The original Western Buddhism

Below is an extract from Emily Colette Wilkinson’s review of Marcus Aurelius: A Life, by Frank McLynn. The parallels with the Buddhist approach are striking, and I can’t help feeling again that it’s a tragedy that Stoic philosophy — the original Western Buddhism? — was stamped out by that Middle-Eastern upstart religion, the early Christian church.

Marcus’ creed held that virtue was its own reward and the only life goal worth pursuing. On the Stoic view, we have no power to determine whether we’ll be rich or poor, famous or infamous, sick or healthy, but we can control whether or not we are good. Thus, life’s pleasures and pains–poverty, disease, fame, death-become “indifferents” to the Stoics–i.e. matters that have no direct bearing on our moral wellbeing and so are irrelevant. As a Stoic, I might be poor and sick and my family might die, but none of this hurts me because it does not impair my ability to be good, which consists in working for the good of my fellow human beings.

“Remember that everything is but what we think it,” Marcus writes, and what he urges himself to think is that we are all ears of corn for the reaping, “leaves that the wind scatters earthward”:

But a little while and thou shalt be burnt ashes or a few dried bones, and possibly a name, possibly not a name even….And all that we prize so highly in our lives is empty and corrupt and paltry, and we but as puppies snapping at each other, as quarrelsome children now laughing and anon in tears.

Stoic holism offers a refuge from individualism, the intrinsic faith of our age, and its petty, exhausting calculations. Through Marcus’ writings, individual self-interest and concern for others become mutually supporting ends: The well-being of others and my own well-being are one and the same. And so my happiness consists in orienting my actions toward others and the good of the whole, rather than in pursuing the endless vagaries of earthly desire-sex, fame, fine things, the love and approval of peers-the Goblin Market cravings (to borrow a term from the poet Christina Rossetti) that contemporary society usually encourages us to indulge as the means to self-fulfillment. Have more orgasms, we’re told, wear spiffier outfits, watch another movie, speak more assertively, and the longings, the sense of something missing, will abate.

Stoicism says just the opposite: Stop indulging illusory physical and emotional longings and see your real happiness outside of yourself, your body, your emotions.

The book being reviewed, incidentally, takes a very dim view of Stoicism, finding it “inhuman.” That in itself is interesting. As the reviewer points out, Stoicism led its practioners to be “different from the man guided by physical desires and emotions, better than that man and less human, partaking more of something metaphysical, something divine” — that is, “inhuman” in a positive sense. The Buddha too, when challenged to acknowledge his ontological status (God? Man? Something else?) denied that he was a human being. The Buddha too, in a sense, was “positively inhuman.”

June music mix

This is the music my iPhone randomly selected for me while I was driving to Portsmouth and back the other day. It’s heavy on Over the Rhine and Amy Winehouse, but I can’t get enough of either of them anyway. It’s a very eclectic mix!

Here’s the track listing:

Dave Smith And The Country Rebels – White Lines
St. Germain – So Flute
Over The Rhine – Ohio
Alison Krauss – Down To The River To Pray
Amy Winehouse – He Can Only Hold Her
Lucinda Williams – Essence
This Mortal Coil – Another Day
Cocteau Twins – Pandora
Portishead – Nobody Loves Me
Over The Rhine – Nobody Number One
Coldplay – Shiver
Amy Winehouse – Intro/Stronger Than Me

Twitter posts for 2010-06-25

  • On my weekly pilgrimage to @crackskulls with the kids. 15:33:34
  • I just wrote: Does a vegan diet feed the ego? http://bit.ly/cSldoF 19:49:24
  • This day started with me fighting off a migraine, and ended with a sense of calm, spacious equanimity. 21:03:10
  • Trying some tricks to get Twitter Tools to post a daily twitter digest on my blog. Should know soon if it worked. 21:34:15
  • I just wrote: Testing Twitter Tools http://bit.ly/9P6PJz 21:45:56
  • Hmmm. Getting Twitter Tools to work properly is proving beyond me… damn shame. 22:57:26
  • Been up late researching a juicy Fake Buddha Quote. It's time to call it a night. 23:59:28

Testing Twitter Tools

I use a plugin called “Twitter Tools” that creates a status update (aka a “tweet”) on Twitter every time I publish a new blog post. Mostly it works, but it’s been a bit buggy and I’m creating this post to test it out. But in case it did work, and you followed the link here from Twitter, here’s a nice photo to reward you.

Yup, it’s a frozen lake on Mars. Now isn’t that cool?

Have I ever mentioned that I want to live on Mars?

Does a vegan diet feed the ego?

eating an apple

The venerable Dayamati, aka Professor Richard Hayes, has a provocative post (“How to feed an ego“) about the tendency for vegans (and to a lesser extent vegetarians) to cling to a notion of “us versus them” purity that reinforces a sense of identity rather than weakens it.

After mentioning a radio program discussing factory farming, he goes on to say:

One of the observations that most caught my attention in these discussions was made by a woman who was a vegan for 20–30 years and eventually changed her diet to include some animal products. She observed that being a vegan is much more than deciding what to eat and what not to eat. It is also taking on an identity. It is carrying all the baggage of a persona that must be defended almost every time one picks up a fork. It is, in other words, to take on a practice that has exactly the opposite effect of what most Buddhist (and other spiritual) practices are designed to do, namely, to reduce one’s attachment to a particular identity.

And, said this former vegan, whenever one takes on an identity, one loses perspective and enters into a mentality that warps almost everything one sees, systematically refuses to look at evidence impartially, and enters into the epistemological vices of believing things for which one has insufficient evidence and not believing things despite having plenty of evidence.

Buddhists called these epistemological vices by the simple term moha, which means the state of being perplexed, confused, infatuated or fooled.

I recognize this. When I was younger I tended to be rather scathing of those who ate meat (or, when I was a vegan, animal products generally). I’d turn down a cup of tea with soy milk if the spoon that had been used to stir it had been “contaminated” by having just previously dipped into a cup of tea with cows’ milk. I was a bit obsessive (although always willing to let myself off the hook if I really “needed” (i.e. wanted) to eat something non-vegan.

At the moment I couldn’t call myself vegan. I eat a vegetarian diet, but once or maybe twice a week I’ll eat something that has cheese or eggs in it. But I do aspire to move in the direction of a vegan diet, and in fact I’m having some success.

While I agree with Dayamati’s point that our dietary preferences can become unhealthily clung to as an identity, I don’t think he sufficiently takes into account that it’s possible for us to live on a vegan or vegetarian diet without it distorting our identity. He does say, “Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially.” That’s welcome news.

I’m more bothered, however, by the following:

As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.

I’m not sure quite what he means by making a decision to eat a vegan diet “whimsically.” If he simply means “with a lack of attachment” then that’s fine by me. If he means that we should only decide to eat a vegan diet on the basis of a passing irrational impulse, then I disagree. I think it’s possible to seriously consider the effects of our diet, and the sufferings that farm animals experience, and decide not to eat animal products. It’s only when I disengage my thought processes and refuse to consider these things that I can eat animal products. It’s when I surrender to the passing irrational impulses of hunger and craving that I find myself eating dairy products or eggs.

The suggestion that we should realize that “the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality,” leaves me puzzled. The word sentimentality implies that we have a disproportionate emotional response to a situation. Actually, our situation as a species is grave. We’re seriously messing up our world, and the problem is caring enough — our brains just aren’t well designed, it appears, when it comes to thinking about long-term consequences and the suffering or large numbers of beings. Certainly people can decide to adopt a vegan diet our of sentimentality, but they can also decide to do so out of a proportionate emotional response to the state of the planet, and the sufferings our dietary choices inflict on animals.

“It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.” This implies that it’s delusional to think that we can make a rational decision about our diet. Actually, I think there’s a point here: I think to be healthily vegetarian or vegan (and I mean emotionally healthy) it shouldn’t be either a purely rational decision nor a purely emotional one. If there’s just reason, we’re going to have to beat ourselves up to keep us on the straight and narrow path. If there’s just emotion, we’ll enter the realm of “them and us” and do a lot of hating. There needs to be, I think, a mature emotional response — one that’s been thought over, and that’s been examined for signs of attachment, hatred, and delusion. Rational self-examination purifies our emotions.

Someone deciding to eat a vegan diet on the basis of such a process of examination won’t see veganism as part of her identity. She’ll simply eat vegan, without thinking too much about it. My own practice of vegetarianism is like that. I don’t see vegetarianism as part of my identity any more than I see breathing as part of my identity. I just do it, and don’t think about it. I don’t hate people who eat meat. I don’t see myself as better than them (I used to eat meat myself). I don’t see vegetarianism as a form of ethical purity — it’s something I do because it lessens suffering. I don’t want to eat a dead animal because I don’t want animals to be killed.

There can be plenty of emotionality and judgment on the part of people who eat meat, incidentally. These attitudes apply across the spectrum of dietary habits, and don’t just apply to vegans and vegetarians. Here’s an extract from an article in a British newspaper by a meat-eating chef who was asked to eat vegan for a week:

I hated vegans. Really, I did. They’re farty bores, I used to say, with pallid skin and bad breath, and the cheek, the utter cheek, to lecture people like me about animal “welfare”, when their knowledge of wildlife extends no further than pulling tapeworms out of a house-bound cat’s arse (all vegans have a cat). What’s the difference, I would joke, between a vegan and a Malteser? Answer: some people like Maltesers.

There writes a man whose (meat-eating) diet is a large component of his identity. Is hiss attitude any different from that of the most militant vegan? I don’t think so.

“Righteous” — well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be righteous about anything.

I’m not quite there with my veganism yet. There’s a conflict going on between, on the one hand, habit, laziness, and craving, and on the other, a sense of compassion and responsibility. I haven’t done enough of the hard work of thinking the issue through and of probing my emotions. I know that when I do I’ll be eating a vegan diet, just as I know that when I’ve developed more emotional maturity I’ll yell at my kids less. I think in fact that I would benefit from speeding up the process of self-examination because the conflict I’m in at present is painful. I do things that I know are harmful to others, and I don’t feel good about that because I know I could do otherwise.

I’m sure that when I do make the decision to eat vegan, I’ll do so in a healthy, non-judgmental way. I did it with vegetarianism, and I think most vegetarians I know have too.