Money, Sex, War, Karma - Selections
Chapter 1: The Suffering of Self
If someone asked you to summarize the teachings of the Buddha, what would you say? For most Buddhists, probably the first thing that would come to mind is the four noble (or “ennobling”) truths: dukkha, its causes, its cessation (better known as nirvana), and the eightfold path that leads to cessation. Shakyamuni Buddha himself is believed to have emphasized those four truths in his first Dharma talk, and those of us who teach Buddhism find them quite helpful, because all his other teachings can be included somewhere within them.
Nevertheless, there is nothing exclusively or distinctively Buddhist about any of the four noble truths.
Buddhism has its own take on them, of course, but in their basic form the four noble truths are common to many Indian religious traditions. Dukkha is where most of those spiritual paths begin, including Jainism and Sankhya-Yoga.There is also wide agreement that the cause of dukkha is craving, and that liberation from craving is possible. Moreover, they all include some sort of way to realize that liberation.Yoga, for example, teaches a path with eight limbs that is quite similar to Buddhism’s eightfold path.
So what is truly distinctive about the Buddhist Dharma? How does it differ from other religious traditions that also explain the world and our role within it? No other spiritual path focuses so clearly on the intrinsic connection between dukkha and our delusive sense of self. They are not only related: for Buddhism the self is dukkha.
Although dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” that is too narrow. The point of dukkha is that even those who are wealthy and healthy experience a basic dissatisfaction, a dis-ease, which continually festers. That we find life dissatisfactory, one damn problem after another, is not accidental—because it is the very nature of an unawakened sense-of-self to be bothered about something.
Early Buddhism distinguishes three basic types of dukkha. Everything we usually identify as physical and mental suffering—including being separated from those we want to be with, and being stuck with those we don’t want to be with (the Buddha had a sense of humor!)— is included in the first type.
The second type is the dukkha due to impermanence. It’s the realization that, although I might be enjoying an ice-cream cone right now, it will soon be finished.The best example of this type is awareness of mortality, which haunts our appreciation of life. Knowing that death is inevitable casts a shadow that usually hinders our ability to live fully now.
The third type of dukkha is more difficult to understand because it’s connected with the delusion of self. It is dukkha due to sankhara, “conditioned states,” which is sometimes taken as a reference to the ripening of past karma. More generally, however, sankhara refers to the constructedness of all our experience, including the experience of self. When looked at from the other side, another term for this constructedness is anatta, “not-self.” There is no unconditioned self within our constructed sense of self, and this is the source of the deepest dukkha, our worst anguish.
This sense of being a self that is separate from the world I am in is illusory—in fact, it is our most dangerous delusion. Here we can benefit from what has become a truism in contemporary psychology, which has also realized that the sense of self is a psychological-social-linguistic construct: psychological, because the ego-self is a product of mental conditioning; social, because a sense of self develops in relation with other constructed selves; and linguistic, because acquiring a sense of self involves learning to use certain names and pronouns such as I, me, mine, myself, which create the illusion that there must be some thing being referred to. If the word cup refers to this thing I’m drinking coffee out of, then we mistakenly infer that I must refer to something in the same way. This is one of the ways language misleads us.
Despite these similarities to modern psychology, however, Buddhism differs from most of it in two important ways. First, Buddhism emphasizes that there is always something uncomfortable about our constructed sense of self. Much of contemporary psychotherapy is concerned with helping us become “well-adjusted.” The ego-self needs to be repaired so it can fit into society and we can play our social roles better. Buddhism isn’t about helping us become well-adjusted. A socially well-adjusted ego-self is still a sick ego-self, for there remains something problematical about it. It is still infected by dukkha.
This suggests the other way that Buddhism differs from modern psychology. Buddhism agrees that the sense of self can be reconstructed, and that it needs to be reconstructed, but it emphasizes even more that the sense of self needs to be deconstructed, to realize its true “empty,” non-dwelling nature. Awakening to our constructedness is the only real solution to our most fundamental anxiety. Ironically, the problem and its solution both depend upon the same fact: a constructed sense of self is not a real self. Not being a real self is intrinsically uncomfortable. Not being a real self is also what enables the sense of self to be deconstructed and reconstructed, and this deconstruction/reconstruction is what the Buddhist spiritual path is about.
Why is a constructed sense of self so uncomfortable? “My” sense of self is composed of mostly habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and acting. That’s all. Those impermanent processes interact with others and give rise to a sense of being a self that is separate from other people and things. If you strip away those psychological and physical processes, it’s like peeling off the layers of an onion. When you get to the end, what’s left? Nothing. There’s no hard seed or anything else at the core, once the last few layers have been peeled away. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. The basic problem is, we don’t like being nothing. A gaping hole at one’s core is quite distressing. Nothing means there’s no-thing to identify with or cling to. Another way to say it is that my nothing-ness means my constructed sense of self is ungrounded, so it is haunted by a basic sense of unreality and insecurity. A sense of self can never become secure because it is nothing that could be secure.
Our English word person comes from the Latin persona, “mask.” The sense of self is a mask. Who is wearing the mask? Behind the mask (form) is nothing (emptiness).That there is nothing behind the mask is not actually a problem—but unfortunately the persona does not usually know this.
(Don’t be misled by these metaphors: peeling off onion layers to reach the core, or looking for what’s behind the mask. In fact, that way of thinking is part of the problem: we usually make a deluded distinction between ourselves inside and the rest of the world outside.)
Intellectually, this situation is not easy to understand, but I suspect that most of us actually have some innate awareness of the problem. In fact, if our sense of self is truly empty in this way, we must have some basic awareness of this problem—yet it’s a very uncomfortable awareness, because we don’t understand it or know what to do about it. I think this is one of the great secrets of life: each of us individually experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Growing up is learning to pretend along with everyone else that “I’m okay; you’re okay.” A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really okay even though inside we feel somehow that we’re not. When we look at other people from the outside, they seem quite solid and real to us, yet each of us feels deep inside that something is not right— something is wrong at the core.
Here another modern psychological idea is helpful: repression. Although Freud’s legacy has become quite controversial, his concept of repression, and “the return of the repressed,” remains very important. Repression happens when I become aware of something uncomfortable that I don’t want to deal with, so it is “pushed away” from consciousness. Freud believed that our main repression is sexual desires. Existential psychology shifts the focus to death: our inability to cope with mortality, the fact that our lives will come to an end, and we don’t know when—maybe soon. For Buddhism, however, fear of death focuses on what will happen in the future, while there is a more basic problem that we experience right now: this uncomfortable sense of unreality at our core, which we don’t know how to deal with. Naturally enough, we learn to ignore or repress it, but that doesn’t resolve the problem. The difficulty with repression is that it doesn’t work. What has been repressed returns to consciousness one way or another, in a disguised or distorted fashion. This “return of the repressed” is thus a symptom of the original awareness that we didn’t want to deal with.
Our repressed sense of unreality returns to consciousness as the feeling that there is something missing or lacking in my life. What is it that’s lacking? How I understand that depends upon the kind of person I am and the kind of society I live in. The sense that something is wrong with me is too vague, too amorphous. It needs to be given more specific form if I’m to be able to do something about it, and that form usually depends upon how I’ve been raised. In modern developed (or “economized”) societies such as the United States, I am likely to understand my lack as not having enough money—regardless of how much money I already have. Money is important to us not only because we can buy anything with it, but also because it has become a kind of collective reality symbol. The more money you get, the more real you become! That’s the way we tend to think, anyway. (When a wealthy person arrives somewhere his or her presence is acknowledged much more than the arrival of a “nobody.”) Because money doesn’t really end dukkha—it can’t fill up the bottomless hole at one’s core—this way of thinking often becomes a trap. You’re a multi-millionaire but still feel like something is wrong with your life? Obviously you don’t have enough money yet.
Another example is fame. If I am known by lots and lots of people, then I must be real, right? Yet the attention of other people, who are haunted by their own sense of lack, can’t fill up our sense of lack. If you think that fame is what will make you real, you can never be famous enough. The same is true of power. We crave power because it is a visible expression of one’s reality. Dictators like Hitler and Stalin dominate their societies. As their biographies reveal, however, they never seem to have enough control to feel really secure. Those who want power the most end up the most paranoid.
This understanding of anatta gives us some insight into karma, especially the Buddha’s take on it, which emphasized the role of motivations and intentions. If my sense of self is actually composed of habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and behaving, then karma isn’t something I have, it’s what I am. The important point is that I change my karma by changing who “I” am: by reconstructing my habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and behaving. The problematical motivations that cause so much trouble for myself and for others—greed, ill will, and delusion, the three unwholesome roots—need to be transformed into their more positive counterparts that work to reduce dukkha: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
Whether or not you believe in karma as something magical, as an objective moral law of the universe, on a more psychological level karma is about how habitual ways of thinking and acting tend to create predictable types of situations. If I’m motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, then I need to be manipulative, which alienates other people and also makes me feel more separate from them. Ironically, I’m busy trying to defend and promote the interests of something that doesn’t exist: my self. (And because the sense of self is not a real self, it’s always in need of defense and support.) Yet acting in that way reinforces my delusive sense of self. When I’m motivated by generosity and loving-kindness, however, I can relax and open up, be less defensive. Again, other people tend to respond in the same way, which works to reduce dukkha for all of us.
Transforming our karma in this way is very important, yet it is not the only goal of Buddhist practice. Fundamentally, Buddhism is about awakening, which means realizing something about the constructedness of the sense of self and the nothing at its core. If changing karma involves reconstructing the sense of self, deconstructing the sense of self involves directly experiencing its emptiness. Usually that void at our core is so uncomfortable that we try to evade it, by identifying with something else that might give us stability and security. Another way to say it is that we keep trying to fill up that hole, yet it’s a bottomless pit. Nothing that we can ever grasp or achieve can end our sense of lack.
So what happens when we don’t run away from that hole at our core? That’s what we’re doing when we meditate: we are “letting go” of all the physical and mental activity that distracts us from our emptiness. Instead, we just sit with it and as it. It’s not that easy to do, because the hole gives us such a feeling of insecurity, ungroundedness, unreality. Meditation is uncomfortable, especially at the beginning, because in our daily lives we are used to taking evasive action. So we tend to take evasive action when we meditate too: we fantasize, make plans, feel sorry for ourselves…
But if I can learn to not run away, to stay with those uncomfortable feelings, to become friendly with them, then something can happen to that core—and to me, insofar as that hole is what “I” really am. The curious thing about my emptiness is that it is not really a problem. The problem is that we think it’s a problem. Our ways of trying to escape it make it into a problem.
Some Buddhist sutras talk about paravritti, a “turning around” that transforms the festering hole at my core into a life-healing flow which springs up spontaneously from I-know-not-where. Instead of being experienced as a sense of lack, the empty core becomes a place where there is now awareness of something other than, more than, my usual sense of self. I can never grasp that “more than,” I can never understand what it is—and I do not need to, because “I” am an expression of it. My role is to become a better manifestation of it, with less interference from the delusion of ego-self. So our emptiness has two sides: the negative, problematic aspect is a sense of lack. The other aspect is being in touch with, and manifesting, something greater than my sense of self—that is, something more than I usually understand myself to be.The original Buddhist term usually translated as emptiness (Pali shunnata; Sanskrit shunyata) actually has this double-sided meaning. It derives from the root shu, which means “swollen” in both senses: not only the swollenness of a blown-up balloon but also the swollenness of an expectant woman, pregnant with possibility. So a more accurate translation of shunyata would be: emptiness/fullness, which describes quite well the experience of our own empty core, both the problem and the solution.
These two ways of experiencing our emptiness are not mutually exclusive. I think many of us go back and forth, often bothered by our sense of lack, but also occasionally experiencing our emptiness more positively as a source of spontaneity and creativity, like athletes do when they are “in the zone.” The point isn’t to get rid of the self: that’s not possible, for there never has been a self. Nor do we want to get rid of the sense of self: that would be a rather unpleasant type of mental retardation. Rather, what we work toward is a more permeable, less dualistic sense of self, which is more aware of, and more comfortable with, its empty constructedness.
The two aspects of the spiritual path, deconstructing and reconstructing one’s sense of self, reinforce each other. Meditation is lettinggo, getting back to the emptiness/fullness at our core, and this practice also helps to reconstruct the sense of self, most obviously by helping us become more mindful in daily life. Each process assists the other indefinitely. As the Japanese proverb says, even the Buddha is only halfway there. Buddhist practice is about dwelling in our empty core, which also reconstructs us into less self-ish, more compassionate beings devoted to the welfare and awakening of everyone.
Chapter 3: The Great Seduction
Why would anyone in his right mind want to become famous—I mean really famous? I know that fame is often convertible into other things that we crave: money (selling your story to the newspapers), sexual attraction (people throwing themselves at your feet), power (fame is roughly equivalent to success for actors and politicians). But what’s enjoyable about being so well-known that you can’t walk down a sidewalk without the risk of being mobbed? You might enjoy such attention the first time, yet the need to protect yourself would soon make it burdensome, and sometimes dangerous. The nuisance of stalkers points to a bigger problem. Not everyone will be satisfied to admire you from afar. You can’t simply turn off your celebrity when it is inconvenient, because it doesn’t belong to you. You are the center of a network that involves other people. Your appearance, words, and actions are publicly available and scrutinized. Famous people can’t help getting caught up in our fantasies about who they (and we) are. People relate not to you but to what you mean for them. Remember what happened to John Lennon?
Lennon’s kind of fame is a relatively recent development. It requires modern media such as newspapers, magazines, and television. Word of mouth isn’t enough. Of course, from the very beginning of civilization there have always been some famous people, usually rulers and conquerors. Kings had bards to compose songs celebrating their achievements. In those days that was the only way to record one’s exploits for posterity. There were also religious teachers such as Jesus and the Buddha. One of the most famous figures in pre-modern Europe was Saint Francis of Assisi. He was renowned because of his sanctity—that is, his close relationship with God. His fame was a side-effect of what he was believed to be.
We can wonder about whether fame was a burden for Saint Francis, but what was life like for all those other people during his time who were not famous, and who maybe never saw anyone who was? Today we tend to suppose that everyone longs for personal fame, yet according to historians medieval people had no such desire. Our assumption reveals more about us than about them, which encourages us to reflect: why has the prospect of fame become so seductive to us? Why are so many people eager to make fools of themselves on Big Brother? And why are so many other people keen to watch them?
New technologies offer new possibilities. It’s no coincidence that the modern world began roughly the same time as the printing press. Print offered not only a new medium for fame but also a new kind of fame: the bestselling author. As with Saint Francis, Shakespeare’s reputation was a side-effect of something else—in his case, an unparalleled literary imagination. Today, in contrast, we have celebrities: people who are famous mainly for being famous, since most of us have forgotten how they became famous. No one questions this because fame is now accepted as an end in itself. Celebrities continue to be celebrated because the media need them as much as they need the media. Television, like politics, thrives not on stories or ideas but on personalities.
In the last century the number of famous people has rapidly proliferated because everyday life has become so much more dominated by the media. We spend increasingly large portions of our time plugged into one or another of the electronic media, which now function as our collective nervous system. At the same time, desire for fame has become so ubiquitous that we no longer notice it, any more than fish see the water they swim in. It has infiltrated all the corners of our culture, including Christmas carols (“Then how the reindeer loved him/ As they shouted out in glee,/ ‘Rudolf the rednosed reindeer/ You’ll go down in history!’”) and spaghetti sauce bottles (see the label on Newman’s Own Spaghetti Sauce).
What does this fascination with celebrity mean for those of us who aren’t famous? How has it affected our own self-image? Instead of taking this collective obsession for granted, we’d do better to ask where it comes from. We can’t make sense of it, I think, unless we consider the alternative. We don’t understand the attraction of fame until we realize what is unattractive about being not-famous. In a culture so permeated by print and electronic images, where the media now determine what is real and what is not, being anonymous amounts to being no one at all. To be unknown is to feel like we are nothing, for our lack of being is constantly contrasted with all those real people whose images dominate the screen, and whose names keep appearing in the newspapers and magazines. In his book The Frenzy of Renown, Leo Braudy sums it up well: “the essential lure of the famous is that they are somehow more real than we are and that our insubstantial physical reality needs that immortal substance for support…because it is the best, perhaps the only, way to be.”
If self-justifying fame is the way to become more real, then one way to become real is to be really bad. “How many times do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention?” wrote a serial killer to the Wichita police. Only with his sixth murder, he complained, had he begun to get the publicity he deserved. More recently, the Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho succeeded in making himself into someone who will not soon be forgotten. According to Braudy such fame “promises acceptability, even if one commits the most heinous crime, because thereby people will finally know who you are, and you will be saved from the living death of being unknown.”
People in low-tech medieval times had their own problems, but the living death of being unknown was not one of them. Since fame was so rare and not really a possibility for anyone except a few rulers, anonymity was not the curse for them that it has become for us. It was not their solution to lack.
“How can he be dead, who lives immortal in the hearts of men?” mused Longfellow about Michelangelo. Freud defined immortality as “being loved by many anonymous people,” yet our desire for that kind of impersonal love reveals just as much about our craving for fame right here and now. What makes that person on the screen seem more real to us, if not that we’re all looking at her?
The basic problem is that preoccupation with fame plugs all too easily into the sense of lack that haunts our sense of self. That it’s a construct means the sense of self is always ungrounded and insecure. That it’s a product of psychological and social conditioning means that it develops in response to the attention of others, especially parents, siblings, and friends. Even as adults, therefore, we quite naturally try to reassure ourselves with the approbation of other people. Much of the value of money for us is due to its supposed effects on the opinion of others. As much as Donald Trump may enjoy his wealth, he obviously craves public admiration as much, if not more.
One difference between medieval people and us is that they believed in a different kind of salvation. If they lived as God wanted them to, He would take care of them. Today fewer people believe in God or an afterlife, which makes us more susceptible to secular solutions that promise to fill up our sense of lack right here.
The irony of a celebrity-obsessed culture is that, whether you’re famous or a nobody, you are equally trapped if fame is important to you—that is, if fame is your way to become more real. The duality between fame and anonymity is another version of the dualistic thinking that Buddhism cautions us about. We distinguish between them because we want one rather than the other, but we can’t have one without the other because they are interdependent. The meaning of each depends upon the other, since each is the opposite of the other. If I want to live a “pure” live (however that is understood), I need to keep avoiding impurity. In the same way, to the extent that I desire to be famous then I am equally worried about not being famous.
It makes no difference whether I actually am famous. In either case, I’m trapped in the same dualistic way of thinking. If I’m not famous, I will worry about remaining that way. If I am famous, I will also worry about remaining that way—that is, about losing my fame. Although the media need celebrities they are readily replaced. Even if my celebrity continues, I can never be famous enough—because no one can ever be famous enough, any more than one can ever be rich enough or thin enough. When fame symbolizes becoming more real, disappointment or disillusionment is inevitable. No amount of fame can ever satisfy if it’s really something else that I am seeking from it, which it cannot provide.
As Lewis Lapham put it, “Because the public image comes to stand as the only valid certification of being, the celebrity clings to his image as the rich man clings to his money—that is, as if to life itself.” But some rich people do not cling to their money. The issue, again, is whether we use money or it uses us. If we understand what money is—a social construction that is valueless in and of itself—we need not be ensnared by it. Is the same true for fame?
Unless you are very rich indeed, money can still leave you anonymous and relatively invisible, whereas fame does not. Otherwise, however, the parallel still holds. If you realize that fame, like money, cannot make you more real, you can escape the trap of trying to use it to become someone special.
For an example, consider the situation of the Dalai Lama. He has received the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps humanity’s highest honor, and he needs bodyguards (mainly because of his difficult position as an exiled head of state). Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama serves as an admirable example of how fame, like money, can be valuable when employed as a skillful means. He is such a fine Dharma teacher because he has evidently not been personally affected by his reputation as Buddhism’s foremost Dharma teacher.
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© David R. Loy, Money, Sex, War, Karma (Wisdom Publications, 2008)
Money, Sex, War, Karma by David R. Loy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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