Thursday, October 15, 2015

Choosing Dukkha, a look at free will and right intentions in Buddhism

          After a couple of thousand years of Buddhist scholars studying the old Scriptures and writing their own commentaries on them, there are many complex philosophies that have developed in Buddhism. A good example of this is the idea of free will and the rejection of its existence since there is no one and nothing to have a "free Will.   In  Zen and many different schools of Buddhism we are taught the concept of no self or non self. This is called anatta. But at the same time most schools of Buddhism accept the idea of karma which is essentially a subset of cause and effect in the universe.   karma is usually defined as an intentional action of the mind the body and speech. But many modern Zen Buddhist choose to look the other way on issues such as rebirth and karma.  This is because they say there is no self to generate these things . I insist that if they are going to keep  calling themselves Buddhist than they have at  some point to  go  and actually  read some of the things that Buddha taught or they are simply going to  have to stop  calling themselves “Zen Buddhist”. I believe the underlying teaching of anatta was that it was a false question,  in short on the mundane level a waste of time.  It arose as a response to the belief in a unchanging, immortal soul. But Buddhism teachings say all things are ever changing,  so there is never a you or self  in the sense of an immortal unchanging self or atman, but rather a set of aspects in constant flux. The you of yesterday is never the you of today. But this ongoing ever changing self exists comes and goes, has volition, and experiences suffering. 
    The problem with the Zen teaching on anatta or no self is that, at least in English, is that when taught in a absolutist and sophomoric level it creates  irreconcilable paradoxes that conflict with both reality and Buddhist teachings,  I’m sorry but if you’re not real stop reading this go put a plastic bag over your head hold it real tight until you quit taking up the air the rest of us need to breathe. I am so tired of pseudo-intellectual Zen Buddhist explaining to me how neither I or they exist, it is my firm desire to stand in front of each one of these male Zen zealots who say this sort of thing and  just as they finish saying it give them a good hard kick in the gonads as a simple demonstration of why I have a problem with their argument, this will also give them a very practical lesson in the expansion and contraction of perceived time.  So for the rest of this short blog I’m going to have the audacity to ask you to suspend your disbelief in yourself and accept the fact that you exist, that other people exist and despite the teaching of no self there is such a thing as  volition and free will. So this discussion requires that there be a you, that you have free will, that you are responsible for your actions , thoughts and deeds, and that there are consequences to them. So the counter argument to this blog that you don’t exist  and therefore you can’t suffer is one I’m going to ask you to take a hike with.

            The Buddha is reputed to have said: "I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha." In Sanskrit: dukkha is a Buddhist term commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "stress", or "unsatisfactoriness". The principle of dukkha is one of the most important concepts in the Buddhist tradition

      Dukkha is commonly explained according to three categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold on to things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance.

              At this point let us take a moment to see what the very first thing Buddha preached was,  what most Buddhist called the first turning of the wheel.

The Four Noble Truths," which express the basic orientation of Buddhism: this worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfactory, but there is a path to liberation from repeated worldly existence. The truths are as follows:

  1. The Truth of Dukkha is that all conditional phenomena and experiences are not ultimately satisfying;
  2. The Truth of the Origin of Dukkha is that craving for and clinging to what is pleasurable and aversion to what is not pleasurable result in becoming, rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath;
  3. The Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha is that putting an end to this craving and clinging also means that rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath can no longer arise;
  4. The Truth of the Path Of Liberation from Dukkha is that by following the Noble Eightfold Path—namely, behaving decently, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation—an end can be put to craving, to clinging, to becoming, to rebirth, to dissatisfaction, and to redeath.

              The second aspect of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is Right Intention or Right Thought, or samma sankappa in Pali. Right View and Right Intention together are the "Wisdom Path," the parts of the path that cultivate wisdom (prajna). The Buddha said in the Dhammapada that our thoughts are the forerunner of our actions (Max Muller translation):

      Now here I’m going to suggest we look at the definition of volition’ this is called Cetanā (Sanskrit, Pali; Tibetan Wylie: sems pa) it is a Buddhist term commonly translated as "volition", "intention", "directionality", etc. It can be defined as a mental factor that moves or urges the mind in a particular direction, toward a specific object or goal in the various schools of traditional Buddhism Cetanā is identified as follows:

  • One of the seven universal mental factors in the Theravada Abhidharma.
  • One of the Ten mahā-bhūmika in Sarvastivada Abhidharma.
  • One of the five universal mental factor in the Mahayana Abhidharma
  • The most significant mental factor involved in the creation of karma.
            Karma or Kamma is a Sanskrit word, which has been alternatively defined in English as “action” or sometimes “intentional action” or simply volition. But when used in the Dharma it would be more accurate to describe it a dynamic process involving intentional actions by sentient beings and the associated effects caused by or resulting from those actions. Were I disagree with many teachers description of Karma is the statement that “Karma is a mental urge”. Which in itself suggests all actions are motivated only by a strong instinctual desire, drive; or impulse; which would strip us of free will and the ability to actually do things on our own volition. Traditionally we say that the deluded in Samsara are driven by such accumulated habits and urges but those that follow the path can and do learn to counter act these residual elements and take control of our lives.   I know that many  Zen Buddhist are not  familiar with this treatise, but perhaps the best treatise I know of on Karma are chapters 13 and 14 (Volume 1) of the Lam Rim Chen Mo, by the great Lama Tsong-Kha-PA , published by snow lion press. And at this time I have got to point out that I consider Tsong-Kha-PA one of the foremost writers and teachers on Buddhism and its practice and that the Lam Rim Chen Mo should be read by anyone serious about Buddhism , there has now been an English translation for of this work for several years. I highly recommend it to you.

      In my opinion (and it is just that my opinion) most schools of Buddhism are simply different approaches sometimes called skillful means to accomplish what Buddha himself said Buddhism was all about:  to mitigate if not totally eliminate those things in life which causes so much suffering and misery. I’m going to lump all of this under the term traditionally used in Buddhism as dukkha. And further that all of these teachings are a means of training ourselves to have the education and the wisdom to see what is causing our suffering , to understand it,  and in the best case avoid it.
             I recently had a discussion with a Zen priest, on line,  concerning expectations after he gave a short essay on expectations and the misery they cause. My position on this in my response was that one of the most uplifting things in life is a thing that we call "hope".  Further that hope’s major component is expectations. His response involved a subtle separation of expectations from hope, if I understood him correctly he was separating them out by excluding emotional and personal involvement in one over the other. Now I’m not a Zen priest and I do not claim to have the wisdom that they are assumed to have. His response may be and probably was perfectly correct at least as far as one can be correct on any issue of Buddhist philosophy.

            The problem with all this and everything I’ve written above is that we are real people living in a real world and that if it is to have any real value and I know I keep using the term real which is giving a major headache to all you Buddhist philosophers, but I’m going to insist that we all have mutual experiences that comprise a human life and live in a world where those experiences occur and reoccur in virtually everyone’s life. Those things are what I call real. We all share common experience which I will call real at least on a mundane level. 
           Now some people don’t think that Buddhism and especially Zen needs to have any practical application, I cannot tell you how many times and teachers have told  me not to come to Zen expecting to get anything out of it . That in the end it has nothing to offer. This is a viewpoint that they continually belie by their own actions and words. If Zen has nothing to offer why are they offering it, if it has no value why is anyone listening to them?
      After almost 30 years of studying Buddhism in different Buddhist schools I really think that Buddha saw value in his teachings and that he taught them as a practical matter to express his compassion for their suffering in this world. That suffering requires a self to experience it.  I see Buddhism as a kind of science of the mind, I once heard it referred to as minding mind. Buddha himself said that the only thing that he taught was how people could relieve their own suffering, and that they were the cause of it and they were the only ones who could truly stop it. His prescription for this cure was the eight fold path.

            Now I’m coming to the essence of my essay which is simply weather a person who is practicing right thought and right intention  can choose to suffer and still be right?
            One of the primary differences in the western sciences of mind and Buddhism is that Buddhism does not separate out our emotional matrix from our intellectual matrix. We all have by our very nature emotions and an intellect.  The early Buddhist philosophers seem to me to have seen that the emotional matrix is very much a part of the intellectual matrix as a practical matter in our life they are impossible to separate.  So when the Buddhist fathers taught about detachment and renunciation I think they were viewing this from a very real practical every day point of view.

                I like to think that I am a little bit older and wiser,  I sure know I’m older,  than I was 30 years ago and that the experiences I’ve had in those 30 years have accumulated and affected both my point of view and how I perceive the teachings of Buddhism.  I think people with limited experiences in life have a tendency to be a lot like the children who have just learned a new skill or a new concept and want to show it off to everyone, this leads to young men and women with very little experience in the realities of life having read a few books and heard a few lectures making profound statements about the teachings of Buddhism without the underpinning of the experiences of life that really test those teachings. In other words I hear a lot of arrogant little children all caught up in their own self-esteem glibly making pronunciations about detachment, existence and suffering when they have experienced very little of both.  It’s a fine thing to have a mind that works well and a good intellectual capacity it’s quite another to have the wisdom that is brought upon one by experience.

             Perhaps the greatest armor that Buddha taught as he walked barefoot across India as protection against our misery was our attachment to the world in the things and it. I think that’s why he created monks and a monastic movement. He certainly had rejected the ascetic movement, but at the same time he created a movement of renunciation.  Practically speaking Buddha had parents, he had a wife and he had a son so from a personal point of view he was well aware of what that meant to a person’s psyche. He knew the obligations that these things imposed. But today as Buddhism spreads broadly across a  community of lay practitioners people living in the real world and having family and family obligations,  most people do not have the will or the courage to leave them behind. Buddha himself did have the will and the courage and I think that taught him just how difficult that makes the practice of Buddhism. I said difficult, not impossible.

            I’m going to assume that the people that are reading this are not Buddhist monks or ascetics but people who have families husbands wives children and all of the emotional bonds that come with them.  My first pronunciation that I’m going to pull right out my hat is that I think that this is perfectly fine.  I think there is nothing that can screw up your Buddhist practice more and yet have more potential for value in making you really experience Buddhism and understand its teachings than having people you love and people you have both hope and expectations for.
            Buddhism itself is based on vows. These vows expressed an intention and in doing so under the teachings of Buddhism create actions of volition. In an almost existential manner Buddhism says you’re responsible for these intentions when it says that karma is created by actions of "thought" and the  words you speak and the deeds you do. I was a Buddhist I married and I was a Buddhist when I had my children and I had read many  Buddhist teachings but I chose both to be a Buddhist and a father and a husband. I was perfectly aware that being a father and husband would create attachments as deep as any attachments in the human experience. So I think it’s fair to say that of my own volition and with my Buddhist education and of my own  free will chose to suffer. I chose the suffering that was inevitable when I took these roles.
            I do not think that suffering taken knowingly and intentionally and with purpose is necessarily a bad thing. Buddhist are taught to have compassion for all living things and this always starts with having compassion for yourself. So I do not regret one minute or even one second of the suffering that I knew would go along with taking on these obligations. So my answer to the question in the title of this essay is that most of us will many times in our life knowingly and intentionally create circumstances that will lead to our own suffering and I do not think this is necessarily in opposition to the teachings of Buddhism.  If I were to have followed the path truly and become a  monk it could be easily said that I was practicing right view and right intention. But I do not think that right view and right intention excludes  an informed decision to take  upon yourself the suffering that goes with things like being a father or a  mother or a spouse. My conclusion :

            Choosing Dukkha, is not always wrong, and sometimes it may even be the most rewarding thing you can do.