Montaigne & Buddhism, Part 1: Dhyana & Vipassana

 

For a Western European writer steeped within the Renaissance era, Montaigne’s approach and content seems uncannily Eastern, or, more specifically, the content of his writing seems to be uniquely Buddhist. One can only speculate as to whether or not Montaigne was familiar with Buddhist philosophy. It seems to be an unavoidable truth that there is little to no evidential support as to whether or not he had ever even encountered Buddhist thought. It would, then, be academically and intellectually irresponsible to suggest that Montaigne, a committed catholic (though not in the most orthodox of senses), was, somehow or in some way, a secret student of the Dharma. Thus, it is not the aim of this paper to make such a claim. However, what this paper does intend to highlight is that, whether Montaigne intended as much or not, there are deep resonances and immense parallels found between his thought and Buddhist philosophy, especially in regards to the ideas of mindfulness/meditation, impermanence, and the self.

‘Mediation’ or ‘Meditations’ within the Western philosophical tradition are not foreign concepts. For example, two pivotally important philosophical texts donning the moniker of ‘meditation’ are the Meditations of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the Meditations on First Philosophy by renowned French philosopher Rene Descartes (Descartes, himself, being a kind of purveyor of modern thought). In these two examples ‘meditation’ is used “in the common sense of ‘thinking things over’ or ‘musing’” (Watts 54). Here, it would be easy enough to class Montaigne’s Essays as an example of this sort of meditative ‘musing’ or ‘thinking things over’ yet, such a classification would seem to be a diminution of what one witnesses in the writings of Montaigne. In this regard, there seems to be a dichotomy between ‘mediation(s)’ in the Western sense of the term as a kind of pondering rumination, and in the more Eastern/Buddhist sense of the term (more on this to come). Montaigne’s mediations seem to be much more than a mere intellectual pursuit or activity. The suggestion that Montaigne’s Essays is indicative of something more than musings of the intellect is not intended to be interpreted as a refutation of Montaigne’s intellectuality. Even a scant or peripheral perusal of the Essays will clearly reveal a thinker of incredible intelligence and robust reasoning. However, what is being proposed is that what Montaigne demonstrates in his meditative writing seems to be much more in line with the Buddhist concept of Dhyana (Sanskrit) or Jhana (Pali). Dhyana/Jhana are the words translated as ‘mediation’ yet, the word ‘meditation’, as seen in the usage of Aurelius and Descartes, is “a most misleading translation” (Watts 54). Dhyana/Jhana is not an example of a musing rumination but, instead “can be described as the state of unified or one-pointed awareness” intensely “focused on the present” (Watts 55). ‘Meditation’, or Dhyana/Jhana is a focused and concentrated awareness fully present to the present moment and all of its contents, including all the contents present within consciousness, that is, both mental and material. Indeed, as Jon Kabat Zinn explains, the only goal of the kind of mindful meditation exhibited in Dhyana/Jhana, if there can even be said to be a goal, is the deepening of “attention and awareness”, deepening the attention and awareness to one’s own mind, deepening the attention and awareness to one’s consciousness, and, ultimately deepening the attention and awareness of the present moment, accepting all the realities of the present just as they are (Zinn xvii). In this regard, as Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, and as Montaigne will show, “It’s better to be than to think” (85).

Dhyana/Jhana goes hand in hand with Vipassana (Pali) or Vipasyana (Sanskrit). Vipassana/Vipasyana is derived from two root words; Passana meaning “seeing and perceiving”, and Vi meaning “in a special way” (Gunaratana 27). Vipassana/Vipasyana, then, is a special way of seeing and perceiving, which provides ‘insight’ into the fundamental or basic nature of reality (Gunaratana 27). It is the cultivation of ‘insight’ that sees and perceives “into and through” the reality of what is observed with the “clarity and precision” provided by the focus and attention of a one-pointed awareness (Gunaratana 27). This seems to be precisely what Montaigne presents in his Essays, a special way of seeing, a mindful, meditative awareness fully concentrated upon the present, seeing though to the very core of what is.

Montaigne writes the following:

When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep. Nay, when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are some part of the time taken up with external occurrences, I some part of the time call them back again to my walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of that solitude, and to myself (Montaigne).

Clearly, Montaigne attempted to live his life with, what Sarah Bakewell calls, “an almost Zen-like discipline”, demonstrating “an ability to just be” (27). Yet, Montaigne’s ability to just be with the present moment, mindfully focused and attentively aware of the present, is an ability he not only speaks of in his writings but, is a mindfulness concentration taken up by and acted out by his writings. Everything which occurs within the present moment of everyday life is of noteworthy importance to Montaigne. Nothing is too trivial, too mundane, or too ordinary to be documented. Montaigne states that “whatsoever presents itself before us is book sufficient; a roguish trick of the page, a sottish mistake of a servant, a jest at the table, are so many new subjects” (Montaigne). Montaigne proposes “a life ordinary and without lustre” as being of “richer composition” (Montaigne). Regardless of each essay’s proposed topic, each essay contains constant diversions and sidetracks. Montaigne writes that one of his aims is “to record all the little thoughts that present themselves,” saying that “I give ear to my whimsies, because I am to record them” (Montaigne). These ‘diversions’ are not instances of distraction but, rather an example of Montaigne’s mindful observation of his own mind, a transcription of all that arises within consciousness, a transcription of arising consciousness, which he accepts and embraces non-judgmentally, just as they are. Sarah Bakewell notes that “Even when his thoughts are most irrational and dreamlike, his writing follows them” (6). In this regard, Montaigne’s Essays is not only a transcription of his meditation practice, but rather the writing of the Essays, itself, is his practice of Dhyana/Jhana and Vipassana/Vipasyana, his mindful meditation, his insight.

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Montaigne & the Instability of the Self (Video)

A few weeks ago I posted a blog on the same topic and with the same title. It was a paper written for a graduate course, in which I attempted to highlight Montaigne’s ideas about the ‘Self’. Here, I just wanted to try and make a quick video providing an overview of the paper and topic in a more conversational tone. Hope you enjoy!

Montaigne & the Instability of the Self

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Recently I’ve been taking a graduate course examining the writings and thinkers of the Renaissance. One such provocative writer and thinker examined was Michel de Montaigne. One of the things that I am struck by in Montaigne’s writings is the way in which he seems to view the ‘Self’. It seems to me that Montaigne’s estimation of self-hood is very similar to that of Buddhist philosophy (which I’ve attempted to discuss in three previous video posts found here, here, and here). What follows, then, is a short paper I wrote for the class discussing Montaigne’s concepts of the ‘Self’. Enjoy!

 

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne represents not only a literary turning point within the thought and writing of Renaissance Humanism but, a veritable revolution in the history of Western literature itself. To say that Montaigne is a unique figure is an understatement. Ahead of his time, Montaigne is truly the first of his kind, single-handedly inventing a whole new genre of writing and a bold new form of literary expression. The most candid, and thus the most human, of writers and thinkers, Montaigne is a firebrand of radical introspection. The cusp of Montaigne’s work is found in his probing observations and analyses of the intricacies of his own subjectivity. Montaigne utilizes a deeply contemplative mindfulness within his meditations upon his own consciousness, his own thoughts, feelings, actions, perceptions, conceptions, behaviors, ideas. Closely and intimately examining his own materiality, and all the other minutiae of every-day existence, Montaigne reveals a clarity of vision regarding the universality of the human condition that is utterly poignant and unavoidably prescient. Yet, in doing so Montaigne presents a description of the Self that was not only subversive within his own time but, that continues to subvert even the modern world’s sensibilities of self.

Michel de Montaigne witnessed a world of violent instability all around. He watched as his country was torn apart by civil wars. His most beloved of friends, Etienne de La Boetie fell victim to the plague (Bakewell 13). He mourned the death of his father (Blackwell 13). He was shocked by the unexpected death of his brother (Bakewell 24). He grieved the loss of 5 of his six children, “only one survived to become an adult” (Bakewell 2). This mounting and all-pervasive instability, this world beset by impermanence, is what led Montaigne to put pen to paper and what kept the pen in motion for over two decades, writing his voluminous and monumental work, Essais, or Essays.
Yet, in crafting Essays Montaigne was no memoirist. Sarah Bakewell explains that Montaigne “did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements” or to “lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events” (Bakewell 3). Instead, his writings are deeply ‘reflective’ explorations, and ‘reflective’ in two senses of the term. In the first and most obvious sense, his writings are ‘reflective’ in that they are profoundly introspective, that is, deeply ‘self-reflective’. They are concentrated ruminations and deliberative musings. David Hansen writes that Montaigne is keenly aware of his own “thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and actions” (128). In his essay “Of Experience”, Montaigne, himself, states that “I study myself more than any other subject; ‘tis my metaphysic, my physic” (Montaigne). The central object of Montaigne’s investigative reflecting is himself. Montaigne is an explorer of his own subjectivity.

However, Montaigne’s writings are ‘reflective’ explorations in another sense. Because Montaigne delves so deeply into his own humanity, his writing becomes ‘reflective’ of the whole of humanity, that is to say, ‘reflected’ within Montaigne’s self-reflections one finds a reflection of themselves. When one explores the reflections of Montaigne, one is exploring one’s own reflection., one is exploring a reflection of one’s own subjectivity, one’s own Self-hood. Sarah Bakewell states that “This idea” of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity” is a cultural invention that is traced back singularly to Montaigne (1). Montaigne writes that “Authors communicate themselves to the people by some especial and extrinsic mark; I, the first of any, by my universal being; as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer” (Montaigne). In other words, as Montaigne goes on to say in “Of Repentance”, is that “every man carries the entire form of human condition” (Montaigne). As Ian Fraser explains the “Universal moves through the particular and the individual” (87). In Montaigne’s writing one sees a simultaneity between the universal, the particular, and the individual. The universal is reflected in the particular and the individual, and the individual and the particular are reflected in the universal.

Yet, what, specifically, is the universal particularity, or the particular universality, that one sees reflected in the explorations presented in Montaigne’s Essays? It seems that part of what one sees in the exploratory writings of Montaigne’s particular Self-hood is the universal impermanence and instability of the ‘Self’. Montaigne sees the Self as something in constant motion. The Self, “the features of my picture,” like the world, like “the earth the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt” moves incessantly and is perpetually altered and changed (Montaigne). The Self, the object of his reflective deliberation, cannot be fixed, “tis always tottering and reeling” (Montaigne). Instead the Self can only be taken “as it is at the instant” it is considered (Montaigne). Thus, his portrait of the Self is not so much a still life or a still frame but, instead functions as a kind of time lapse photography, capturing neither the stable substantiality nor the concrete constancy of “being”, but rather the “passage” of the Self “from day to day” and “from minute to minute” (Montaigne). Montaigne notes that “Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion” (Montaigne). Montaigne emphasizes becoming, and in exploring the landscape of the ‘Self’ Montaigne’s Essays are a cartography in motion, charting a moving geography constantly shifting.

Montaigne’s reflective explorations of introspection into the human condition reveal that the Self is amorphous and unstable. He demonstrates that the Self is a material conglomeration of temporal thoughts, fleeting feelings, insubstantial sensations, and impermanent perceptions, a constellation of ephemeral actions and variable patterns of behavior. This patterned constellation, though recognizable, is empty of absolute essence. To impose the idea of a solid Self onto these ‘patterns’ is nothing short of an example of apophenia (false pattern recognition). There is no one unchanging, stable Self. The varying objects of one’s materiality are also events, and the substances of the Self are also processes which implore one to live fully within the present moment, “not because it is fleeting, but because it is full” (Mijolla 62).

Works Cited

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Great Britain: Random House UK, 2010. Print.

Fraser, Ian. “Two of a Kind: Hegel, Marx, Dialectic and Form.” Capital & Class, vol. 18, no. 61, Spring97, pp. 81-12. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9702240185&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Hansen, David T. “Well-Formed, Not Well-Filled: Montaigne and the Paths of Personhood.” Educational Theory, vol. 52, no. 2, Spring2002, p. 127. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7186551&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Mijolla, Elizabeth de. Autobiographical Quests: Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Wordsworth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. Print.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. 8 Aug. 2016. Project Gutenberg. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.

 

Suffering and the ‘Self’

As the title of the video suggests, I’m discussing Buddhist ideas of Suffering and the ‘Self’, or more specifically the illusion of the ‘Self’.

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula – https://smile.amazon.com/What-Buddha-…

Waking up by Sam Harris – https://smile.amazon.com/Waking-Up-Sp…

The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood – https://smile.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_…

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright – https://smile.amazon.com/Why-Buddhism…

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts – https://smile.amazon.com/Way-Zen-Alan…

Secular Buddhism Podcast – https://secularbuddhism.com/57-all-pe…

Articles on Apophenia: http://skepdic.com/apophenia.html https://archive.is/20130121151738/htt…

Levi Bryant’s referenced Blogs: https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/… https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/…

Other Referenced Article: http://www.insightmeditationcenter.or…

Skandhas, Emptiness, and Object Oriented Ontology

In this video I try to elaborate on the Buddhist ideas of Emptiness and Skandhas, and how they connect or relate to Object Oriented Ontology.

Here’s a link to my previous video discussing Emptiness – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5sIH…

Why Buddhism is True –https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MPZNG63/…

Here’s a link to the Tim Morton interview I referenced – https://www.lionsroar.com/groundbreak…

Timothy Morton’s Blog – http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot….

Timothy Morton’s YouTube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZzy…

Brad Warner’s Book “Hardcore Zen” – https://www.amazon.com/Hardcore-Zen-M…

Brad Warner’s YouTube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCav0…

Brad Warner’s Blog – http://hardcorezen.info/

Ian Bogost’s Definition of Object Oriented Ontology – http://bogost.com/writing/blog/what_i…

“Rambling About Emptiness”

In this video I share some thoughts about Robert Wright’s book “Why Buddhism is True”, specifically about the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. I also talk about Timothy Morton’s work, Object Oriented Ontology, and even Frankenstein. I hope you enjoy it!

Links to Some of Robert Wright’s Books:

Why Buddhism is True – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MPZNG63/…

The Evolution of God – https://www.amazon.com/Evolution-God-…

The Moral Animal – https://www.amazon.com/Moral-Animal-S…

Some of Timothy Morton’s Books: The Ecological Thought – https://www.amazon.com/Ecological-Tho…

Ecology Without Nature – https://www.amazon.com/Ecology-withou…

Here’s a link to the Tim Morton interview I referenced – https://www.lionsroar.com/groundbreak…

Timothy Morton’s Blog – http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot….

Timothy Morton’s YouTube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZzy…

Brad Warner’s Book “Hardcore Zen” – https://www.amazon.com/Hardcore-Zen-M…

Brad Warner’s YouTube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCav0…

Brad Warner’s Blog – http://hardcorezen.info/

Here’s some info on Kant and his philosophy – https://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/#H3

 

Family Vlog #1

Often I’m weighed down with academia – the studying, the contemplating, the research, the writing, the reading, the collegiate, the everything.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all those aforementioned aspects of the intellectual pursuit but, its easy to get bogged down in it – in a kind of haze or fog. Sometimes you just need to have fun for fun’s sake. Sometimes you just need to revel in the simple pure joy of your family and friends. So…I’ve started a vlog with my wife and kids. It’s nothing special but, its fun and its a great way to spend time with them. Here’s the first one we made. Enjoy! If you like it, give us a thumbs up on YouTube and maybe subscribe. Thanks!