Some Meditations on Buddhism

Linas Vepstas
March 2004


There are many thousands of different types of Buddhism; some are with rituals, some without; some that worship a God or various gods and spirits, and some do not. That's what I like about Buddhism, there is so much to chose from. But to rational western man, perhaps the easiest to understand and work with, the easiest to abide by and co-exist, is the idea of 'fundamental Buddhism', which for the most part gets rid of the rituals and doesn't bother to worship. Instead, the rituals are replaced by adherence to the Eightfold Way, and contemplation of the Ten Fetters. That, and the caveat that it is up to you yourself to figure out if these are right and true, or whether you want to live by some modified version thereof, incorporating your own understandings. So lets join the party.

Formlessness and Form

Buddhism talks about reincarnation and rebirth, as if it were somehow bad or wrong, and that the true soul strives for formlessness. I'm not so sure that this is right. Lets meditate on this.


The Ten Fetters that "bind" Beings to perpetuating themselves in artificial, manufactured, fictitious realities are:
This acknowledges that the "true self" is a being and existence that comes from a different plane of existence than that which is commonly called "reality." Budhists claim that this true self is trapped in a cycle of reincarnation, and urge that this cycle be broken by breaking the ten fetters.

However, I sometimes wonder that maybe things are the other way around: Maybe this other place is a hellish environment, a formless void where the self has little power, and has a bare existence, undifferentiated and unrealized. Maybe the self is striving to escape from that existence and to come into being, and to build a better world. That better world is not this world; but this world is a key waypoint on the progress from that formless world, to that place that is enlightenment.

That is, that hellish place is ignorance, and to escape it, one must have consciousness and insight: and in order to express consciousness, one must have a body. It is only through consciousness that enlightenment can be obtained. In other words, the cycle of rebirth is a necessary phase in the passing from ignorance to enlightenment.

In reading through the ten fetters, it is useful to keep in mind that each may have dual or multiple meanings and interpretations, and that these interpretations can have opposite meanings. The simplest interpretation is the most basic and anthropologically primitive interpretation. Think of the teachings of Buddha being explained to the simplest peasants and farmers: the words are understood by the most primitive thinker in their directest and most immediate sense, without the embellishments of higher concepts and thoughts and profundity as taught at the university. But of course, if you are on the web reading this, you probably are not a simple peasant: you are probably university educated and quite capable of exploring double and triple meanings. What makes buddhism interesting, at least to me, is that the contemplation of these alternate meanings, although diametrically opposed, seem no less true.

1. Notions of a permanent individual personality, soul or self.
Well, duhh. But there are many levels to this statement, which is both true and false. Surely, the strictly Protestant notion of soul is absurd: that "me in heaven" is the "me" that went to this-and-such high school, had these and such friends, and enjoyed skiing, water sports, etc. Surely there must be more to "me" than the fetters of this wretched life. But on the other hand, the reincarnating self, of which there is only one, remembers "me" for who I am, just as it remembers all other existence. While the self is in this plane, it is individual; but it is then impermanent. While it is in the other plane, it is permanent, but it remembers not just "me" but all me's viz. you.

As a path to enlightenment, Budhism is saying that it is not "me" who is important: Don't be deluded into thinking that "me" is special. All "me's" are special, but "me" will die when my physical body dies, just as the "me" who was six years old died a long time ago, living on only in my memory. And so when I die, the greater self will remember "me", even as I cease to exist.

2. Attachment to wrong views, rites, rituals, dogma, superstitions.
That's what I like about budhism. Rituals are stupid. (except when they're not). Celebration is great. One must celebrate, and its OK to celebrate the same way several years in a row; but one must eventually kill off the repetition, and celebrate in new ways.

Dogma is bullshit. Everything written by humans is wrong, and must be questioned and distrusted. Well, almost everything. Even God cannot change the value of pi, and this is true. Now, the human conception of what pi is may be subject to flaws, but its relationship to sine and cosine is still true. Even what I write here might be wrong.

Superstitions. The "black cat crossed my path" is so low that I've never taken it seriously. I dunno maybe you have, and so this fetter applies to you. What I am more worried about is the superstition that "what goes around comes around", the superstition of bringing bad karma onto oneself by living bad karma. Maybe attachment to "right superstitions" isn't so bad? When is belief and knowledge a superstition, and when is it not?

3. Doubt and confusion
Well. I pray to the Lord to remove my doubts and confusions. For that is what it will take, because the endless application of logic and reason cannot eliminate doubt and confusion. Hah! Well, of course this is both true and false. The application of logic and reason can indeed clarify the waters, and make manifest what was unclear. Indeed, the application of logic and reason is one of the reasons that we have come to exist in this plane. But the elimination of self-doubt and self-confusion is not possible: one can only pray for a state of grace and enlightenment. Of course, good things come to those that exert themselves in the quest of grace and enlightenment.

4. Liking, attachment, passions, sense desires, lust, greed
In the Eightfold path, there is talk of the "destruction" of cravings. It may be that destruction is too strong a word: I don't think one can just destroy cravings; rather, they must come to pass on their own. It may be that the practice of "right thinking", "right speech", "right action" and "right living" and "right effort" might eventually lead to the passing of cravings; or it may not; the actual mechanism is unclear.

These five middle "rights" of the eightfold path are self-evident to any western man. That is, the western culture in which I live, the greco-roman/euro-american/christian culture, will find these middle five truths as self-evident as anything that Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin ever penned. However, neither the first nor the last of the eightfold path are at all obvious.

Certainly western culture (the catholic church) has practiced with monestaries and contemplation, but this seems hardly a sure path to enlightenment. Its also not hard to see the monastic components and the monastic culture in just about any engineering lab or research center: they are rarely palaces of hedonism. To scale the highest peaks of engineering or math seems to require an ardent, secluded lifestyle, a renunciation of inebriants and of the sense pleasures and an ardent resoluteness in the pursuit of the goal of intellectual enlightenment. Western athletic culture is hardly different: the locker room is not a pleasure palace, and "Just Do It" is a Zen koan.

Yet, for all this right thinking and right doing, these very same monastic scientists and self-denying athletes continue to yearn, to exhibit passion, to lust over fame or fortune or both. Is it that they have not hewn close enough to the true path, or is it that there is something more required: an active renunciation of cravings? I guess we've come full circle.

5. Disliking, aversion, hatred, malice, illwill, spite
You can be truthful, fair and honest, and still be filled with malice and hatred. So lets just be clear.

Somewhat less clear is the question of the font of motivation. In western/capitalistic canon, as set by Adam Smith, it is seen that greed, and its cousins, liking, disliking, passion, desire, lust, aversion are all the engines of commerce and capitalistic behavior. If these are abolished, what will happen to the systems of materialistic production? It is, after all, these systems that allow an unprecedented number of people to live in great wealth, for people like me and you to read and write and contemplate, rather than starving and scratching out a living tilling the soil. Poverty is the friend of ignorance, poverty tightens the fetters. In the western world, one cannot be a homeless wandering sage, (unless you are Paul Erdos), dispensing truth and knowledge. In modern society, one must first walk the path to wealth before one can have the luxury of contemplation.

Of course, not all economic production or activity is done by corporations; one has the non-for-profits, and a vastly greater number of people who aid and assist without the cover of a formal legal entity. What motivates these people? Is it not compassion? The desire to help? Ooops, there we go, using the word "desire" again. "Desire", if I remember correctly, is one of the fetters that bind. If one kills desire, can one continue on to do good works? If one has no desires, how does one explain motivation? This is one of the unresolved philosophical conundrums posed by Buddhism.

Nonetheless, there is motive, and we see in many Hindu/Buddhist systems that even the enlightened do reincarnate and come back to earth to help others find the way; so the font of motivation need not be rooted in base desires and hatreds.

Lets ansatz: it is vitally important to engage and fully participate in the political life, to change society and living conditions for the better. Modern technology, especially in the form of surveillance and espionage, is bringing great danger to the world. Evil men will happily use these machines against you and your fellows. How can one obtain Nirvana when one is subjugated? How can future generations obtain Nirvana when they are subjugated? Do you hate those evil men that subjugate you, huh, do you, punk? Oh, there's that word "hatred" again. Do you think that "hate" is a necessary component of political life? Are ad hominem attacks on political figures the necessary means to a nobler end?

Just as buddhism seems to avoid the issue of political life, it also avoids the issue of child-rearing. In virtually all societies, raising children is a duty taken on by women. Oh dear, have we discovered another area where budhism fails to address the issues? The lower stages of budhism seem to be anchored in strongly moral statements, about "right thinking" and "right action", and things of that sort. Yet curiously the upper stages, as interpreted by fundamentalist elements, seem oddly centered on mysogenistic, nihilistic, suicidal dreams of erasing the impermanent. This fundamentalist budhist canon does not directly address these issues except to deny that these are issues. There is something strongly morally repugnant in the denial of these issues. One cannot simply leap from the moral foundations of Budhism and pretend to sweep away all rotten-ness and misery and suffering in one stroke. Even thought it all is an illusion, one cannot simply pretend that it is all illusion. Simply pretending it is illusion is not the way to nirvana. Pretending is an escape that allows one to ignore suffering, and that is not right. Ignoring the suffering in this world, by blithly labeling it as "impermanent", is not an advance on the path to enlightenment. This is not the path to individual enlightenment, nor is it the path for the self-enlightenment of the universe unto itself. Alas, the path to enlightenment is not so simple.

6. Lust and craving for perpetuating forms and hereafter's of Fine Materiality
Surprise, surprise: those preachers were wrong: the streets of Heaven are not paved with Gold, and there is no point in lusting after Heaven cause you ain't gonna find a gold-mine there.

7. Lust and craving for perpetuating formlessness and hereafter's of Immateriality
Duhh. Wishing in all your heart to be a saint is not the path to sainthood. Running around and being a better budhist than all the other budhists on the block is not the way either.

This can be interpreted as another statement on the activist duties and social morality in Budhism. Unfortunately, many seekers lust to be saved, be it saved by Jesus, saved by Budha, take your pick. In the Christian canon, Jesus absolves you of your sins; how then can it be that you still suffer? In the simple-minded budhist canon, all suffering is just a manifestation of the impermanence, of the not-self. So the simple mind will just sweap away the very importance of suffering by calling it impermanent. But we see that this simple mind is bound by this seventh fetter. It is lusting after formlessnes, and forgetting its involvment in the here-and-now, is forgetting its activist role in the betterment of society and the universe.

What do I mean by "activist"? Nothing but the dictionary sense: the political activist. The duty of child-rearing. The pursuit of higher learning, be it math or philosophy, art or science. The active involvment with life that is all about. Yes, this life that surrounds us all around is transient, putrid, miserable, suffering, unreal, an an illusion. And the sixth and seventh fetters make it clear that lusting to leave the here-and-now only serves to tie you down to the here-and-now. The sixth and seventh fetters make it clear that by failing to be actively involved in the current affairs of the current world, only serves to keep you stuck in the current world. You cannot escape the shackles merely by desiring to leave the shackles behind, by lusting to be free of thier bonds. One cannot escape the misery by desiring escape. (Why, there's that "desire" word again.) But there is a way: one can escape misery by being active, by doing. And now that you are a good, active, proud doer, lets move on to the next fetter.

8. Wrong views of conceit plus pride and arrogance, declaring "I am the doer"
Uhh, why again is it that I am bothering to write this drivel? It is certainly a lot easier to sort of study this religion thing in private. I mean, it takes time out from the study and contemplation to make up and write this stuff. Its hard work to create, to do, to publish. And publishing leads to fame, and fame breeds pride, arrogance and conceit. So in all respects, it really would be a lot easier to just not bother to write this web page at all. Especially since its rather embarrassing for me, and probably rather boring for you. Lets face it, almost everything I've written here is painfully obvious, and, for all my efforts, no doubt plodding and tedious. If you really want entertainment, go find a bit of escapism in a Hollywood movie or video game. You don't have to do anything to find escapism. Why, escapism is just lust for unreality.

9. Excitement for constructions and perpetuating artificial realities, Self-Delusion and Self-Illusion
Hmm. When you say "virtual reality" here, did you really mean "Sony Playstation"?

According to strict budhism, the world we live in is an artificial reality. And the movie the "The Matrix" implies this too, so it must be true. Now, the part that I find curious is that scientists, and in particular, physicists and mathematicians have a great deal of excitement in the discovering and unveiling of the operations of the universe, of the operation of this artificial reality which we inhabit. Physicists live out Plato's allegory of the cave every day: this reality is nothing but a set of shadows on the wall, and we grasp at what must be the true form.

There is certainly the sense that the universe is trying to understand itself, through its own creation of human beings who have analytical abilities. Its as if the universe were striving for its own enlightenment. Yet the universe is but a shadow of the real thing, the 'true self'. The universe is the vessel in which our physical being manifests.

There are times when Budhism and its quest for Nirvana sounds suicidal or nihilistic, at least at its most basic interpretation. This is surely wrong. I would be a lot happier if Buddha had spent a few words dealing a bit more closely with these issues: the goal of the True Self, and its manifestation as the Universe, is not to kill itself and to deny itself out of its own existence. It is rather quite he opposite: through self-action and self-realization, the universe comes into being as a necessary step on the path to enlightenment. The seventh and eight fetters make it clear you cannot just renounce this world: for renouncement of this world is suicide, and suicide is just lust for that other world. Excitement for the deconstruction and destruction of reality is a fetter. The intentional demolition of of self-delusion and self-illusion is just one more thing that will keep you tied down and unable to escape. You can't escape from it, you must escape through it.

So we've uncovered a curious thread: fetters 4 and 5 seem to deny base desires as the basis for motiviation. And yet, one cannot be unmotivated. Fetters 6 and 7 deal with the motivation of seeking godhead: one cannot simply seek godhead, while being be unmotivated and uninvolved in the current world, one cannot simply brush away the present in seeking the hereafter. Fetters 6 and 7 state that one must be actively involved, one must be a doer, more precisely, a doer of good works. And how timely: fetter 8 cautions us about the pitfall of taking excessive pride in ones good works. Fetter 9 is, among other things, a caution about building great palaces of good works in the here-and-now.

10. Addiction to Self-Deception and a complete state of Self-Ignorance, necessary for the ILLUSION of artificial realities and individuality to seem real, necessary for not seeing the impermanence and ill for what it is, and the pain and peril associated with these addictive, ill-conceived, conditioned, fleeting states of fabricated fictitious existence.
I'm wondering whether this is a cryptic reference to p-adic numbers, given that Budhism has already denied the existence of the reals. (Ha ha, that's a joke, son, get it? Ah cheez, I hate it when I have to explain jokes).

Draft started March 2004, Linas Vepstas
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