Below are some amateur, non-traditional haiku, written by the author of this blog.
Overgrown and old
Still a youthful soul
Many friends have left
Call your mother more
So young, the kitten
A warped mind, twisted
Haiku is a short poem consisting of 3 lines. These lines alternate between 5 syllables, then 7, then 5. Traditional haiku typically contain some kind of seasonal reference or nature imagery. Impermanence and death are also often themes of haiku, so the form is often seen as heavily associated with Zen, although it is not exclusively a Zen literary form.
Below are some amateur, non-traditional haiku, written by the author of this blog.
I don't understand the appeal of self-help books. In my own limited experience, they seem to be based on the idea that one is able to fix all (or at least a few) of life's problems using simple mental heuristics, fad diets, or special workout regimens. The closer they come to the form of a numbered list (ex. 10 easy tricks to get in shape), the less I trust them. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Men's Health sit on grocery store shelves and give the same advice, year after year, about how to please your man or how to pick up a girl at the bar. In more recent years, clickbait headlines have migrated to websites everywhere.
These 'life hacks' make up the titles of click-bait articles everywhere, and seem to draw repeat offenders to the same boring, hackneyed articles that never provide an iota of useful advice. These books and articles don't give any useful life advice, but there are places where the average person can get quality life advice.
Recently, I've turned to reading older books on the meaning of life, growing old, raising a family, governing the state, and more. Reaching across time, I've realized that our intellectual forebears have more to say about life than we often give them credit for. Socrates and Marcus Aurelius have plenty to say on the philosophy of living the good life, but there is also practical advice among ancient Chinese thinkers, like Lao Tzu and Confucius, as well. There is also a wealth of insight to be gained from thinkers in the recent past, in the last 100 years.
Below are just a few ancient people and ideas that can still inform how we live in the 21st century. I'd like to encourage you to look back to the past for more answers to life's questions. If there are no answers, perhaps there is at least some good advice.
The Way: Taoism (道教)
Many ancient philosophers draw on the use of opposites. Protagoras, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, most famously illustrated that everything has an opposite, and that a thing's existence is, by definition, the lack of its opposite; warmth is the absence of cold, hardness is the absence of softness. By drawing these comparisons, one can illustrate the interdependence of nature and of the cosmos.
No school of ancient philosophy has more to say about opposites and interdependence than Taoism. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left a short text named the Tao te Ching (or Classic on the Way). In this work, Lao Tzu lays out a philosophy of Way (translated from the word Tao). Way is a passive, cosmic force that works through everything. Things come into existence through Way, and things cease to exist because of Way.
Way is the foundational metaphysical concept in Chinese thought, and remains important through the millennia. For Taoists, the wise man, or sage, emulates Way. Rather than forcing one's presence on the world, a sage influences the world by first understanding nature, and then following mode's way, or helping the world fulfill its own Way. Brute force or control only work temporarily, and go against Tao. In a nation, the dictator can only squeeze the will of the people for so long. As soon as his grip lessens, which it inevitably does, the people revolt. Rather, if you lead the people by example, and show them how to live with Way, the country will remain peaceful, and the people will do what is required, whether you ask them or not. Like water, the sage works around rocks and obstacles.
Lao Tzu provides a practical philosophy, boiled down to a few essential ideas that can help rulers and as well as common people lead their life.
The Tao te Ching is filled with paradoxical prose. Like other ancient Western philosophers, Lao Tzu draws on opposites. Unlike Protagoras, though, he uses these opposites to show that, due to how Way operates, one often must act in a counter intuitive way to achieve her goals. At first glance, these statements seem like mystic aphorisms: self-reflection prevents enlightenment; one gains by giving up things, and losses by seeking gain; silence contains more meaning that spoken language; rulers obtain power by placing themselves below the people; the greatest warriors win battles before they happen.
To quote the opening chapter of the Tao te Ching,
The very essence of Way seems to come from the idea of action through passivity. Avoid striving, and work through the Way of the world.
Despite the seemingly mystic language of the Tao te Ching, one should not mistake the passivity that is prescribed as inaction. On the contrary, the Way acts upon anything and everything, yet is also acted upon. In this sense, the Tao is not some force in the universe, controlling things in the world or influencing events to a certain end. The point of Taoism isn't to sit back and just watch things unfold. A true sage should observe the world, take into account how it works, and then act in such a way that she utilizes the Way of the world to help achieve her goals. Furthermore, by understanding Way, she can determine what her goals should be in the first place.
As ancient Chinese philosophy evolved, the concept of Way was used by other thinkers in a much more pragmatic and direct manner, used to help cultivate proper conduct in public and private life to achieve life goals continues.
Recommended Further Reading for Taoism
The Role Model: Confucianism (儒家)
There is an old, cliche joke that is still sometimes used whenever someone is poking fun at Chinese thought, or just laughing at the non-sense of the fortune cookie after dinner. With the best racist impersonation of Chinese the person can muster, they start speaking. "Confucius say..." and then trail off into some irreverent advice or joke. It's not a particularly funny gag, and it smacks of 19th- and 20th-century racist attitudes toward Chinese immigrants and Americans of Chinese descent, but it does have literary accuracy.
In The Analects of Confucius, many of the short quotes do start with something like "Confucius said..." or "The Master said..." or "Confucius was speaking..." These anecdotes also come from contemporaries and students of Confucius, and not just Confucius himself. However, instead of ending on a punchline, Confucius goes on to discuss how the the common person should live. How should an ruler treat the people, how should the people treat the emperor, how should fathers and mothers treat their children, and how should children treat their parents. Confucius taught that in order to have a prospering nation, one must create prospering relationships. There is a humanism behind Confucianism that is often missed by people who study his philosophy in passing.
In order to build good relationships, one also needs to cultivate one's self. This includes not only education, but edification. How does one start cultivation? Confucius advised Ritual as the starting point. By performing the rites of sacrifices and burial ceremonies, practicing deference to elders and forebears, showing respect in dealings between friends, and serving loyally to sovereigns, one can cultivate an understanding of Way. In this sense, Confucius' philosophy is one of virtue ethics, where certain behaviors lead to developing a strong, morally correct ethics.
While Confucius does strongly promote following the rites that ancient Chinese society dictated, he does not go so far as to say that performing the rites are the ends in themselves. The rites are meant to cultivate feeling within each person. As The Master said: "Governing without generosity, Ritual without reverence, mourning without grief--how could I bear to see such things?" Clearly, without the proper attitudes and feelings, the rites themselves become hollow and useless. Performing the correct burial rites mean nothing if one does not grieve for the loved one they have lost. The burial rite is meant to help ensure the surviving family can grieve. For Confucius, without the burial rite, one would not be able to truly grieve for their lost family.
The Analects dive deeper into concepts of Duty, Ritual, Way, Humanity, and much more. I advise everyone to read through The Analects at least once in their life.
Recommended Further Reading for Confucianism
Logos: Stoicism (ἡ ποικίλη στοά)
If you had to boil down all of Stoicism into one line, it would be this: you can't always control what happens in your life, but you can control the way you react to it. The entirety of the Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism involves controlling how you react. When we call someone stoic nowadays, we often perceive that individual as stone-faced, unemotional, cold, calculating, unexpressive. The Stoic we discuss here is by no means that unattached individual, but is instead someone who simply approaches life with a more direct attitude. What is the situation, and how can I respond to it?
Take death, as a morbid example. There is no escaping the reality that one day, you are going to die. It is a truth that I myself have trouble confronting. Yet it is a truth that one must confront. How is one to approach death and dying, when we know there is no possibility of escape? The immediate reaction might be to grieve, fall into despair, point out the meaningless of all life, and listen to Kansas's famous track Dust in the Wind on repeat. The Stoic would argue that this is a terrible way to respond to the idea of death. In order to confront death, we should first understand what death is. Clearly, by definition, death is not something we will ever actually 'experience.' There are moments that lead up to death, but from death onwards, there is no 'I' there, no experience, nothing. Knowing this, we can start to realize that death is not something to fear, but something that will one day happen. By thinking about death, we can realize that life is something that many people no longer have, and that it is something we should appreciate.
Check out the short video below, where Massimo Pigliucci, a modern advocate and practicing Stoic, explains how the Stoics faced questions of death and dying.
Stoicism can also help us handle other difficult situations in life. If someone is rude to you, pushes you in the subway, steals something from you, or otherwise injures your person, a Stoic mindset can help adapt. Instead of getting angry, blaming that person, lashing out, seeking revenge, the Stoic can reflect on this experience as ask "What is it I can learn from this situation? Why am I so attached to that wallet that was stolen? Is obsessing on that wallet really the best use of this life?" The Stoic then can change their mindset and behavior toward a more fruitful end.
In the last 10 years, there has been a modern revitalization of practicing Stoicism. There are even websites that give Stoic meditative exercises and
There are some great editions of Seneca's Letters from a Stoic that you can find at almost any local bookstore, especially in used bookstores. Other great Stoic thinkers are Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Xeno.
Recommended Further Reading for Stoicism
Alan Watts was a theologian and philosopher, whose work helped introduce Western audiences to popularized notions of Zen and Asian philosophy. He was a giant in the middle 20th century, but his essays and books on Zen are still relevant to the current generation. I just finished reading Alan Watts’ collection of short essays called This is It & Other Essays on Zen & Spiritual Experience. After reading this short pocketbook, I can understand how Watts became the preeminent interpreter of East Asian philosophy to the West.
If I had to parse the essence of the six essays included in the short book to a subtitle, it would say “Essays on Nondualism and the Unity of Experience. The articles are accessible to the novice, although a basic understanding of Zen (though not Buddhism) is required. The essays range widely on topic; the collection starts with a personal exploration of ‘cosmic consciousness,’ turning to the conflict between “Instinct, Intelligence, and Anxiety.” It continues with “Spirituality and Sensuality,” a discussion of the sensual and spiritual as inseparable parts of each other. It ends with a heavy emphasis on Zen. ‘Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen’ highlights the two broad kinds of Zen as embodied in Japanese monasteries vs. the beat poets of the late 50s and 60s, while arguing that they are both equally valid forms of Zen. The book ends with a descriptive essay on Watts’ personal use of LSD to experience certain states of consciousness. He also reflects on the use of LSD in conjunction with meditation, and how non-addictive it is from a physiological sense. He admits that it could be dangerous if someone becomes psychically dependent on it, but finds that there is a value in using the substance.
As a work which focuses almost exclusively on the internal sense of life, Watts provides an unparalleled description of his own mental states, whether in studying Zen, practicing meditation, or taking LSD. It is a kind of writing that could only come from someone who has spent years in reflection, research, and study. What Alan Watts describes reminds me of Sam Harris's reflections on taking MDMA. I would say that Watts' experience goes much further than Harris's, but this is not surprising, as Watts was a theologian, who spent an entire lifetime studying various religions. Harris, while he is an accomplished intellectual and spent his own time meditating with gurus, comes from a different, more materialistic worldview.
An older version of myself would be outraged for feeling this way, but I am very interested in pursuing a similar experience, perhaps helped by LSD or MDMA. I of course would want to attempt such a thing only within a controlled environment, not under party lights and crappy dub-step music at a rave. I would prefer to have the experience in a quiet, natural settings, surrounded by trees and mountains, without human distractions. However, I certainly have not acquired the necessary wisdom to meaningfully interpret such an experience. Interpretation is not the best word, as there is nothing to which the experience would be interpreted. It is not as if I would be translating it from the language of MDMA to the language of normal life. I have tried to start meditating (I say try because it is hard to know whether one is actually meditating or just thinking in silence). Given the masterful way that Watts transmits his experience, I would feel ashamed if I couldn't write with his level of clarity and insight.
One of the more intriguing essays contrasts a straght-laced 'Square' Zen with an American 'Beat' Zen. Writing in the 60s, with the popularity of the Dharma Buns by Jack Kerouac in full swing, Watts explores some differences between a traditional and nontraditional approach to Zen. Watts describes the practices of Zen monasteries in Japan, the approach of the koan, and the relationship between student and master. Watts makes it clear that the master's role is only to show the student the inherent contradiction of trying to experience zazen (Zen). It is a task that requires effortless effort. Yet trying to be effortless is itself an effort, which leads the student in a never-ending circle of frustration. It is like looking for the floaters in one's eye. Should one try to see the floater in the eye, one will never find it. Only by relaxing and simply taking note of what one sees can one see the floater. Should you sense it, the moment you try to look directly at it is the moment you lose sight of it. Moreso, there is nothing that anyone can teach you that will make you see the floater in your eye. It must come from through the person's experience directly, and nowhere else. Similarly, there is nothing that the master can teach the student to help the student experience Zen. Eventually, the student realizes that there is no master of Zen.
From the informal Beat Zen, Watts shows an informal approach taken by many Westerners, including Kerouac and more. Watts explains that an awakening of experience can come just as clearly without a teacher and without a particular tradition. In fact, Watts would prefer that Zen is transmitted to the West in a non-formal setting, leaving behind the traditions of Japan and other cultures, so that it can be integrated in a unique way. There is no reason for traditional Buddhist institutions to permeate outside Asia.
This outlook is agreeable with my own beliefs, as an institutionalized Zen is likely to take the flavor of a Christian Church. A mindlessness toward religion and Zen is the very antithesis of how Zen would be practiced. In my own estimation, Zen appears to have a philosophy behind it which is so easily transferred across cultures that it can be entirely divorced from its history within China and Japan. This is perhaps a good thing, as it can make the study fresh to Westerners. I would be remiss to have not been able to visit several of the more famous Zen temples in Japan, such as Enryaku-ji, during my visit last summer. Seeing the natural beauty of such temples should be on everyone's bucket list.
Although this collection of essays was written nearly 50 years ago, it is timeless in its history and reflection on the inner self. If Zen interests you, even remotely, this is a must-read.
Buddhism is a fascinating religion. It is as intriguing as it is misunderstood. Unlike the Abrahamic faiths or Confucianism, Buddhism’s core is individualistic. It says little to nothing of how to govern a state or influence public policy. Instead, it focuses on the self, or rather, eliminating the illusion of self.
What is Buddhism? What are the fundamentals of Buddhism, and are there any reasons a non-Buddhist should learn about the philosophy of this large religion? What is the goal of meditation, and does it work? I hope to impart a cursory introduction of the mythical history, basic philosophy of Buddhism, and mindfulness.
Let’s start with a quick biography of the founder, Gautama Buddha.
A Pleasurable Childhood, a Search for Spirituality
NOTE: At the outset, let me be transparent and say that the story that follows is NOT the accurate historical account of the Buddha, but rather the mythical account of the Buddha. Just like there is a mythical and historical Jesus, there is also a mythical and historical Buddha.
Siddartha Gautama lived somewhere between 6th-century BCE and the 4th-century BCE. He was a prince whose father wanted to protect him from the evil in the world. The king kept his son confined to the palace. Through his young life, he was given every comfort and luxury available: dancing, soft beds, abundant food, and riches. The illusion went so far as to eliminate the elderly and sick from his presence so that Gautama was constantly surrounded by beauty and youth.
One day, Gautama sneaks out of the palace with his charioteer, Channa. They ride through the streets and come across a leper. Gautama asks “What is wrong with that man?” Channa explains that people the man is sick and that many people get sick. Gautama is dismayed by this fact. Next, they come across an elderly man. Again, Gautama asks “What is wrong with that man?” The faithful charioteer replies, “He is old. Everyone ages and loses their beauty eventually.” Their next visit is to the funeral of a dead man. Channa explains death to Gautama, who has remained oblivious until now. Lastly, they see an ascetic. When Gautama asks about this man, Channa explains that this man has renounced worldly life for spiritual life. With his worldview shattered, Gautama insists that Channa lead him out of town. Gautama leaves his lavish life in search of a more spiritual existence.
Freshly departed from royal luxury, Gautama begins training under ascetics. He studies the Upanishads, a compilation of texts that comprise the core of Hindu philosophy. He learns yogic meditation, extreme fasting, and other ascetic methods meant to bring one to a spiritual existence. However, after studying with several teachers and learning several different practices, Gautama found himself unsatisfied.
The beginning of his life was plagued by sensual overindulgence while his ascetic life swung to an extreme of self-mutilation. Seeing the fault in both of these extremes, Gautama proposed the Madhyamāpratipad, or Middle Way. As described, this way involves not overindulging in pleasure, yet not going to extremes to avoid pleasure. Meditation is important, but one need not fast indefinitely in order to achieve a spiritual existence.
At the age of 35, Gautama did what he is most famous for doing. He decided to meditate under a Bodhi tree until he understood the true nature of suffering. Under the Bodhi tree, Gautama became enlightened, discovered the Four Noble Truths, and achieved nirvana, extinction of self. Gautama became the Buddha.
Overview of the Philosophy of Buddhism
One of the important things to remember about Buddhism when studying its early history is that it started in a culture entrenched with the idea of reincarnation. Within the doctrine of reincarnation, the self is never destroyed, it is simply passed onto another life. The system of samsara (rebirth) is a hierarchical endeavor with better and worse incarnations. Better incarnations include cows, humans, mammals, etc. Worse incarnations include insects and demons. Ultimately, suffering never ends because existence never ends. Until the Buddha came along, this was seen as an immutable truth in Vedic texts such as the Upanishads.
Any understanding of Buddhism must begin with a statement of the Four Noble Truths. The easiest way to understand them is to place them in the form below:
The first truth is axiomatic and meant to be self-evident. For someone living in ancient India, and even today, this truth stands. Until a utopian society exists, suffering will be inevitable. Even in a utopia, there will still be death, grief, old age, lamentation, and distress. It is universal enough to not need justification.
The second truth is a justified empirical assertion of the root cause of suffering, desire. The concept of desire is important. There are several interpretations that work in place of desire. It can be called attachment, craving, want, etc. One should not confuse pain with suffering. Pain is also inevitable, but suffering can be overcome using the Eightfold Path. One can have hunger pangs from lack of food, but it is a very different thing to suffer from hunger. Suffering involves want, the longing for food when you have none. You can also desire not to be in pain. This desire causes suffering over and beyond the physical pain of starvation.
Take another example that might be more relatable. After dating someone for years, two lovers part ways. One person attaches themselves to the other, and still longs to be with them. The desire to be with someone who you can’t be with is in itself the source of suffering. There is no physical pain anywhere to be found, yet suffering thrives in emotional heartbreak.
Even when one fulfills their desires, one does not avoid suffering. Desire is not problematic from moment to moment as long as one can get what one desires. At best, life becomes a meaningless rat race in which a person is always chasing after the next desire to arise. At worst, desire creates a persistent source of suffering throughout a painful life.
Let’s pause on this point. If you are think the cessation of desire is nihilistic, you wouldn’t be the first to have this impression of Buddhism. What is life without love, passion, and hope? Don’t these feelings drive life and humanity forward? Apologetics aside, the devout Buddhist can still feel love, passion, hope, pain, hurt, and more. In theory, the successful practitioner of the Eightfold Path experiences love, joy, and pain intensely. The difference between a normal individual and the Buddhist is that the latter individual does not cling to these feelings, hoping that they never leave. Buddhist psychology and mindfulness have a rich history. Mindfulness training is perhaps one of the most practical and rewarding features of Buddhism, and can be easily adapted to anyone’s life, regardless of religious belief. More on mindfulness in a bit.
The third truth is just the conclusion of the syllogism presented in the first two premises. If you eliminate desire, you eliminate suffering. How do you eliminate desire? The Eightfold Path. What justifies this assertion? The answer, as the Buddha claims in a famous sutra, is simply that the process works. He even argues with a loyal follower on this point by asserting that if the program of the Eightfold Path doesn’t work, an individual should not follow it and should follow a different path taught by a different teacher. There is crumb of pluralism, pragmatism, and empiricism in the Buddha’s approach to spiritual enlightenment.
I still haven’t explained what the Noble Eightfold Path is, though. A discussion of all the spokes that make up the wheel of the Eightfold Path would be tedious and esoteric in a blog post like this, so rather than give a detailed account of the Noble Eightfold Path, I will show the 8 parts that make the dharma wheel of the Eightfold Path.
Let us return to mindfulness, the last section I want to discuss in this post. Mindfulness, as the word implies, is an awareness of one’s mental states. Buddhist psychology recognizes that everyone has mental states, namely thoughts, which form the background the existence. One of the primary tenets of Buddhism, which both religious and secular people can apply to their lives, is that mental states arise and fall away constantly. Old mental states disappear from our awareness and new ones arise. Most people try to dispel the bad mental states and hold on, as long as possible, to the good ones. The control of one’s mental states is, at bottom, an illusion. You do not control your mental states. Rather, you are barraged by your thoughts every day. One thought leads to another, then another, then another. Moment after moment, the mind’s attention is pushed and pulled in directions beyond one’s control.
Take the following sentence as a demonstration of this principle.
DON’T THINK OF A PINK ELEPHANT.
Unless you are well trained in mindfulness, you can’t help but think of a pink elephant. If you try to think of something other than a pink elephant, you are aware that the only reason you are thinking of something else is because you are trying not to think of the pink elephant. Despite your best intentions and self-control, you are still thinking of the pink elephant. This is just one of many examples in which it is clear that one has no control over one’s thoughts.
This is the primary phenomenon that mindfulness training attempts to address. While the origins of meditation and mindfulness training are meant to eliminate desire by eliminating thought, it can be used by non-Buddhists to quiet the mind and take stock of the contents of consciousness. If one stops thought, what is left of the self? The answer, according to Buddhists, several philosophers, psychologists, and more, is nothing. In fact, it isn’t even that the self is eliminated, but rather that the fact of the illusion of the self becomes apparent.
Take a moment and try it. Sit down somewhere quiet, free from interruption, and close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply. Breathe in (1-2-3) and out (1-2-3). While breathing, begin to observe your thoughts. Don’t try to think of anything, just observe whatever might arise in your consciousness. As you begin to observe your thoughts, you might notice they go in an unexpected direction. You may end up down a rabbit hole, with no idea how your thoughts got there. If you find yourself focusing on a particular thought, bring yourself back to task, let the thought go, try to just observe the contents of your mind as you continue breathing slowly, deeply, evenly. Do this for about 5 minutes, and you will find yourself exhausted (or at least I did when I first tried it).
One of the things you might notice is that at first it seems like you are very easily able to keep your mind empty. It might seem like you aren’t thinking of something, but when you continue a few moments longer, it becomes clear that thoughts are constantly running through your mind. I’m not an expert (or even particularly knowledgeable) on this subject, but I’ve been told and read from various sources that it takes many years of rigorous meditation to reach a state of no-thought, where one truly does not have any thought in consciousness.
The trained Buddhist takes these thoughts and mental states for what they are: intransient, impermanent, uncontrolled, and constant. Imagine watching a fish swim by you in water. You swim and suddenly find yourself aware of the fish swimming across your visual field. You watch the fish as it swims by, but eventually it swims far enough away that you no longer take note of it. You don’t linger on the fish, but continue swimming and experiencing what is in front of you as you swim.
Like watching the fish, a Buddhist in meditation (or anyone practicing mindfulness training) observes thoughts as they arise, takes note of them, but then lets them pass on their own course. She doesn’t focus on any single thought, doesn’t let her mind travel down a rabbit hole of what-ifs and worries. Thoughts come, thoughts go. There is no need to do more than observe these thoughts as they make their way across one’s consciousness.
Himeji Castle, Himeji, Japan
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