Saturday, February 5, 2011

Nirvana For All!

Not yet become a Buddha,
    this ancient pine tree,
          dreaming --Issa

Issa was a great poet, my favorite haiku master, he's very "human." But while the image here is beautiful, I don't like the philosophy underneath it. Okay, so: the Hindus believed that one must be born in the Brahmin caste in order to attain Moksha, enlightenment. Buddhism arose out of that milleau, asked, "why wait?" and said Nirvana is there for all, always. But it was said that all other beings, from gods to demons, angels to the grasses and insects, were stuck in the wheel of Samsara, waiting to be human; for only humans could attain Nirvana. Now, this seems pleasant, for a moment-- even the gods envy our auspicious position; good for us, we're in the right sphere of life. But there are implications (aren't there always?).

I look out my window at the oak growing up through the lawn, and wonder what this tree could ever do to produce the karma, good or bad, that is required to keep it in this wheel of samsara, the round of suffering. It's just a tree! It grows exactly as it does, perfectly. No ulterior motives, no nothing. Likewise the birds in its branches; they are simply themselves. Even if they do have glimmers of recognizable consciousness, they act on instinct, they live in the moment, as the Buddhas instruct. Karma is translated as "action," understood as acting with expectation; trees and birds don't act that way. Crossing into Taoism, the central idea is to attain a state of wu-wei, or "non-doing," in the sense of just going with the flow of the situations, of the Tao; it is the mark of a sage. And yet this is exactly what the tree is doing out there.

So one must wonder: if a tree or a bird or any other living thing dies, after its life of pure existence, is it reborn as a human again? It there, between one human life and another, a one-life interlude as some other creature or plant? It leads to a ridiculous chain of logic: imagine how many insects die every day, how many rodents, or any of the smaller creatures. A seed, an acorn, is alive, it is a baby tree; but most do not live to adulthood, most don't make it out of the seed. What about individual cells? In my body, untold numbers of cells die every day, both my own cells and the bacteria. They didn't ring up any karma, surely. Point is, there aren't enough humans to be born to offset the supposed progression from plant to animal to human.

And on the other hand, if a man is bad in this life, accumulates much karma, he is often imagined to be reborn as a worm or a bean plant or whatever. This is seen as bad. I say, hey, great! To live as anything other than a human is to live in peace. Ever seen an irritated tree? Or a spiteful worm? A bird miserable about his lot in life? Animals, and of course plants, don't worry, don't plot, don't stress, don't agonize over decisions, don't act out of hatred (or out of compassion for that matter). They simply do their thing, purely. Wu-wei.

The difference is the difference between pain and suffering. The former is physical, but the latter is purely mental. It's the build-up of all suffering into one moment, through memory and the miserable, self-centered "why me?" thoughts. Animals feel pain as pain, but they don't worry about hurting; they simply hurt. Only humans suffer. We're the ones out of sync; the trees are doing just fine. And if bitter old grandpa was reborn as a dung beetle, good for him! He's escaped the wheel.

All kidding aside, it's kind of a natural progression of thought, I think. From class oriented salvation, to human oriented salvation, to Buddhahood for all that lives, and for the rocks as well. Ever farther from the heirarchies we go. To leave behind the human centered concepts has been a theme of the past few centuries, thanks to telescopes and microscopes and science. It's good; it lets us shed such confusions and contradictons, it leads to a more honest spiritual system, a more reasonable philosophy.


  1. "Animals feel pain as pain, but they don't worry about hurting; they simply hurt. Only humans suffer. We're the ones out of sync; the trees are doing just fine. And if bitter old grandpa was reborn as a dung beetle, good for him! He's escaped the wheel."

    I don't know. What comes to mind here is "ignorance is bliss". Or like in the matrix movie, the difference between taking the blue pill and the red pill, the difference between being blissfully asleep and painfully aware.

    I think animals are sort of existing in a dream state of consciousness most of time, operating purely on instinct, programmed behavior, with very little self-awareness or freewill. Are they really better off? To be blissfully asleep, to be in harmony with the tao, much as a non-thinking cog in a machine?

    And also this: "It's just a tree! It grows exactly as it does, perfectly. No ulterior motives, no nothing. Likewise the birds in its branches; they are simply themselves. Even if they do have glimmers of recognizable consciousness, they act on instinct, they live in the moment, as the Buddhas instruct."

    The thing is perhaps that is as a tree should be, as in it is acting in perfect according with its tree nature, but this isn't to say that this would be the case for a human being. I'm not sure that acting on instinct is necessarily always the same thing as "living in the moment", or if acting on instinct necessarily implies mindfulness of the moment. Or if instinct has anything to do with awareness or cognition. That a person operating purely on instinct, is not much different than a machine, or a slave programmed to behave a certain way, having no freedom to choose any differently; reacting, rather than acting decisively with deliberate intent.

    *"Point is, there aren't enough humans to be born to offset the supposed progression from plant to animal to human."

    What if there are parallel worlds? A million earths. Or perhaps other planets that human beings could incarnate on.

    The way I understand it, the progression from mineral, to plant, to animal, to human, and beings that are above humans, is that this "spiritual" evolution, if that's what you want to call it, as in the progression of one form of life into another, is a process that could take millions of years. For instance, the time it would take for an animal to incarnate into a human could take 1000's of lifetimes as an animal. It's not that a cat is born a cat and then dies and is born a human. It may be reborn into a cat thousands of times, and perhaps into other types of animals, before it reaches the level of development necessarily to transcend forms.

    Same goes for devolution. Where it take along time, several incarnations as a human, before it would be possible (if it is possible) for a human to go backwards, to be reincarnated into a "lower" form of life.

    But of course this is all speculation. I haven't any idea how any of this works with any certainty, but having read a few books on these topics, that is my understanding of it, that just like darwinan theories of evolution, this evolutionary reincarnation is a very slow process.

    But as far as buddhahood goes, I don't think it is any concern of ours about whether or not it is possible for other forms of life to attain nirvana. If they do they do, and you can wish it all you want, but really, that is not anything having any bearing on your own life...each person can only focus on themselves. Sure you can helps others, but ultimately the quality of your own individual consciousness, mindfulness and awareness, and whether you attain a state of buddhahood and nirvana is entirely a personal affair. Gnosis.

    Just my two cents. Interesting post though, very thought provoking, even though I don't agree with you completely.

  2. very thought provoking, indeed! I have a doosey of a reply coming, haha. Thanks for getting the wheels turning!

  3. Human thinkers seem to think humanity is the top stage or that made in the image of the creator. In many ways, I think this represents the egoism of our species. It could just as easily be the other way around -- we might represent the lowest stage!

    Maybe life begins in the human form and we take the karma from this life and, if it's good karma, we move from stage to stage until we reach the highest stage as a virus!

  4. As I see it the distinction between "higher" and "lower" forms of life, or the differences between mineral, plant, animal, and human, is not about "superiority" or "inferiority", but about differing levels of "complexity" and "simplicity". To say that something is "higher" is to say that it is more complex; and "lower" less complex. To say that a plant is higher than a mineral is to say that a plant is more complex than a mineral, an animal is more complex than a plant, a human is more complex than an animal, and an angel or any other being that is "higher" than humans, is more complex than humans.

    There is such a thing as natural hierarchies in life, that have nothing to do with ego, or elevating one form of life above another based on designations of inferiority or superiority.

  5. Still, "complexity" represents a point of view. In the present case, it's from the point of view of humans.

  6. @rambling taoist

    Since when is having a point of view a bad thing?

    Being that we're humans, you could say it is perfectly natural, perfectly in accord with our human nature to classify our world in this way, to make distinctions between things, to have points of view.

    It almost seems to me like you're rebelling against being human, or that you have a negative opinion of humans. Like you're elevating other forms of life, as if being a tree or a virus would actually be preferable to being human, and yet it's nothing more than an intellectual exercise on your part, a mental abstraction, because like it our not, you are human. Instead of resisting it, how about embracing it.

    You can write about being one with the universe, or about living in harmony with the tao all you want, but it's always coming from a very human point of could never be any other way, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

  7. @rambling taoist

    I find it interesting that you suggest that a virus could be the highest stage of life, because what is a virus? A virus is a parasite. And what is a parasite?

    A parasite is "a (generally undesirable) living organism that exists by stealing the resources produced/collected by another living organism." A parasite is essentially a destructive force. It is a vampire. A thief. A ruthless exploiter. It takes without giving. It rapes and plunders without discrimination. It is not a pacifist, but a mass murderer. It doesn't help, it hurts, it doesn't enhance life, it destroys it.

    So if a virus/parasite were in fact the highest form of life, it would suggest that parasitic behavior would be the epitome of excellence, something to emulate. And if that were true, what would be the implications of that?

    To me it would suggest a world turned upside down, where good becomes evil, and evil becomes good. Where war becomes peace, freedom becomes slavery, and ignorance becomes strength. A world where death and destruction is exalted...and the underlying order of the universe becomes malevolent. That I think would be the natural outcome of elevating a virus as the highest form of life.

    But since I don't think you can ever really know for sure what is in fact the highest or the lowest form of life, as it may be different depending on your point of view, you must choose for yourself which qualities to elevate and to emulate, and which not to. Being human gives us this choice, requires it.

    Without choice, there would be no freedom. So you could say that freedom is the defining characteristic of our humanity, what really sets us apart from other forms of life; and yet the irony of it is, is that we also have the freedom to choose to exist in a state of slavery and ignorance.

  8. So defensive!

    I never said that having a point of view was negative. I'm sure each life form has their own perspective.

    My chief point is that we humans act as if OUR point of view is the ONLY one that matters and/or that OUR point of view is the most important in the overall scope of things. It may well be or it may not.

    As to a virus being a parasite, it again all depends on one's point of view. From the standpoint of most other life forms, they may view humankind as the ultimate parasite (or they may view us as gods).

  9. Defensive? Not all. I'm saying that being that we are human, it is impossible for us to see the world from any other point of view than a human one.

    You can never know what life is like from the point of view of a tree, or a cat, or a bird...all you can do is speculate on such matters, but it will always be from a human point of view. And it is fruitless to speculate upon what other lifeforms think of us, when it is completely outside our range of experience or capacity to know.

    The reason why the human perspective is considered to be the most important one, is not because it is the only one that matters, it's because it's the only one we can actually know and experience.

    Your logic is ridiculous to suppose otherwise.

  10. Yes, but in the void of meditation, one can move beyond every point of view and every perspective to a place that simply is.

  11. @rambling taoist

    Oh yeah, but do you speak from personal experience, or is this just theoretical speculation?

    I mean I seem to recall you saying on your blog that you don't meditate. And I also seem to recall you saying that you don't feel empathy.

    You're clearly very smart, maybe even smarter than I am, definitely more educated than I am...but I'm a bit confused, because I'm getting the impression that you are all talk. That you talk the tao, but you don't walk the tao.

    I know this is mean thing to say and it is not my place to say it, and you don't even have to answer me...but think about it. Do you practice what you preach? Are your observations grounded in reality? How much of your advice is based on actual experience, and how much of it is speculation?

    I direct these questions not only to you, but also to myself...and whoever else reads this. There good questions to ask.

  12. I have freely admitted that I don't engage in "formal" meditation. This is to say that I don't sit cross-legged on the floor at appointed times and, possibly, employing chants or serene music.

    I meditate in my own way. Sometimes, when I go to one of our local beaches, I simply sit, stand or walk the beach and take in the waves, the sound and the smells of the sea. I can lose all track of time and space. There have been times when I wind up a mile or two away from where I started as night falls and I momentarily can't figure out where I am or how I got there!

    I've also been know to meditate while driving long distances. There have been times in which I'll stop for gas or food hundreds of miles from where I started and I can't remember all the places I've driven through or any of the familiar landmarks. It's like I just left home and -- zap! -- I'm 400 miles away.

    That said, all of philosophy involves a certain degree of speculation. Ya know, dreaming the impossible dream?

  13. P.S. In my view, it's impossible NOT to walk the Tao. It is part of me and everything else. When I walk -- no matter how crooked my path -- Tao is part of the journey.

  14. Whether you're listening to music and chants, the sounds of the world, or the sounds of silence, meditation is about mindfulness, not mindlessness, about paying attention, not forgetting where you are.

  15. Still, "complexity" represents a point of view. In the present case, it's from the point of view of humans.

    The same could be said for tao, as well as all words and concepts.

    That said, all of philosophy involves a certain degree of speculation.

    True. All speculative thinking and philosophizing is a distinctly human trait. You will not find any philosophers among the mineral, plant, or animal kingdom; to be human is to a natural born philosopher, a thinker, and questioner.

    It is only by the virtue of being human that it is even possible for you to speculate upon the experience of other forms of life, or to even imagine that it would be ideal to be reborn as a tree or an you even think animals have any concept of reincarnation or even of dying? I don't. Even the supposition that it is ideal to exist in such a way, to value "being" over "thinking", is a fundamentally human discrimination. Taoism, just like Christianity and all other religions and philosophies, is a fundamentally human invention, a human point of view.

    And there is nothing wrong with speculating about things, but it is important to recognize that the difference between experience and theory, is the difference between knowing and believing, and knowing through direct experience is a fundamentally more reliable source of knowledge than speculative thinking. Which doesn't mean speculation isn't valuable, it's just less reliable, but it still has its place.

  16. This represents the second time you have read something I didn't write. Just because I am momentarily disoriented as to my precise geographic location this does not mean I have been mindless. I consider it very mind-ful; it is a fullness of the cosmos. My present status of who or where I am is a triviality.

    These times refresh me. I would think a traveler such as yourself or a hiker like Brandon would relate -- becoming "lost" in the rhythms of nature.

    It is not so unlike being in the throes of rapture with a lover. You may not be fully aware of what's going on in the next room, but you are very mindful of the connection between two people.

    As to another of your comments, who is to say that minerals, plants or other members of the animal kingdom do not have their own philosophers? We neither speak their languages nor understand their realm of consciousness. Their lives may be far more philosophical than ours for all we truly know.

    My point here is that each form has its own internal nature. We humans tend to judge other internal natures by our own and, when they don't meet our discriminating parameters, we say they don't exist.

    I am open to the possibility that they do, in fact, exist. The older I get, the more I realize how much I as an individual don't know AND how much as a society or species humans don't know.

  17. Daydreaming is not meditation. If you're walking along the beach, or driving in your car and lose track of where you are, or how you got there, it means that you were not paying attention, it means that your attention has wandered off from the immediacy of your surroundings. You do that too often, you may find yourself walking off a cliff, or getting into a car accident.

    I agree that each form has its own internal nature, but what I'm saying, or have been attempting to say in all of my comments, is that it is our human nature to judge other natures according to our own. Sure you can be open to the possibility that other forms are more intelligent than we often give them credit for, but I'm arguing that is mostly unknowable to us, and is therefore fruitless to even speculate on such matters. AS a human you will never know what a tree thinks, only what you think a tree thinks.

    And while I consider myself a pantheist, who loves nature, being in nature, and am also an avid hiker, I have no desire to ever become "lost" in nature. Nor do I seek to ever lose my individuality, and merge with the collective ALL THAT IS.

    Your presentation of Taoism, which may or may not be an accurate presentation of Taoism at all, is of a philosophy that is anti-intellectual, anti-individual, mindless collectivism. I think that you are a Socialist first, who is reinterpreting Taoism to fit your Socialist thinking. I could be wrong, but that's what it looks like to me.

    So thank you Rambling Taoist, thanks to you I now know without a shadow of doubt that I am neither a Taoist or a socialist.

    You are like a dog chasing its own tail. Completely illogical, circular reasoning. And any further discussion with you would be fruitless, so you won't be hearing from me anymore, not here or there.

    Adios amigo. Arrivederci. May you find peace of mind and wisdom in spite of what has been said here. I'm done. And as The Crow would surely say, amen to that!

  18. My Goodness! This was as entertaining as one of my beloved wuxia dramas, "Shaolin vs. Wudang: The Viral Sword and the Sentient Sabre."

    Just for the record:

    --Taoist meditiaton is called "sitting forgetting."
    --It is possible to NOT walk the Tao, to be out of touch with the Way. Lots of people are -- the people Lao Tzu calls "ordinary."
    --It benefits one to find a good Chinese master; the teachings may be superficial if approached on one's own with no guidance.
    --My teacher would stress, as many others do, that some sort of "structured practice", meditation, qigong, tai chi, painting, calligraphy, music, something, is essential to align with the Tao, to generate, feel, and embody qi.
    --Taoism does put the human in an elevated, highly evolved position between heaven and earth,
    a kind of mini-replica even of the universe. (Although RT would say this is religious.)
    --Many people find in Taoism ways to justify their own preconceived notions of what existence is all about. If you want to exist in a social, material world, you will find a way to justify that; if you believe there is something spiritual to aspire to, you will find that too.

  19. Wow, interesting debate here! I'll chime in a little.

    Seems the problem is coming in with putting values on these points. That is, to a human sick with the flu, or dealing with dysentery, yeah a parasite is a bad thing. To the parasite, it's just living its life, which it, if it could, would consider good. It's okay to maintain the human viewpoint, but on some level, it is a relative truth, not an absolute value.

    As for complexity, it doesn't seem to me to be a human perspective. It seems an "objective" property of nature. Molecules more complex than atoms, fact. My problem is thinking that more complex equals "better."

    I also tend to agree with Cym about the meditation. Road trances are definitely a different mental state, but it's not one of expanded awareness. I've been into self-hypnosis and hypnotic trances in general for a while, and it's a very focused, narrowed attention on often repetitive things that gets you there. The beach walking, though, I can identify with in a more expansive sense, depending on how you use it.

    Cym, I'm not sure anyone is talking about losing their individuality; I've never read RT that way, anyways. I understand "enlightenment" as becoming an even stronger personality, more truly yourself. You're in touch with the underlying All, but not a zombie or mere cog of it.

    Baroness, you are right, I'd love to actually have a teacher. But my life is too unsettled just now. And I admit, part of me thinks it's silly. Truth or Tao or whatever is all around everywhere, available to all, so who needs this guru bullshit? It's my allergy to organized religion coming through. But other times I've thought it'd be neat to live on an ashram or in a monestary for a while, or at least to really have some sort of guide in all this. But I don't know who to trust, who's the real deal and who's a scam. How do you spot the real teachers, the truly enlightened?

  20. I want to make a comment about what y'all have termed as "road trance."

    When I am in that state, I submit that I'm a much better and safer driver. I react instantly to situations. In my normal state, I have to think what to do; in the trance state, I don't think. I just do.