A Few Stray Thoughts

Parochialism (again?)
The other day there was a news item about an explosion that occurred at an Indian venue for 20/20 cricket. From recollection, a half dozen Indians were injured by this terrorist attack.

The news report said, “Cricket Australia were relieved that no Australians were hurt.”

Is there something unique about the humanity of Australians that it was less an act of terror because none of them were hurt? The Indians that were crippled and maimed must have been from a lesser species because their injuries did not seem important at all.

Some Thoughts on Thinking
I was reading some material the other day on the life of Buddha. Soon after his enlightenment – in fact tradition would have it in his second sermon.- the Buddha expounded on his philosophy of anatta (no self). He divided the human personality into five constituents (khandas): the body; feelings; perceptions; volitions (conscious and unconscious) and consciousness. He asked his disciples to consider each khanda in turn. He emphasised the transience and the variability of each. He showed because of this transitoriness how foolish it was to identify with these khandas. It was the height of absurdity to identify a sense of “Self” with such ephemeral phenomena. He concluded that every sentient being was in a state of constant flux. Thus each person was merely a succession of temporary, mutable states of existence.

We have talked before about the philosophy of Rene Descartes. His conclusion that “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) is almost the diametric opposite of the Buddha’s conclusion.

The Buddha would have thought it the heights of absurdity to identify with one’s thoughts the way Descartes proposed. The Buddha’s conclusion was that what we call the ‘self’ is a delusion. He expounded that the more we examined ourselves the harder it was to define anything that could be seen as a fixed entity anchoring some erroneous sense of ‘self’.

In essence he preached, each human being was not a fixed entity so much as a process. He liked to use such analogies when describing the personality as a fire or a stream. Whilst one can say that we have lit a fire and that fire might exist for a period of time there is no enduring ‘thing’ which is the fire, just the ongoing process f combustion.

This insight is difficult for most of us brought up in Western society to assimilate. To the Buddha the doctrine of anatta was not an abstract philosophical construct but required Buddhists to behave as though the ego did not exist.

In her commentary on the Buddha, the acclaimed writer on religious matters,Karen Armstrong points out that the effects of this are far-reaching. She writes:

“Not only does the idea of self lead to unskilful thoughts about me and mine and inspire our selfish cravings; egotism can arguably be described as the source of all evil; an excessive attachment to the self can lead to envy or hatred of rivals, conceit, megalomania, pride, cruelty, and, when the self feels threatened, to violence and destruction of others.”

We have then a very different philosophy from that which Descartes initiated, which inevitably led to Western materialism and rationalism.

Many religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam among them) seek to curb the voracious, frightened ego which promulgates great harm. Uniquely, Buddhism suggests that ego is just a delusion – the result of a wrong-minded way of viewing the world.

Slaying the Minotaur but Creating Confusion
The classical scholars among you will recall the legend of Theseus, the Athenian youth who sailed to Crete, descended into the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. According to the Greek historian, Plutarch, the Athenians preserved Theseus’s ship for posterity. As time passed any decaying plank was replaced with new timber in order to keep the ship in good repair. Later philosophers argued that the renovated ship, with so much new construction, could not be regarded as the ship of Theseus.

This is a great example of the paradox of vagueness and identity.

(Following on from the snippet above I am tempted to remind you that every cell in the human body is said to be replaced on average every seven years – so who are you? But I won’t go there today!)

You might not think this is a problem of any great moment but it has many interesting corollaries. For example, take my head. It has been losing hair progressively for many years. When should I admit that I am bald? Certainly I will be bald when there is no hair left at all. What about when I have one hundred follicles still struggling to cover my old cranium? Is that bald? If so when did baldness arrive? When I had two hundred left?

When we use such generic terms there is always a problem associated with the imprecision of our language. What height do you need to be to be described tall? How much money do you need to be described rich? At what age should you stop being described as a child?

11 Replies to “A Few Stray Thoughts”

  1. ‘My apologies to my readers this week for my tardiness’

    So who controls your time, Father Ted?


    Tentative answers.

    “When should I admit that I am bald?”

    The scientific answer would be that when you are hairless.

    Does that explain people who shave their heads?

    Are they bald or fashionable?

    “What height do you need to be described ‘tall'”

    Depends on which tribe you are descended from.

    “How much money do you need to be described as rich”


    “At what age should you stop being described as a child”

    Hopefully, never.

    “Unless Ye become as little children”

  2. Thank you Father Robin for your erudite comments. You have confirmed that I am a tallish, rich, child approaching baldness. Pretty good description. I can live with that!

  3. In the quest for immortality there has often been discussion of transferring the brains neural connection patterns to a computer data repository. A cloned young body then could be reloaded with this neural image and presto you have another physical life that from the brain’s perspective is a continuation of the original. But is it? According to Descartes it probably is. The thoughts and memories of the new brain would still seem just as real and would be consistent with the original. If this is the case, then in theory at least, immortality is possible.

    Now, what about if in the process of taking the neural image of the brain you had to destroy the brain and therefore the body … “death”. How many people would voluntarily line up to die in order to live forever? I don’t believe there would be too many of even the most fearful people. Perhaps if someone was only hours away from death they would take it on, but few would cue up for their 40 year body replacement. Ultimately as humans there are few of us who see ourselves as just our physical form and our thoughts and memories. We intuitively sense there is more to being human than this. We don’t know what it is but we know there is more and we also know that it is not something that you can bottle, label and put on a shelf.

    If you disagree with this, try to SERIOUSLY contemplate making the decision to die in order to live longer.

  4. I was contemplating Greg’s thoughts regarding ‘immortality’ connected to ‘mortal’ forms – and whether there is a need to ‘die’ in order to ‘live’ — and I suspect, in a way, yes. Was that what Siddhartha Guatama realised was the ‘way’ of the Buddha ‘mind’ that was needed to deal with mortal suffering?

    So, who or what is being referred to as the Buddha? Was it a man – constructed like his fellow human beings in every respect – called Siddhartha Gautama? Or was Siddhartha Gautama simply the first ‘place’ or ‘local arena of consciousness’ in which there arose an enlightened ‘awareness’ that real Life cannot be contained within either a material body or even the arena of local consciousness itself? Would it be reasonable to state that the Buddha/Christ/Atman [many terms for the same ‘idea’] is that inseparable, permanent and un-Self-aware Mind within which every separated and impermanent perception – including Siddhartha Gautama himself – ‘exists’ only as temporal ideas – and further that the awareness of this difference between the Real and the unreal, and the need to identify with the Real rather than the ‘unreal’ was the great enlightened ‘idea’ that arose into Siddhartha Gautama’s local arena of consciousness? Do ‘bodies’ become enlightened about the Reality of ‘Mind’ or does ‘Mind’ become enlightened about the ‘unreality’ of temporal bodies and egoic local arenas of consciousness – and could this ‘awareness’ arise within the egoic arena itself – hence effectively destroying the ego’s illusion of Sovereignty over its own domain?
    These are rather obviously rhetorical questions, but if the assertions implicit in these rhetorical question are sustainable then perhaps the famous statement “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” simply implies that you never will or could do so – for the Buddha is the Real You [not ‘out there’ but ‘in there’] in the collective process of re-establishing Sovereignty over all arenas of consciousness ‘created’ by the ‘split-off’ egoic mind in its ‘desire’ to experience the highs and lows of separated, special, self-aware, temporal – and fear-driven—life!
    Again, ‘was the Buddha an enlightened human being’ or is the Buddha that Mind that enlightens the ‘darkness’ of any egoic mind that comes to the awareness that existential ‘suffering’ [the terror experienced within the arena of local consciousness that arises from the mistaken belief that organic bodily ‘suffering’ ultimately leads to the termination of Real Life] can be replaced by existential peace through a change of ‘I’dentity – e.g., “am I vulnerable frail separated Gautama or am I invulnerable unseparated Buddha Mind”? Or to put it in modern speak “is my conscious mind epiphenomena of my material self, or is my material self and its local mind epiphenomena of an unseen and unseeable Mind; which Mind ‘I AM’”?

  5. “Many of our stories have been with us for millenia. But what if those supposed truths we learned about the world were wrong? What if we have it backward? What if the struggle we’ve been taught is natural turns out to be the most unnatural thing we could be doing? What if the social Darwinists were mistaken? What if cooperation, not competition, is the key to survival?”

    Spontaneous Evolution ‘Lipton and Bhaerman’

  6. Father Robin, what if the ‘stories’ that you mention can be looked at through two entirely different interpretive ‘filters’ – i.e., literally or figuratively? The answer to this question may need to be answered before any question of them being either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ could be addressed. In other words, a ‘story’ that may be ‘wrong’ if interpreted literally may still act as a pointer to some personal revelation of an inner ‘state of truth’ if interpreted metaphorically or figuratively. In other words, it may not be the ‘stories’ that are ‘wrong’ but the interpretive filter – our core motive that determines what we are looking to gain FROM the stories – is ‘wrong’ or more clearly ‘is inconsistent with a motive that underpins Real Life’.

  7. Phil

    Loved your capitalisation of “Real Life”

    Totally agree with your comments on different filters.

    In the movies 2D can look like 3D

    With two opposed filters

    In the polarity of reality, fear rules and the result is competition

    In the polarity of Reality, Love rules and the result is Cooperation

    Most of us confuse the two in this ‘real life’

    Hope this is not too cryptic

  8. “Many of our stories have been with us for millenia. But what if those supposed truths we learned about the world were wrong? What if we have it backward? What if the struggle we’ve been taught is natural turns out to be the most unnatural thing we could be doing? What if the social Darwinists were mistaken? What if cooperation, not competition, is the key to survival?”

    Spontaneous Evolution ‘Lipton and Bhaerman’

  9. Thanks Bruce.

    Somehow we’ll make it.

    It’s going to be a Bit of a battle.

    But the end result has to be something better than that which now exists.

    Otherwise, what’s the point?

  10. Father Ted

    “In Aristotle the movement from potentiality to actuality is vertical, going from the lower to the higher forms of Being. In modern progressivism the movement from potentiality to actuality is horizontal, temporal, futuristic.”

    Paul Tillich, ‘The Courage to Be’

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