Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Is Anger Always a Bad Thing?

In response to a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: "Anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made. A mind without anger is cool, fresh, and sane." (Peace is Every Step), a friend of mine asked me, "Is anger always a bad thing?" The following was my written response:

When I see someone mistreat a dog, does it make me angry? Yes, it does. Is that bad? That question is really of no value because "bad" is too vague. Two better questions are, "What effect does my anger have?" and "What are the real causes of my anger?"

My anger has many effects, some of which are as follows: My heart and breathing rates increase; my mind races; my muscles shake due to the adrenaline surge; my stomach tightens. These effects are now causes of subsequent effects, some of which I'll list:

(1) Science has shown that adrenaline surges arising from anger, jealousy, fear, etc. have a different physiological effect than adrenaline arising from, say, playing a sport or an active game. The former are considered "bad stressors" that have a deleterious effect on our bodies, leading to classic signs of stress such as increased chances for a heart attack, etc. The latter do not have this effect on the body. So right there, we see one major long-term problem with the energy given us by anger.

(2) When my mind is racing, it is increasingly difficult for me to make well-thought-out, logical decisions. The more my mind races in anger, the harder it is for me to think straight (e.g., the proverbial "seeing red"). If I cannot think straight, I will make mistakes: I will misinterpret phenomena, I will say and/or do things I should not (things that are unnecessarily harmful to others and myself), I will rush decisions and actions, etc. I feel very safe in stating--from my very own personal experience--that any good decision I make while angry is solely the product of luck, and sometimes a product of me being able to slow myself down enough to actually think through what I am about to say or do. I have never, not once in my life, made a decision or performed an action out of anger that I have anger to thank for it.

A common rebuttal to this is that anger gives you energy and the ability to do things like escape captors, etc. I disagree completely. The energy anger gives you was available to you all along; and if you're a prisoner of some sort, and the chance comes for escape, you don't need anger to supply that energy--it should be there as a function of other emotions and instincts such as the will to survive. The most inspiring thing I've read is a story of a Tibetan monk that was imprisoned and tortured for years in a Chinese prison.

Returning to my example about somebody mistreating a dog, the effects I get from anger do not, in any way, help me to help that dog. Responding out of anger at the person or action results in nothing better than responding out of compassion for the dog, and the anger can only result in me making bad decisions in the process of trying to help. So, just on the basis of analyzing its effects, anger is almost self-evidently harmful.

Now let's discuss "the real causes of my anger." Why am I angry at the person or the action instead of feeling compassion for the dog? (in reality, I feel both, but in this example, the anger response is more powerful, more in the forefront) Anger comes out first or more powerfully than compassion if I have sown its seeds in my past more often than I have compassion. Every single time I respond with anger, I sow its seeds in my mind. Each time I do so, that makes it easier for me to respond in anger next time. So, a major cause of why I'm responding in anger is because I have done so before! What solution is there to this self-generating behavior? Mindfulness. If I first calm my anger (because, as we've discussed, I can't think clearly while angry), and then examine it with focused mindfulness, I can begin to see anger's real cause: I'm angry at the person or his actions because I'm unable to see or understand the real causes for his behavior. Maybe he is mentally disturbed, in which case it's not entirely his fault. Maybe he was beaten as a child and this is his learned response. Maybe he's just had a bad day and is taking it out on his dog. None of those justify his behavior! But if my initial reaction were to see that he is harming the dog due to causes in his life that I do not know, then I can respond to him out of compassion for him, and anger has no need to surface and cause all the harmful effects we've already discussed! This compassion generates the same amount of energy as anger, and I am not hindered by anger's harmful effects, and as a side-bonus, I am generating seeds of compassion, which will make compassion more likely to arise in the future! In this way, I can help the dog just as effectively without anger.

This response wouldn't be complete if I didn't touch on the fact that anger has obviously played a role in our survival as a species, hence why such an emotion evolved in the first place. In humanity's early years, survival was predominantly a factor of responding to immediate environmental threats. I don't deny in the least that the adrenaline provided by anger is immediate--faster than most other emotions. But that just goes to show what its value was--when we were about to be taken down by a predator, a flash of anger facilitated our fight or flight response. However, as our civilizations developed, this type of danger has become much less common, and while it might be useful to generate anger in a pure fight-or-flight situation, in anything that requires any semblance of strategic thought (such as fighting in the military!), anger is more of a detriment than a help.

One more situation to touch on before I sign off: that of seeing one's loved ones harmed. This is probably the easiest situation in which to justify anger. If my wife was harmed, would I get angry? Yes! However, I feel that an analysis of anger makes it obvious that such a response is not only harmful, but unnecessary. If she were in danger, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for me to be angry at the person endangering her. The most important thing is to get her to safety and neutralize the danger. As I said before, if pure fight-or-flight was all that was needed, then perhaps generating anger would be the fastest way to go about it. But if any sort of thought is required, such as handling a delicate situation of being held at gunpoint, anger is probably the worst emotion you could possibly experience at that time. Once she's out of danger, then shouldn't I be angry at the person? No. The person deserves to be punished in whatever way our justice system determines, for the safety of society. But me being angry at the person is only reflective of one thing: my lack of insight into the causes of his behavior. As that Tibetan monk illustrated, compassion is still the ideal response, and one that I hope my practice will develop as my primary response in this lifetime.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Interfaith Blog Event #8: Pantheism (Part 3: Comparison to Buddhism)

Welcome to the 8th Interfaith Blog Event! In this event, we'll be discussing Pantheistic religions. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be joining me in this event. He will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective.

My essay will be posted in 3 parts, as I have to develop a lot of background information before I can begin discussing Hinduism. This post is Part 3. The other posts are linked below:

(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay]

(Part 3)

Comparison to Buddhism

How does this ancient wisdom compare to the teachings of the Buddha? One way to answer this question is to trace, very briefly, Siddhartha Gautama’s early life through his enlightenment.

Siddhartha was born to King Suddhodana and Queen Maha Maya and, hence, raised as a Prince of his kingdom. However, at the time of his birth, a great seer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great political leader or a great spiritual teacher. Siddhartha’s father wanted him to become the next great leader of his kingdom, so throughout Siddhartha’s life, the King ensured that his son was constantly surrounded by glamor and material wealth, hoping that he would never feel the pull of the spiritual life. However, around the age of 29, Siddhartha left the palace and, despite his father’s attempts to keep all sick, aged, and suffering people hidden, Siddhartha encountered the suffering that people experienced, things that had been hidden from him as a Prince in the palace. Seeing this suffering, his heart broke in compassion for these people. He also met an ascetic, and afterwards left the palace to find the solution to the suffering of the world.

Siddhartha devoted himself to his training under several great spiritual teachers of the time, all of whom practiced expressions of Indian Spirituality, as I previously discussed. Through his training, he mastered the skill of concentration (as I discussed previously) and achieved the deepest meditative states attainable (which Buddhism terms jhanas), bypassing several of his teachers. These were the states that Indian Spirituality said brought the awareness that the Atman is simply a reflection of Brahman and, hence, the attainment of Moksha and the ending of the cycle of rebirth.

However, Siddhartha was not satisfied for several reasons: (1) These miraculous states were temporary--they could not be maintained indefinitely in life (“But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain” [Majjhima Nikaya 36; (MN 36)]); (2) Suffering was not ended by attainment of these jhanas; and (3) These concentrative attainments did not lead to the end of the cycle of rebirth (#3 is basically a subset of #2).

Therefore, Siddhartha left his final teacher and resolved with all his being to sit in meditation until he discovered the Truth. Finally, in a marathon overnight meditation session, Siddhartha attained enlightenment just before dawn, becoming the Buddha, the Awakened One, at the age of 35.

The obvious question is, “What prevented Siddhartha from attaining true enlightenment in his earlier practices?” Or, in other words, “How does Buddhism differ from Hinduism?” The primary factor that led to his enlightenment that was missing from his earlier practices was Wisdom. Buddhism acknowledges the vital importance of concentration: Right Concentration is one step on the Eightfold Path, the path toward ending suffering. However, it, alone, is insufficient; it must be tempered with Wisdom, which has several components that are encompassed on the Eightfold Path in the factors of Right View, Right Intention, and Right Mindfulness.

Wisdom is a very important aspect of the Buddhist path and, hence, is a very deep subject with many facets. For the purposes of this essay, a detailed exposition of these facets must be omitted (many of them are discussed in greater detail in other posts on my blog). In short, while the Buddha agreed with Hindu teachings on the importance of concentration, the practice of ethics, and some aspects of karma, he directly observed that such were insufficient to attain freedom from rebirth and, hence, the complete ending of dukkha (I use the Pali word dukkha here instead of the traditional English translation of “suffering” because the English word suffering is woefully inadequate and inaccurate in understanding the original idea of dukkha. [see Footnote 2 for a more thorough explanation of dukkha]).

Cosmologically, Buddhism retains a similar understanding of other realms of being (including heavenly realms) as Hinduism. However, whereas Hinduism views the realization of the oneness of the Atman with Brahman as moksha, Buddhism observes that moksha is only temporary; what Hindus interpret as the merging of Atman with Brahman after the body’s final death after attaining moksha, Buddhism states is really a rebirth into a heavenly realm. And while this is a rebirth filled with happiness that lasts 60,000 aeons [3], it is still temporary, and after the causes that have generated this rebirth have all been used up, another rebirth will occur.

Part of the discrepancy occurs due to each religion’s understanding of karma and rebirth. Hinduism posits that the Atman of a person, when it first separates from Brahman, will incarnate into a very simple form. As the Atman acquires knowledge and skills via different rebirths, it will incarnate into higher and higher forms (for example, from vegetable into animal into human), and once an Atman has achieved a certain level, it cannot revert to a lower level. Hinduism views the human level as the highest level of rebirth, and hence, the realization that the Atman is just a reflection of Brahman allows the Atman to rejoin Brahman after death, thus transcending the need for rebirth and coming full circle to one’s source. (Incidentally, this upward-spiraling path of the Atman is also one of the causes of the caste system in early Hinduism; lower castes are seen as “newer” humans whose Atman haven’t developed as far as those of the higher castes).

The Buddha, however, observed a very different system of karma operating in the universe. While Hindus acknowledge the cause-effect nature of karma, it appears that the Atman-Brahman link lies outside that system, since once an Atman has achieved a certain level, it cannot revert regardless of its thoughts and actions. Buddhism, however, sees Cause-Effect as operative in all things. In other words, everything that happens is a function of a complex of causes, and this includes rebirth. Hence, one’s rebirth is an effect of prior causes, so therefore, there cannot be a restraint on the form taken in rebirth. This immediately conflicts with the Hindu upward-spiraling Atman. To give an analogy, if I act very compassionate and loving to my wife one day, but then the next yell and scream at her in anger, that outburst will still have major consequences and effects that are not completely negated by the compassion and love I showed the prior day.

In his development of Wisdom, in addition to concentration, the Buddha directly observed that the Self, the Atman, is also a falsehood--in other words, one interprets the Atman’s existence due to one’s misleading belief that there is something within one that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, and not subject to change. One “regards material form thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ He regards feeling thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ He regards perception … mental formations … what is seen, heard, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered … thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ And this standpoint for views, namely, ‘That which is the self is the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity’--this too he regards thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’” (MN 22:15). The Buddha attributed these views to the untaught ordinary person, who is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma. The final part--that which is the self is the world--comments directly upon the Hindu belief of the merging of the Atman with Brahman in moksha.

In contrast, the Buddha directly observed that the well-taught disciple, skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, “regards material form ... feeling ... perception … mental formations … what is seen, heard, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered … thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ And this standpoint for views, namely, ‘That which is the self is the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity’--this too he regards thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’” (MN 22:16)

At this point, it is very important to note that the Buddha devoted few words to philosophical matters. As stated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his translation of the The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya), “[T]he Buddha’s objective is the practical one of leading beings to release from suffering.” (pg. 32) Philosophy not only has no role in this process, but is also detrimental because it diverts one’s attention from the important matter of practice. Accordingly, the Buddha gave the Simile of the Raft, which I’ll summarize below.

“Suppose a man, in the course of a journey, saw a great expanse of water, whose near shore was dangerous and fearful and whose further shore was safe and free from fear, but there was no ferryboat or bridge for going to the far shore.” (MN 22:13) The man then collects grasses, twigs, branches, and leaves and builds himself a raft with his own hands. He then paddles across the water, safely reaching the far shore. The man might then think thus, “‘This raft has been very helpful to me, since supported by it and making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far shore. Suppose I were to hoist it on my head or load it on my shoulder, and then go wherever I want.‘ By doing so, would that man be doing what should be done with that raft?” (MN 22:13)

No! “Suppose [the man] were to haul the raft onto the dry land or set it adrift in the water, then go wherever [he] wants. It is by so doing that the man would be doing what should be done with that raft. So I have shown you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”(MN 22:13). The Buddha continued, “[W]hen you know the Dhamma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even the teachings, how much more so things contrary to the teachings.”(MN 22:14).

What do we learn from this teaching? That the Dhamma itself is never to be taken as philosophical truth, but as skillful means to lead one to freedom, to wisdom, to enlightenment. The Buddha is most often heard teaching non-self, that there is no permanent, everlasting, eternal Self, not subject to change. However, note that the prevailing viewpoint of his day was that of traditional Indian Spirituality which embraced the idea of the Atman. Therefore, the Buddha’s teachings were meant to free the people from this delusion. In no way whatsoever was the Buddha preaching philosophical truth. He was using skillful means to bring his followers to enlightenment.

In MN 148, The Six Sets of Six sutra, the Buddha even demonstrated “by a reductio ad absurdum argument that impermanence implies non-self: when all the factors of being are clearly subject to rise and fall, to identify anything among them with self is to be left with the untenable thesis that self is subject to rise and fall.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, pg. 29) However, the Buddha also gave the following teaching in MN 2:6-7: “What are the things unfit for attention that he attends to? … This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? … Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? … Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?”

The Buddha continues, ”When he attends unwisely in this way … the view ‘self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘no self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive self with self’ … or ‘I perceive not-self with self’ … or ‘It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.’ This speculative view is called the thicket of views … the fetter of views.” (MN 2:8) In other words, this entire thicket of views of self versus non-self is ultimately to be abandoned. While realizing the truth of non-self acts as a raft to allow us to reach the other shore of enlightenment, once there, we must abandon even that view as a fetter!

Once you can understand the following statement, you understand the Buddha’s teaching:

If someone should claim that the [Buddha] speaks of a view of a being, a view of a life, or a view of a soul, would such a claim be true? No, such a claim would not be true. When the [Buddha] speaks of a view of a self, the [Buddha] speaks of it as no view. Thus is it called ‘a view of a self.’ … those who set forth on the bodhisattva path know, see, and believe all dharmas but know, see, and believe them without being attached to the perception of a dharma. And why not? The perception of a dharma is said by the [Buddha] to be no perception. Thus is it called the ‘perception of a dharma.’” (Diamond Sutra. Red Pine. Pg 26-27)

You cannot understand this paragraph by mere logic. Logic brings knowledge; similarly, philosophy, which is the application of logical discourse to a topic, brings knowledge. Neither is capable of bringing wisdom. In many ways, philosophy is the absence of wisdom because time wasted on philosophizing is time that could have been spent on the development of wisdom, the practical application of skillful means to bring one closer to freedom.

I’d like to end this essay with a discussion of Nirvana, and how it compares to Hinduism’s Moksha. Both Hinduism and Buddhism designate Moksha and Nirvana, respectively, as the liberation from samsara (the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth) and, hence, the suffering involved in being subject to this cycle. Hinduism states that for such liberation to occur, the individual Self or Atman must be realized as one with the divine ground of all being, Brahman. As I stated above, in this training after leaving the palace, Siddhartha Gautama attained the states Hindus identify as the merging of Atman with Brahman, but Siddhartha directly observed that while these states were blissful and wondrous, they did not lead to the end of suffering, nor to liberation from samsara.

As I explained above, Buddhism denounces philosophy as a harmful distraction, and the Buddha’s teachings on Nirvana are no exception. In MN 26, The Noble Search sutra, he described Nirvana in verse 18 as the, “Unborn, … unageing, … unailing, … deathless, … sorrowless, … undefiled supreme security from bondage.” In verse 19, the Buddha indicated that attaining Nirvana implies a definite task, describing it as, “seeing this truth [of] dependent origination; stilling of all formations; relinquishing of all acquisitions; destruction of craving.”

However, it is important to note that Nirvana really cannot be “reached” or “entered.” Nirvana is not a place; as stated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in A Verb for Nirvana [4], “[Nirvana] is realized only when the mind stops defining itself in terms of place: of here, or there, or between the two.” He explained that, “Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds, (this is called becoming) and then wandering through them (this is called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu very nicely describes the limitations of Samsara: ”Wherever there's attachment, that's where you get defined as a being. You create an identity there, and in so doing you're limited there. Even if the ‘there’ is an infinite sense of awareness grounding, surrounding, or permeating everything else, it's still limited, for ‘grounding’ and so forth are aspects of place. Wherever there's place, no matter how subtle, passion lies latent, looking for more food to feed on.” Notice that in addition to describing Samsara, he also describes the Hindu notion of Moksha and its inherent limitations.

I simply cannot explain how Nirvana can emerge from this situation better than Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from whom I will quote liberally as follows:

"If, however, the passion can be removed, there's no more "there" there. One sutta illustrates this with a simile: the sun shining through the eastern wall of a house and landing on the western wall. If the western wall, the ground beneath it, and the waters beneath the ground were all removed, the sunlight wouldn't land. In the same way, if passion for form, etc., could be removed, consciousness would have no "where" to land, and so would become unestablished. This doesn't mean that consciousness would be annihilated, simply that — like the sunlight — it would now have no locality. With no locality, it would no longer be defined."

"This is why the consciousness of nirvana is said to be "without surface" (anidassanam), for it doesn't land. Because the consciousness-aggregate covers only consciousness that is near or far, past, present, or future — i.e., in connection with space and time — consciousness without surface is not included in the aggregates. It's not eternal because eternity is a function of time. And because non-local also means undefined, the Buddha insisted that an awakened person — unlike ordinary people — can't be located or defined in any relation to the aggregates in this life; after death, he/she can't be described as existing, not existing, neither, or both, because descriptions can apply only to definable things."

In MN 26:19, the Buddha described Nirvana as, “profound, hard to see and understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.” In the same way that Nirvana cannot be philosophized, non-self cannot be philosophized, nor can impermanence be philosophized. They must be experienced directly, and once they are, it is as the Buddha described, “My deliverance is unshakeable.” (MN 26:19)

[2] Old age, sickness, death, and physical pain are not dukkha or suffering. Dukkha, or suffering, is our mental response to such experiences. We cause ourselves to suffer because of our response to our life experiences. For example, if we stub our toe, it is not the physical pain that Buddhism calls suffering or dukkha, it is our mental response that may be called suffering. Do we dwell on the pain, curse ourselves, or curse the object on which we stubbed our toe (suffering)? Or do we acknowledge the injury and immediately work to reduce the pain without anger or other emotional response? (not-suffering). Buddhism teaches that pain, old age, sickness, and death are unavoidable. But suffering can be completely ended.

[3] Just like the Bible, Buddhist scriptures utilize large numbers to signify “a great deal of time,” not numerically accurate renderings of exact time periods.

[4] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/nirvanaverb.html

Monday, March 15, 2010

Interfaith Blog Event #8: Pantheism (Part 2)

Welcome to the 8th Interfaith Blog Event! In this event, we'll be discussing Pantheistic religions. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be joining me in this event. He will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective.

My essay will be posted in 3 parts, as I have to develop a lot of background information before I can begin discussing Hinduism. This post is Part 2. The other posts are linked below:

(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay]

(Part 2)

Encountering the Self

We still haven’t discussed how control of the mind, senses, emotions, and desires leads toward discovery of the Self. We have shown the importance of this control, that without it our vehicles run rampant anywhere they want. We have shown that in each moment, we can choose to follow either of two paths: the senses or the Self. But how does this lead us to discover the Self? The answer lies in CHOICE. Easwaran stated, “When the senses are trained, you can go anywhere and never lose your capacity to choose.” In order to know our True Self, we have to be able to see it, feel it, hear it. At each moment, our Self tries to make its choice known to our discriminating intellect, but without this control, our discriminating intellect will not hear it and will follow the senses along the path of Preya. When we start to hear the Self, we can start choosing Shreya. The more we choose Shreya, the more we get to know the Self. It’s like getting to know a new friend: you have to listen to her, learn what she enjoys, wants, and what is best for her. If you ignore her, you won’t learn anything about her. If you always choose things that she dislikes, she’ll stop making her opinions known.

The next obvious question is: How can this control be accomplished? The answer is twofold: concentration and slowing down. Everyone has had the experience of knowing they “should” do something, but then they find it exceedingly hard to actually do it (such as going to the gym to exercise, or not grabbing a bag of chips to eat while watching TV knowing that you’re not really hungry). Stop reading for a moment and think of an example in your own life where you knew you should do something, but you encountered strong resistance to doing it. Your example behavior should have occurred at least twice; in one of the instances, you succeeded in overruling your senses and doing the “right thing,” in the other instance, your senses won the day. Ideally, the surrounding circumstances should be as similar as possible between the two instances.

If you carefully compare your two examples, you’ll notice that your greatest enemy in the failed instance was “quick thinking” or “fast thought.” When you’re thinking, analyzing, and acting quickly, you don’t have the time to delve down and truly examine the options and differentiate Preya from Shreya; at this pace of activity, you’re just reacting based on your past experiences (which, as we’ve already seen, are usually based on your senses running your life). Hence, in your failed instance, you did not consciously slow down and give your discriminating intellect a chance to examine the choices.

However, just slowing down is not enough. Maybe in your failed example, you did slow down and deeply examine the options, but you chose Preya anyway. The second necessary ingredient is concentration. Without concentration, you’re incapable of burning through the smokescreen presented by your desires, your emotions, and your senses. The amazing thing that people don’t realize is that the level of concentration we are capable of is nothing less than miraculous! To give you an experience of the level of concentration we can attain, imagine a time when you were under the spell of a very strong primary need (such as you were starving because you hadn’t eaten in 18 hours, or you were parched, or were so angry you were “seeing red”). Imagine yourself back in that situation and try to relive the experience. Remember how all-encompassing that need was? Remember how that desire completely monopolized your thoughts, and that the only thing you could focus on was the need? Well, imagine if, while engrossed in the maelstrom of that need, you could simply turn your mind to a game of tic-tac-toe, and the need was out of your mind as easily as you can clap your hands. This capability represents just the very beginning of developing strong concentration. If you are incapable of this type of mental control (99% of us are), then your concentration skills are lacking.

Combining the tools of slowing down and concentration, a person becomes capable of ascertaining and choosing Shreya at every opportunity. Said another way, if you are missing either of these tools, you either won’t give yourself the time and space to see that your senses are leading you down the path of Preya, or you won’t have the mental wherewithal to see through these lies. Two very important things to note: (1) Every single person on this planet is capable of developing this miraculous level of concentration, without exception; and (2) Without this miraculous level of concentration, any understanding you have of your true Self will be false in some way.

We’re finally at a place where we can discuss the ultimate reason why all of these steps are necessary on the path. It’s self-evident, with just a little observation of our own lives, that we have a choice in every single moment between Preya and Shreya. It’s also self-evident that choosing Shreya at every opportunity is beneficial, while choosing Preya is detrimental. But are there any other benefits to these practices? Hinduism answers an emphatic, “Yes!”

In Hinduism, we are seen as having two selves: (1) Ego, and (2) Atman, or our True Self. Returning to the chariot analogy, the passenger in the chariot that I referred to as our Self is our True Self, the Atman. The Ego is a product of the mind (hence it lives in the reins). We usually interpret our self to be the Ego, but in reality, the Ego is simply a tool of the True Self that the Discriminating Intellect needs to learn to use to make proper use of the senses. We can start to see our Atman trying to lead the way once we develop our concentration to these amazing levels, giving our discriminating intellect total control over the reins of our mind, emotions, and desires, and, hence, over the horses that are our senses.

There is, though, another benefit to these levels of concentration that we have developed. When we apply these miraculous levels of concentration toward looking directly at the True Self in meditation, we notice that the Self is but one reflection of Brahman, “The unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe” [Wikipedia: Brahman]. Hence, through our concentration in meditation, we observe that the Self, Atman, is identical to Brahman. This realization is the essence of Awakening in Hinduism. [1]

Hindus call this Awakening moksha, the complete freedom from the conditioning of time, space, and circumstance. According to Easwaran, “Those rare few who discover the Self see the same Self in every other creature. In this sense, life is a kind of cosmic condominium with billions of apartments, each with a different name on the door yet each with the same occupant. This is not mere metaphor. If you knock on twelve doors in a real condominium, the people who greet you are not twelve separate people. They are all the same Self, casting twelve different [ego]-shadows. Only because of our physical orientation do we believe that because these shadows are separate, the inner person must be different too.” (pg. 183-4)

(Part 3 will be posted in the next few weeks)

[1] Interestingly, the nature of Brahman is described as transpersonal, personal, and impersonal by different philosophical schools; hence my statement at the very beginning of this essay that Hinduism is less a monolithic religion than a system of varied beliefs and practices based around similar world views and understandings of the universe.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Interfaith Blog Event #8: Pantheism

Welcome to the 8th Interfaith Blog Event! In this event, we'll be discussing Pantheistic religions. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be joining me in this event. He will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective.

My essay will be posted in 3 parts, as I have to develop a lot of background information before I can begin discussing Hinduism. This post is Part 1. The other posts are linked below:

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay]

First, I would like to note that while I am very well versed in Buddhism, I am very newly introduced to Hindu spirituality. Therefore, for the purposes of this essay, I am relying on Essence of the Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. Any mis-statements about Hinduism I make in this essay are solely my fault, and I welcome corrections from those with greater experience in the topic.

Second, in my research for this essay, I have learned that Hindu spirituality encompasses a vast array of different beliefs and practices (for example, while some Hindus are pantheistic in their understanding of the universe, others are monotheistic and still others are polytheistic). Therefore, my treatment in this essay may embrace slightly different viewpoints throughout, and is not meant to be a complete--or even adequate--treatment of the religious spectrum of Hinduism.


Hindu spirituality is incredibly old and is less a monolithic religion than a system of varied beliefs and practices based around similar world views and understandings of the universe in which we live (something one could call “Indian Spirituality,” which is, incidentally, part of the subtitle of Easwaran’s work). This Indian Spirituality also forms the basis for Buddhism, a religion that both shares much with, and yet differs in very fundamental ways from, Hinduism. In this essay, I hope to present the reader with a comparison of the many similarities between these two great Indian religions, as well as clearly identify where they diverge.

The Chariot Analogy

In his work, Easwaran presents a beautiful and enlightening analogy that clearly describes the basis of Indian Spirituality. Traveling the roads of life are numerous horse-drawn chariots. Just like in a satellite view of a major metropolis like San Francisco, roads snake in all different directions, full of chariots. These chariots represent the vehicle we’re all given, the body, which helps transport us through life. Every chariot needs a driver, which represents the Discriminating Intellect or Judgment. The Discriminating Intellect holds the reins—the Mind, Emotions, and Desires—which are attached to the horses: the Five Senses. Our chariot is transporting a very specific passenger along these roads of life: the Self, the very nature of each of us.

Let’s dissect this analogy to gain a better understanding of the Hindu view of our purpose in life. The first observation to glean from this analogy, as well as probably the most important, is that we are not our bodies, we are not our minds, we are not our discriminating intellects, nor are we our five senses. All of these things are just the means by which Self moves through life. That being said, let’s describe how the vehicle functions for 98% of us.

It’s a little past noon, and you haven’t eaten since 7:30 this morning. Your Self indicates, “I’m hungry.” Immediately your horses (senses) start rearing, itching to pull you to the nearest diner where you can get bacon, eggs, and buttered toast. Your driver (discriminating intellect), through years of disuse, doesn’t even examine the health implications of the meal the senses want. The horses bolt, carrying the vehicle toward the diner for the breakfast that will satisfy them. For some of us, the discriminating intellect may kick in briefly, noting the health implications of the meal the senses suggested, and may even decide that that’s not a good option. But again through years of disuse, the discriminating intellect has no control over the reins (mind, emotions, desires), and so is unable to override the sense’s decision, and you end up eating the unhealthy meal anyway.

Try applying this same analytical tool to your own life and your own particular circumstances. Maybe you know that you should exercise more, that you’d feel better and be more effective at everything you do. But exercise is unpleasant in the short-term, and your senses don’t like unpleasant things—this is their nature. The problem here is that while your discriminating intellect may understand all the long-term benefits of exercise, if it doesn’t have control of the reins (mind, emotions, desires), you won’t be able to control where your horses take you, and that place will not be the gym. Maybe you really want to go to the gym, but your mind keeps coming up with excuses, other things you “just have to do.” Maybe your mind unconsciously sabotages your plan of going to the gym by causing “accidents” such as spilling something on your shirt (hence you just have to wash this now before it stains). Maybe you can logically bring yourself to the decision to go work out, but you just can’t muster the energy to get yourself off the couch; the inertia is just too great.

Here’s one more example, just to show how this lack of control penetrates everything we do. You’re cleaning your house, vacuuming and dusting. You don’t enjoy cleaning, but you’ve put it off long enough and so you know you have to do it, despite its unpleasantness. But while you’re working, your mind is off thinking of the next things you’re going to do, daydreaming of the things you could be doing. Because you’re not paying close attention to your current task, you accidentally knock a collectible you own to the ground, breaking it. In this example, your senses are going to try to do what is in their nature, chase after pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant experiences. If you haven’t trained them to obey the discriminating intellect, then you won’t have the ability to stop them when they start to follow their nature. The same goes for your emotions and desires. Because of this lack of training, you can’t hold your attention on your current task and you break the object.

Even while reading this essay, your mind has probably wandered to something else; or maybe you shifted in your chair. Think about it: what is a shifting of your position? It’s your body’s response to an unpleasant sensation; you are getting uncomfortable and your body shifts. This process happens so frequently that while you may remember shifting position now, you probably did it unconsciously at the time. And you’ll do so again before the end of this essay.

The next obvious question becomes: So what? The answer is that without training your discriminating intellect to use the tools of the mind, emotions, and desires to control the senses, you’re basically living a lie. Everything you think, everything you do, everything you believe, will be based on chasing immediate pleasantness and avoiding short-term unpleasantness. The problem is that your Self is a very quiet individual. He or she is completely drowned out by the overpowering nature of the senses. So if you lack control over the senses and your mind and emotions, then you are completely unable to hear your Self with any regularity. The only way to discover your True Self is to gain that perfect control over your mind, emotions, desires, and senses, using your discriminating intellect. Please note the converse implications of this: as long as you lack this control, any understanding you have of your True Self is false in some way.

How does this control allow you to recognize your true Self? At every single moment in life, we have a choice of actions, thoughts, emotions, and desires. All of these choices will follow one of two paths, called Preya and Shreya. Preya describes a choice that pleases our senses; it is pleasant immediately and usually tickles the ego. The problem is that it is often not beneficial in the long term. Shreya has no reference to pleasing/displeasing. It is simply what benefits us in the long term. Sometimes Shreya choices are very pleasing right away, but most of the time Shreya choices cannot compete in the short term with Preya choices. But beyond the immediate present, the benefit and pleasantness of Shreya will catapult it past Preya every time.

I hope the connection of these two paths to the chariot analogy is clear. For people who have no control over their senses, their vehicle will choose Preya every time, even though their Self will want them to choose Shreya every time. These paths don’t exist only in monumental moments, they occur during every individual millisecond of your life. You go to the movies and you want popcorn, but you’re not actually hungry. What do you choose, Preya or Shreya? Let’s say you choose to order the popcorn. Do you drench it in butter and salt (Preya), or do you forego both (Shreya)? Maybe you opt to use just a little butter and salt. Do you eat the entire bag, or do you stop when you start to feel full? Try applying Preya/Shreya to you own life; you’ll see their truth is self-evident.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Political Question

This isn't a political blog, but I've got a question on which I'm looking to get some opinions to help me understand something I cannot currently comprehend.

I’ve got a serious question that I want to ask, really because I just can’t wrap my mind around the opposite viewpoint to the one I’ve come to -- something I am usually good at -- and I’m curious as to all of your thoughts to help me understand this other side.

I watched the Presidential debate last night (October 15, 2008). Let me preface my question with the fact that I will not be voting for either party candidate, but rather for the Green Party, whose platform is one that I agree with wholeheartedly. Here’s my question:

How can anybody actually think that voting for McCain is a good idea?

After watching Obama and McCain go at it last night, I just cannot fathom anybody coming to a conscious decision to vote for McCain. Here are my reasons. First off, watching them last night, I don’t trust McCain’s judgment under pressure -- and as President he’d be under a lot of pressure! He just seems angry and snippy, two traits that make for poor decision-making. He interrupted Obama regularly during the debate, which says to me that he’s impatient and isn’t giving due consideration to others. If you watched Obama in the split-screen, he looked directly at McCain as he answered, actually paying attention. McCain generally stared off into space, making mocking faces and fidgeting because he was so impatient to retort. And while both candidates distort the other’s platform -- that's a common tactic -- McCain seemed to take it to an unreal level, particularly with Obama’s tax plan which McCain just doesn’t seem to be able to get right.

Getting off the candidates’ personalities and mindsets, let’s look at issues.

McCain's focus on deregulation is disturbing. I’ve been a regulator for the last 6 years (not a Federal regulator, but my job is to regulate financial markets), and deregulation simply doesn’t work. The whole culture of the financial world is money-based, and the markets just do NOT regulate themselves. Strong regulation is required; I’ve seen first-hand what happens when there is insufficient regulation.

In terms of energy policy, McCain is just wrong. I am personally opposed to any additional offshore drilling. However, as a national policy, I can understand performing due diligence in studying the potential for future energy to be gained by such drilling, and if that is necessary because other means of energy production will be insufficient, then we’ll have to pursue it, in tandem with reigning in our consumption. However, McCain keeps saying that we need to drill offshore NOW, and that such is necessary to bring down gas prices today. Well, additional offshore drilling simply will not have any effect for approximately 10 years. So again, I think it’s something that needs to be explored, but McCain seems to really think it’s a solution, and I think it is patently obvious that it is not. Palin’s response in the VP debate when Biden said that McCain’s focus is, “Drill, drill, drill,” that “The chant is actually, ‘Drill, baby, drill!’” shows their misplaced focus. I think both candidates are right, though, that we need to pursue further nuclear options to wean us off oil.

One further thing I don’t understand is that McCain was very hypocritical in his statements on electing judges. He said at one point (in another segment of the debate) that he’s a Federalist -- someone who favors greater regional autonomy for the States, rather than a strong centralized government (a very Republican view). But then in the section on judges, he said he wanted to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which is the first step toward a federal law outlawing all abortions (possibly with danger-to-the-mother exceptions), which is the goal he has favored in the past. So how is that possibly a Federalist viewpoint? Though I do give McCain credit for voting NO on the constitutional ban of same-sex marriage, which is consistent with a Federalist viewpoint (leave that up to the individual states to tackle).

After the debate, channel 5 interviewed Mitt Romney, who said that he felt McCain did a great job and had Obama speechless at times. I could only sit there dumbfounded, wondering if he and I watched the same debate. I saw Obama easily handling himself under McCain’s assault, and I saw McCain appearing frustrated and impatient trying to counter Obama. I saw Obama answering the questions much more directly than McCain, though he too definitely skirted some issues like we see with every candidate. I saw Obama acting like a leader, someone I might actually trust being the face of our country, someone with the mental facility to consider the complexity of all the issues when advised by his advisors; whereas McCain was tense and impatient and disagreeable, and he appeared to struggle when forced to consider the mutual impact of complex topics like the economy and energy and military policies -- definitely not somebody I would ever follow as a leader.

So I’m curious -- for those of you who plan on voting for McCain, how do you come to that decision?