Archive | October 2010

WikiLeaks, the Iraq War, and Truth

The release on the Wikileaks site of nearly 400,000 leaked Pentagon documents from the Iraq War has caused quite a stir. That volume should keep some historians occupied for much of the rest of their lives. As of this posting, I haven’t read much that provides further insight into the invasion and the war except one thing, which I suspected and which the documents support. The Pentagon did indeed keep records of Iraqi civilian casualties despite publicly declaring that they did not. There is also probable evidence of war crimes by some Coalition forces.

The editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, stated: “We hope to correct some of the attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war and which has continued on since the war officially concluded.” Fair enough. I’m afraid, though, that truth has been under attack for quite a bit longer than before, during, and after the Iraq War, and not just by elite interests with a stake in preventing insight into our situation by obstructing clear perception and through confounding our reason.

It would be worthwhile, I think, if someone were to write a history of truth. I’m not sure anyone really has. The one attempt I am familiar with, Simon Blackburn’s Truth: A Guide, lost my interest after a few pages owing to Blackburn’s apparent error to discern, from the outset, that there is a subtle difference between truth and fact. That confusion is all-too commonplace. We discussed this confusion earlier in the former Dark Age Blog. If we find ourselves presently in the post-Enlightenment era (also known as “post-modern condition”) it is because disrespect for truth (which is ignorance in fact) has become epidemic — the real spiritual malaise of our time. And it is my observation that propaganda, or perception management, did not cause this epidemic disrespect for truth and ignorance so much as the propagandist exploits it. Propaganda — especially since its formal organisation during the First World War — exploits the already widespread confusion of truth and fact, or the confusion of higher and lower things, which confusion is even (and perhaps especially) evident in our “educated” population and amongst philosophers too. That conflation of “the truth that sets free” with “the facts of the matter” was the fatal error of a reduction committed by the European Enlightenment, and the beginning of that process of what is now post-Enlightenment nihilism in which “all higher values devalue themselves”, as Nietzsche succinctly defined nihilism — that is, the reduction of the noble to the ignoble. Truth ennobles. The truth that sets free leads to “the free spirit”, while the facts of the matter really do not have this transformative potency.

And as long as this isn’t understood, Nietzsche will probably be forever misunderstood — even by his admirers.

The only other author I know who actually began a history of truth was the British author Owen Barfield, whose book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry was on the right track. Facts are man-made (“made” is the very meaning of the word “fact” as in “artefact”,”factory,” or “manufacture”). Facts are re-presentations. As re-presentations, they are images and symbols. When we forget that “facts” are only the representations and not the presence of truth itself, we become idolators. Narcissism is our current word for describing this idolatry. Idolatry is the confusion of the symbol with what is being symbolised, which is partially described today by the term “logocentric” (also, ethnocentric, anthropocentric, etc). If, as the Greek humanists believed, “man is the measure of all things”, that measuring, which is the determination of the facts of the matter, is only adequate to human capacity within the limits of intellect and language for manifesting and communicating the truth. A fact, as such, is always a particular translation. As a partial and particular translation of truth into a representative form adequate for the human mind, it is an appearance and a semblance — a phenomenon amongst other phenomena, and always relative in that sense. Spacetime, in every aspect, is an order of transient and temporary relations and relativities which make for our experience of flux and impermanence. Not even the facts are immortal. They are more or less adequate and approximate guides through the labyrinth of this continuously changing order of interdependent and interweaving actions.

As the Qur’an puts it (and Rumi) “everything is perishing except His face“. This is very Buddhist, too. Not even the facts of the matter are eternal. That is one of the most important points in Thomas Kuhn’s famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Even the facts evolve because the universe is not static and neither are human beings in terms of their adequacies and inadequacies. Their horizons expand and contract like the breath, like the ocean’s tides, like the universe itself, and so civilisations arise and fall away as the horizons of their consciousness ebb and flow. John Donne, author of the very interesting book Time and Myth: A meditation on storytelling as an exploration of life and death, opens his book with the very first paragraph,

“A young girl once stood barefoot in Normandy, facing the sea and singing. Yeats the poet stood behind her at a distance, listening to her song. She sang of the many civilisations that had existed there and had passed away, he tells us. She sang to words of her own, but she ended each verse with the cry, “O Lord, let something remain!””

Nothing, however, remains in a world of relativities (which is to say, karmic existence). Not even “the facts of the matter”. Human beings, however, seem to resent that. That resentment has been expressed in very many ways. It is the resentment of the conservative who, like William F. Buckley Jr. and his National Review, “stands athwart history yelling ‘Stop’!”, which became, in effect, the proposition promoted in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (advent of neo-conservatism).  That resentment is the theme of Ernst Becker’s diagnosis of our social and civilisational malaise as The Denial of Death. It is the Welsch poet Dylan Thomas’s rage against the dying of the light. It is the frustrated and desperate attempt of the acquisitive individual to ground his or her sense of self through possessions (possessive individualism). It is Andy Warhol’s paranoia that one morning he would look into a mirror and see nothing there. It is the root of fixation and of the idee fixe, too (something akin to what I’ve called the bloated toad of ideology that perches on the minds of men and does their thinking for them). These are all like Yeats’ young girl crying “O Lord, let something remain!” on the seashore. The denial of death as the rage against impermanence expresses the ego’s need to narcissistically achieve a kind of immortality and immutability by identifying with, and grounding itself in, something more permanent and unchanging — facts, gods, ideologies, money, etc. It’s failure to do so gives rise to inner irritations and perturbations — anxiety, mainly, which breeds resentment: resentment of life, resentment of God, resentment of truth, resentment of other human beings deemed to be the cause of my anxiety and perturbation.

Why did Nietzsche call man “the sick animal”? It is because he is full of resentments. The denial of truth and the denial of death have much in common.

The resentment of truth is the root of narcissistic delusion and of delusive reasoning. This is why the First Noble Truth of Buddhism is so important in beginning the awakening from narcissistic fixation. The First Noble Truth states “Life is suffering” (dukkha). This means accepting and recognising the all-important insight into the nature of impermanence and the experience of impermanence. In effect, the First Noble Truth has exactly the same meaning as Rumi’s and the Qur’an’s “everything is perishing”.

The full meaning of the First Noble Truth “life is suffering” hinges on the meaning of “life” as activity — as action. It cannot be otherwise. The karmic law as the law of action and reaction is already implied or latent in the First Noble Truth. Spacetime is the karmic realm (samsara) because it is the realm of action and reaction, as even recognised, if somewhat narrowly, in Newton’s Law of Reciprocal Actions (despite those who insist there is no connection between Newton’s law and karma — a perfect example of the deficient, narrowly conceived rationality that isolates and segregates the facts of the matter from the truth that sets free, which is itself irrational). “Life is suffering” and “everything is perishing” are necessarily implied in the law of entropy in physics and chemistry. There are not two worlds of mind and matter, of res cogitans and res extensa, or Ego and It, subject and object, which remains the detritus of an already antiquated and delusive metaphysical dualism.

Erich Fromm once wrote a book called Escape from Freedom. But because freedom and “the truth that sets free” are inseparable, he could just as easily have entitled his book “Escape from Truth“. That, also, would have to be considered as aspect of any thorough history of truth. It is in this sense that the contemporary propagandist and the propagandised collaborate in their mutually reinforcing delusive logic (as the first major theorist of propaganda, Jacques Ellul, realised). Enlightenment-oriented thinkers like Assange and Noam Chomsky assume, in good faith although naively, that human beings seek the truth. Nietzsche was already convinced that they did not. This is the nature, also, of Fromm’s “escape” and it was already foreshadowed in Petrarch’s account of his ascent of Mount Ventoux “the soul, when approaching God, must be similarly terrified” he wrote. This “terror”, you may recall, is equally “the first enemy of the man of knowledge” in Castaneda’s account of his apprenticeship to don Juan. And the first temptation of the man on the path when he encounters this enemy is to run away. If he does so, he is finished on his quest for truth. This is equally Fromm’s “escape”, and it is also Ernst Becker’s “denial of death”.

The former New York Times war correspondent, Chris Hedges, wrote a book called War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. (“Us” being more generally human beings, I suspect). This is actually to the point. Hedges was disturbed by his witnessing of the escape from truth and into illusions. The truth doesn’t really matter to most people. They don’t have the strength or courage for it. The mythical self-justification of the ego’s investment in an Absolute (meaning) is more comforting and consoling rather than Petrarch’s “terrified” approach to “God”. If it were not so, truth speakers would not suffer derision or martyrdom — (as did the Sufi Hafiz did, for example).

That’s, at least, the import of Nietzsche’s very influential 1873 essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense“, which has been often mistaken and misunderstood, it seems to me — and most especially by post-modernists. It’s worth reading, because it does provide very useful insight into the flight from truth and consequently the escape from freedom that were to become major themes in later sociological literature, and which became manifest reality as Neal Gabler’s “Republic of Entertainment” (Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality).

 

 

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Events and Episodes

The international face of Canada these last few days has been pretty much that of the strange and tragic case of Air Force base commander Colonel Russell Williams. If your local media haven’t already apprised you of the lurid details of this saddening case of  depraved sado-sexual compulsion and fetishism leading to rape and murder, you may be in the only place on the face of the Earth where it hasn’t been reported. If you recall, though, I once recommended reading “The Mask of Sanity” as a guide to the more extreme nature of the culture of narcissism. And if it is applicable anywhere, it is certainly seems so in this case (as well as the often absurd reaction to it).

Like Col. Williams himself, recorded in his video-taped confession, I have no answers to the mystery of his behaviour and the tragic outcome, for himself and others, of his compulsion. (“I don’t have any answers. I’m pretty sure the answers don’t matter”, he confessed). You may recall that Marx once quipped that history does repeat itself, first as tragedy and only subsequently as farce. The situation here is reversed. Col. Williams’ case has all the characteristics of the hilarious Monty Python sketch of the cross-dressing Canadian lumberjack, but without the laughter. The comedic and the tragic faces of the dramatis personae here are all too close. They even exchange grimaces. Here, the farce precedes the tragedy. It is the tragedy of human beings in the grip of demonic forces they do not understand and cannot control, and this is true here for both victim and victimizer. I feel great sorrow for the victims of Col. Williams’ compulsion. I feel great sorrow, too, for the man who was driven mad by his compulsion and fetish that he had to act the way he did even when he hoped he wouldn’t.

Of the incipience and aetiology of the sickness that began as a fetish for stealing and wearing women’s lingerie, but then eventually drove him to rape and murder despite himself and his hope, we may never know. Although I have been following the trial fairly closely in the media reports in expectation of gaining some degree of insight into the demonic forces that often grip the minds of men, his case is not as yet transparent to me. We may never know the truth of what drove Williams to his depravity. But I am certain that the mob baying for his blood are not in any way superior to the kind of obsessions and fetishism that have already taken the life of Russell Williams. His story is an (increasingly familiar) human story of addiction, obsession, and compulsion, or wearing masks and dissembling in public. And the mob that brays for the restoration of capital punishment for his sake indulge as much in a fetish and a mindless compulsion as did Col. Williams.

The case of Colonel Russell Williams, though, has overshadowed one of the more surprising events recently in Canada — the election of a Muslim as mayor of one of Canada’s biggest cities — Calgary. Let me repeat that — Calgary. I would not be surprised or think it worthy of notice in the blog were it not… Calgary. Muslims have been elected to legislatures before in Canada. But Calgary is the home base of the “new” reactionary conservatism. Perhaps the election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary might be cited as an instance of “enantiodromia” or reversal at the extremity. What is interesting, in this case, is that the 35 and younger age group, normally disgusted and disengaged, was actively instrumental in overthrowing the older (and quite reactionary) conservative establishment in the city, as this column by Adrienne Beattie in The Calgary Herald seems to illustrate.  It’s encouraging.

Evidence, I take it, of Rosenstock-Huessy’s observation that only the mortality and feableness of an older generation is the sole guarantee of human progress. And, of course, comparisons of Naheed Nenshi’s victory in Calgary to Barak Hussein Obama’s victory in the US have been the particular “obsession” of Canada’s own mainstream media, now. (Soon it will won’t be a novelty for the headlines).  Perhaps that is not without good reason, since the WASPish Calgary culture of an already antiquated past (that is, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) no longer has power to preside over the minds of the young. It was unable to get its own candidates elected. And yet, in Canada’s most cosmopolitan and “liberal” cities, Toronto and Vancouver, they have still to elect anyone to office who’s pedigree isn’t WASP and conservatively establishment.

Revolution and Transcendence: Uses of the Karmic Law

“Transcendence,” whether it takes the form of divine revelation or of theoretical cosmology, implies a search for authority outside the institutionalized offices and structures of the seeker’s society. Even its most most concrete form, the law code, implies a transfer of authority from the holders of office to the written rule. Transcendental impulses therefore constitute, by definition, an implicit challenge to traditional authority and indicate some dissatisfaction with it….”
Harold Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983)

This passage is quoted in David R. Loy: A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack. It is an astute observation (a law historian, Berman was influenced by the legal writings also of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who we’ve had occasion to mention). The passage reminds equally of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which also has a transcendental aspect, and the two are probably connected at some fundamental level of understanding.

You don’t have to understand transcendence in otherworldly terms, either. The word simply means “to climb over” or “to climb across” (as depicted in the Urbi et Orbi woodcut). The meaning of Berman’s remark, though, is clear. The transcendental impulse, in whatever form it takes, either arises from, or gives rise to, a sense of dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs in society and with its institutions. In that sense, it has a necessary political dimension and aspect as well. Also, “revolution” may just as equally be implied by the term “transformation”. The transformative potency of any transcendental impulse is, at the same time, the implied revolutionary potentiality within in and in consequence of it.

 

Urbi et Orbi

 

 

Freedom Bound

Ring them bells, although they toll for thee.

In the earlier Dark Age Blog, Alex Jay once pointed out the Prussian philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s programme for a modern education. Fichte’s programme was given in his essay “The General Nature of the New Education” which appears in Addresses to the German Nation (1807).

* The new education must consist essentially in this, that it completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate, and produces on the contrary strict necessity in the decisions of the will, the opposite being impossible. Such a will can henceforth be relied on with confidence and certainty.

* If you want to influence him at all, you must do more than merely talk to him ; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will.

There are some interesting implications contained in this programme for a new education (which seems to have been substantially realised to some extent, particularly in propaganda and “perception management”). But I’ve since learned that the sentiments aren’t original with Fichte. They are Plato’s.

I’ve always been tempted to think of the celebrated Greek Three Wise Men — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — as being more akin to The Three Stooges. (It’s a mischievous thought that occasionally crosses my mind). In any case, Fichte’s programme is already foreshadowed in Plato’s Republic, from which I will quote just one passage,

“The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace — to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. Even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash or take his meals only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul never to dream of acting independently and to become utterly incapable of it”

This prescription for a austerely Spartan life may have been born of Plato’s resentment of having witnessed Socrates’ condemnation and execution by the Athenian democracy. (There were, to be sure, a number of notable Greek thinkers who denounced the democracy as mob rule). Nonetheless, the rationally enlightened and regulated Society of Plato’s Republic is a thorough-going totalitarianism, and some scholars have held that it is Plato who is the source and inspiration for the totalitarian thinking and politics of the late Modern Era (maybe even for the Star Trek’s ‘Borg society). One thing is certain, though, neither in Plato’s Republic nor in Fichte’s programme for a modern education is any degree of spontaneity, or even personal expression, to be permitted. The domination of State or Society over the individual is to be total and (“human nature” being what it is) the individual is to be constantly surveilled and policed. The individual’s will, intentions, perceptions, and reasoning are to be shaped and fashioned in such a way that the individual becomes totally predictable (which is today called “reliable”). Plato’s thoroughly rationalised ideal society is completely regimented and repressive.

We are actually pretty close to this situation as it is — a hair’s-breadth away from it, in fact (and not for the reasons most people think). It’s not just the trends towards the global Technocracy. It’s also revealed in the muddle-headed and strangely inarticulate promotion of “freedom” we read and hear in both the liberal and conservative media. Superficially, liberal and conservative pundits promote themselves as champions of freedom (more political and social on the one hand, more economic on the other), but if you parse out their meanings, you will discover that what they promote is actually a species of unfreedom.  Particularly in the conservative press, lip-service to freedoms is the order of the day, and this has been noticed by others when they speak of the “new” liberalism and “new” conservatism as being, respectively, an “illiberal liberalism” or a reactionary and nihilistic conservatism. Why that is so is because the horizon of meaning around the word “freedom” is presently contracting, and is becoming even more narrow as the late modern consciousness also contracts and grows narrower and more parochial. These are connected. Freedom, in consequence, is self-destructing on these contradictions, and largely because it is narrowing into a mere ideology. This, too, is an aspect of the late modern “culture of narcissism”.

When our “new” conservatives speak or write of “freedom”, it is almost invariably economic only, and hardly distinguishable from libertinism, licentiousness, and laissez-faire — my right, as an individual, to freely indulge my appetites. This is referred to as “deregulation” or as “getting the state off my back”. Once conservatism gets its hands on the levers of state power, though, the song and dance changes almost immediately. It’s been noted in Canada, for example, that the “libertarian” inclined Prime Minister Stephen Harper deports himself more like a Mussolini. And once in power in the United States, these same “new” conservatives who complained loudly about the state and of a “liberal fascism” nonetheless conceived, embraced, or overlooked nefarious and despotic programmes like DARPA’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) project. They also found “reasons” to comfortably accommodate Margaret Thatcher’s “There is No Alternative” (TINA) principle and Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” doctrine, both of which made moot all talk of social and political liberties and choices while maximising economic and market ones. This was, in fact, also the unabashedly Mephistophelian neo-imperialist project proposed by Niall Ferguson for the newly conquered societies of what was to be a new American Empire — a maximum of economic liberties, but with no political, social, or civic freedoms. The new conservatism also moved to put an ideological leash on free scientific inquiry and discourse, and controls on education and the universities (a la Fichte’s programme above). The name for this radical reductionism and the narrowing of the horizon of freedom is “economism”. It is almost the very definition of the new conservatism, and its origins, too, lie in Plato’s vision (via the influence of Leo Strauss).

The problem with indulging and permitting maximum liberties for the appetitive nature in man is that this appetite is quite insatiable and tends towards anarchy and the “war of all against all”. Here’s where the self-annihilating contradiction in contemporary conservative ideology becomes potentially destructive (and also self-destructive). It must use the resources of the state to limit the expression of the allegedly “repressed” appetites (repressed by “regulations” or “red tape”) by emphasising the exact opposite of what they espouse and promote publicly. What they give with one hand, they must attempt to take away with the other, and so simultaneously the compensatory accent now falls on “law & order” or on “traditional morality” (they are great at wearing their piety on their sleeves even when they do much the opposite in private, as numerous recent scandals have born out). This duplicity in the logic of the new reactionary conservatism is not just reflected in the Jekyll and Hyde character of Canada’s Stephen Harper, but in the problem of “economism” (and the narrow policy of “jobs, jobs, jobs”) itself. It is much the same with liberal governments as well at the end of history. Homo oeconomicus is expected to spend freely (consumerism) and save frugally (belt-tightening) at the same time. In other words, to be simultaneously wantonly self-indulgent and diligently self-disciplined. Conservatives like to call this “balance” but it is, in effect, contradiction, and this contradiction is implicit in the ideology. The situation is unsustainable in more ways than one.

The appetitive nature is what Sufi’s call “the nafs” or animal souls. Revealingly enough, “animal spirits” is the same term used in econo-speak, and was even used recently by the governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney. (I doubt that he is familiar with Sufism). Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism is even the title of a book by a Professor of Economics by the name of George Akerlof.  “Animal spirits” and “the nafs” are the same issue, but are treated correspondingly, much differently.

“Exuberance” is also a euphemism frequently used for outrageous epidemics of greediness. Rumi described this exuberance as the awakening of “the dragon” of appetite, which conservatives prefer to call “human nature” or “just the way things are”. That’s because they are, in effect, much that way themselves despite grand public displays of moral rectitude and virtuousness. Ideological rationalisation of the contradiction is the attempt to make private vice appear as public virtue, and the dragons of appetite seem like the Angels of Mons.

In effect, the “freedom” to indulge the tyranny of “human nature” in the form of the nafs — the addictive and appetitive nature — is the fundamental contradiction itself. More people are realising today that the merely economistic ideology of “freedom” is a chimera and a hoax that really disguises an inner compulsion and compulsiveness — an unfreedom at root — even in the form of our slavish obeisance to something called “human nature” (the usual suspect). The so-called “developed” world, especially, is already degenerating from what are called “diseases of consumption” (or sometimes, “lifestyle diseases”) which are really diseases of indulgence, and these are the outward manifestations of what is obviously an inner malaise (which David Loy calls “the sense of lack” or perpetual sense of neediness).

These are the blowback effects of the contraction of the horizon of meaning around the word “freedom”, reduced to a narrow economism. It’s marvelous to witness how blind our latter day ideologues are to the consequences of their own deficient and self-destructive logic and narrow nook-and-corner partisan perspectivism, and the contorted rationalisations they indulge in to deflect attention from, and insight into, that fact. Yet they still manage to deceive many (that is to say, the many who still want and need to be deceived, and who don’t mind being deceived or doing the deceiving themselves one little bit. After all, it’s “human nature”).

And, after all too, the rewards of deception and cunning are great — at least, in the short term. That is why we have, today, spin doctors, public diplomacy, and perception managers.

Counterfeit Soul: The Self as Social Artefact

Sow a thought and reap a deed
Sow a deed and reap a habit
Sow a habit and reap a character
Sow a character and reap a destiny.

As I noted in the last post, the karmic law exists for the sake of learning. Understanding the karmic law is the very essence (or at least the beginning) of wisdom. You could say that the karmic law exists so that the Prodigal Soul can eventuate its return to the source. You may also say that the karmic law exists for the sake of full self-realisation. To understand the karmic law only narrowly in terms of reward or punishment, or pleasure or pain, blessing or curse, or good and bad is not just to miss the larger issue of karma, but is to distort its truth. What does it mean to act? It is the process by which the soul enlarges itself through its experience. (William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” in his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are all very much about the karmic law). The attainment of this perfection is called, in the Buddha’s teaching, “the infinite body of merit”. Rumi described this state as the realisation of formless being.

Here is how the Buddha wanted the law of karma to be understood, as Carlos Castaneda’s teacher don Juan expressed it equally:

“The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.”

This is the proper perception of the karmic law.

The attainment of an “infinite body of merit”, which is the theme of The Diamond Sutra, is the escape from the bindings of the karmic law. This is called “stopping the wheel of time and space” (or “stopping the world” in Castaneda’s writing). Many people have great difficulty appreciating the meaning of The Diamond Sutra (or even translating it properly. It is difficult for karmic beings to interpret the teachings of one who is no longer “karmic” in that sense for being the Tathagata or “Thus Gone”). It all seems like nonsense. The sutra’s strange paradoxes and seeming self-contradictions are the Buddha’s attempt to explain the status or station of one who is no longer bound by the karmic law, for that one has stopped the world or stopped the wheel of time. Time is the realm of karma. In effect, time is karma. This is also the very meaning of the word “secular” (the generations or ages). But the law of karma is, at the same time, the “raft” to the furthest shore. And as the Buddha put it, what need have you of the raft when you have attained the furthest shore? This is also implied in the quote from Blake that so many people often have trouble with:

One Law for the Lion & the Ox is oppression.

The karmic law exists for man’s sake, not man for the karmic law. Once the lessons of existence have been fully learned, the law ceases to be relevant or applicable. One is no longer bound to the rules of conditioned and conditional existence. This is what the Buddha attempts to describe and explain in The Diamond Sutra. It is also what Rumi often teaches. It is the station of the “man of knowledge”, in Castaneda’s terms. It is, in effect, what Jesus called “the truth that sets free” as distinct from “the facts of the matter”. The facts of the matter pertain to the karmic realm, while the truth that sets free pertains to the transcendence of the karmic law. Also implied here is Nietzsche’s “transhuman” as the realisation of the free spirit.

It is said, nonetheless, that “nirvana and samsara are the same”. This follows from non-duality. This is not true, however, for one who remains bound within the karmic state and condition, which state is called “attachment”. “Unattachment” is to act without provoking the fateful reaction called “The Consequential”. This is possible. It is what Buddhism is actually all about.

And why it is possible has to do with the verse above, which describes the chain of consequence called “cause and effect”. Buddhism, however, actually reverse engineers this chain of consequence. This is the main significance of the Four Noble Truths. This reverse engineering of “destiny” by systematically tracing it back to the act is what we today call “deconstruction”, (but what others call Buddhistic “nihilism”, which is not quite correct). In fact, post-modern deconstructionism has its roots in Buddhism (mainly via Nietzsche who is the arch post-modernist philosopher). Let’s follow this deconstruction more closely…

Post-modernism begins by describing the “self” as a socio-historical artefact or construct. This is what Buddhism calls the “conditioned” or “originated” self-nature. Buddhism begins with observing that “destiny” is suffering and is the karmic realm of samsaric existence described as “dukkha” (more generally, “malaise”, “dis-ease”, or unsatisfactoriness).  This is the first Noble Truth. It examines this realm and (like Heraclitus) discovers its root in “character” (self-nature). It systematically analyses and observes this “character” (practice of mindfulness) to discover that it is merely a collection of habits, addictions, assumptions, beliefs. It then proceeds to interrogate these habits for their validity and finds they are rooted in “cravings” which condition men’s acts (deeds). These deeds are then traced back into the thoughts and percepts of the mind that forms them, which are also systematically deconstructed as being acts. Finally, the action itself, which creates the chain of consequences leading to a self-with-a-destiny, is stopped or suspended by the attainment of a perfect “inner silence” called “empty mirror”. The self is emptied of self-nature by the cessation of the mental action (called “the Monkey Mind”). This is the doctrine of anatman or “non-self” (or No-Mind) in Buddhism. With the perfect cessation of action comes the Great Nothingness. And since Nature abhors a vaccuum, so to speak, into this Great Nothingness rushes the All. By becoming nothing, one becomes everything. In that sense, indeed, there is “no-self” or “no-soul” any longer. One has attained to infinite, formless being where no boundaries exist between entities whatsoever. Thus is realised perfect compassion or love because without a bounded self-nature, one knows oneself as being all other beings equally. There is no real separation. This is called both “The Beyond Beyond” and “Ultimate Truth”. This state is also called “the infinite body of merit”.

“When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom.
When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love.
Between these two my life turns”
– Nasargadatta Maharaj

(When we speak of people as “big-hearted” or “broad-minded” as against mean-spirited, narrow- or petty-minded, it is to be understood that this is a minor reflection of this in karmic or phenomenal terms).

In any case, it comes back to the question: who it is who does this “sowing” to begin with? Who plants the seed that takes root as a thought, that then sprouts into the deed, that then branches and leafs out into the habits, that bushes out into a character and which then fruits as a destiny? Is it… parents? the “dragon of appetite” called “Mara”? Is it society and its institutions? Is it “God”? Is it a “power elite”? Castaneda’s don Juan called this counterfeit soul “the foreign installation”, an alien invader. These are the kinds of worthwhile (but often “dangerous”) questions being asked in the post-modern deconstruction. Remember, too, that the Buddha was considered a “very wicked man” and a “monster” for his teaching of anatman or “no-soul” by the counterfeit soul or “false self” which was terribly frightened by the Dharma, of losing their personal boundaries and of the implied conditionality and mortality of the ego-nature. One sees the same reaction today towards the whole principle and practice of post-modern deconstructionism. In the attack on deconstructionism is much the same animus as was directed against the teachings of the Buddha, and for much the same reason — the denial of death, the fear of impermanence, as the terror of losing one’s sense of self  become identified with boundaries and limits  (self-image, ideology, possessions, or “attachments” and habits of all kinds).

But that is just human narcissism — the real devilish problem.

Karma: Back to the Act

Im Anfang war die Tat — Goethe

“In the beginning was the deed” — or act — for German “Tat” could be just as adequately translated into English using either term. The translator probably chose to use the word “deed” for mainly aesthetic and literary reasons.

The act or action is, as Goethe knew, primary. Thinking is an act. Speaking is an act. Perception is an act. We are everywhere led back to the act. And the act is what the Law of Karma is all about — the law of action and reaction. It is primary.

There is even a Buddhist proverb: “he who sees the action that is inaction is wise indeed”. There is profundity in that statement. We’ll return to that later.

With the so-called “Western turn” — the fraternal embrace of Buddhism by Westerners — also comes the inevitable and fundamental necessity of dealing with the issue of karma and the meaning of action and the issue of cause and effect. Even Buddhists have often floundered about with a superficial and distorted understanding of karma in terms of “good karma” and “bad karma”, and so the law of action and reaction becomes easily confused with issues of reward and punishment, pleasure and pain, and consequently moralised. This misunderstanding has the potential to become debilitating. And if Buddhism in the East today has become (as we stated earlier) “ossified and sclerotic”, it has much to do with a distorted and moralistic misunderstanding of karma.

Once again, though, I must invoke Khayyam’s Caution before proceeding further: “only a hair separates the false from the true“. Thus, the ordinary, or “common sense”, understanding of karma contains a modicum of truth, but not much of it.  Nor has the law of karma been completely unknown (consequently left uninvestigated and unappreciated) in Western intellectual history or ethics. I have noticed, however, that even some people who are very well-informed about the Buddhadharma still stumble or express perplexity about the law of action.

The law of karma was known to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The speech-thinker Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once called Heraclitus “the Greek Buddha” with good reason, but without fully appreciating why Heraclitus deserved that description. In The Dark Age Blog, we discussed at some length the principle of “enantiodromia” as reversal of fortune at the extremity of an action. The term was invented by the great depth psychologist Carl Jung, but it was his interpretation of what he had read in Heraclitus which he subsequently applied to his psychological theories. Enantiodromia, parsed into its particulars en, antio, dromia — meaning ‘in”, “against”, “turn” — has generally the same meaning as “perversion” — “through turning” or “turning through”. That is to say, perversal leading to reversal. Remember that the law of karma is the law of action and reaction, too. And it is more appropriate to interpret the meaning of karma and of enantiodromia in that sense as “reflection” of an action within the reaction — as a mirroring.

Your image in the mirror, for example, is reversed from true. This fact becomes obvious when you happen to perchance catch some piece of writing while examining yourself in the mirror. The script is reversed. Until then, you might not even have considered that your image in the mirror is actually inverted. You are habituated to it until you notice the anomaly of reversed writing in the reflection. More generally, this mirroring is what is meant by the term “Maya” — the world of bright illusion but as counterfeit reality (and “counterfeit” means having the appearance of the real thing). And when Buddhists speak of “the empty mirror”, it means the illusory or counterfeit world of reflected reality has been dispelled, when “Ultimate Truth” is realised and ultimate reality is perceived in its full clarity and transparency. This dispelling of illusion (which is the product of delusion, and which you may also call “counterfeit” or “camouflage” reality) coincides with the cessation of action, which is the cessation of karma by implication. This cessation is accomplished when perfect inner silence or stillness is achieved, which inner silence is called “nothingness”, but also “serenity”. Serenity is the suspension of the karmic law of action and reaction in terms of flexion and reflexion (or, if you like, the process described by version–perversion–inversion). This chain is called “The Consequential” or the chain of consequence, and therefore is represented in linked terms of “cause and effect”.

There is an anonymously penned verse that addresses the essence of the law of action as karma:

Sow a thought and reap a deed
Sow a deed and reap a habit
Sow a habit and reap a character
Sow a character and reap a destiny.

It’s hard to know if the author of this verse knew Heraclitus’ dictum “character [ethos] is fate”, but this is the law of karma succinctly expressed. You may recall, in like vein, the line from the Book of Hosea, “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”. It all means, in effect, that “you create the reality you know”. The sowing is the action and it is primary. It precedes the thought, too, because the thought is only the last stage of the process of thinking itself. The word “thought” is past tense. Sowing is the real action, which is often not even conscious, and your destiny (or fate) is the reaction to that action. Thus, the law of karma has more resemblance to the cybernetic law of feedback and control than to any merely mechanical process of “cause and effect”, (although that is partly implied in the law of karma).

It is easy to see, though, why some might come to moralise in terms of reward or punishment (or pain or pleasure in utilitarian philosophy) what is a strictly impersonal law of feedback and control. In effect, the law of karma is a law of learning — of learning to handle creative energy responsibly by seeing the results of that creativity reflected, mirror like, in the world as “samsara” or as Maya. The world, as such, is not the opposite of what you are but really the reflection and mirror of what you are, and this is what was known in the past as “the Book of Nature” in which all reality was considered as an intricate, interwoven system of symbols that needed to be intuited, interpreted, and deciphered for their meaning rather than merely analysed.

What is the upshot of the snippet of verse quoted above? All action creates entities and identities! Perhaps, now, you might see the penetrating insight of the Buddha into the nature of reality when he transcended the karmic law in achieving the “empty mirror” state of consciousness in the absolute stilling of the mind, thereby “stopping the wheel of time and space”, which is the law of karma in its total complex expression. He perceived that everything was empty of self-nature or its own identity. It was the result of the action of the consciousness mind as a “sowing”: “sow a thought….” and reap a world.

At this point, I’m going to leave you with a link to a website called “Sethquotes” I discovered this evening while looking for references  that will go into a great deal more detail about the meaning of action and the karmic law than I could ever do here in this posting (and maybe even in this blog). It is very rich in explaining the meaning of action and, in consequence, the real meaning of karma. I haven’t gone through all of it, but what I have gone through is priceless and insightful. I don’t think you will ever see the world or yourselves quite the same way again after reading the excerpts posted there.

(And it would be very worth our while if we were to spend some time discussing and commenting on what you read there).

The Narcissism of Our Times

It strikes me that the specific character of the narcissism of our time might be described in terms of three distinct but related tendencies: the diminishment and narrowing of our consciousness in the reduction of consciousness to ideology (ideocentricity); correspondingly, the devaluation and deformation of “true” and “false” into a brutal logic of “winning” and “losing”; and, following from these two, the deterioration of reason into rationalisation (the mental-rational structure of consciousness now in “defiicient mode” as Jean Gebser expressed it — a deficit of reasonableness).

These three tendencies, it seems to me, are sufficient to explain the uneasiness some observors feel about the times, and why so many have decided that, if we are not already in a Dark Age, we are well on our way to one. In general, though, I would also say that these three tendencies suffice to illustrate Nietzsche’s terse definition of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”.

I think that, if you scrutinise the present “culture war” (Kulturkampf) more closely, you will see that these three tendencies are implicit in the social conflict.

The confusion of consciousness with ideology is idolatry. “Winners” and “Losers” is the brutal logic of power absent the clarity of consciousness and unguided by truth. Where reason aims for truth in its transparency, rationalisation aims for the opposite. It is pretense. It is craftiness and “cunning of reason” that aims to mystify and make opaque the other motives, even from oneself. Where this is done merely from habit and unconsciously, it becomes a form of deception and also self-deception — rationalisation is a form of dissembling where the false misrepresents itself as the true.

Meaning of “truthiness”.