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Thursday, April 16, 2009

How do You Know it's Bad to be Dead?

Flow with whatever may happen
and let your mind be free;
Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing.
This is the ultimate.

-ZhuangZi or Chuang Tsu

Chuang Tsu or Zhuangzi was a Chinese philosopher who is seen by some to be the heir to the founder of Taoism, Laozi (Lao Tsu). However, some argue that Zhuangzi was the first Taoist who simply invented Laozi so that he could write the Tao Te Ching annoymously. He was a contemporary of Plato and though his teachings are less known than those found in the Tao Te Ching he is well known and revered within Asia.

One of the things that Zhuangzi taught was a form of relativism where:

"Our language and cognition in general presuppose a dao [or tao, path] to which each of us is committed by our separate past—our paths. Consequently, we should be aware that our most carefully considered conclusions might seem misguided had we experienced a different past. Natural dispositions to behavior combine with acquired ones—including dispositions to use names of things, to approve/disapprove based on those names and to act in accordance to the embodied standards. Thinking about and choosing our next step down our dao or path is conditioned by this unique set of natural acquisitions."

James: In Buddhism we are conditioned by our karma to see things as realitive to how it effects us personally. This we know of course as duality--us vs. them. We label things as good or bad but doing so doesn't necessarily make those people/objects/events as "good or bad." We often ask each other, "How was your day?" and we usually in one way or another say, good or bad. However, our day isn't a "good" or "bad" one no matter what happens, however, our perception of that day might be seen to our conditioned mind as "good" or "bad" based on how far it went to fulfill our desires. It's not a good or bad day but simply--a day. An example Zhuangzi gives is of death--As the story goes:
In the fourth section of "The Great Happiness" (至樂 zhìlè, chapter 18), Zhuangzi expresses pity to a skull he sees lying at the side of the road. Zhuangzi laments that the skull is now dead, but the skull retorts, "How do you know it's bad to be dead?"
Another example about two famous courtesans points out that there is no universally objective standard for beauty. This is taken from Chapter 2 (齊物論 qí wù lùn) "On Arranging Things", or "Discussion of Setting Things Right" or, in Burton Watson's translation, "Discussion on Making All Things Equal".

Men claim that Mao [Qiang] and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream; if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run. Of these four, who knows how to fix the standard of beauty in the world? (2, tr. Watson 1968:46)

James: I found this last quote while researching this post and thought it was a nice wrap-up to this discussion--especially as it relates to Buddhism:
The Buddhist view of the universe resembles the view developed by 20th-century physics. Except for the mental categories we impose upon experience, we find nothing in experience that is immutable. There is no constant but our own misconceptions. Every "thing" is actually a process--it arises, develops, flourishes, declines, and dissipates. All nouns are still-photos from the movie of life--which is made up of verbs.

All that we see around and inside us is the result of trillions of simultaneous processes, arising and declining in different overlapping stages at once. All that appears solid in this cosmos is in reality a shimmering dance of energy in flux. But where physics leaves us adrift like meaningless specks in an incomprehensible void, Buddhism envisions a reality beyond meaning and meaninglessness, beyond knowing, beyond self, beyond duality, beyond suffering--a dance of all things, in which we can become enlightened, interconnected, and compassionate dancers.
PHOTO CREDIT: Click here.

~Peace to all beings~

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Jamie G. said...

Good post.

Sense the irony?

No, really, great post. Especially when you brought up physics. I loves me some physics.

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Spiv said...

I really do disagree with the premise that physics (or science in general, which I think is what this is implying) leaves everything meaningless and insignificant- lost in some void. Indeed I've found just the opposite to be true of science: the more you learn, the more it enriches your perspective. I recall Niel DeGrass Tyson discussing a psychologist's view of the universe: The man had said that when he was subjected to the sizes and scales of the cosmos he felt smaller and more insignificant than he ever had.

Niel chuckled at this, and said he realized the man thought far to much of himself to start with, that he should somehow be compared to all of existence as apposed to being amazed by his place within it. Sagen points out that the elements that we are built from, physically anyway, had to be created in the factory of supernova stars blowing particals across millions of lightyears, eventually ending up in a dust cloud that coalesced into our own star, and planets, and ultimately evolved into life, and consciousness, and the self.

We are made of stardust, to be sure. This is an amazing thing to be. And certainly lets us know both how astounding this body and consciousness of ours is, but at the same time, how humble we must find ourselves in our place in the universe.

I think you'll find that even anti-theist scientists (like DeGrass, and Sagen, and Einstein) are usually wonderfully opposite of the nihilists that everyone seems to think scientists must be.

This is part of the core of Buddhism, I think: that our perspective- learning who we are, and not to think of ourselves as deserving more than that.

They call him James Ure said...

Jamie G:

Ha!! Yes I do sense the irony. Language is funny isn't it? So cumbersome.


Hello to you too!! And I hope your day is nice as well. :) Bowing...


I agree with you about science. I highlighted that quote because I believe that Buddhism enriches science and science enriches Buddhism to where both are united as missing pieces to the grand puzzle. I agree that it isn't either or--nor should it be.

We couldn't disentangle ourselves from science any more than disentangling ourselves from anything in this world of samsara. Science and Buddhism are very complimentary to each other and both improve this existence.

EdaMommy said...

Great post. Really. ^_^

I love the quote, and I love the discussion in the comments here. Thanks for the grist for the mill.

(FWIW, my youngest is named after ZuangZi....(Middle name.))

Gramma& Grampa DeVault said...

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Tom said...

Great post, O Mighty James.

I have a quibble, though. Number-based physics seems to show that everything is absent any meaning. And some investigations into brain science reach that conclusion. But the harmonies of String Theory and Bell's Theorem seem to demonstrate Buddhist emptiness and interbeing.

I think that physics is moving in a direction to confirm Buddhist insights and the mirroring gems on Indra's Net.

Spiv said...

James: Glad you feel that way. I don't know yet, I mean I think both speak of life by their nature, and both may well converge at some point. To me though, they both defiantly start from different places, and it is certainly true that both can be used to enhance the understanding of the other. Really though, both are adaptable to the realities that reveal themselves, and that's where I think they tend to have so much in common.

Balderdash! (respectfully, of course :) ). I think you've got a little bias error about mathematics, but mostly I think it's a problem of interpretation. And by that, I mean it's easy to take these things and interpret them as either having some meaning, or not having some meaning. For instance, have a look at this link: (you don't have to try and solve any of the stuff, of course, but browse through for the points)

It pokes at the very nature of how we count, and the personal bias we bring to that. Certainly that tells us something about ourselves, and our perspective on the world. And it's just pure numbers derived from numbers derived from numbers.

In the same sense I have a hard time finding meaning in superpositions or spin degree measurement, as you suggest (other than I think it's very interesting that you can, in effect, answer a question without ever asking it, per extended use of bell's theorem).

Far more likely it's an issue of us expecting the universe to tell us something about ourselves at every turn. As though it were all made for, or about us. Empowering, but egotistical. Science may, at times tell us something about where we come from, or even where we're going, but we shouldn't expect everything to have something specific to say about us in particular. Sometimes it's just saying what is, and what isn't, as seems so often the case in the deeply pure sciences like mathematics.

Which isn't to say we can't find useful metaphor in any of these things, or extrapolate things about our own psyche when we get baffled by the nature of things (De Rerum Natura? Did someone say Lucretius?).

Tao1776 said...

Amazing, isn't it?

Kyle R Lovett said...

Great Post James, and it brings up the subject of death not talked about often.

On the subject of physics, I think it has as much meaning and significance as we want our minds to have. I do see how modern physics really lines up well with Buddhist philosophy.

Keep up the great writing!

Mattb99 said...

Great post! For a good read about the connections between Buddhism and physics try - The Quantum and the Lotus - A journey to the frontiers where science and Buddhism meet"

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