Prelude: Naturally Green.
By Dr Robert Miller (Philosophy, RMIT University)
I was speaking to a friend on the phone, a big supporter of the Green Party. We touched briefly on a few topics such as the Greens and being green naturally, sustainability, dependence on products and technology, internet dating services, meditation, the beauty and music of rain, ageing and age gaps in relationships, etc. She invited me to go to a fairly expensive music concert at Rod Laver Arena, but I politely declined on the grounds that I like to find music within me and in the environment around me and so don’t need to go to Rod Laver Arena.
After putting the phone down, a green muse visiting my head at the time dictated the following pataphysical poem to me:
“Naturally green, naturally new, naturally sustainable. How is it possible? Not so much through government imposition from the top down. People need to be naturally green from the roots up. How? Maybe by being internally self-sufficient in mysterious emptiness beauty, pataphysical poetic beauty, comic spirit beauty, ludic com-passion beauty, and all this contributing to a condition of re-enchantment and inward bliss largely independent of the ups and downs of circumstance.
All this is green meditation. Meditation is not merely sitting down to meditate for a specific period of time: it is all day long. Meditation helps to sustain the natural but should also be naturally occurring from moment to moment as the interplay of the aforementioned kind of qualities.
To meditate greenly one applies beginner’s mind, new mind, looking at the world afresh in the emptiness of time and thought. In this state mysterious emptiness beauty is sourced. On this basis one can then flower out and appreciate pataphysical poetic beauty, comic spirit beauty, and ludic compassion beauty as well. One becomes naturally green and rich in beauty. This results in a gradual withering away of old pursuits of seeking happiness in externals.
One simplifies. One becomes more spiritually self-sufficient in growth and wellbeing and so sustainable. If everyone sourced this green goodness from their own roots rather than seeking it through products and thrills, then human existence on the planet would become sustainable in a natural way without the need for impositions from the top down.
The best green party to have is meditation. Meditation is the fun and funniness of always being green and ageless.”
I don’t know who the green muse was or where she came from, but I assume from the courtyard outside glistening green in the musical rain, because while meditating I’d left the back door open.
This is the English word I am using to translate the Sanskrit word shunyata. It is associated in particular with the teachings of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (243-300 AD). I’ll read a bit from page one of my book Buddhist Existentialism on this:
“T. R. V. Murti maintains that…shunyata (usually translated as voidance, emptiness, nothingness, openness) is the central philosophy of Buddhism…Some people will say there is something even more fundamental in Buddhism, and that is the philosophy of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. However, it can be argued that the idea of shunyata (emptiness, voidance) follows logically from the Four Noble Truths and so is crucial to the Eightfold Path.” (Miller 2008, pg 1)
Simplifying in brief, the first noble truth is that life is full of suffering; the second is that the cause of this suffering is clinging and craving; the third is that the Buddha has found a remedy that we can apply; and the fourth is that this remedy involves learning eight kinds of skills or noble arts in life:
- The art of critical dialectics (which I’ll explain more about in a minute).
- The art of mindfulness of our thoughts and of adopting the most com-passionate, harmonising, skilful, and beautiful thoughts. This can then be called no-thought: thoughts without clinging to and craving them as truths. Even the four noble truths are to be understood as no-truths in this sense.
- Likewise with speech: the most com-passionate, harmonising, skilful, and beautiful no-speech is recommended.
- Likewise with action: which is then com-passionate no-action: action without clinging to and craving the goals involved in the action. (I’ll be saying more about this too.)
- Likewise with livelihood: one’s career should be com-passionately chosen and also be a no-career career.
- Meditation, the key ingredient: it requires us to be insightfully mindful in any moment of the upshot of the critical dialectic, shunyata/emptiness, as well as being mindful of thoughts, speech, and actions, and turning them into no-thoughts, no-speech, no-actions.
- Concentration: like any artist, an artist of life needs to have the ability to attend to the fine details, to focus without distraction, not jumping about absorbed in wandering thoughts, emotions, and daydreaming.
- Finally we will need strong resolution to put our art into practice.
How does shunyata/emptiness follow? Well, if the cause of our suffering is clinging and craving then the remedy will be to emancipate ourselves from this. The object of clinging and craving might be anything impermanent in the temporal world, so not just material things but also thoughts, opinions, beliefs, knowledge, truths, etc., as they are all subject to doubt and change over time too.
Nagarjuna’s critical dialectic (pro-and-con of philosophical debate) highlights this factor in the realm of thought and theory. In this respect he is somewhat akin to Socrates: prepared to consider every proposition about reality and subject it to a critical cross-examination in the noble pursuit of the truth (or no-truth).
What is the real truth of things? Does anyone really know?
Nagarjuna’s critical dialectic shows that for every view of reality an equal and opposite view can just as soon be argued such that no one view is left standing that we could crave and cling to as the truth. Rather human views of reality are seen to be slippery and void: empty, shunyata. This is the basic insight-into-emptiness. It is similar to the insight arrived at by ancient Greek Pyrrhonian sceptics summed up in their motto: “the opposite is also true”. Also in their saying (later made famous by Shakespeare in Hamlet): “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” That is, thought and theory construct the so-called real, the so-called world, including the apparent good and bad. This reality is fabricated via our cultural linguistic interpretation systems or language games: otherwise “what is” is simply the unknown, the unnameable, the mysterious, the ineffable – that which cannot be pinned down by this or that concept.
It is easy enough to show there is no true human knowledge of reality. Someone will say, “It is obvious what is real: the material world exists and so does time and space and objects and selves in time and space. It is all out there separate from the mind. Reality exists.” Some people crave and cling to that. However, as we might have learned by now from reading various philosophy texts, it can easily be countered that there might be some kind of principle of deception operating in existence, perhaps a deceiving spirit, or God, or karma, or causality we do not currently know about. If so, then the so-called world we perceive might be a dream, a projection of the mind, an illusion – or what Eastern traditions call Maya. As we cannot prove this one way or the other it logically follows that any view of reality can be countered by an equal and opposite view, its binary other, namely, the view that the view in question is an enthralling deception.
It is noteworthy that dogmatic believers apply this kind of logic when disputing the beliefs of opponents but conspicuously fail to apply it to their own. For example, in a Youtube video Richard Dawkins responds to a Christian who says he knows Jesus exists because he has seen and heard him, by saying that this fellow is merely hallucinating, deceived by hidden causes, such as cultural conditioning and psychological needs. Unfortunately (because it would have made for a more interesting video) the Christian is not astute enough to counter-reply that the same argument could just as soon apply to Dawkins himself.
The Christian could be right and Dawkins is the one deceived. Or it might be that neither is right, for after all there is no reason to suppose that only these two views are worth considering. There are a multitude of possible views of reality. Perhaps there are many that we human beings haven’t even thought of and one of them might be the correct one, for all we know, since we haven’t come across it yet so haven’t had the opportunity to see how brilliant it is!
You may have recognised that this talk of critical dialectics, reality constructed by cultural language games, the endless play of binary opposites in thought and theory-land, etc, sounds like postmodernism. Just so: the likes of Derrida and Baudrillard argue that in constructing anything as this or that we are also constructing the not-this and the not-that. Every concept has its other. Theory proceeds by privileging one side of the binary and declaring it central, the truth, the valid view, with its other as the excluded, marginalised, or invalidated view.
What Derrida calls deconstruction is the ability to read a text or theory and see how the marginalised concepts could just as soon be regarded as central and the central just as soon regarded as the marginal. In short, things can easily be turned upside down or reversed. If so, then nothing is left standing as the finally valid or absolute truth to crave or cling to. Everything fluctuates and flows in language games in an endless play of opposites and new evolving alternatives.
The upshot is pretty dramatic: thought and theory self-destruct as truth in an endless flux. Therefore, this postmodern deconstruction seems to be very similar to Nagarjuna’s deconstruction of everything to the flow of shunyata/emptiness – a point often noted in the literature (eg, Powell pg 162).
Returning to my prelude: I describe the emptiness as mysterious. Well, if thought and theory fail to capture reality in a final explanation, then reality remains inexplicable, incredible, mysterious – impenetrably so. Do we open to this receptively however? It is not clear that we usually do. As long as we are absorbed in our thoughts and theories, endlessly discoursing from one moment to the next in our minds, habitually privileging this or that view over other views, clinging to and craving one centralised view, then we are not being mindful of the flow of emptiness and the marvellous mystery of existence. We block ourselves to the mystery and uncanny wonderment of being in incredible existence this very moment.
Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the true source of all art and science.” (Dyer, pg 125) Seems then there should be a beauty to the mystery of existence. Experience shows there is – although one may have to meditate awhile in shunyata/emptiness to be fully open and receptive to it. Try it. See if the beauty of the mystery of existence appears.
That there is a free beauty to be found here is suggested by a couple of other sources. For example, philosopher of art and aesthetics Jerome Stolnitz analysed the beauty experience in what he called the pure “aesthetic attitude”, which he defined as “a disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone.” (Stolnitz, pg 19). In this contemplation no thinking or judging should distract us from the receptive contemplation of the object. Similarly, Kant (Kant, 1978) described “free beauty” as an experience of beauty that arises spontaneously when the cognitive faculties of the mind are idling in free play – i.e., one is not distracted by judging, moralising, desiring, calculating, remembering the past, thinking about the future, etc. One is fully present in a non-cognitive way.
This is reminiscent also of the famous “suspense of judgment” the ancient Pyrrhonian sceptics recommended, as well as Buddhist meditation in emptiness. All such sources testify to the mysterious tranquillity and free beauty that can be accessed when mind is quiet, voided or empty, where either there is an absence of thoughts or one is so unattached to them that they glide by indifferently and do not distract from contemplation. In that state we seem to be optimally receptive to free beauty all around us in the environment, even in the most simple and ordinary objects. If we can access this beauty that would aesthetically enrich and enhance our experience of life – and for free too. Highly sustainable!
This, then, is what I mean by mysterious emptiness beauty.
Pataphysical poetic beauty
What now about the next thing I mention: pataphysical poetic beauty. What do I mean by that? Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard has used the term, one he appropriated from French art and literature. He defines it as, “a science of imaginary solutions rising above physics and metaphysics.” (see Jean Baudrillard 1994 pg 18; 1990 pg 85; Charles Levin 1996 pg 277-8).
Scientists crave and cling to the truth that physical matter really exists. Theorists in general crave and cling to this or that metaphysical truth. But after postmodernism both physics and metaphysics look outmoded. Philosophy must move toward a new kind of thinking: pataphysics, a poetic art or skill of thinking about reality that does not make truth-claims and is happy to consider itself quite possibly imaginary.
Pataphysics does not sidestep emptiness, as it is this emptiness that makes pataphysics pataphysics, not some new science or metaphysics. Pataphysics is close to comic absurdist literature: however, it cannot be dismissed as false, as that would involve assuming that we know the truth, which we don’t. It is therefore a viable mode of constructing life and reality according to a playful aesthetic taste. It is, indeed, the post-postmodern way.
In and from emptiness we can construct reality as we please. The Buddhist recommendation is to construct it skilfully and com-passionately with a view to bringing the whole of life and reality into harmony – i.e., a non-dualistic harmony of “interdependent co-origination” where any one occurrence happens as it does only because everything else happens as it does. It all coheres together in the one good karmic or causal process. Therefore, you cannot separate anything out to declare it a “self-subsistent entity”, or something “truly bad” – as if it should not exist. Everything is a necessary thread in the one good tapestry or web sometimes poetically referred to by Buddhists as Indra’s Net.
But the ultimate in com-passionately conceptualising reality as a good interdependently co-origination harmony is to picture it as the Maya, the mental projection or dream, of the one transpersonal Self or Buddha-mind. This passage from Buddhist scholar R. H. Blythe sums it up beautifully:
“There is a Hindu myth about the Self or God of the universe who sees life as a form of play. Since the Self is what there is, and all that there is, and thus has no one separate to play with, he plays the cosmic game of hide-and-seek with himself. He takes on the roles and masks of individual people such as you and I and thus becomes involved in exciting and terrifying adventures, all the time forgetting who he really is. Eventually, however, the Self awakens from his many dreams and fantasies and remembers his true identity, the one and eternal Self of the cosmos who is never born and never dies. – Blyth, Games Zen Masters Play, pg. 5
Note that Blyth refers to this as a myth, not a truth. This is one big difference between traditional Hinduism and Buddhism: Buddhism avoids clinging and craving, so is unattached to metaphysics as religion, as truth, and is open instead to skilful myths, artful poetics – pataphysics. Buddhism, in other words, is a no-religion, no-metaphysics, no-truth, no-thought – that is, it has thoughts but does not crave or cling to them as such. It happily returns them to emptiness at any time. It pataphysically constructs reality as the interdependently co-originating harmony and beauty of the one transpersonal Buddha and so moves from Zen Mu (nothingness or emptiness) to Zen Wa (harmony) and back again.
Comic spirit beauty
Which brings us to the next phrase in the prelude:. M. Conrad Hyers wrote a wonderful book called Zen And The Comic Spirit. In it he argues that the essence of Zen Buddhism is the comic spirit applied to everything including oneself and one’s thoughts and desires. His main point is that when we are less craving and clinging we can let go and laugh more easily: we can have a more playful comic spirit about life. We can also communicate in this comic spirit and play around with language, since it is nothing sacrosanct. Unlike the religious, we can joke about the sacred, not because we are irreverent, but because we delight in the art of reverencing everything without division or exclusions.
Therefore this or that so-called sacred object or ritual is “nothing special” considered individually because everything is special and sacred, even the so-called trivial or profane. This follows logically from the idea that everything interdependently co-originates in one karmic harmony. The good and the bad, the sacred and the profane, are integrated in the sacred whole as it unfolds from moment to moment. Hence there is no need to go to a temple to contemplate the sacred: one can contemplate the sacred anywhere – on a tram, in a supermarket, in a toilet, etc. The beauty of the comic spirit allows one to humorously appreciate everything in the sacred and profane non-duality of things.
Ludic com-passion beauty
That just leaves the last phrase to explain: Ludic means playful, from the Latin for play, ludere. So this kind of com-passion is like playing in a game where one acts to achieve the goals appropriate to the game but where one is not clinging and craving: after all, everything in the temporal world is “only a game” from the more open standpoint of a transcending spiritual awareness. In other words, com-passionate action is no-action.
Moreover, the com-passion here should not be understood as a suffering over the suffering of others, or as suffering with others, both of which would require us to be in a further state of suffering and so would multiply the suffering in the world. Buddhist com-passion does not propose increasing the suffering but decreasing it. Therefore the com-passion is called non-attached, i.e., one does not torment oneself about suffering but rather one acts to alleviate it – rather as doctor might without buying into it and craving or clinging to results.
Also, we should write this com-passion as com-hyphen-passion to bring out two points: a) that we are here talking about a passion, a feeling, not a dry cold emotionless state, and b) that the passion is comprehensive, meaning that it extends to all suffering sentient beings. Ludic com-passion beauty is the beauty of acting to enlighten and alleviate suffering in a playful way.
A final note on this: I have followed the traditional manner of referring to the Buddha’s teachings as a “noble” skill of life or art form. Why noble? The word is used to distinguish the approach from that of mundane pragmatism, which always has its eye on strategies and calculating utility. The noble refers to the sublime, that which rises above the worldly temporal level and does something just for its own sake in the here and now – as when one says, “art for art’s sake” or “com-passion for com-passion’s sake”. It is primarily for itself. Likewise true play is for itself rather than for whatever goals may be attained. Consequences are not the main point.
In this sense the Buddha’s teachings are noble. They originate, not primarily in a quest for pragmatic outcomes down the track – for despite what utilitarians say, no one can calculate consequences into the future – but in com-passion: an ethical love and appreciation for the revered whole regardless of the possible good consequences of this. The point being: one exercises this com-passion anyway even although you don’t know what the consequences will be and cannot calculate them.
You play in the noble game: the game being to seek courageously for the philosophical truth first even if this does lead to the challenge of emptiness; to find the mysterious emptiness beauty in this incredible situation and appreciate it in and for itself; to then posit in com-passion a pataphysics of the harmony of transpersonal Buddha Mind in which everyone and everything is affirmed as good in an all-inclusive way; to then enjoy the beauty of the comic spirit as a kind of art for art’s sake; and finally to act, create, and live in com-passion as a virtuous end-in-itself.
This is why the Buddha referred to The Eightfold Path as “noble and profitable” – it may well lead to good consequences, although this is not the main point, since the teaching is also called noble, meaning that it rises above the utilitarian: for it is practiced for itself in the present. To sum up: Buddhism is from beginning to end a noble art of love or com-passion for all-in-all. It is a present virtue and benefit for itself and not merely a means to possible future ends or benefits.
And that, at the end of the day, is why one cannot reduce Buddhism to psychotherapy, as many theorists these days try to do. For psychotherapy is merely a form of worldliness and lacks the dimension of spiritual nobility. Psychotherapy cannot succeed in emancipating people because it is based on “contextual pragmatism” – it even flaunts this and makes the dubious claim that its pragmatism is empirically testable, no doubt so it can market itself, pretend it is a science, and take its place in the modern academy (an academy that loses its nobility as it increasingly becomes subservient to worldly pragmatics).
The temporal concern in psychotherapy for outcomes keeps clients enthralled to their temporal concerns and so fails to emancipate them. The same goes for secular society in general: the more pragmatic and functional it is, the worse it is. It loses sight of the freedom that transcends the world.
This freedom that transcends the world is noble bliss. Bliss is not realised by seeking in time as that ties you even more to the world. Bliss is realised in the com-passion for com-passion’s sake that surrenders truth and time in emptiness and posits the sacred harmony of the one Buddha-mind. One “dies” to one’s isolated small-self or ego or personal self-identity and one “lives” to the Buddha Self that is the mystical Self-identity of everyone. Duality is overcome: one affirms that: “it’s all good”.
Note it is not a matter of setting out to direct and improve your feelings or become a superhuman stoic hero. Rather, right here and now, in the midst of our ordinary humanity and weakness, our good and bad feelings as they are, just so, there is a prevailing sense of integral beauty and harmony. There is inner peace; there is re-enchantment; there is bliss. Then wait and see what that does naturally.
When people can source this noble bliss from within themselves, they tend to become inwardly self-sufficient and naturally green, and being naturally green they meditate greenly, reduce their need for the consumption of goods and services, simplify their lives, and live naturally in a sustainable way. If we could encourage more people to do this, then we might end the insidious problems of world conflict, poverty and greed, and the ongoing rape of the Earth.
Naturally Green: The Main Meditation Method.
- Prelude: run through the critical dialectic in your mind to refresh your insight into emptiness. Recognise how everything can be brought back to zero, dissolved in nothingness, here and now. Realise the duality of world and self is merely an idea: possible Maya. So “suspend judgment” for the time being.
You should be able to understand at this point what the 6th Master of Zen, Hui-neng, meant when he said, “Fundamentally, not one thing exists.”
- The future is a string of open-ended consequences, and worrying about it is a waste of time, so drop that. The past is dead and gone so drop that too! With this awareness there is a sense of “sudden” beginner’s mind: you are starting afresh, meditating as if for the first time. There is only this green moment. Open the mind and heart to it “as it is” whenever you feel able.
When thoughts or images arise, don’t get absorbed in them. Neither buy into them nor repress them, but let them come and go. It’s like watching a river flow or clouds drifting in the sky or a wasp buzzing about without reacting to it. One’s aim is to maintain a still and steady non-judgmental awareness, as steady as possible, watching thoughts, images, sounds, feelings, sensations, etc. All things must pass, so let this be your focus: Watch the flux of the moment in non-judgmental awareness. Simple! (So simple you’ll find it very tricky at first.)
You don’t have to make anything happen. You embrace what is and wait and see. Most likely what will happen is that thinking slows down, spaces of quiet between thoughts open up, breathing feels refined at the tip of the nose, body-mind pacifies, and you begin naturally to pay close attention to sounds, sights, smells, sensations, etc, without labelling them. Your mind follows them curiously, appreciatively. This is when “free beauty” is likely to appear, so you just enjoy the mysterious emptiness beauty of things. Dwell in it as often and as much as you can: it’s like a peaceful healing balm.
- Emerging from this aesthetic contemplation, you can now begin to think pataphysically about reality again, as you like. With that sense of peace and beauty fresh in your mind and heart you’ll probably find it quite easy to adopt an optimally com-passionate view of everything and everyone, liking to pataphysically harmonise it all as a mutually arising interconnected dream in the one Buddha Mind and Self. It is beneficial to dwell in that imaginative vision awhile also, for it too is like a peaceful healing balm.
- We can now let the mood of these states percolate into our daily thoughts, speech, writings, interactions, etc. Living from inner peace we tend to act in peaceable ways, bringing peace into the world. Also being more self-sufficient in beauty and wellbeing we can afford to be more generous, humorous, com-passionate, and ludic in our actions, which tend to become no-actions: less concerned with results than with enjoying present processes of play. Thus we move from passive meditation to meditation in action.
Miller, Robert, Buddhist Existentialism: from Anxiety to Authenticity and Freedom, Shogam Publications, 2008.
Powell, Jim, Derrida For Beginners, Writers And Readers Publishing Co., NY. 1997
Dyer, Wayne, Your Erroneous Zones, Avon Books, 1977.
Stolnitz, Jerome, Aesthetics And The Philosophy Of Art Criticism, Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1960: The Aesthetic Attitude. Also in John Hospers (ed.), Introductory Readings In Aesthetics, Collier-Macmillan.
Kant, Immanuel, The Critique Of Judgement, James Creed Meredith, Oxford University Press, 1978
Baudrillard, Jean, Fatal Strategies, trans., P.Beitchman & W.G.J. Niesluchowski, Semiotext(e), N.Y., 1990.
Baudrillard, Jean, The Illusion Of The End, trans., Chris Turner, Standford Uni. Press, California, 1994.
Levin, Charles, Jean Baudrillard: a study in cultural metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1996.
Blyth, R. H., Games Zen Masters Play, Signet Books, second edition, 1976.
Hyers, M. Conrad, Zen And The Comic Spirit, Westminster John Knox Press 1975.