A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Way Things Really Are

My Buddhist teachers assert that our problems in life stem from the fact that we consistently misperceive our world. The sensory, thought, and feeling processes which appear to us to be inside our bodies, we attribute to a "self" or an "ego". We habitually fixate and cling to this notion of "ourself". We are constantly trying to relate everything we experience outside of our bodies to it, and evaluating everything that happens as a friend or a foe of this precious ego of ours.

It is this deeply ingrained emotive habit--a constant mental muscle clenching of me, me, me, my stuff, my friend, my enemy--which actually creates the world of "solid objects" and "definite places" that we appear to inhabit.

Things are really not like this. Our awareness, that basic thing we call "mind", has no definite limits or boundaries. If you doubt this, look at your own mind and see if you can find exactly where it ends.

For example, is your right hand part of your mind, or is it an object that your mind perceives? If your hand is not part of your mind, how can your mind feel the keyboard under your fingers, or the weight of the heavy coin-silver ring on your middle finger? But if it is part of your mind, why does it appear to be a separate object when I call your attention to it?

See? The mind has no boundary and no definite location. When we try to locate it, it slips away from us like a wet cake of soap in the shower.

Now stop right there! I'm not asking for the opinion you were taught in school about the functions of the brain, or the opinion of your pastor about who is or isn't in Heaven, or the opinion of the news service whose "fair and balanced" reporting you favor.

I'm asking you to look at you, yourself, right here, right now.

Look at those alternatives that flicker in front of your mind--the smooth equivocation of the textbook, then the resentment that the textbook is so self-assured, then the flickering image of the teacher telling you about science, then the flickering image of your mother telling you about God. See how they flash, one after another?

See how when one of them appears, the one before that fades, and the one before that has totally vanished? Where did it go? Was that thought something that your mind perceived, or was it your mind itself? If it was either, where is it now?


Where is your right hand now?


Slipped out of your mind, didn't it?


So what about all that stuff that's somehow "out there" beyond our bodies? What about the Honda Prelude coming off the assembly line up in Marysville, Ohio? It's an "automobile", right? A "sedan", right? A "vehicle", right? A "foreign car", right? And "made in America", right? So which of these is it really?

Let's repeat that. So which of these is it really? Is there anything there at all but a series of empty labels? Thoughts flashing in front of the mind? You’re not in Marysville, you’ve never seen the assembly line, and old Joe Claus might be just fooling, feeding you a line.

Maybe there is no Marysville, no Honda Plant, no automobile. How do you know for sure?

Do you trust Joe Claus about Hondas like you trust all the science teachers and science books about Quarks and Positrons and Gluons and Black Holes that no one has ever directly seen? Do you really know any of this for yourself? Or are you just deferring to the "authorities"?

Luckily for you, I’m a very reliable guy. I’ve actually driven by Marysville on the expressway, and driven through it on the U.S. two lane. I’ve seen the road signs about the auto facility as I drive by. I read about the Honda Plant in the Columbus Dispatch all the time, I see the ads there for the assembly line jobs, and I watch reports about it on 10TV Eyewitness News, too.

I frequent the sushi bar at Otani's in Columbus, and watch the Japanese execs boozing it up in the tatami rooms on a Friday night and I note every gesture of rank, deference, and decorum among them. (I have very sharp eyes for everything, in case you hadn't guessed.)

Of course, I’ve never seen an actual Honda come out the plant doors. But I’m at least as reliable as your high school science teacher who never got his hands on an atom smasher or a radio telescope to check out those Quarks and Black Holes. I'm as reliable as your pastor who has never been able, personally, to manage a trip to the Chambers of the Throne itself, though someday....

He takes it on faith, and you take it on faith. Right?

Feeling kind of skeptical about things? Good. Keep thinking about that Honda Prelude and about your own mind.

Okay, let's say that you don't trust me anymore. I can't think why you wouldn't, given all the other unsupported testimony you've been trusting for so long, but let's say you don't. Your not going to believe me when I talk about a Honda Prelude coming out the door of the Assembly Plant in Marysville, Ohio, since I’ve admitted I’ve never seen any such thing.

But in order to talk about the way things really are we have to talk about something, so let's do what real philosophers do and let's assume the Honda and the Assembly Plant. No harm in just assuming it, is there?

If there is a Honda and an Assembly Plant in Marysville, Ohio, then what?

Well, first of all, we come back to the same questions we started with: It's an "automobile", right? A "sedan", right? A "vehicle", right? A "foreign car", right? And "made in America", right? So which of these is it really? Is there anything there at all but a series of empty labels?

If all these labels are "true" and refer to the same thing, are they all interchangeable, all identical to one another--if so, why so many? if not, how can they all refer to the same thing? Puzzling, isn't it?

Well, we've assumed a Honda and an Assembly Plant, so we can also assume the Honda was assembled from something. From what? Smaller components, of course. Somewhere at the other end of the plant there must have been a pile of all the unassembled components that now make up our Honda. So maybe it's something about the components that makes all these labels both "true", and different from one another.

Maybe.

What is the real difference between all those components piled up one way at the front end of the Assembly Plant and piled up in a different way at the back end? Nothing essential has happened to change any individual component--a "gasket" or a "fuel pump" remains a "gasket" or a "fuel pump", in either case. Are both of the piles of parts "automobiles", then? If so, why can we drive away one, but not the other? If not, how can we have a change in the pile if nothing changes about the parts of which it is composed?

Now remember, all of this is about a hypothetical Honda Prelude, one that we've merely assumed in our minds, a pure mental fabrication, nothing which really exists outside of our own minds. But this fabrication does have a logical structure: If we have a Honda and an Assembly Plant in Marysville, then we also have our five "true" labels, and our two piles of component parts, one "before" and one "after" assembly. Right?

Now suppose we actually went to Marysville and watched a real Honda Prelude being assembled. (There you go, trusting me again! Go ahead! Flattery will get you everywhere with me.) If we saw the Honda in front of us, rather than just as an image in our minds, would the logical structure of what we see be any different from the logical structure of our completely hypothetical mental fabrication? I can't see where it would be, can you?

If that is the case, just where is that logical structure? Is it inside my mind? Inside your mind? Or out in Marysville? Or anywhere autos are being assembled? On which side of what boundary is it really located?

If we don't know where such mental ideas are located, how do we know where any supposedly "real" and "objective" Honda Preludes are located either?

How do we know the way anything really is?

What we've done so far is to consciously and deliberately exercise that emotive habit and mental muscle which I referred earlier in this essay:

It is this deeply ingrained emotive habit--a constant mental muscle clenching of me, me, me, my stuff, my friend, my enemy--which actually creates the world of "solid objects" and "definite places" that we appear to inhabit.


If you have been very lucky, there may have been one or two times, while reading this essay, where doubt about what is really going on has brought you up very short, leaving a small mental gap in this deeply ingrained habit.

The actual appearance of things both inside and outside your body hasn't really changed, but it may be that you got a glimpse of what I mean by how we make the world with our minds, and a glimpse what it might be like to let go of doing it for a moment.

At some point in your life you have probably watched an old-fashioned 16mm movie, in a room where the movie projector is set up amid the chairs of the audience.

When you do this, you can watch the entire process of how a roll of thousands of pictures on film, stored in a large flat can, will create the illusion of people talking and living behind what we know to be a movie screen, just an opaque surface with no real people in it whatsoever.

We connive in the illusion, we "suspend our disbelief", almost without thinking and, if conditions are right, we can get comfortable and completely lose all track of anything but the illusory world of the film.

Our relations with our own lives are precisely the same as this, the only difference being that the "prior causes and conditions" (which Buddhists call "karma") behind what appears to us are hidden from our view by our constant mental fabrication of illusory boundaries. These mental fabrications, and the actions they prompt in us, are what keep our "movie" continuing--as if that 16mm film were spliced as a continuous loop.

We do this because the movie is so entertaining, and the greatest entertainment of all is our overwhelming fear that if we stop doing it, there will be nothing and no one there at all. Our suspicion is perfectly correct, but our fear of it is what keeps us in chains.

When we think things actually exist, we are wrong--"existence" is a mere mental fabrication. When we think nothing exists, we are wrong--"non-existence" is a mere mental fabrication. When we think things both exist and non-exist, we are wrong--that is also a mere mental fabrication. And when we think things neither exist nor non-exist we are wrong--that is finally a mere mental fabrication.

The "ground" of what we call mind is completely empty of any such mental fabrications, full of the luminous and radiant bliss of the way all things appear, and totally unobstructed in the way any appearance whatever can manifest. There is absolutely no distinction to be made between that empty, luminous, and unobstructed mind and anything that appears anywhere. The Ground does not change.

So my teachers say. Now I know none of this from my own experience, any more than I have seen a freshly minted Honda come out of the plant at Marysville, but working with them and following their instructions for 20 years has occasionally brought me up short, leaving that little gap in my mental process that I've described above.

What happens in that little gap leads me to strongly suspect that they are right. And they themselves have always said to me what I now say to you: don't rely on our word for it, look directly at your own mind to see if what we say is true.

Nothing on this earth matters as much to me now as this constant effort to look directly at my own mind.

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