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Thread: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

  1. #1
    Stephanie
    Guest

    Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Watching http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue72gvJvpi8[/video]]this earlier, the final scene from Don Giovanni (with the excellent Bryn Terfel in the lead role), and reading some of the comments underneath it dredged up some themes I've been pondering. Commenters on the clip summarized it thus: "Don Giovanni refuses to repent so the Commander sends Don Giovanni into hell... He dies mocking divine punishment, which makes him an enlightenment hero... Or an idiot."

    I've walked away from my recent face-off with the abyss even further convinced that "existence precedes essence" and that life and its meaning are whatever we make it. If there is some good in the universe, we have not discovered it--we have created it. God may (or may not) be a useful construct for orienting ourselves toward certain things, but God does not exist outside of our own subjective perceptions. Same for Buddhists and constructs like nirvana, enlightenment, etc. The nature of truth is radically subjective, though there is also a consensus element of it. But you can't pick up or touch or lie down on or in "the truth."

    I've not come to any total conclusion, as I increasingly see my own stupidity and the impossibility of ever being able to come to a conclusion on such matters. But it's got me wondering about how I want to live my life. I know the "truth" and value of morality as a close companion of freedom. I don't have any questions or problems with most of the most basic precepts. But I do wonder about the path of "excess" versus the path of "chastity." If one, upon one's deathbed, realized or knew that God wasn't watching, what would one regret more--a tempered life or an excessive one? Is Don Giovanni heroic, or is he an idiot?

    I ask not out of idle speculation but because this crisis of logos I've been going through has left me wondering about the choices I've made in my life, what I've emphasized and what I've neglected. I've emphasized the "spiritual" and the search for truth for so long, and now that I feel like I've come away from that empty-handed, I'm wondering about the side of me I've neglected--the side that nearly all the religions and philosophies I embraced told me to repress, control, or temper. Have I wisely saved myself a lot of suffering by only rarely indulging that side? Or have I been living a half-baked life?

    I don't regret the choices I've made in my life because I have never compromised my integrity or failed to respond to my deepest passions. But I wonder... if religion is the green curtain, and there is no man behind the curtain... Why respond to injunctions to chastity, asceticism, or temperance if desire seems more fun, more alive? It is easy when sating a desire seems relatively harmless and safe. But what about it when it's not so harmless or safe? What if you're driven to push the limits of existence? At the moment of death, what would make you smile--having left a blazing trail of excess, or having walked the straight and narrow?

  2. #2

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    I increasingly see my own stupidity...
    That sounds like the beginnings of wisdom. 8)
    I think someone wrote a book with a title like that. :wink:

    Past my bed time
    Take care, gassho, good night!
    Jordan

  3. #3

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie

    I've walked away from my recent face-off with the abyss even further convinced that "existence precedes essence" and that life and its meaning are whatever we make it. If there is some good in the universe, we have not discovered it--we have created it. God may (or may not) be a useful construct for orienting ourselves toward certain things, but God does not exist outside of our own subjective perceptions. Same for Buddhists and constructs like nirvana, enlightenment, etc. The nature of truth is radically subjective, though there is also a consensus element of it. But you can't pick up or touch or lie down on or in "the truth."
    As to whether 'God' exists, or is a human construct ... you will have to ask God. I have no opinion on the matter. Nor do I know whether love, compassion, benevolence, anger, violence and hate exist as something essential to the universe, something prior to us, or merely as 'human constructs'. Perhaps the universe lacks all grand purpose, is directionless and amoral. Perhaps it does not. Maybe nobody and nothing is at the wheel. I am not so concerned.

    But I will say that when a human being acts in a compassionate way, with love and benevolence, then compassion, love and benevolence truly exist in this world. Our world is made, by just a little bit more, into a gentler place. At the moment of our compassionate and loving acts, they exist as much as anything can exist, and are as real as the mountains or stars in the sky. In fact, since you and I are nothing but the universe itself ... like the flowers, like the trees ... love and anger may be seen as the seeds we plant and water, as natural to the universe as anything else that blossoms and grows. If the blooming flowers stand for the world's natural properties, then love and caring are as much the world's natural properties.

    At that moment, compassion, love and benevolence are as much natural properties of the universe as gravity, electricity and sunlight (which, after all, radiates from the sun as much as love and compassion radiate from us. I see no difference. Can you tell me some difference?)

    Unfortunately, the same is true for hateful acts.

    This can also be said for a mind at peace, still and balanced, or a mind disturbed with thoughts of darkness and a 'void'. When the mind is still and balanced, all phenomena of the world are viewed with stillness, balance and equanimity ... even those parts of the world that are otherwise ugly and displeasing. A sense of Peace pervades all, beyond mere human judgments of 'peace' and 'war'. On the other hand, when the human mind is disturbed and filled with darkness, unbalanced, even a child's smile or the flowers of spring will seem bleak. It is up to us. The war and ugliness are still there no matter how we view them, and the same for a child's smile.

    But I do wonder about the path of "excess" versus the path of "chastity." If one, upon one's deathbed, realized or knew that God wasn't watching, what would one regret more--a tempered life or an excessive one? Is Don Giovanni heroic, or is he an idiot?... Why respond to injunctions to chastity, asceticism, or temperance if desire seems more fun, more alive? It is easy when sating a desire seems relatively harmless and safe. But what about it when it's not so harmless or safe? What if you're driven to push the limits of existence? At the moment of death, what would make you smile--having left a blazing trail of excess, or having walked the straight and narrow?
    In Buddhist philosophy, a life of excess may be pleasant for a time ... but will soon lead to that same unbalanced mind, disturbed and dark. In our belief, one cannot be truly free if enslaved to passions and desires. In Zen Buddhism, all passions and desires are not evil ... and many things are to be enjoyed. It is merely a matter of degree, balance and perspective, not seeking happiness only in quick pleasures and by knowing limits. A bit of tasty food is a great wonder in life, yet too much and we are left wasted and sick. Anyway, I think so.

    If you would like to test the theory, you can (like so many people do every day) try it out yourself ... and report back to us from the other side. Many of us have.

    Gassho, Jundo

  4. #4

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    For now, one thing jumps out strongly for me:

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    At the moment of death, what would make you smile--having left a blazing trail of excess, or having walked the straight and narrow?
    I think this is a false dichotomy. Putting everything into these terms -- choosing that morality is a matter of these two extremes -- is, well, a choice. It's already deciding that morality is a matter of a 'right' pole (chastity, asceticism, whatever) and a 'wrong' pole (indulgence, excess, pursuing nothing but pleasure). That decision may be very problematic. It may already be an imposition of preconceptions on reality -- in this case, preconceptions as a direct result of cultural conditioning, as our culture in fact tends to see morality in terms of these poles. You have to ask, 'why view morality this way at all?'

    I'm becoming increasingly convinced that most 'searching for meaning' is really searching for some ideas, or framework of ideas, that we can impose on reality in order to make our lives simpler. But this imposition is an imposition. It is always a kind of violence, so to speak -- a mental or intellectual violence that we practice regarding the world around us, and of course against ourselves as well. The search for meaning is therefore already problematic at its beginning.

    More later, maybe.

    --Charles

  5. #5

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Taking forward Charles' point - absolutely, very rarely in my life are choices so black & white. Most of the time I deal with grey, or issues on a spectrum. I suspect there is a middle way here (sounds familiar ).

    On the point re the moment of death - I feel this is intellectualising. From where I have been professionally (being with dozen's of dying people & then laying them out) and personally (knowing that in the next 30 seconds that nice man in a suit may give you some really bad news), the predominant emotion is fear, no regret (that is the stuff of movies). Most people are very, very scared at this crucible of their lives. I hope this practice teaches me to face these moments with greater equanimity.

    Kindest regards

    Jools

  6. #6

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    I guess a simpler life is just a product of wisdom. When we recognize that which is a barrier or makes us feel like shit, we usually end up with a simpler more balanced life.

    From my understanding, Zen gives you the ability to enjoy a flower, or the sunlight touching one's skin, or your reflection in a spoon. Like your seeing it for the first time. To taste ice cream for the first time, but to also not eat too much and notice our craving for more. To climb a mountain and enjoy the view, but not try to risk neck and limb to get there. To try wine or whiskey, but not drink the whole bottle. To know when body says "Please will you just stop for one freaking moment so I can have a break?"

    Questions, questions, questions. You can't answer with the mind, that which the body needs to be consulted about.

    Don't underestimate the power of simplicity.

    Now sit on that like woopy cushion. woooo

    Gassho

  7. #7

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    path of "excess" versus the path of "chastity."
    Buddha taught "the middle way." Neither excessive nor chaste.

    You should watch Jundo's video talks on sex.

    Gassho

  8. #8

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles
    I'm becoming increasingly convinced that most 'searching for meaning' is really searching for some ideas, or framework of ideas, that we can impose on reality in order to make our lives simpler.
    I think this is very well said...

  9. #9

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    ...I'm wondering about the side of me I've neglected--the side that nearly all the religions and philosophies I embraced told me to repress, control, or temper. Have I wisely saved myself a lot of suffering by only rarely indulging that side? Or have I been living a half-baked life?
    Just curious......what has Buddhism (or even more specifically just practicing Zazen) asked you so far to repress, control or temper?

  10. #10

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Charles wrote:
    But this imposition is an imposition. It is always a kind of violence, so to speak -- a mental or intellectual violence that we practice regarding the world around us, and of course against ourselves as well. The search for meaning is therefore already problematic at its beginning.
    Very nicely said . . . I love the violence comparison, I think you are right. All too often, it is a matter of our taking reality and breaking it so that we can fit the pieces of what's left into the nice little compartments we have made for them. The problem is that a lot of little pieces get left out, and the other pieces now appear to be separate things instead of being aspects of a single larger entity.

    Bill

  11. #11

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    But I do wonder about the path of "excess" versus the path of "chastity."
    I think this is why the Buddha taught about the middle way. Which is neither excess or chastity, no deathbed regrets for having lived a rich and just life I hope. However, I suppose that defining what is the middle way is one of the personal decisions one must make for oneself, it takes a lot of wisdom and experience to sort out. I'll probably be working on this for the rest of my life --- no perfection is possible I suppose.

  12. #12

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles
    I'm becoming increasingly convinced that most 'searching for meaning' is really searching for some ideas, or framework of ideas, that we can impose on reality in order to make our lives simpler. But this imposition is an imposition. It is always a kind of violence, so to speak -- a mental or intellectual violence that we practice regarding the world around us, and of course against ourselves as well. The search for meaning is therefore already problematic at its beginning.
    --Charles
    I just wanted to offer that the reason this resonates with me so much is that I remember being back in college (about 100 years ago it feels like!) and being soooooo wrapped up in my thoughts and my conditioning.......I was searching soooooo hard for something to grasp onto for "meaning".......I thought everything would be OK if I could just search my mind hard enough to discover the "secret" of living......that one "rule" for living my life that would make sense......one "motto"......one "thought".......one "certainty" that I could apply in all situations which would make my life easy and give me some peace.

    Our practice teaches us that all of this thinking and grasping is simply the conditioned mind at work and that the very act of searching IS the source of our suffering.

    - John


    "If you want to be free,
    Get to know your real self.
    It has no form, no appearance,
    No root, no basis, no abode,
    But is lively and buoyant.
    It responds with versatile facility,
    But its function cannot be located.
    Therefore when you look for it,
    You become further from it;
    When you seek it,
    You turn away from it all the more."

    - Linji

  13. #13
    Stephanie
    Guest

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Thank you all for your kind and clear answers.

    I worried that I was just going to get, "Stop thinking about this stuff and just sit." This was far more helpful.

    I think you are right that I am setting up a false dichotomy between this and that, which is what the conditioned mind tends to do, right?

    I'm not a particularly repressed person, I've just made certain choices in my life about what to emphasize that I used to be able to pat myself on the back for to some extent, and I can't really do that any more. I'm just the cosmic fool, looking for something that doesn't exist. So perhaps it is time to look for what does exist.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    But I will say that when a human being acts in a compassionate way, with love and benevolence, then compassion, love and benevolence truly exist in this world. Our world is made, by just a little bit more, into a gentler place. At the moment of our compassionate and loving acts, they exist as much as anything can exist, and are as real as the mountains or stars in the sky. In fact, since you and I are nothing but the universe itself ... like the flowers, like the trees ... love and anger may be seen as the seeds we plant and water, as natural to the universe as anything else that blossoms and grows. If the blooming flowers stand for the world's natural properties, then love and caring are as much the world's natural properties.

    At that moment, compassion, love and benevolence are as much natural properties of the universe as gravity, electricity and sunlight (which, after all, radiates from the sun as much as love and compassion radiate from us. I see no difference. Can you tell me some difference?)
    This was beautiful, Jundo. Gassho.

    Now off to just sit and stop thinking about this stuff for a bit

  14. #14

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Quote Originally Posted by johnny
    I just wanted to offer that the reason this resonates with me so much is that I remember being back in college (about 100 years ago it feels like!) and being soooooo wrapped up in my thoughts and my conditioning.......I was searching soooooo hard for something to grasp onto for "meaning".......I thought everything would be OK if I could just search my mind hard enough to discover the "secret" of living......that one "rule" for living my life that would make sense......one "motto"......one "thought".......one "certainty" that I could apply in all situations which would make my life easy and give me some peace.
    Man, do I ever relate to that! I'm guessing we all do. The problem is that once you find that 'one true answer' and put it into practice in your life, you find that the world resists it. It turns out that really, not every thing and situation you encounter can be easily dealt with by your 'truth'. Things start breaking and if you want to hold onto your 'truth' you have to exert an immense will. (And often denial.)

    The difficult thing for me in beginning to practice Buddhism has been (is) NOT doing this again -- using it to give up these kinds of searching, not making it just another search for meaning in exactly the same way I've done in the past. And not just turning it into another daily routine that I use to structure my life -- to become comfortable with -- which I think will always be a risk.

    Quote Originally Posted by johnny
    Therefore when you look for it,
    You become further from it;
    When you seek it,
    You turn away from it all the more."
    Grasping this intellectually is easy for me. Making it my life is going to be very difficult. Just the 'act' of intellectualizing this is easily turned into another instance of 'self'-affirmation.

    --Charles

  15. #15

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles
    The difficult thing for me in beginning to practice Buddhism has been (is) NOT doing this again -- using it to give up these kinds of searching, not making it just another search for meaning in exactly the same way I've done in the past. And not just turning it into another daily routine that I use to structure my life -- to become comfortable with -- which I think will always be a risk.
    Ditto! (I'm too tired from the gym to add anything insightful, I just wanted to respond )

  16. #16

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Hi,

    I have watched the conversation develop here, and I think statements like the following are so wise ...

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles

    I'm becoming increasingly convinced that most 'searching for meaning' is really searching for some ideas, or framework of ideas, that we can impose on reality in order to make our lives simpler. But this imposition is an imposition. It is always a kind of violence, so to speak -- a mental or intellectual violence that we practice regarding the world around us, and of course against ourselves as well. The search for meaning is therefore already problematic at its beginning.
    Quote Originally Posted by DontKnow
    All too often, it is a matter of our taking reality and breaking it so that we can fit the pieces of what's left into the nice little compartments we have made for them. The problem is that a lot of little pieces get left out, and the other pieces now appear to be separate things instead of being aspects of a single larger entity.
    Quote Originally Posted by johnny
    ... I remember being back in college (about 100 years ago it feels like!) and being soooooo wrapped up in my thoughts and my conditioning.......I was searching soooooo hard for something to grasp onto for "meaning".......I thought everything would be OK if I could just search my mind hard enough to discover the "secret" of living......that one "rule" for living my life that would make sense......one "motto"......one "thought".......one "certainty" that I could apply in all situations which would make my life easy and give me some peace.
    I think that, in the Zen version of Buddhism, there is little dogmatism, not so many ideas you have to buy into.

    Okay, actually, there are a few ... things like an understanding of "no self", self/other, the dissatisfaction of Dukkha, non-attachment, impermanence, no birth no death, the "Middle Way", moderation (much as Will and Greg pointed out), living the Precepts, Karma (in some form), Wisdom-Compassion, Samsara-Nirvana, alternative visions of time and timelessness ... and, as I always suggest, the "simultaneously true" multi-layered and seemingly conflicting ways of looking at such things as presented by Dogen and others. Yes, there is a bit of philosophy to be learned, new ways of looking at the world to be mastered. Just a bit (otherwise, we could be left with nothing but "Bonpu Zen").

    However, apart from that, Charles and the others have hit the nail on the head. We take this life, in all its complexity and color and craziness, as it comes. I think of the caleidoscope I had as a kid, where I'd turn the wheel and the lens would reveal endlessly new patterns one after the other. Or, I think of a bus trip, where new scenery is constantly being revealed out the window on this long ride of life. One aspect of our Practice is just to be with all of that, whatever comes ... not needing to find patterns or reasons or meaning. As Charles says, we must not do violence to life by forcing it to fit into our own terms. We must take it all on its own terms, just as it is. Whatever shows out the bus window, that is just what is.

    The one place I might disagree with what Johnny said is that, if you do all of the above ... and you approach it all skillfully, both the bits of Buddhist philosophy AND the "letting go" ... you can and will discover a crystal clear "meaning" "truth" & "certainty".

    Does that sound strange?

    Gassho, Jundo

  17. #17
    Stephanie
    Guest

    Re: Morality's place in the cosmic picture

    Thank you

    Deep bow--

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