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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-12-06 05:39
Subject: [religion|cancer] Discussing just how bad a Buddhist I would be
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, health, personal, radiantlisa, religion
Yesterday whilst indulging in the diurnal ritual of my postprandial parboil (a warm baking soda bath which helps the Vectibix-induced skin condition and incidentally has the effect of profoundly exhausting me), Lisa Costello and I had a talk about what a terrible Buddhist I'd make. My observation was that in my extremely limited understanding of the practice, one of the keys of Buddhism was releasing the death-grip that most of us keep on our inner narrative and sense of self. Given that I pretty much define myself by my inner narrative, this strikes me as an improbable stepping stone on any path to enlightenment I might ever follow.

Somewhat to my surprise, Lisa disagreed with me.

We got into a long(ish) talk about how narrative relates to external reality, the nature of truth and what people tend to want to hold on to, mind-body dualism, and a few other related light conversational topics. As I've often said on this blog, I'm a relentless empiricist, firmly moored in the world of logos, who doesn't have any trouble acknowledging the value and power of mythos as a key component of human existence. Including my own personal version of mythos.

My sometimes ugly public quarrels with religion and the religious have entirely to do with people confusing their personal beliefs with some form of objective truth, and then projecting that confusion into the public square to the detriment of both themselves and the rest of society. When it comes to religion, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I will defend to the death your right to worship as you please (and equally my right to find your worship ridiculous); and I will defend to the death my right to be entirely free of the pleasures of your worship.

In the faith-holding sense, I don't believe in anything. The universe just is, evolution and thermodynamics don't require my spiritual assent to exist, any more than gravity or climate change or tomatoes do. That's not to say I'm some mindless, amoral spiritual void. My mythos is always aboil, bubbling over, as anyone who's ever read my fiction can probably attest. I just don't confuse the structures of my consciousness with the external reality of the world.

And cancer, like a morning hanging, has a way of focusing the mind. Cancer, at least my path of it, has seized my narrative, and will likely drive me for the rest of my life, whether to an early grave or to a long and thoughtful post-disease survivorship.

I would be a terrible Buddhist these days because the literalized metaphor of my suffering is written in scars across my body, in the daily convulsions of my stomach and my bowels, in the despair and fear and occasional triumph of my thoughts. I live in the valley of the shadow of death, and there is no one here to succor me except myself, and those whose hands reach back from the light beyond.

This suffering would make me a terrible Buddhist, because it keeps me too focused on my sense of self and my narrative in this world. But it might be making me a better human being. At least I love more thoughtfully and live more carefully than I used to. If I am coming to believe in anything in the faith-holding sense, it is that I have come to believe in my own death. Which is of course the least surprising aspect of life.

The narrative? She keeps changing.

Post A Comment | 11 Comments | | Link

User: voidampersand
Date: 2012-12-06 16:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Enlightenment is a thing of many paradoxes. Well, its not really a thing, but you know what I mean.
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User: daveraines
Date: 2012-12-06 16:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You should be a theologian. Or Atheologian?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-12-06 16:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
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Thom Marrion
User: xnbach
Date: 2012-12-06 17:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a practicing Buddhist, I think you would do just fine.

For one thing, Buddhism (or at least Buddhism as it is practiced in America) is about belief based on experience and reason instead of faith. The Buddha quote that gets thrown around a lot here is "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it,
no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense."

Also, in the grand scheme of things, being a better human being is the important part. Thousands of doorways to enlightenment and all that.

Finally, one of the big steps in Buddhism is coming to terms with the impermanence of everything around us, and what you've just said shows that you are already there.

So I think you would make a great Buddhist, but it's not necessary because you're already a decent human being. Go with whatever works for you :)
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Max Kaehn: MAX ZEN
User: slothman
Date: 2012-12-06 19:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:MAX ZEN
Yep, the Kalama Sutra is a pretty good endorsement of skepticism. There’s also Dogen’s shinjin inga, deep belief in cause and effect.

I think “suffering” is not a good translation of dukkha. In its original meaning, it’s closer to “bad axle hole”— the notion that the axle hole in your wheel is off center. That’s the metaphor our experience of reality not matching up with what we want it to be right now, and we meditate to train our brains to let go, to accept reality as it is. It doesn’t liberate us from physical pain, but it can spare us from any additional misery we make for ourselves by thinking “what the fuck? I don’t deserve this! woe is me!”

You might like Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up.
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Thom Marrion
User: xnbach
Date: 2012-12-06 22:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Exactly- the Buddha never said that life was suffering, just that there is a basic not-rightness in it not being all that it could be.

You also make a good point about why bad things happen. Where as the traditional Western view has to wrestle with how a good God could let bad things happen, the Buddhist answer to that is bad things happen because the causes and conditions for them to happen exists.

That was a lot more comforting to me when my parents died then some minister saying God must have had his reasons.
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Max Kaehn: Mellow
User: slothman
Date: 2012-12-06 22:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Another good term I’ve heard for Zen is “radical acceptance”, dealing with the world as it is.
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User: radiantlisa
Date: 2012-12-07 00:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Love this term - it's perfect.
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User: quaero_verum
Date: 2012-12-06 17:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good thoughts, Jay. And of course, I entirely respect your right to "not believe in anything" as you profess.

I am curious, though.... do you ever wonder about purpose? How do you wrestle (or perhaps you don't) with the pointlessness of everything?

Even with putting religion or faith entirely aside - I would still be one of those folks who really struggle with the idea that "all that is" is just some random occurrence that doesn't ultimately mean anything and that all of the pain and misfortune we go through in life also means nothing - and is not, as I believe it to be - a "training of the soul" for a higher purpose, and a higher state of being once we pass from this life to the next.

I guess in a way I really *need* to believe that, or I would be absolutely crushed by all the misery on this planet. It could be that you are absolutely right, and that there is no God - I mean, for pete's sake - no one REALLY knows. I am more than willing to accept that as a possibility, because I would never presume I had all the answers. But believing in God and believing that there is purpose, and that there is a life beyond this one....honestly speaking, this is what helps me get out of bed in the morning.

Anyway. Thinking and praying for you, as always. :-)
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User: fledgist
Date: 2012-12-06 19:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The purpose of life is to figure out the joke.
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LiveJournal: pingback_bot
User: livejournal
Date: 2012-12-08 01:40 (UTC)
Subject: Best of Buddhism
User curiouseve referenced to your post from Best of Buddhism saying: [...] from http://jaylake.livejournal.com/3023329.html [...]
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