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Nesting Buddhas and insubstantiality

Monday, July 25th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — from the Buddha’s Diamond Sutra via matrioshka dolls and koans to Sun Tzu and Wittgenstein ]
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From Karl Brunnhölzl, The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever, in today’s Lion’s Roar:

Besides being a meditation manual, we could also say that the Heart Sutra is like a big koan. But it is not just one koan, it is like those Russian dolls: there is one big doll on the outside and then there is a smaller one inside that first one, and there are many more smaller ones in each following one.

After reading that, I wasn’t exactly expecting to find illustrations of Buddhas in the form of Matryoshka dolls on Google, but in fact there are quite a few variants on the theme. Here’s one, original source unknown:

matryoshka_buddha

Buddhism actually has a doctrine of the Trikaya or three bodies of Buddha, as described in the dictionarily dry words of the Britannica:

Trikaya, (Sanskrit: “three bodies”), in Mah?y?na Buddhism, the concept of the three bodies, or modes of being, of the Buddha: the dharmakaya (body of essence), the unmanifested mode, and the supreme state of absolute knowledge; the sambhogakaya (body of enjoyment), the heavenly mode; and the nirmanakaya (body of transformation), the earthly mode, the Buddha as he appeared on earth or manifested himself in an earthly bodhisattva, an earthly king, a painting, or a natural object, such as a lotus.

— and point you to a deeper reading as set forth by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, whose understanding far surpasses anything I could muster.

I don’t. however, believe these three bodies are “nested” quite the way the Russian dolls are..

**

Now let’s get down to business. In the same article, Brunnhölzl writes:

Many people have complained about the Prajnaparamita Sutras because they also trash all the hallmarks of Buddhism itself, such as the four noble truths, the Buddhist path, and nirvana. These sutras not only say that our ordinary thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are invalid and that they do not really exist as they seem to, but that the same goes for all the concepts and frameworks of philosophical schools—non- Buddhist schools, Buddhist schools, and even the Mahayana, the tradition to which the Prajnaparamita Sutras belong.

That’s by normal western standards, is pretty strong philosophical meat. But Brunnhölzl continues, asking:

Is there any other spiritual tradition that says, “Everything that we teach, just forget about it”?

**

I sense a slight “my path is edgier than yours” tinge to that question, so I didn’t treat it as rhetorical, I pondered it — and in my googling ran across this rather neat pair of DoubleQuotes, which had been put together by Noah Greenstein in a blog-post titled Wittgenstein and Sun Tzu (on throwing the ladder away):

DQ Sun Tzu Wittgenstein ladders

and which I’ve presented here using one of my own DoubleQuotes formats.

**

It should be noted, however, that the Sun Tzu translation quoted here is the 1910 Leonard Giles version, that the text with a little more context reads:

At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand. He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots..

and that Giles‘ own comment on “the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him” reads:

literally, “releases the spring” (see V. § 15), that is, takes some decisive step which makes it impossible for the army to return—like # Hsiang Yü, who sunk his ships after crossing a river.

Sun Tzu as quoted here, then, is not in fact a great match for Wittgenstein — but Wittgenstein, who can indeed be said to have “thrown away” his own early philosophy as outlined in the Tractatus before acquiring the new one outlined in his Philosophical Investigations, comes far closer in spirit to the Diamond Sutra as discussed above.

**

Did I say the Heartv Sutra was “pretty strong meat”? I did. Perhaps this excerpt from Brunnhölzl’ piece will bring the point home:

There are accounts in several of the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras about people being present in the audience who had already attained certain advanced levels of spiritual development or insight that liberated them from samsaric existence and suffering. These people, who are called “arhats” in Buddhism, were listening to the Buddha speaking about emptiness and then had different reactions. Some thought, “This is crazy, let’s go” and left. Others stayed, but some of them had heart attacks, vomited blood, and died. It seems they didn’t leave in time. These arhats were so shocked by what they were hearing that they died on the spot. That’s why somebody suggested to me that we could call the Heart Sutra the Heart Attack Sutra.

Now that’s serious philosophy.

**

Okay, this has been an early morning meander, sufficient to drive away both fatigue and insomnia. On with the insubstantial day..

Firefights, breath, & meditation

Monday, June 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — remembering my father, Capt Orford Gordon Cameron, DSC, RN ]
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I came across two pieces with overlapping descriptions of what happens to the body, perceptions, and thought, in a firefight. As is my habit, I’ve picked some of the essential text and accompanying illustration in each case, and offer them to you in my DoubleQuote format:

DQ Breath and time dilation

**

The first quote, with the Boyd OODA Loop diagram heading it, comes from Tim Lynch‘s Fourth Generation War Comes To America: What Are You Going To Do About It?, which Michael Yon linked to.

Lynch’s piece is his response to the Orlando shooting, its thrust being that the event went on way too long, and that we need more people to identify (and prepare) themselves as sheepdogs:

Human Sheepdogs are, by nature, not a threat to their fellow citizens but are death dealing fighting machines when they, their loved ones or the sheep (other citizens) are in peril.

In particular, Lynch delivers a mini-seminar on the essential contents of two books:

  • LTC Dave Grossman, On Killing
  • Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear
  • The second comes from Adam Linehan‘s This Is Your Brain On War at Task & Purpose. Again, the topic centers around Grossman’s work, but in this case the framing has to do with the tranfer of psychological insight from sports medicine to the military profession.

    There’s more in Linehan’s piece that’s relevant to my posting here than I’ve been able to quote in my “tablet” DQ format, so here’s some additional detail:

    The moment an engagement kicks off, the body initiates a dramatic response, beginning with the circulatory system, which immediately shunts blood away from the body surface. This, Grossman explains, is the body preparing to suck up damage.

    Preparing to absorb damage, the circulatory system moves blood away from the body’s surface to its core.

    “It’s called vasoconstriction. Just before the capillaries, there’s a mechanical shutdown of the blood flow, and now the arteries and the body core are holding up to twice as much blood. That’s why the face goes white.”

    There are two primary reasons for this. One, it helps prevent bruising, which is what happens when the capillaries and veins burst from blunt force trauma. If there’s no blood, they remain intact. But more importantly, the redirected blood flow helps keep the person alive long enough to finish the fight. [ .. ]

    Blood drains from the brain’s rational control center (the forebrain), leaving the midbrain in full control, at which point, you will do what you’ve been trained to do.

    That’s because, at its most extreme, vasoconstriction affects the brain, too. “As the blood drains from the face, blood drains from the forebrain, and there’s no rational thought,” Grossman explains. “I call that ‘condition black.’ And at condition black, the midbrain is in charge, and you’ll do what you’ve been trained to do — no more, no less. You will do what you’ve been programmed to do — no more, no less.”

    Thus, if a soldier reaches condition black and lacks adequate training, there’s a good chance he or she will freeze up. A well-trained soldier, on the other hand, will likely take action to neutralize the threat. “Given a clear and present danger, with today’s training almost everyone will shoot,” Grossman says.

    There are specific impacts on perception, too:

    Many soldiers report barely being able to hear the blast of their own rifles during combat.

    “The lion’s roar is a deafening, stunning event,” says Grossman. “But the lion doesn’t hear his roar, just like the dog doesn’t hear his bark. Their ears shut down, and so do ours. Gunpowder is our roar.”

    Under high stress, the nerve connecting the inner ear and the brain shuts down, resulting in temporary hearing loss, or “auditory exclusion.”

    This phenomenon is called “auditory exclusion,” and it’s a result of the nerve that connects the inner ear and the brain shutting down in the heat of battle. According to Grossman, 90% of combat soldiers report having experienced auditory exclusion. “You get caught by surprise in an ambush. Boom. Boom. Boom. The shots are loud and overwhelming. You return fire, boom. The shots get quiet, but you’re still getting hearing damage.”

    A soldier’s vision can also be affected by combat, and Grossman uses two different so-called predator models — the “charging lion” and the “wolf-pack dynamic” — to explain this.

    This is where the quote I selected about two types of vision — one in tight focus, one diffusely aware of everything going on around you — kicks in.

    And one more thing: there’s time-dilation.

    A number of soldiers and law enforcement officers whom Grossman has interviewed reported being able track incoming rounds with their eyes.

    There is another phenomenon involving vision that is widely disputed, but which Grossman insists is real, and that’s the experience of what he calls “slow-motion time.”

    “I have had hundreds of people tell me they can see the bullet in combat,” he says. “Many have been able to later point to where the bullet hit, and they could not have done that without tracking the bullet with their eyes. Not like the matrix. It’s like a paintball, where the bullet is slow enough you can track it with your eyes.”

    **

    I’m not much of a gun person — though this is Father’s Day, and I do recall going on exercises aboard my father‘s command (Royal Navy) when I was nine, and firing the Oerlikon and Bofors guns. Why, then, am I interested enough in these two articles to recap them together here?

    It’s because I’m a meditator, and concerned with breath and matters of cognition — so “high end firearms instruction includes breathing exercises that are designed to bleed off adrenaline and keep the pulse below 150” speaks to my daily practice — not because I’m in firefights, but because I want to enter a state of peace, and remain peaceable even when not meditating.

    And that, my friends, means there’s some common ground between warfare and peacefare right here, in the breath. Which is something I think should be of keen interest to all of us.

    Linehan’s article goes into more detail regarding cognition under fire, but two points particularly strike me. The first is that he mentions two states, often in rapid alternation, one involving tightly focused awareness, and the other a wide-angled awareness of 360 degrees around you, not to mention above and below..

    That interests me because there are two major strands of meditative practice, one using a tight focus (eg on the breath, a mantra, etc), and the other picking up on whatever crosses the threshold of consciousness, not only from all around your external environment, but also from the various streams of bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Mantra meditation is of one kind, zen sitting an example of the other.

    Don’t take my word for it, though, I’m probably missing some important subtleties, and practice under the watchful eye of a teacher will give you a far better sense of the distinction and its niceties than I can.

    The last thing? Time dilation.

    It’s my experience — sometimes in meditation, but perhaps most noticeably when I was in a car rolling over and over in the Nevada desert — that time as perceived can both slow down and speed up. There can be all the time in the world to notice every last detail of what’s happening — and it can all be over in a flash, a split-second.

    Words really don’t do such experiences justice, so I’ll leave it at that. But the similarities and commonalities between military experience under fire and meditative experience in the cool of the day are striking enough to warrant in-depth study — or as the meditation community might out it, further contemplation.

    Why I suspect I’d make a lousy Tibetan Buddhist meditator

    Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — where the blind spot of aphantasia meets the beauty of Avalokiteshvara ]
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    Tablet DQ 600 Avalokiteshvara & the aphantasic

    **

    Perhaps sadly, perhaps not, I suffer from aphantasia.

    It’s a great relief, actually, to have found someone who doesn’t laugh at me when I say I can’t visualize — a researcher, no less, Prof. Adam Zeman, with a paper on the topic in Cortex.

    I have tried on occasion to find metaphors for my condition. The best way to explain what does happen when someone asks me to visualize something is to say I can see it “as if painted in water on glass” — or “as if it’s behind me, out of sight, but I can remember roughly what it was like when I last looked.”

    Sources:

  • Lion’s Roar, Developing Pure Perception Through Visualization
  • BBC Science news, Aphantasia: A life without mental images
  • University of Exeter, Can’t count sheep? You could have aphantasia
  • Adam Zeman, Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia
  • Aesthetics of love & death

    Friday, March 4th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — relics of a catacombs martyr, St Valentine and more ]
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    SPEC DQ valentine catacomb martyrs

    **

    There are times when the DoubleQuote format is confining, and the comparative method it is based on could be uswed effectively with more than two examples. Here consider also:

    The Tamil Tiger martyr Jenny, as discussed in a fascinating article by anthropologist Michael Roberts aka Thuppahi, Death and Eternal Life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses:

    jenny-dead-ltte-female-11

    The Al-Qaida martyr al-Zubayr al-Sudani as screencapped by Chris Anlazone:

    al-Zubayr al-Sudani

    And the Irish Catholic martyr Michael Collins as portrayed in death by Sir John Lavery:

    michael_collins_by_john_lavery1

    **

    Buddha is reported to have said:

    Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.

    The cover of American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky‘s book of poems, Gulf Music, features a Tibetan Buddhist Dance of Death:

    Gulf Music Pinsky

    Likewise, the Jesuit St Peter Faber meditates on the crucifixion and death of Christ:

    Jesus Christ, may your death be my life
    and in your dying may I learn how to live.
    May your struggles be my rest,
    Your human weakness my courage,
    Your embarrassment my honor,
    Your passion my delight,
    Your sadness my joy,
    in your humiliation may I be exalted.
    In a word, may I find all my blessings in your trials.
    Amen.

    while Hans Holbein invites us to contemplate death behind the varied appearances of human life:

    Holbein Dance the Nun

    DoubleQuote as Match Cut

    Monday, October 12th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — further passing notes in the virtual music of ideas, including meditations for glass bead game players ]
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    From the agile algorithmic eyes at Archillect:

    A match cut or graphic match in cinema is, in Wikipedia’s words,

    a cut in film editing between either two different objects, two different spaces, or two different compositions in which objects in the two shots graphically match, often helping to establish a strong continuity of action and linking the two shots metaphorically.

    **

    Perhaps it’s time to post my Meditations for Glass Bead Game Players:

    i

    First, I ask you to consider the rhyme of “womb” with “tomb” — which has the delicious property that these two words describe, if you will, the two chambers from which we enter this life and through which we leave it. Not only do the two words rhyme on the ear, in other words, they can also be said to rhyme in meaning. Meditation: if you were wearing headphones, and these two words were spoken, what would the stereophony of their meanings be?

    ii

    Next, I would invite you to consider visual rhymes — known as “graphic matches” in film studies. Take, for instance, lipstick and bullet. To rephrase the opening of a book I am still working on:

    The conjunction comes from a Yardley’s cosmetic advertisement of a few years back: a woman model wearing a leather bandolier with a variety of lipsticks in place of bullets. It is a powerful image partly because it plays on the visual similarity of bullets and lipsticks, each in their own metal jacket. Indeed, the visual match between them is astonishing — and the lurking Freudian visual pun only adds to our delight.

    The juxtaposition of lipstick and bullet I take to be an example of a certain kind of visual logic, a visual kinship. Transposing their relationship from visual to verbal terms, one might say that lipstick and bullet “rhyme.”

    But there is more than the purely visual here too… There is also a meaning rhyme that echoes in Freud’s pairing of Eros and Thanatos, in Wagner’s Liebestod, in Woody Allen, and in the opening sentence of Bedier’s Tristan and Iseult:

    My Lords, if you would hear a high tale of love and death…

    Meditation: what is the stereophany (by analogy with epiphany, theophany — neologism intended) of the meanings of lipstick and bullet?

    iii

    Consider next musical rhymes — fugal treatment of a theme — and if you have the means, play yourself Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903, or Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV 582…

    iv

    Next I would ask you to consider — briefly — rhymes between ideas themselves… Ponder, for instance, the twin themes of the myth of Narcissus, and the rhyme that exists between the idea of “echo” and that of “reflection”…

    v

    Consider rhymes between things, between names and the things they name (onomatopoeia), and between ideas and names and things and musical themes and images:

    Seen together, aerial maps of river estuaries and road systems, feathers, fern leaves, branching blood vessels, nerve ganglia, electron micrographs of crystals and the tree-like patterns of electrical discharge-figures are connected, although they are vastly different in place, origin, and scale. Their similarity of form is by no means accidental.

    G Kepes, New Landscapes of Art & Science

    When the surf echoes and crashes out to the horizon, its whorls repeat in similar ratios inside our fleshåWe are extremely complicated, but our bloods and hormones are fundamentally seawater and volcanic ash, congealed and refined. Our skin shares its chemistry with the maple leaf and moth wing. The currents our bodies regulate share a molecular flow with raw sun. Nerves and flashes of lightning are related events woven into nature at different levels.

    Grossinger, Planet Medicine

    The links of association that are possible between one thing and another are extraordinary, and rhymes of the sort we have been discussing are just the beginning… On being asked:

    What is the intersection of fish and flames?

    my list-colleague Barbara Weitbrecht responded:

    Fish being cooked … flame-colored fish … fish flickering through sunlit water like flames … things to do with water: one in it, one antagonistic to it … fish and flames both images of sleep, of subconscious ideas surfacing, of revelation … fish and flames both images of the Deity ….

    vi

    Consider all things as the calligraphy of a god or gods…

    vii

    Consider, finally, the stereophany between these two elegant paragraphs, one written by the contemporary American poet and naturalist, Annie Dillard, and the other by her compatriot Haniel Long:

    My friend Jens Jensen, who is an ornithologist, tells me that when he was a boy in Denmark he caught a big carp embedded in which, across the spinal vertebrae, were the talons of an osprey. Apparently years before, the fish hawk had dived for its prey, but had misjudged its size. The carp was too heavy for it to lift up out of the water, and so after a struggle the bird of prey was pulled under and drowned. The fish then lived as best it could with the great bird clamped to it, till time disintegrated the carcass, and freed it, all but the bony structure of the talon.

    Haniel Long, Letter to Saint Augustine

    And:

    And once, says Ernest Seton Thompson–once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

    Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

    These are the rhymings of the ten thousand things. It is with such meditations as these that we may build the “hundred-gated cathedral of Mind” to which Hesse refers…

    And that “brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back” to my post, DoubleQuotes — origins, of just a few days ago.


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