“We receive our life, we borrow this life, and an infinite number of organisms support us in living. Once we notice this embeddedness we feel compelled to act and face the world from a place of gratitude and responsibility—to work and study deeply, to practice in every moment, to smile, to own our own anger and jealousy, to not waste time.” -Gesshin
So I kicked the cat this morning. Actually twice. No just once. The first time I just kicked at him, without connecting. I could have connected, but I pulled back at the last second. The second time I connected. Not that hard, but hard enough to fill me with remorse and self-recrimination. And then the cat ran away from me and hid, and cringed when I approached him. And all the while I was thinking how selfish I was, how enslaved to my anger, and thinking about how bad the cat must feel, and how unfair the whole thing was, and that I hoped the fucking cat didn’t wake up the boy and why won’t he just eat his goddam food?
The cat hates his food. We have to give him canned food now because he’s old and dry food gives him urinary crystals. But he loves dry food. The cheaper the better. He likes Alley Cat, Mistigri in French, the dry food you get at the cheaper supermarkets, the second-tier supermarkets. The cheap shit. If I gave him a bowl of Mistigri he’d gobble it up and then settle down on the couch, purring. He’d rub against me. We’d be friends.
But I can’t give him Mistigri.
I’ve tried all different kinds of canned food. Whiskas. Fancy Feast. Every kind of organic, free range, open source ultra-food from the fancy pet food place. One dollar cans, two dollar cans.It’s always the same. He’ll try them when they’re new, and I’ll get a gratifying rush thinking, “Ah, this is the one! This is the food he’ll eat!” But inevitably, often before he’s finished the first bowl, he’ll sniff the new food disdainfully, and hop down from his feeding place, and start meowing for Mistigri.
The cat craves Mistigri.
I heard this brassy Australian broad go on about how wild animals are working out karma from past lives. For instance, a lion is compelled to get its food through violence because of unskillful past deeds. On the face of it this is laughable. And it seems unkind to think of the lion this way. And isn’t there something impressive and noble about lions? I mean, it’s the Lion King, right? But, then again, think about the awful violence the lion as to commit every time it wants to eat. Think about the fear coursing through its prey as it flees. I’m not anthropomorphizing here: I know their experience is not the same as ours but, regardless, watch what happens: the lion is violence manifest and the prey, shrieking, wild-eyed, desperate, is the definition of terror.
Now I don’t know if the law of karma is true. It’s one of those things. Sometimes I buy it, sometimes it sounds like bunk. But, in its simplest form, it’s just cause and effect. If this happens, this happens. If there is a lion, there is a lion’s prey. And if it is five-thirty am, my cat is meowing for Mistigri. And if the cat is meowing for Mistigri I feel compelled to do something about it.
And this is where my own karma comes in. Because, on the one hand, I’m self-aware. Well, a little bit. It’s 5:30, after all. (Although I could have gone to bed earlier, which would have led to me being better rested.)So I know that I can just let the cat meow. I can choose to let the cat meow. Except it’s not really a choice, because if I let the cat meow he might wake up the boy. And if the boy wakes up now he’ll be tired all morning. And I don’t want to leave my wife with a tired, cranky 2-year-old and a five-month-old while I gallivant off to my glamorous job at the Drug Dealership. So I won’t make that choice. I can imagine an alternate reality where I make that choice, but in this realm, where I live, everything about my past experience and physical makeup combines to make sure I won’t make that choice. It’s not my karma to make that choice.
So I get up to feed the goddam cat. And I guess I’m working out a little something-or-other karma-wise, because at a certain point I kick him. Not very hard, no real harm done. Just enough to make me feel bad. Just enough to make us both feel bad.
But there’s another choice to be made. I can tell myself a story about how bad I am. How I’m a bully and a mis-treater of animals. How I can’t control my anger. How it’s always the same. How the cat will never leave me alone and isn’t that just what life is like? Some selfish cat meowing at you at 5:30 because you won’t give him the cat food that will kill him?
Or I can choose not to tell that story. I don’t want to kick the cat again, and I’m committed to controlling my anger and annoyance. And the way I’m going to do that is by not telling that story. The story about how it’s always the same, about how it’s all so hard, and so unfair. The cat’s just the cat. He’s okay. And so am I.
So much of what we do is driven by craving for pleasure. If we don’t feel an immediate sense of sensual pleasure we feel we must be doing something wrong, that things should be different, that we’re losing, we’re missing out.It’s because we conflate happiness with pleasure.
But so often what we must do, the wise thing, the right thing, is not obviously pleasurable. Tending to children, cleaning a toilet, writing a blog post: quite often the necessary action is boring, or noisome, or frustrating.
Even then, even now, I feel myself stretching for pleasure: to see that the difficult task is somehow pleasurable in a different way, in a wiser way.
What would your life be like if you could leave aside this ceaseless craving? If you could be with what is, instead of aching for what is not?
What would your life be like if your happiness didn’t depend on pleasure?
Would you like that?
There are two kinds of death: the death of the ego, and the death of the mind-body complex.
Both are inevitable but the first, if achieved before the second and in full awareness, is enlightenment.
All selfish action is pregnant with death, because it serves only the ego, which must die anyway.
Our selfish actions are pointless, wasteful, full of death, leading only to the grave.
For me sitting is almost like training in success. Almost? Always! I succeed every time I sit down. I succeed when I notice my attention has wandered from the breath. I succeed when I realize I have lost equanimity, I succeed when I notice my craving to achieve the first jhana, I succeed in seeing the path to enlightenment. Every time!
And even now as I write this, I can feel the urge to turn this success into failure – to somehow say: “Do you really think it’s like this, living? Success, over and over again?” Although I don’t fully believe that this is what “living” is but, rather, “This is what it’s like to be me.”
And this is what it’s like!
There is a breath of joy in it, and that breath is my breath. I open my heart to receive it.
For me sitting is almost like training in failure. Almost? Always. I fail every time I sit down. I fail to keep my attention on the breath. I fail to maintain equanimity, I fail to achieve even the first jhana, I fail to become enlightened. Every time.
And even now as I write this, I can feel the attempt to turn this failure into success – to somehow say: “This is what it is, living. Failing, over and over again.” Although I don’t fully believe that this is what “living” is but, rather, “This is what it’s like to be me.”
And this is what it’s like.
My dog never questions his inclination towards independence and dominance. He never doubts himself. The only thing that changes his behavior is the constant repetition of dominant signals.And even that doesn’t change him much.There’s something deeply appealing about that but it’s no good for making a society.
This is what I mean when I tell my wife that women are superior to men.
It’s not that I think they’re inherently better or that I think men are bad.It’s simply that for people to live together in peace they must behave more like we think women are.
And this is connected to the inclination towards peace. Even violent men – most of them – want peace in the end. Even the psychopath wants the peace of having fulfilled his desires.
A Roman execution began with a scourging of the naked prisoner. Using a short whip made of braided leather embedded with sharpened stones, Roman soldiers would flog the man’s back, buttocks, and legs. “The lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.” The prisoner’s arms would then be tied around a hundred-pound crossbar, and he would be forced to carry it to a site where a post was embedded in the ground. The man would be thrown onto his shredded back and nailed through the wrists to the crossbar. (Contrary to the familiar depictions, the flesh of the palms cannot support the weight of a man.) The victim was hoisted onto the post and his feet were nailed to it, usually without a supporting block. The man’s rib cage was distended by the weight of his body pulling on his arms, making it difficult to exhale unless he pulled his arms or pushed his legs against the nails. Death from asphyxiation and loss of blood would come after an ordeal ranging from three or four hours to three or four days. The executioners would prolong the torture by resting the man’s weight on a seat, or hasten death by breaking his legs with a club.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature
I come from Catholics, and until I was 12 and discovered punk rock I bought the whole Jesus trip: I was a bit of a fanatic. I remember watching Jesus Christ Superstar (which fuckin’ blew my mind! It was Jesus times but there were tanks! Nobody talked, they sang the whole thing! Judas was black!) and pressing a kitchen knife into my palms during the crucifixion scene to get some sense of the pain Jesus felt as iron nails ran in. I gave up on all that, as one must, because it’s retarded – but later I came back to it, gingerly, as one should, because the story of Christ is of an awesome power and beauty.
I leave aside any argument about the church, any kind of church, most especially the Catholic Church. I don’t give a shit, I hardly think about it any more. I tried to go back about ten years ago but I couldn’t hack it: I couldn’t say the Creed because I don’t believe it, and I wouldn’t take Communion because I couldn’t say the Creed. Plus the priest was kind of a prick and seemed to be pushing reactionary old school Catholicism, perhaps to counter what he saw as a wishy-washy 21st century version. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, I don’t give a shit about that.
What matters is this: that the story is God came to earth as a man, a boy who became a man, a human like us. And that man was at once God and God’s son. Just forget how retarded it is: think of “God” as “the Universe,” or “Nature,” whatever you can get your head around. Because we are part of that: we’re not unnatural, we’re not from elsewhere. We’re from here, of this Universe. So, for the sake of the story (remember it was written by people who didn’t know shit about science. They were like children. It’s childish – but look at it as their best effort. There’s poetry in it.) accept there’s a God and he can do shit like that.
So this God sees that his people are miserable. They keep fucking up, they can’t get their shit together. And he wants to help, but he can’t just wave a magic wand. He wants to help them, but they have to do it themselves. (You’ll understand this if you have children: you can’t do everything for them.) So he sends his son – and his son is Him, because everything is Him – there’s nothing outside. (And that’s how it is, do you see? That’s how it actually is. We’re all of us intertwined, we’re all born from the Universe, from Being. There’s nothing outside of it.)
And this Jesus must suffer and die because we must suffer and die. Because this is the way it is. God has not abandoned us – he is just like us. He is us.
Even God suffers and dies.
But then comes the Resurrection.
Do you see? It’s like us. Because we’re constantly changing. We’re never the same, from moment to moment. We die from moment to moment. And are resurrected. There is new life, always, from moment to moment. Do you see? That’s what it means, this story of death and resurrection. It’s nothing so petty as your little ego coming back in a fairy land. It’s here, now, every day. Every moment. Your life begins anew every moment.
So of course, yes. It’s a bullshit story. It couldn’t have happened that way. But it’s so beautiful. And we made it up. We can tell such beautiful stories. And we’re not being crucified. Not right now. Not at this moment.
Right at this moment we’re being reborn.
I really liked this post by Brad Warner over at Hardcore Zen. He’s responding to a (quite old!) article by Sam Harris about what Harris sees as the necessity of leaving behind the religious trappings of Buddhism (and perhaps the word Buddhism itself!)
I remember Harris’s article – I believe it’s called Killing the Buddha and it’s a good one. I strongly recommend checking out both these articles, and Warner’s blog in general. And Harris’s too! I run hot and cold on Sam, but I give him a huge amount of credit for bringing a thoughtful take on serious moral and spiritual issues to a popular audience.
“Love everyone” sounds like bullshit. It sounds like one of those things people say. It sounds like the kind of thing an evangelist says in his mega church but then he also says God Hates Fags. It sounds like something Jesus said in his pussy mode, in the mode that got him crucified, meekly, like the kind of pussy who gets crucified. It sounds like the kind of thing the Buddha said when the Buddha…well, nothing like being crucified happened to the Buddha. He lived into his 80s and died from food poisoning. But, regardless, “Love everyone” sounds like one of those fucking things the Buddha said and you’re like “Yeah, right: that’s just one of those things. You don’t really mean it. How could anyone do that?”
But really, it’s the thing. It’s the main thing.
One obstacle is that some people are major assholes and you don’t want to be nice to them. Even more – some people are awful people, and you loathe and even fear them. And, you know, there’s always Hitler. Even Hitler? Because it’s all or nothing, am I right? I mean, it’s either “Love Everyone” or I get to pick and choose, and if I get to pick and choose then get off me, who are you to judge?
But it’s all or nothing. It really is. It’s all or nothing. And loving everyone will help you get by. It will help everything.
But yeah – what about assholes? And leave off Hitler for now. What about the meth head who stole my kid’s bike? How, and more importantly, why should I try to love that piece of shit?
Here’s why: It’s because you and the meth head are part of the same thing, you’re part of the same complex, and if you hate him, you hate yourself. Because you aren’t separate from the causes and conditions that resulted in his stealing your kid’s bike.
It’s because you and the meth head are part of the same thing, you’re part of the same complex, and if you hate him, you hate yourself. Because you aren’t separate from the causes and conditions that resulted in his stealing your kid’s bike.
Saying it twice doesn’t necessarily help!
No, but it might. So read it again!
No good? All right – let’s dig in.
We humans are naturally prone to a fundamental delusion, viz. that we are separate individual entities existing independently from the rest of the universe. This is because what most of us think of as ourselves is actually a small part of our mind-body complex, specifically, a cluster of feelings and memories thrown into consciousness in order to make sense of the fundamentally senseless avalanche of data gathered by our…shit…I can’t think of another word…gathered by our senses. But “senses” in the different sense of…shit. There it is again…
Well, tough shit – figure it out! “What most of us think of as Ourselves is a cluster of mental events arising in consciousness in order to make sense of the fundamentally senseless avalanche of data gathered by our Six Senses.” (Buddhism holds that there a six senses, not five. The Sixth Sense is Thinking, its object the Mind.)
So, basically, you think you’re separate from everything only because by an accident of evolution you possess self-consciousness. And while the consciousness is indisputable, the self is much more amorphous and hard to pin down. And in fact, while you most certainly do exist, you possess no lasting self, no self at all.
But you can just leave that for now. That’s a pretty deep one!
For now just think about breathing. You take over 20,000 breaths a day, almost all of them unconsciously, and if you tried to stop you’d be dead in 5 minutes, give or take. Air from outside your body is sucked inside your body, and deep inside your lungs, the oxygen passes into your bloodstream, to be distributed throughout. So oxygen in the air, produced from carbon dioxide by plants using light energy from the sun, becomes part of your body and enables you to live.
At what point in this arrangement are you a separate, independently existing entity?
There are innumerable other examples, of course: food, water. Love. Human beings are ill-suited to live in outer space, at the bottom of the ocean, or at the poles. We are massively dependent on our environment in order to survive. And again, it’s not just that we live in it, like we live in a house. We are part of it. We consume it and create it. Our breath leaves our body as carbon dioxide, which is used by plants to create the oxygen we breathe. After we die our bodies will become soil or, more likely nowadays, smoke and ash. Nothing is wasted or destroyed. It’s a closed system.
But that’s not why we feel separate. We feel separate because of self-consciousness, which is demonstrably part of that system, and because of our sense of free will, which is illusory.
I’m sorry, it is. It just is. You don’t have free will the way you think you do. At best you have the kind of free will Daniel Dennett thinks you do, which is a poor compromise. You want to think you initiate your own actions and could have done otherwise, given precisely the same conditions, but it’s simply untrue. Well, at any rate, it appears to be very unlikely. Just don’t bother with it. You aren’t “free” that way.
So if you’re part of this system, if there’s no separate self, if your choices are determined, and we’re all in that boat, in this sense realm, if we’re tossed on this ocean of being…then who is there to hate?
Who do you hate?
You can disagree, certainly. I disagree with almost everyone, myself most of all! But what sense is there in hating? And you needn’t approve, you needn’t endorse. The meth head should not have stolen your daughter’s bike. Stealing is wrong, and it hurt your daughter’s feelings. He should give the bike back. If you can take it from him, take it from him. But you can love him while you do it. Because he was born into this place just like you, and no one asked him. And one day he’ll leave it. And if everything that happened to him happened to you – everything, not just that you’re you addicted to meth, but that you were born to his mother and lived his life up to now – everything – then sure as shit you’d be riding down the sidewalk on a hot pink Huffy with tassels on the handlebars right now.
And Hitler? Fucking Hitler?
Well, it’s silly to bring up Hitler all the time, to reduce everything. It’s a childish argument! And if we all loved each other more there’d be no traction for Hitlers. Hitler didn’t do it all on his own. But he was bad, to be sure, a nightmare, the Devil. So what do you do? If you’re given the chance to go back in time, to 1932? What do you do, knowing the future?
Feel compassion for the twisted soul, the nightmare. Love the boy, the innocent boy. Love the little boy who once was, and put a bullet in his head, with compassion, with Love.