Montaigne & Buddhism Part 3: Anatman/Anatta – ‘No-Self’

This is Part 3 of my Montaigne & Buddhism series. In this video I talk about the similarities between Montaigne’s view of ‘The Self’ and the Buddhist doctrine of Anatman/Anatta.  Below you’ll find a rough transcript. Enjoy!

Alan Watts explains that “The doctrine of anitya is” not simply “the…assertion that the world is impermanent,” but also that “the more one grasps at the world, the more it changes” (46-47). Because the world and everything within it evades a solid and stable grasping, it goes without saying that the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca also applies to the ‘self’.Owen Flanagan explains that “‘the self’ is like many other natural things, and as such “Personhood is [but] one kind of unfolding” (69). The ‘self’ is impermanent and transitory. There is no fixed or permanent ‘self’. Even the ‘self’, no matter how firm or steady it seems, is also an event or process of becoming and unfolding. Montaigne says “I study myself more than any other subject” (Montaigne). One of the chief objects of Montaigne’s mindfully concentrated observation was his own subjectivity, his own mind, his own consciousness, his own ‘self’. In the attentive awareness he devoted to his ‘self’ he noticed, and gained insight into, this transient impermanence. He writes that “the features of my picture alter and change,” and thus, “I cannot fix my object” (Montaigne). The ‘self’, as object of Montaigne’s investigative awareness, is “always tottering and reeling” (Montaigne). Montaigne can only take the ‘self’ “as it is at the instant [he] considers it” (Montaigne). He cannot paint the “being” of the ‘self’, he can only “paint its passage” (Montaigne). The passage of the ‘self, Montaigne notes, is “not a passing from one age to another, or… from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute” (Montaigne). Montaigne says that the ‘self’ so rapidly alters and changes that “I must accommodate my history to the hour,” wondering “whether it be that I am then another self” (Montaigne). Montaigne saw in his ‘self’ “a subject void of form” and it was all he could do to “couch it in this airy body of voice” (Montaigne). Montaigne seemed to recognize that the ‘self’, like the world in which it is a part, is not only impermanent but, ultimately ungraspable. Grasping at the ‘self’ is like grasping at the wind, the more one reaches for or attempts to capture the ‘self’, the more the ‘self’ evades being held, vanishing from sight.

Here, Owen Flanagan suggests that the human subject is “a transient being constituted only by certain ever-changing relations of psychological continuity and connectedness” (28). The human subject is an amalgamation, constantly in motion, and changing before it can ever be fully grasped. In this regard, the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca, when applied to the ‘self’ gives way to another central thesis of Buddhist thought, i.e. the doctrine of Anatman (Sanskrit) or Anatta (Pali), that is the doctrine of ‘no-soul’ or ‘no-self’. Walpola Rahula, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk and author of the book What the Buddha Taught, explains that the doctrine of Anatman/Anatta proposes that just as “there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging, and eternal in the whole of existence,” so too is “what we call ‘I’, or ‘being’…only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change” (66). Rahula states further that “What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’,” is but a naming convention, it “is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these…impermanent” and “constantly changing” aggregates (25). In this regard, according to Buddhist philosophy a human being is a coalition comprised of five Skandhas (Sanskrit) or Khandhas (Pali), that is, what is commonly called the Five Aggregates.

The Five Aggregates that comprise a human subject, as outlined and explained by Zen Buddhist monk Brad Warner, are form (body, matter, or materiality), feelings (sensations or sensorial experience), perceptions (cognition or cognitive functions and operations), “impulses toward actions” (volition, mental formations, or conditionally directed responses to phenomenal experience), and consciousness (Warner 69). There is little in Montaigne’s Essays that directly or explicitly address the detailed specificity of the listed Five Aggregates that constitute a human being (though research for this writing has certainly made an attempt to do so). Given the immense breadth of Montaigne’s Essays, perhaps it is possible to undertake the task of attempting to draw specific comparisons to the Five Aggregates in Montaigne’s writing yet, such a task is beyond the scope of this paper. However, suffice it to say for now that Montaigne does seem to agree with the general trajectory of the idea that the human being is an amalgamated collection, a conglomerated coalition. Indeed, not only does Montaigne recognize that the human subject is “infinite in matter, infinite in diversity,” and “evermore flowing and running, without ever remaining stable and permanent,” he also seems to see the human being as a mass of interwoven connectivity (Montaigne). Montaigne writes that “We are all lumps, and of so various and inform a contexture, that every piece plays, every moment, its own game, and there is as much difference betwixt us and ourselves as betwixt us and others” (Montaigne). Montaigne presents an evocative imagery of the human subject as a lump, so various, informing a contexture. Such an analogizing portrait seems to be firmly in keeping with what is at the heart of the Buddhist notion of Skandhas/Khandhas. It is interesting to note that the literal translation for Skandhas/Khandhas means “heap” (Warner 67). In Buddhist philosophy a human is a ‘heap’, or more specifically a ‘heap’ made up of five interconnected ‘heaps’ (the Five Aggregates). Put in the terms of Montaigne’s thought, perhaps one could say that a human being is a ‘lump’ of ‘lumps’, a ‘lump’ made up of various ‘lumps’, that is to say a collection of aggregations, an aggregated totality. In other words, it seems that according to Montaigne, the human subject is an irregular and indefinite, “compact mass of a substance” (“Lump, n1), “a mass of things,” that is “interwoven together…to form a connected whole” (“Contexture, n1”), marked by both variability and instability.

 

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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

 

What’s in a Name?: Is ‘God’ in Need of Upgrade or Obsoletion?

I must admit I’m certainly not one of the most original thinkers; a thinker? yes, original? probably not so much. I try to counter-act my apparent lack of originality by at least being well-read. I’m usually reading between 5-7 books simultaneously and I scour the Internet and social media for articles of interest with the hopes of happening upon an unseen connection that may spark a bit of inspiration.

In one of many meanderings into social media and forays into the world-wide-web of information I came across an article on Michael Dowd‘s website entitled, “God is Reality Personified, Not a Person.” A great title for sure and an intriguing read.
In the article Dowd’s primary thesis is simply this: “God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality…not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity.” Agreed! He goes on to specify that “ALL images and concepts of God are more or less meaningful interpretations and personifications.” Anthropologically speaking, this point simply can’t be overemphasized.
In this regard, Dowd highlights the fact that “we humans have always been in an inescapable relationship with a Reality that we could neither fully predict nor control.” Similarly, I do think the concept of ‘God’ was an important stepping stone in the evolution of humanity. At one time it was an idea that held an immense functionality (Prof. Lloyd Geering gives a wonderful talk on precisely this point, you can find it here). It served as what Ken Wilber might call a “Theory of Everything”. However, as Wilber explains a good theory of everything is “not fixed or final” but, rather is one “that has served its purpose if it helps you get to a better one” (xiii). In other words, ‘God’ functioned as a kind of a prehistoric/ancient innovative technology, and like most technologies, over time may have become outdated, outmoded, and obsolete. In this regard, I wonder if perhaps theologians, in their total reliance upon what they believe to be the necessary preservation of the ‘God’ hypothesis, are, in effect, trying to force dial-up to function optimally within a Broadband world.
It seems that many theologians and religious thinkers, whether liberal or conservative, radical, orthodox, or heterodox, weave such an elaborate, complex, and, an often contradictory tapestry in an effort to make the idea of ‘God” work, one cannot help but think to ask, “if it takes such an immense amount of effort and strain to justify a particular idea, perhaps the idea itself is fundamentally flawed?” Even though I have garnered much from various theological thinkers and many religious academic or intellectuals, I still wonder if ‘theology’ carries far too much baggage to be genuinely helpful and if ‘God’ is far too value-laden to be of use. Paul Van Buren goes so far as to suggest suggests that terms such as ‘theology’ and ‘God’ are “either meaningless or misleading.” Thus, the more I have ventured into the studies of history, human origins, language, ethology, ethnology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology, the more I think that Geering has a point, perhaps as he suggests ALL ‘talk’ regardless of what it is about cannot be anything other than ‘human talk’, and ‘theology’ is nothing other than anthropology (Geering, 3). (This is not to say, however, that I think that there are not paths to think beyond the ‘human’; see The Ecological ThoughtEcology Without NatureLarvel Subjects.)
It seems then, (although I may be mistakenly oversimplifying) that we have one of three options. Though I can’t say at this time which if any of the three are better or more helpful:
1) neologism  –  in this case that is re-naming ‘God’, inventing new words, phrases, concepts, or ideas to be used in place of ‘God’.  This seems to only offer more confusion rather than more clarity, as it would only be an elite or select few that would maintain any sense of familiarity. Here, I think of Caputo’s “Event”. This is a beautiful concept but, as a friend of mine astutely observed, “what everyday person hears the word ‘God’ and thinks of the event?”
2) re-appropriation – in other words, preserving the verbiage, rhetoric, and ‘name’ of ‘God’ while reformulating its contents and meaning. For example, another friend of mine takes the Paulinian idea, “God IS Love” quite literally, suggesting that whenever and wherever there is love, there is God. In his usage Love is God. Here, he simply uses “God” as a kind of symbolic place holder/synonym for love. While I can sympathize with this move to an extent and while I’m sure this re-appropriation works for him individually. I think it similarly succumbs to the same pitfalls of neologism. There seems to be a break down of practicality, praxis, and performance. We simply do not engage with “god” and “love” in interchangeable ways when observing the realm of everyday religious practice. Love is a verb, not a noun, personal or proper. Love is not and should not be an ‘object’ of devotion, worship, prayer, veneration, or observance. Love is an action, it is enacted, it is performative. (But, in this idea’s defense, perhaps, ‘God’ needs to go through a re-verbing process.)
Dowd, too, alludes to a kind re-appropriation in his article:
[W]e see an enigmatic power operative in our everyday lives, giving us our life and all good gifts yet also limiting us in nearly every conceivable way, and finally taking our lives away. This is real life! This is reality as it really is, whether or not we like it. There can be no argument whether or not this reality exists. If you don’t want to call it a power, call it a force, an up-against-ness, or simply the universe as it really is. As Bultmann points out in his essay, we are not talking about some metaphysical idea here. We are talking about an unavoidable actuality. Words may fail us, but we all know this reality intimately, personally.

Here, Dowd says that “For me to look into the awe-filling fullness of life and pronounce the name “God” means a commitment of my life to reality-based living…Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity (living in right relationship with reality and helping others do the same) is my religion.” Yet, Dowd, when quoting Rudolf Bultmann. poses what I think is an important question to consider: “Why call this mysterious power ‘God’? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma’, or ‘fate’?” These are questions I have constantly asked myself when it comes to ‘God’. Perhaps, we should simply let our yes be yes and our no be no, in other words, perhaps, we should simply let ‘Love’ be love, let love stand on its own two feet, unmasked and unfettered. Why can’t we simply let the enigma be the enigma and let mystery be mystery? Are these not strong enough ideas and words on their own? Or am I being hypocritical here? Elsewhere I have written about how much I admire the philosophical use of language, that is, the way in which philosophy dramatical alters the meaning, significance, and content of common place everyday language in ways that are then anything but ordinary.

Finally…
3) rejection/abandonment – letting go of ‘God’, disengaging from its usage, dismissing its utilization, and declining its employment. Many credible thinkers that are steeped in theology suggest just such a route (Geering, Cupitt, etc.). This needn’t be an antagonistic maneuver. It can be reverent as it can recognize that these ‘theorizations’ have been useful in the past but, they have served their purpose.
 As a committed non-theist/atheist I must confess that I greatly lean towards rejection and abandonment, as I have no use spiritual or transcendent aspects of ‘God’ but, as an equally committed academic student of religion I still recognize that there is a kind of ‘power’ and magnanimity in the word and concept of ‘God’, especially in its ability to encapsulate and evoke that which is of ultimate concern.  I cannot say with any absolute certainty that complete rejection is actually the best way forward. I am simply unsure. Consider the immense immanence, materiality, and earthenness found in the following passage by Zen Buddhist priest Brad Warner from his book Hardcore Zen:
 
Everything is sacred. Every blade of grass, every cockroach, every speck of dust, every flower, every pool of mud outside a graffiti-splattered warehouse is God. Everything is a worthy object of worship…Truth announces itself when you kick away a discarded bottle of Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Truth rains on you from the sky above, and God forms in puddles at your feet. You eat God and excrete truth four hours later. Take a whiff—what a lovely fragrance the truth has! Truth is reality itself. God is reality itself. Enlightenment, by the way, is reality itself. And here it is.

Do we replace the word ‘God’? Do we invent whole new trajectories of ‘God’ language? Do we maintain its usage, its structure, and completely overhaul, renovate, and remodel its interior content? Or do we simply walk away, tip our hats, count our losses, and make for the exits, discarding the verbiage by the wayside as mile marker monument to where we have been and how far we have come as a species and culture? I don’t know…

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, where do we go from here?