[The following essay was written by Max Finkel. It concerns his time as a student in the Applied Meditation Studies program at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Glenside, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. I was chair of this program from 2006 until 2018, when the program, along with my contract, was discontinued. This essay is the basis of Max’s final presentation for his degree.—Glenn Wallis]
My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it. —Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Lecture on Ethics”
At one point in the book you ask “how can everything be so loud and yet so insignificant?” which seems a very apposite predicament for our times. If all life is futile and suffering, and if we have an awareness of this, how is one to live in the world, how can we get to a place of quiet significance?
If I had the answer to that I wouldn’t be a writer, I’d be a guru instead! I don’t think there’s really an answer, but I do think there’s something in these writings about being okay with the space of uncertainty, bewilderment, and confusion. Our kneejerk response is to think in terms of problems and solutions, questions and answers, and the culture we live in reinforces that. Maybe the practice of going back and realising that there are questions that don’t have answers—and that in itself is not a problem—is a good one.
The world is in agony. The agony is so pervasive and urgent that we are compelled to name its manifestations so that the depth of this pain may be made clear. Peace eludes us—the planet is being destroyed—neighbors live in fear—women and men are estranged from each other—children die! This is abhorrent. We condemn the abuses of Earth’s ecosystems. We condemn the poverty that stifles life’s potential; the hunger that weakens the human body, the economic disparities that threaten so many families with ruin. We condemn the social disarray of the nations; the disregard for justice which pushes citizens to the margin; the anarchy overtaking our communities; and the insane death of children from violence. In particular we condemn aggression and hatred in the name of religion.
Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not for assistance to anyone besides yourselves…Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall be lamps unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help, but holding fast to the truth as their lamp, and seeking their salvation in the truth alone, and shall not look for assistance to any one besides themselves, it is they, Ananda, among my bhikkhus, who shall reach the very topmost height! But they must be anxious to learn. —Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha
What is behind this desire to purge sadness from our lives, especially in America, the land of splendid dreams and wild success? Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, for the innocuous smile? What fosters this desperate contentment?
Stress, suffering, misery, unsatisfactoriness, pain: literally, “hard to endure, difficult to bear.”…dukkha is the quality of experience that results when the mind is conditioned by avijja into craving, attachment, egoism, and selfishness. This feeling takes on forms such as disappointment, dissatisfaction, frustration, agitation, anguish, dis-ease, despair…In its universal sense, dukkha is the inherent condition of unsatisfactoriness, ugliness, and misery in all impermanent, conditioned things. This second fundamental characteristic is the result of anicca: impermanent things cannot satisfy our wants and desires no matter how hard we try (and cry). The inherent decay and dissolution of things is misery.
Furthermore, although it is impossible to find in each and every man a universal essence that can be called human nature, there is nevertheless a human universality of condition…But what never vary are the necessities of being in the world, of having to labor and to die there. These limitations are neither subjective nor objective, or rather there is both a subjective and an objective aspect of them. Objective, because we meet with them everywhere and they are everywhere recognisable: and subjective because they are lived and are nothing if man does not live them—if, that is to say, he does not freely determine himself and his existence in relation to them. And, diverse though man’s purpose may be, at least none of them is wholly foreign to me, since every human purpose presents itself as an attempt either to surpass these limitations, or to widen them, or else to deny or to accommodate oneself to them. Consequently every purpose, however individual it may be, is of universal value.
Not-self, selflessness, non-selfhood: the fact that all things without exception…are not-self and lack any essence or substance that could properly be called a “self.” This truth does not deny the existence of “things” but denies that they can be owned or controlled or be an owner or controller in any but a relative, conventional sense…anatta is more or less a synonym of sunnata.
The Dionysian man bears a similarity to Hamlet: both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They find it ridiculous or humiliating that they might be expected to order again a world which is out of joint. Knowledge kills action, for action requires our being covered with the veil of illusion—that is what Hamlet has to teach…Now any consolation no longer has an effect. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, towards death. Existence, along with its blazing reflection in the gods or in an immortal afterlife, is denied. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being…
And yet there was nothing we could do. That sense of helplessness was almost intolerable. And I realized that I felt guilty about it. And yet at a certain critical point in my son’s treatment, I realized that the guilt was only masking something much deeper and much more painful than guilt. And what it was masking was the fact that we were helpless, that there was nothing we could do. We had no input. As long as I felt guilty, I felt, well, at least it’s my fault or I have some agency in something that matters more to me than my own life. But if I have no agency, I mean, that’s almost intolerable. And I realized that I’d rather feel guilty than helpless. It’s a choice I made unconsciously. And I think many people do, because the feeling that we can’t do anything and we have no input is more than we can bear.
This view of things already provides us with all the elements of a profound and pessimistic view of the world, together with the mystery doctrine of tragedy: the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the primary cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of individuation may be broken in augury of a restored oneness.
Our situation is out-of-joint with the universe to begin with. We cannot hope to set it right—we can only await the release from this predicament provided by death. In the meantime, we merely manage our condition—such management is, to Schopenhauer, the purpose of philosophy; for Freud, it is psychotherapy that serves this end. But the aim, in both cases, is not to create happiness or virtue but to minimize unhappiness by bringing us to greater knowledge of the gap between time-bound consciousness and the timeless reality consciousness defies. —Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism
Tragic perception nullifies our addiction to fix it—be it ourselves or the other—and ushers the practitioner into a terrain of ambiguity and uncertainty. This is all part of that tragic scenario, the presence of a love and a willingness to act in tandem with a sense that meaningful action is impossible. My intimation is that this recognition of ambiguity and groundlessness is fertile soil from which an ethical earthling may spawn. Ontologically homeless yet sweating profusely with a sense of care, for no reason, yes, that is the key. As soon as there is a reason for our willingness to care we have lost touch with motivation coming from unconditional care and subsumed ethics into the space of a business negotiation. For no reason is a synonym for the unconditional. It opens up the proper posture to take present action for a future of which will not return any favors or provide any rewards. Building on this connection between the ethical potential of recognizing a fundamental sense of not at homeness that is structurally present in the human condition, Susan Neiman, in Evil in Modern Thought, writes the following: “What remains is the moral imperative not to deceive ourselves about the magnitude of the modern catastrophe. Decency demands that we refuse to feel at home in any particular structure the world provides to domesticate us. It also requires that we refuse to feel at home in our own skins.”
So what becomes of the meditation hall in this light? The hall is valuable and the practice of meditation is valuable. The practice may become an ongoing activity where human’s collaboratively testify and bear witness to the ontological situation of homo sapiens. The hall is the place where humans pay homage to the interminable rupture between “Being and Existence.” And through this testament, a human may come to feel deeper into the tragic oneness in which what we all share is that we are split. Ruptured in infinite variations but ruptured all the same trying our best to endure the burdens of time and the foreknowledge that all we love and cherish will pass away. Tragic perception, pessimism, this is a training to maintain fidelity to the first noble truth. Bringing the spirit of tragic perception to the practice of meditation is exactly what the AMS experiment was all about for me. Despite glimpses of cessation, always remember dukkha.
In conclusion, this phrase for no reason really speaks to me. To quote Joshua Foa Dienstag one last time from an essay of his in a compilation entitled Rethinking Tragedy. He writes, “If we can understand why an artist like Dostoyevsky, who knows that art is devoid of metaphysical value, would still want to write, then we can understand why Nietzsche thinks pessimism can result in a creative pathos.” What I get from Dienstag’s statement is that an activity is set free when any attribution of metaphysical value is eliminated. Might the meditative practice remain in chains as long as we are doing it for a certain reason or to get a certain result? When an activity is redefined as a means instead of an end, its unconditional potentiality, its for no reason power, is co-opted and its truly revolutionary potential to disrupt, interrupt, and create new beginnings is lost. In effect, meditation becomes a labor or a work as opposed to an action which harbors the potency of nascency akin to the newborness of a child, wholly unpredictable.