Delight Springs

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Selfless persons bridging worlds

That's the title, plus the intent, of Owen Flanagan's fourth chapter in Bodhisattva's Brain, and it's our jumping-in point in HAP 101 today.

The big question, amongst many smaller ones enumerated by Flanagan in his attempt to limn the terms of an adequate Buddhist philosophical psychology: What's a person? It's a commonplace to anchor the eastern perspective on this in the paradoxical denial that persons (selves) exist at all.

So, "how a nonperson without a self lives a good human life, how a nonperson with no self lives morally and meaningfully and achieves enlightenment or awakening, is deliciously puzzling." Or perhaps annoying. Or both.

Same goes for Flanagan's elaborate convention of superscripting. I find it mostly helpful and clarifying.
Eudaimonia/Aristotle = an active life of reason and virtue (courage, justice, temperance, wisdom, generosity, wit, friendliness, truthfulness, philanthropy, honor).
Eudaimonia/Buddha = a stable sense of serenity and contentment... enlightenment... knowledge of impermanence... interconnectedness... emptiness... anatman [transience, "no self"]...
But we are "Heraclitean selves" stepping ever into a river whose waters are in constant motion and (thus) ever different. "Both you and the river will have changed," moment to moment. "Does this mean there is no river and no you? Of course not." That's helpfully demystifying.

"Buddhism does not deny that there are persons/Buddha who live lives. It denies that a person-- any person-- is an eternal self-same thing, or possesses an immutable, indestructible essence, which is its self (atman)." This too shall pass.

But greed apparently is eternal, "the supply of things that can satisfy our desires is outstripped by our desiring nature." Constant craving, unfulfilled, leads to perpetual suffering.

But, "if you know how the mind works you are positioned to control it." Buddhism and Stoicism are very close cousins, in this respect. The alleviation of suffering, and short of that compassionate acknowledgement and commiseration and attempted amelioration, is a back door to happiness (if you want to call it that) for those who've awakened to the reality of our condition as bottomless wells of insatiable desire.

And then there's meditation. "The aim of meditation is to amplify wholesome ways of feeling, thinking, and being and to reduce, ideally to eliminate, the afflictions of the mind"... to counter them with compassion, lovingkindness, appreciative joy, and equanimity. Wonderful words, worthy aspirations.

Flanagan, bridge that he is, notes an affinity between Buddhists, Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin concerning the communal rootedness of "fellow feeling, empathy, and compassion."

Darwin: "the vigorous, healthy, and happy survive and multiply."

Speaking of bridges, did you see that the Dalai Lama has again led a team of Tibetans to Atlanta, to pursue  the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative  and "develop methods to quantify the power of meditation in a way the scientific world might actually accept." 

Alison Gopnik and others have also drawn attention to the Hume-Buddha connection, for which there has emerged some actual historical evidence. Hume apparently knew a guy who knew a guy who traveled in Asia etc.
In his Treatise (Book 1, Part 4, sec. 6) David Hume suggested that the idea of an enduring discoverable self was unfounded. Introspection revealed 'nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.' Many people have noticed the similarity between Hume's position here and Buddhist discussion of the self. Listen to Alison Gopnik on Hume and Buddhism
Selflessness, understood more figuratively by most western thinkers, may thus be regarded as a crucial ingredient in fellow feeling, empathy, and compassion. But so may expansive self-regard, might it not, when we're motivated to extend the intense interest and loyalty we bear for ourselves to our fellow sufferers?

Figuratively or not, Flanagan wonders why an enlightened person would necessarily come to consider maximal service to others the "best life." He entertains experience as one possible explanation.  "Recognizing that I am a selfless person metaphysically, anatman, helps me see that I have reason to be less selfish morally."

Alan Watts and Jennifer Hecht, again: We're not small individual isolated parts of a vast universe, we are the universe in its entirety expressing itself locally in the guise of a constructed "self."  Deconstruct it, then reconstruct it with eyes wide open. That's the proposal. Don't just study selfless persons, be them. Only then can you see how it feels to let go of a treasured false accounting of your condition on earth.

And that brings us to "experiments in eudaimonics," which tend to take the limited superficial external view. "Research on Buddhism and happiness is almost always on whether Buddhist-inspired meditation, but not, for instance, Buddhist robes or Buddhist haircuts or even Buddhist ethics, produces good effects." It reduces the Buddhist way of life to "what goes on between the ears," and thus quite literally misses the whole person and the whole life of eudaimon/Buddha.

Or eudaimon/Aristotle, for that matter.

So, I propose a new superscripting convention, in keeping with Flanagan's useful suggestion that attending to the totality of our experience is key to both understanding and "service": Walk your path. Mine is eudaimon/Oliver. Yours will differ, but with an expansive heart ours may still converge.

Does that sound selfish? It need not. Owning our respective experience, taking it seriously, grasping its implications sub specie humanitas, might just make us all better persons.

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