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Posts Tagged ‘buddhism’

Excellent essay series on Stoicism

November 2, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY euthman

For many years I’ve internally identified with many of the central tenets of the ancient Stoic philosophy, mostly after reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (Amazon|UK), but it’s not something I’ve seen much about so haven’t really considered it beyond the “Yes, I identify with that” concept that many of us do whenever we encounter a whole or partial philosophy.

I’ve written previously about my exploration of some philosophies and religions, but Stoicism is something I’ve not really spoken about with anyone. It, along with my examination of Buddhism have, largely unconsciously, informed much of my mental wiring with regards to topics such as reactions, drives, ambitions and wants. It affects and informs my interactions with family and friends, my view on possessions and consumerism, many aspects of my personal and working life, and even how I behave in the inevitable British traffic queues.

Imagine my surprise to discover recently on BoingBoing, one of my daily reads, an excellent series of essays on the subject of Stoicism by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, entitled Twenty-First Century Stoic:

  1. From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic
  2. Insult Pacifism
  3. Stoic Transformation

They are an excellent introduction to the philosophy, and the comparison to certain aspects of Buddhism resonates with my own experiences. I can’t pretend to agree with everything in these essays, nor do I think the philosophy is without its faults, but by the same measure I don’t completely agree with everything written by atheists or humanists — also worldviews with which I strongly identify.

Even if you are not particularly interested in adopting such a philosophy on life, I recommend looking into what Stoicism is really about. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not really all about emotional passivity and the stiff upper lip. You could read a modern work on the topic, such as Irvine’s own A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Amazon|UK) — or you could go directly to the ancient writings of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Seneca (Letters from a Stoic / Epistulae morales ad Lucilium),  Epictetus, and the logician Chrysippus. Their works aren’t covered by copyright, so are available in many places online, including Project Gutenberg.

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A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 5

January 22, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 4.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Upon coming to a decision about Buddhism, I then chose to examine an aspect of Christianity that had I no experience of: the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers). They seemed to be non-existent where I grew up, so it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I learned more about them in passing, and eventually decided to investigate them in greater depth. My understanding is that the Quakers in the UK are notably different from those in the US — my friends there speak of Quakers there as if they are fundamentalist or fire-and-brimstone organisation, which is nothing like the Quakers I’ve come across here.

In the UK they meet in a Friends Meeting House (a church by any other name, but usually without many of the trappings) with the chairs arranged in a rough circle so that everyone can see one another, and the meeting consists of everyone sitting in silence. There is no preaching, no sermon, no tub-thumping, no agenda being cast down from the pulpit — just people sitting and quietly reflecting. It remains this way until someone feels moved to speak, at which point they will stand and calmly say their piece, then resume their seat; later on someone else may feel moved to speak (sometimes in response, sometimes not), and this continues until the meeting finishes. Once finished, everyone stands and shakes one another’s hands with a smile, and then everyone retreats to the canteen/dining area where everyone shares lunch, with most people having brought a plate of food to share.

With the exception of one meeting where a member clearly felt strongly about his son being sent to war and subsequently feeling moved to speak out against it (followed by another member gently providing Biblical platitudes, resulting in the same man feeling moved to speak out again against his son’s predicament, and so on), which drove home the unfortunate nature of the concept of “being moved to speak”, all of my attendances at Quakers meetings were delightful. Regardless of such instances of emotion-driven speeches, it is a truly welcoming and peaceful environment. In fact, one of the members of the same local Buddhist group I once attended is a regular attender at the Quaker meetings — they are so welcoming that one does not even have to profess Christianity (or indicate that you’re willing to “sign up”) to attend and be truly welcome, unlike every other religious organisation I’ve ever attended, before or since.

My experience with the Quakers showed that they are as much, if not more, about community and spirituality than religion and dogma, and those are attributes that I’m sure anyone can respect, admire and appreciate. However, they are prey to the same faults as other Christian groups: the adherence to the Bible as infallible, the belief in God/Jesus/Holy Spirit (the Trinity), and to the belief in the concept of “being moved” to speak. My biggest concerns were that nearly all such motions were from the speaker’s personal life or recent headline news. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to fathom that the source is mundane, not divine.

Continued in Part 6.

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 4

January 18, 2009 Comments off

This follows on from Part 3.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

The next 8 years or so saw me maintain at least a passing interest in religion, but it became more generalised to include the breadth of what I considered to be global wisdom. I gradually came to call myself an agnostic over this period, losing all of the “fear” beliefs surrounding fundamentalist Christianity (the whole You’ll go to hell if you do/don’t… thing), and it played less of a role as other matters in my life took precedence: university, career establishment, buying a house, moving across the country, moving overseas, etc.

It was a few years after I moved to the UK that I regained an interest in religion — not necessarily from an “I need religion…” viewpoint, but rather to explore it with more academic interest and to re-assess its part in my life, if at all. I realise that it’s glib to say “we’re all going to hell because we’re all heretics to someone’s religion”, but another way of looking at that is to think that many of the world’s old religions had at least kernels of truth. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are perhaps unique in that essentially they share a common origin — the Pentateuch (or Torah) — and some other world religions are based upon other religions or cultural legends. While the Mithraic legend and Horus history are probably the most obvious for Christians, I chose to look at other religions rather than stick with the Judeo-Christian theme with which I had more than a passing familiarity.

As I wasn’t “looking for god”, I looked at Buddhism and, in particular, Theravada (also called Orthodox). It is the oldest of the main variants of Buddhism today (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) and is the only natively non-theistic variant, and therefore an excellent candidate for a life philosophy. There is no deity, rather deference and respect for Gautama Buddha, the person who is believed to have discovered enlightenment and shared it with others. To this end, I read a great deal, become involved with the national Buddhist Society, regularly attended a local Buddhist group’s meetings, and even spent a day at a monastery, 30 miles outside London, to learn the various forms and modes of meditation. I still regard that day as one of the most peaceful and relaxing of my life, if for no other reason than we seldom take the chance to genuinely switch off from our thoughts, concerns, desires, greed, insecurities, aspirations, fears and dozens of other mental hamster wheels.

My experience with and study of Buddhism was a fascinating and peaceful experience — and I still occasionally make use of anapanasati meditation to relax myself — though as with my prior experience, there were dogmas, beliefs and practices that were clearly not real or applicable in a world outside a monastery. Part of this is, I suppose, a problem that afflicts many monastic people who deal with people who live in the real world (to do with relationships, business, time spent, etc), but the parts that bothered were to do with genuflecting towards statues of Buddha (it seemed the same as praying to a deity) as well as their viewpoint on suffering. The concept of the ending of needless suffering — euthanasing even a pet, for example — were alien, as pain is a part of life and is to be accepted. It wasn’t just those points, but it pointed out to me that this was not an entirely rational community.

I have not spoken about the other core variants of Buddhism, as I feel unqualified to do so, suffice to say that my understanding is that Mahayana — from which oriental Buddhism and variants originates — allows for the godhood of Buddha or Buddhas, as some revere more than one, and Vajrayana (Tibetan) includes aspects that are shamanic and involve magic and other superstitions. While I am not attempting to denigrate these variants, these points do show why I chose Theravada. It allowed for a thorough examination of a philosophy without the distractions of deities and such.

Continued in Part 5.