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Heaps of Buddha

Buddha with sandcastles, Shakespeare, and shoes.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

July 14, 2013 - 1:00 pm

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I have a pair of Birkenstocks — you just knew I wear Birkenstocks, didn’t you? — anyway, I have a pair of Birkenstocks that I bought on my honeymoon, thirty years ago this September. Now, Birkenstocks are pretty tough, but they do wear out; I’ve had the Vibram soles replaced three times, the uppers eventually broke a strap so I had them replaced, and while I was doing that they rebuilt the cork part where it had worn away.

You see the joke here, of course: at this point, I’ve replaced all the parts, but I think they’re “the same shoes”. It’s like the story about the farmer who bragged he had a pickaxe that was a hundred years old, handed down from his great-grandfather. Oh, he’d replaced the handle six or seven times, and he once broke the pick end trying to pull a stump so he’d had to replace the head, but the tool was a hundred years old.

This is actually a central point of Buddhism. In fact, the Heart Sutra says that Buddha became Enlightened by realizing, wholly and completely, that everything in the universe that we see and interact with, everything that is related to everything else by cause and effect, is just like my Birkenstocks: a collection of atoms that happen to be in one relationship at a particular time, but that came together from parts of other things in the past and will come apart and become something else in the future. When buddha really saw that, he saw through and recovered from the addiction of thinking there could be something permanent, and so ended the clinging to a fantasy of permanence that causes suffering.

Which is all well and good, but until we manage to Realize the Heart of Perfect Wisdom ourselves, what can we do?

That’s the Fourth Great Truth: that there are upaya — “skillful means” or “expedient means” or even “clever tricks” — through which one can reduce one’s own suffering now, and reduce the likelihood of suffering in the future. Siddhartha laid out some of these clever tricks in a program of eight steps that’s usually called, in English, the Holy Eightfold Path.

I’m going to take an aside here for one of my periodic rants about the Victorian Theosophist translations Buddhism is burdened with in English. The “Holy Eightfold Path” in Sanskrit is arya-ashtanga-marga; wherever you see “Holy” or “Noble” in something in Buddhism, you can bet the original word was “arya”. The problem is that arya doesn’t really mean holy, and only sort of means “noble” — it really means “valuable” or “precious”. The translation to “noble” happens because the term is often used for “noblemen” or aristocrats. Chinese is more straightforward — it’s 八正道, ba1 zheng4 dao4, or “road of eight valuable things”. What are these eight valuable things? They break down into three groups: wisdom, ethical behavior, and meditation.

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Heap big buddha.

Wisdom

The heart of wisdom is to develop the right view — that is, what Siddhartha himself did when he left home. He realized that there was a problem.

So he left home, having decided to find a way to put things right and quiet his own — and everyone else’s — suffering. This is called right intention.

Ethical Behavior

The ethical behavior part of the Eight Valuable Things are things everyone already pretty much knows. Right Speech: don’t lie, don’t slander and gossip, don’t insult people. Right Action: don’t hurt people or animals without necessity, don’t steal, don’t be excessive about sex. (What counts as “excessive” with sex? I think there’s a whole column — at least — in that, but for now, it’s not to use sex in a way that increases suffering: don’t cheat, don’t sleep around enough that you feel bad about it.) More positively, Right Action means to be kind, compassionate, and not do things that hurt other people.

The third part of Ethical Conduct is Right Livelihood: making your living in a way that decreases suffering. Buddha’s list of things you shouldn’t do is: don’t sell weapons, don’t trade in slaves, don’t be a butcher, don’t sell intoxicants.

Again, these all show up in what Siddhartha did after he left home — this is basically the life he assumed when he became a wandering monk.

Focus

The last three of the Eight Valuable Things are Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. I’m piling them all together because, honestly, they all seem like parts of the same thing. Right effort is to direct your mind to suffering and the source of suffering; right mindfulness is to see and understand that source of suffering completely; and right concentration is to allow the mind to settle into a single point of focus, to bring all these things together without distraction.

Which brings us back around to my Birkenstocks. Thirty years ago, I was a young guy about to go to grad school, with a new wife, on his honeymoon, and those Birkenstocks were new and stiff. There’s really probably not an atom left that was part of “me” when that was happening, or if there is it’s just by chance; the Birkenstocks, with the new soles, and new uppers, and new cork, share very little with the Birkenstocks I bought that day in Berkeley. My Birkenstocks, and me, and you, and my cats, and the car I bought two weeks ago, and these cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the Great Globe itself, all are heaps of things that come together, and come back apart, and change forms, all as a result of cause and effect.

That’s really the key to all of Buddhism and all of Enlightenment — and each of the factors in the Eightfold Path really are there because they help you arrive at that understanding of things as they are.

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

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All Comments   (18)
All Comments   (18)
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I'm thinking it's acceptance, not avoidance. In terms of Christianity, this seems akin to the Serenity Prayer.

Also, if you are going to go beyond metaphor and other language tricks in regards to particle physics, you should probably have a degree in that area as well. I guess. Either way, I suspect that language is partly the problem.

By the way, Charlie, you should see Pacific Rim and do a review of it. "The drift is silence."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Particle physics?

Anyway, yeah, the Serenity Prayer has a Buddhist feel to it, as does a lot of AA.

I've certainly heard good things about Pacific Rim.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Charlie, Charlie, you have exposed me for what I apparently am, namely a "philosophy major" trying to make "things into a big argument". Charlie, you have construced a "big" ad hominem (you might remember the term from a class in philosophy and you do not even reveal whether you earned a degree or not, let alone the grade obtained). So that you may know, I have three doctorates in philosophy, literature and culture earned from three different universities in three different countries and have published in 4 languages, including in Chinese (among other things I published an introductory explanation of Western philosphy to Chinese students and colleagues). So, now that your ad hominem has been "changed" into what it IS, namely an ad adsurdum, let me, as I did in my comment, jot down no more than a "very small" (and not "big") reflexion on your fanciful interpretation of what "being" is.

"Things as they are" just means "change", so say you. It pains me greatly that you have just concocted a logical oxymoron. Is change permanent or is change something that changes? Does someTHING change into something ELSE? If that is change, is the said "thing" the same THING before and after the change? If not, there was no change. If a "thing" is what it is at a specific time, how long does this time endure? If there is no temporal duration, what is it that has changed since noTHING happened at all in a time without duration? WHEN is there time for anyTHING to be, i.e., for "things as they are" to be, so that it may change into being something else? Please explain.

So you mean something else by "suffering" than I do. Fine, what do you mean, and in English? Give me an example of suffering. Watching a documentary in German tv last night, I could observe the extremely painful torture done to some inmates in the Dachau concentration camp. Am I to conclude that such screeming human "things" were not really suffering? When yet a student decades and decades ago, I heard a report of a man who had lost his wife and 6 children in a car accident. The man suffered so much at the loss of beloved human "things" that he committed suicide. Do you wish to claim that the man did not suffer? If he had the "right point of view", would the loss of his family not resulted in suffering? If you assert yes, you confirm my thesis that Buddha-ish delieverance is "indifference" to the suffering of unique individuals. If you understand "sufffering" a fully different from my example, then your enlightenment is absolutely foreign to (my) life. For afterall, human individuals,, considered as mere "things", are but a fantasy of belief in permanence. Or? I await enlightenment! And you do not have to "go down the hall" to reveal to me what enlightenment IS (i.e., before it changes in to something else).










1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You've given me a nice hook for the next column on the questions Buddha refused to answer, though.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Nope. I ain't playing. Do zazen, see what happens. If you don't like it, try something else.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Come on Charlie, you can do better! Zen isn't a cure-all. And I speak as one who knows of what I speak. If claiming everything changes and is impermanent, so don't get attached, is all Siddhartha had to say; then he was about as insightful as stating excrement stinks, so don't stick your nose into it.

Personally, for whatever it's worth, I think there's something pretty amazing going on "here" and I want to participate fully. So tuning out and dropping out doesn't really interest me much. Alternatively, if you don't really think there's much of anything happening, I guess tuning out is a good choice.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You're right. Doesn't cure colds. And you guys are mistaking me as trying to convert people. If what I'm saying connects, then good.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The secret to obtaining the "RIGHT point of view" (leaving out any discussion of how a view point is possible if not within a continuum, viz.,in a type of permanence) it is Budda-like necessary to obtain an "understanding of THINGS as they ARE". "Are"??? One dictionary discusses the verb "to be" noting that it means "to exist in a certain way or as a certain thing; to exist in a certain state or condition". It would seem to follow that, if a "certain THING" does not retain its "being" in a certain way, i.e., if it evinces no permanence, then it possesses no "state or condition" and, hence, is not. Consequently, I confess that I see myself forced to view "things as they are" as entailing permanence in a "certain way" or they are not. And if they are not, I have nothing to understand (which I take as the enlightenment at the heart of Buddha's salvational "right view"). What the heck, what does Martin<-- Buddha have to reveal about things as they ARE?

It seems that any "thing" that I might consider to evince permanence, does not in reality possess permanence because "everything that we see ... is just ... a collection of atoms that happen to be in a realtionship at a particular time, but that ... will come apart and be something else in the future", just like Martin's beloved Birkenstocks (which, alas, a friend of mine once sold for awhile resulting in the PERMANTENT loss of money which caused him much financial suffering). Just a rational moment of doubt as to the logical integrety of the "right view" re the way things "are".

It seems that atoms come together and form something (1) and then go apart to form another something (2). O.k., I'll buy that provisionally. But IS any specific atom (called B) in something (1) at time-a the very same atom in something (2) at time-a+b? Each recombining atom must BE the very SAME "thing" that it IS at both times and in both things, old and new, or the argument collapses because no something (called B) can combine and go apart and then re-combine unless something (called B) possesses permanence allowing it to be elsewhere. Instead of "enlightment" I am bothered with incoherence. Enough! But let me turn to the lesson of salvation agreeing that suffering is vital.

I am to be liberated from my suffering and others of theirs by understanding (= right point of view) that there IS (sic) nothing permanent in anything (e.g., a child) whose specifric sufferings could justify my woe, pain, wailing, agonizing, etc.at a loss because nothere is nothing, viz., no-THING capable of destruction, only of recombination. I find that "indifference" to the suffering of anything in any way for any reason is the wisdom of Buddha. Suffering is but the unenlightened fantasy that there ARE things to be lost. Should I suffer at a loss, say of a child or of a whole people (e.g., Jews just in the concentration camps that I visit here in Germany), it is obvious that I do not possess the "right view point". This right point of view leaves me indifferent, and indifference is part of my enlightened joy or pleasure. But suffering is there and it seems to ruin things.

In the early 19th Century a brilliant writer, Georg Büchner, was so shocked at the suffering going on in Germany that it led him to proclaim "one drop of pain rents the curtain of being from top to bottom". The overwhlming and crushing sense of suffering was the source of Bücher's atheism. I presume Buddha would agree with Büchner, only reminding him he erred in taking suffering seriously. Around the age of 24 Bücher entered into a painful path leading to his death. His friends bemoaned the loss of such a brilliant "being", viz., beloved person. Shortly before dying Büchner, in a moment of clarity (or enlightenment) said: "We do not suffer enough, for it is through suffering that we come to God". Büchner's words recall the image of Jesus dying in extreme suffering on the Cross. Within Christianity it is the individual's uniting of his suffering with the intense sufferings of Jesus that leads to the joy of salvation, not the indifference towards the pain and tears of others. I see a difference here and, from Buddha-Martin's "point of view" I joyously remain unenlightened.







1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Don't overthink this. "Things as they are" just means "changing." "Suffering" doesn't mean what you think either. As I've mentioned before, I was a philosophy major and am sufficiently sophisticated to be able to spot another philosophy major trying to make things into a big argument.

So I won't.

Do zazen. Follow the Precepts and the Eightfold Path. See if things get better. If not, try down the hall.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I am not an eloquent writer as you are, so I will say this as best I can with my small words. So far, I have been able to keep up with the ideas you have conveyed in this column and that it mostly a tribute to your writing skill, not my cognitive abilities. However, I am having trouble reconciling the avoidance of suffering, much as the first commenter noted, to my experience, my life. I only came to a true understanding (a beginning anyway) of life through a transformational experience of suffering.

I was 5 months pregnant and visiting my sister who was due to deliver her second child any day and I was there to help her once she came home. I had my 18 month old son with me, my then-husband was at a Rugby Ball which means go out in the woods and camp and get really really drunk and play a little rugby. (I'm not assailing him, he is a fine man and one of my best friends, but that's what he was doing.) I went into premature labor. I went to the ER, they dismissed me saying I had a bladder infection and I should be sure to visit the "clinic" the next day (Grrrr.) My water broke with blood in it on the way out of the hospital. It was a long, terrifying, painful night and in the end I made the decision to have a C-section as nothing was stopping the labor and it was putting my baby under tremendous stress. I was in a strange hospital (under construction btw) with strange doctors on the operating table and decided to pray. Now, up until this time I had been aware of my spirituality (undeveloped as it was) but I was very immature as a human. I wanted to pray but I didn't know what to pray for. I knew the baby would be disabled if he lived and I knew myself well enough to know that at that time I was probably not up to task of mothering an 18 month old and a very sick baby. But I couldn't pray for him to die!!! I desperately wanted him to live, so you see the conundrum.

As I lay on that table and he was delivered ( a silent delivery room is a horrible thing) for the first time ever in my life, I gave up control. I pleaded with all my heart that God's will be done, because I knew if I let go, everything would be ok. I remember the moment as if it was happening right now. It was like I had lived in a fishbowl with scenes painted on the outside which looked like reality to me. That fishbowl shattered. It was like seeing a new color, one that had always been there but I couldn't see it before. It changed me forever.

To make an already long story a tiny bit shorter, Charlie (my baby) died after 2 days. My sister brought her son home from the hospital the next day. I am happy to say that young Stephen is very much alive and well, and is one of favorite people on earth.

My point is I never ever would have gotten to where I am now in terms of understanding myself and my relationship with the universe and God had the fishbowl remained intact.

I am sure I am just not "getting" something and that's where my undisciplined mind shows so garishly.

Anyway, thanks for doing these articles. They have meant a lot to me and I re-read the book you recommended about once a month. Sorry I wrote a novel >.<
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Those damned Victorians.

It's the translation of duhkha as "suffering" that makes this so confusing, and I really should discipline myself to use it no longer.

There's a story that during the Buddha's lifetime, his home, Kapilavastu, was looted and destroyed, and thousands of his relatives and friends, and his father's subjects, were killed.According to the story, the Buddha basically took to his bed, and didn't receive any visitors for some time. He was sad, crushed, devastated. He was sad for his own people, he was sad for the people who did it -- what consequences would there be to them? -- and he no doubt cried. Freeing yourself from duhkha doesn't mean freeing yourself from pain.

That sense of "not my will but Thine" is, I think, very much like what I've sometimes tripped across myself: a sense that under the day to day pain there is an underlying "rightness" that's bigger than us. When we can have that sense of "not my will but Thine", that's freeing ourselves from duhkha.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thank you, that makes a lot of sense. :)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And as a funny side note ( I never connected my Charlie and your name until I wrote this) my ex-husband is known to his pantheon of friends as Buddha. Go figure. (He's very smart and studied Zen but also has the perfect shape for the name.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It's the avoidance of suffering where I parted company with Buddhism. Now, I have to say first off that I'm NOT a masochist by any means and I personally do not enjoy suffering any more than anyone else. Yet, who are we, and my "we" includes Siddhartha, to say that suffering is to be avoided so that my personal life will be a little more enjoyable? By seeking to avoid suffering are we not in fact, in a certain sense, avoiding the experience of life itself? Whatever it is that is experiencing life as us, must experience not only the detached and apathetic but also the attached and pathetic. For life is a process that includes beginnings and endings, pleasure and pain. In a very real sense life creates and consumes itself. If we short circuit the overall process by retreating into a state of non-attachment to avoid suffering, do we not also short change whatever it is that is experiencing life as us from living fully? If it means that we, as individual expressions of the life process, must experience suffering in our personal experience how is that detrimental to whatever it is that experiences existence and life through the totality of whatever it is we are? Could it be that we are but the characters of a dreamer's dream?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, so suffer then. I'm easy. But once again, duhkha -- "suffering" -- isn't "pain".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't mean to confine the term "suffering" to explicit "pain"; although that is a subset. The Greeks had a word for avoidance of "suffering" as well: apathy. The Stoics practiced it, so they were likely much in accord with Buddhists in that regard. Since the word apathy is also an English word and we all know pretty much what it means, I think calling the "avoidance of suffering" apathy makes the issue clear. If you don't want to attach to the world of experience for whatever it's worth - and, unlike Siddhartha, I think it's worth a lot - you can tune out and not let anything touch you. Fine, if that's what you want. I'm easy, too. But really, other than to avoid suffering, what's the value of that? On the other hand, if you think we're here to experience it all, then apathy doesn't cut it, either as a Stoic or a Buddhist. So I have to ask why did Siddhartha think his discovery of apathy was such a big deal; and, why does anyone else think so? Just my opinion, of course.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The problem is that it's a made-up issue to start with. The word you really want is "equanimity" -- calmness and composure in the face of difficulties.The Perfesser up there wants bigger and bigger examples of horrible things to show that suffering *exists* dammit, and it *hurts*, and so shows us the third kind of duhkha, samsara-duhkha the dissatisfaction with the fact that there are unsatisfactory experiences.

What Buddha is saying is that painful things exist, and when we try to say they shouldn't, that's dissatisfying.

What does the Buddha say when he stubs his toe on a rock? "Ow!"

Then he moves the rock so he and others won't stub their toes again.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, I can agree with that. Even if sometimes I express some anger at my own clumsiness. It's not the rock's fault after all. Thanks.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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