two and Three particularly speak to me, but I often wonder what doesn't...) can predominate the personality of my friend Knowledge. It's not the worst way to live, and if it gets me by during the trying times in life, then so be it. If not, my innate thirst for more spirituality will more than compensate.

Sure, there's more to it than that. It's never just that simple. But, from all that I learned from Buddhism, the concept of upaaya (deva: उपाय, "method" or "skillful means") burns brightest and most true. Sometimes, in life, a person needs to hear or see something in some particular way and at a specific time and place, maybe from some person in particular. Sometiimes, that's what it takes to learn something. We've all been there, and there's nothing wrong with that. And, maybe my oversimplified moment-of-death-centric view of philosophy will spark something in someone someplace sometime. *BLATANT GENERALIZATION*

I think there's nothing wrong with hoping for that.