Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Buddhist Imagery In Film

Neo sees the Three Poisons for what they are.
There are a few noteworthy films which are not explicitly Buddhist, but which make excellent use of Buddhist symbolism. Certainly there are more than I can discuss in the brief span of a single blog post, so I will focus on three of my favorite examples: Groundhog Day, Fight Club, and The Matrix.

Starting with Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, we immediately see that even though the film has no obvious connections to Buddhism, its underlying premise is extremely relevant to Buddhism. The premise is this: a cynical and worldly man (Bill Murray) becomes trapped in a time-loop, wherein he is forced to relive the same day over, and over, and over again. Does it sound like it's related to Buddhism yet? Think samsara, and being trapped in an endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth.

While Murray's character is trapped in this hellish cycle, he quickly realizes that life is no longer consequential, and he begins to indulge in hedonistic pursuits--sex, food, breaking the law, etc. He becomes attached to sensual experience and more importantly to existing. Later in the film, Phil (Murray's character), realizes the emptiness in these pursuits, and becomes determined to end his life: he becomes attached to the idea of not existing. Ultimately, his various suicide attempts fail, and every death is followed by a reboot of the time-loop. In Buddhist terminology, his attachment to non-existence blocks his escape from samsara, and thus he is reborn a countless number of times. Finally, it isn't until Phil learns compassion and the wholesomeness of living for the sake of others that he is released from this nightmarish loop.

It's not surprising that Groundhog Day is often listed as a favorite among Buddhists for these reasons.

Next let's consider Fight Club. A cult classic starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. This film is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't seen it (five or more times). Simultaneously, it's an indictment of capitalism, materialism, consumerism, and everything that stems from those things, as well as an implicit celebration of Buddhist principles.

The film opens with the unnamed protagonist--played by Edward Norton--explaining how he is seeking to fulfill his life by buying just the right things (IKEA furniture mostly). As the movie progresses, (spoiler alert if you haven't seen the movie) the protagonist's alternate personality--played by Brad Pitt--slowly forces the former to let go of all of his attachments. In one particularly memorable scene, Pitt's character forces Norton's character to "just let go" of his false sense of control of life symbolically by literally letting go of his control of the car he is driving.

This point is congruent with the Buddhist teachings of no-self. Since there is no driver (self), there can be no control of the car (life). The mind has no option but to go with the flow.

In another scene, Pitt's character makes excellent use of meditation and mindfulness.

In this scene, Norton's character attempts to shut out pain inflicted by lye sprinkled on his hand by using meditation. Pitt's character points out that he is experiencing "pre-mature enlightenment" and is actually being counter-productive by shutting out the current moment. Instead, Pitt's character insists that the protagonist "stay with the pain." Furthermore, the famous quote "it's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything at all" exudes Buddhist sentiment. In other words, we're not free until we rid ourselves of delusion, greed, and hatred, and all the fetters that bind us to the material world.

In the final scene of the film, the protagonist is at war with his alter ego. To show that he has become enlightened (and that he no longer needs his alter ego), Norton's character shoots himself non-fatally in the cheek (through his mouth) after stating that "my eyes are open." My take on this scene is that by opening the wound in his cheek, the unnamed protagonist has symbolically opened his third eye, signifying that he is, in fact, enlightened. Additionally, what the protagonist realizes that causes his enlightenment is the middle way. He realizes that his previous lifestyle of material indulgence and Pitt's character's lifestyle of anarchic-asceticism are two extremes that must be avoided.

Finally, let's examine The Matrix. This action-packed classic from 1999 needs little introduction as it has been probed extensively in all of its philosophical orifices. While the movie shares many parallels with other philosophies and religions besides Buddhism such as Christianity, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and your cookie-cutter typical Joseph Campbell/Jungian archetypes, let me direct you to my favorite scene of the film:

This scene starts with Neo's realization that he is the one. After this breakthrough, he finally sees the world for what it truly is: desolate of real phenomenon and instead composed of the artificial green rain (the cascading green text that he sees around 0:43). Moreover, with his new knowledge, Neo is able to finally thwart his three enemies and be truly liberated. This chain of events is roughly identical to those of Buddha's enlightenment. First the Buddha realized the true nature of reality: that everything is empty of its own intrinsic essence and that everything is interdependently originated. Armed with this knowledge, the Buddha defeats the Three Poisons (greed, delusion, and hatred) that in the Matrix are symbolized by the three Agents. After which, the Buddha is said to have entered a state of supreme tranquility known as nirvana. Neo's flight at the end of the film can be said to be symbolic of him reaching nirvana as it shows near absolute liberation (in his case from the rules of the Matrix).

Also observe how Neo breathes at about 1:52 into the clip. This, in my opinion, is a testament to the level of detail that the Wachowski brothers fill their movies with. The way Neo breathes in this scene is very reminiscent of a meditative state (as focusing on the breath is a common technique in meditation), and the way he opens his eyes suggests a remarkable epiphany as well as an extremely tranquil disposition. He has become an enlightened being.

I'm certain that there are other parts of the three films that I've mentioned here that can be mapped on to Buddhist teachings, but the parts that I did mention give a good enough representation of how Buddhist concepts translate beautifully into film. Next time you watch Groundhog Day, Fight Club, or The Matrix, I urge you to approach the film from a Buddhist angle and see what you can pick up.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Free Will and Buddhism

It's unfair to say that Buddhism believes in free will, simultaneously, it's also unfair to say that Buddhism does not. Since Buddhists deny the concept of an "agent", then it would seem that it stands to reason that Buddhists would also deny the concept of a "free agent". But, things are not so simple, and as usual, Buddhism opts to take the middle route on this issue. Which in this case is some distant cousin of western compatibilism.

Much like compatibilism, Buddhism acknowledges the existence of volition, which in the latter is seen as something that arises as part of the conscious stream of experience. And much like compatibilism, Buddhism acknowledges that just like every other entity in reality, volition is conditioned on a whole host of other entities. If we name the conditions that give rise to volition something like "antecedent causes", or "current circumstances plus the laws of nature", then we tread dangerously close to hard determinism. For what good is volition if you had no hand in choosing it freely? As Arthur Schopenhauer concisely stated, "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills".

At this point, I could argue semantics and say that compatibilism offers nothing new in the way of free will, except for a redefinition. Instead of arguing for free will's existence, compatibilism simply redefines "acting freely" from choosing an action out of a list of potentials without any coercion, to choosing an action based on a volition that was entirely coerced. Before I conclude this digression, let me illustrate this in a more poignant way. 

First consider how hard determinism views the world:

... -> p_(n-2) -> p_(n-1) -> p_n -> p_(n+1) -> p_(n+2) -> ...

In hard determinism, we are the nth state of the universe in a long chain of states (possibly infinite). Each state follows directly from its predecessor and the laws of physics. Thus every state is completely determined by its antecedents, and thus every future action of yours is already written in stone. You might be tempted to throw quantum mechanics into this discussion, but doing so would not actually amount to anything. Maybe the result would be that the chain branches and isn't linear, or that there are random events--in either case, there's still no personal control over these factors, so you're not granted any additional freedom.

Now consider what compatibilism offers:

 ... -> p_(n-2) -> p_(n-1) -> V -> p_n -> p_(n+1) -> p_(n+2) -> ...

V represents in this case our volition. Note that compatibilists do not claim that volition is in any way special, that it is somehow immune from the causal chain upon which it rests. Compatibilists fully acknowledge that the state of volition is just like any other state of the universe, it is completely determined. Moreover, compatibilists do not argue that volition transitions into present action in any special way either; they will admit that action proceeds from volition in a manner prescribed by the laws of physics. The only thing that differs is that compatibilists have given a name to the direct antecedent cause of an agent's action (volition), and that an agent can act on that cause (forced to act by that cause would be more accurate). What I mean by that last aside is that if you have the volition to do something, you're going to do it, you're determined to.

Bringing this back to Buddhism, as already stated above, the volition arises in consciousness, and is dependently originated. That much we can agree on, but precisely what this means for free will is left somewhat ambiguous, at least for those interpreting the meaning from within a Buddhist context. To me, it seems overwhelmingly a deterministic view at best (if free will is defined in more traditional terms like the one given above), and a compatibilist view at worst (but as I showed above, this is just a semantic game that degrades into determinism when scrutinized).

There are a few reasons why Buddhism might want to incorporate free will into its doctrines. For one, it allows karma to make sense. How can karma be retributive if no one is truly responsible for their actions? Moreover, how is one's afterlife determined if not by the consequences of their freely chosen actions? Since I don't believe in karma or reincarnation, I don't really feel compelled to make any arguments for them, but they aren't hard to think of. For example, there's no reason why karma has to be fair if it's a blind force of nature. Or perhaps it's more like human judicial systems, wherein punishments are meant to discourage bad behavior, and rewards to promote good ones, regardless of whether the behaviors are conditioned or not.

On the other hand, I feel that there are far more reasons why Buddhism should incorporate hard determinism into its doctrines instead. For one, it would promote far more compassion. By letting go of free will, it suddenly no longer makes sense to hate a person for any reason. The mindset of "don't hate the sinner, hate the sin" instantly makes sense. We can hate the act of murder, but love the murderer because we compassionately understand that their actions were determined by forces entirely out of their hands (note that this doesn't mean crimes should go unpunished, refer to where I wrote about the human judicial system). Even oddballs with socially unacceptable personalities are seen in a better light. I.e., Since you didn't pick your horrible personality, how can I hate you for it? 

No matter where or who we look at with our free-will-free-lenses on, we see compassion, acceptance, and understanding. Naively, some might take this to mean passiveness and misguided tolerance. But that certainly does not logically follow from what I've said so far. If in some part of society an anti-social behavior arises, we still have the tools to recognize and address it, regardless of the fact that both the initial behavior and our reaction to it is conditioned. Ill behaviors, can and still should be corrected.

As a conclusion, I'll leave you with a video of Sam Harris laying down an airtight argument for hard determinism, and making some of the same points about compassion as I have (though far more eloquently). 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Genesis and Consequences of Craving, Zen Preliminaries III

Impermanence is symbolized by the sand mandala.
The theme so far seems to be that nothing in the universe, without exception, has a fixed "essence" or self. All entities are conditioned, constantly in flux, arising one instant, and fading away in the next. And while you might agree that this realization is profound (or you might not), you might also be asking what, if any, are the practical implications of it.

As it happens, there is a salient and immediate consequence that follows directly from the "theorems" proved in Zen Preliminaries I, and Zen Preliminaries II. The corollary states that suffering arises directly as a result of craving and attachment, because ultimately these behaviors are irrational and will always lead to an undesirable state of being.

The truth of the claim can be derived from observing that pleasure is not immune to impermanence. Pleasurable sensory experience is just another kind of entity within the universe, and just like everything else, it is empty and it arises dependently on a web of interconnected conditions. Thus clinging to sensory experience, or experience of any sort for that matter, is tantamount to clinging to something that is perpetually in motion: It ensures that our future selves experience dissatisfaction by building our happiness on a foundation of quicksand. Put another way, attempting to hold on to sensory experience is similar to trying to hold on to the flow of a river; no matter how intense our effort, the water will always slip through our hands unobstructed in much the same way that experiences slip through our minds. We destine ourselves for failure and disappointment by fixating on a task that is impossible and Sisyphean.

It's worthwhile to note that the "self" discussed in Zen Preliminaries I is just like the river of experience mentioned here (some including myself would argue that they are identical). Just like the river, the self is constantly in flux, never the same at any two distinct points in time, and its path is entirely determined by the landscape through which it runs. Most importantly, much like the river, the self will also slip right through our hands if we attempt to hold on to it. Consequently, attempting to cling to the self will result in the same kind of suffering as attempting to cling to other types of empty phenomenon like sensory experience.

Clinging to the self also gives rise to the fallacy of "mine" and "yours". This divides resources and compassion unnecessarily, and creates potential for future suffering. Moreover, this fallacy also generates the belief that there is an "I" to experience various kinds of material pleasures. This obfuscates the truth that these experiences simply arise within and as part of the conscious stream, and not as separate entities to be experienced by some observer "behind" the stream. This latter fallacy is perhaps the progeny of all lower forms of desire, as it justifies the craving of pleasant experiences and material comfort.

In traditional Buddhism, this type of craving is believed to be the primary impetus for the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Because the false ego craves existence--the argument goes--it literally cannot let go of the world, and thus forces itself back into reality after death. Of course, we need not believe in anything supernatural to see the benefits in letting go of our cravings for experience. We need only perform a cursory glance inwards, and see that all instances of suffering arose either from being separated from object(s) of desire, or being in proximity with object(s) of anathema. In either case, the most immediate agent of suffering was craving; whether it was craving for a more pleasurable experience, or craving to avoid a less desirable one.

While Buddhism may posit unwarranted assumptions about the nature of reality (such as reincarnation), at least it also provides us with rich imagery to visualize some of its more nuanced concepts. Buddha's well known Fire Sermon analogized attachment to fuel and clinging to fire. By letting go of our attachment, the Buddha argued, we can extinguish the fires that torment us throughout existence. Note that the term "nirvana" literally means to "blow out" or "extinguish", a subtle but revealing point to keep in mind when studying Buddhism.

As an aside, what, in my opinion, is beautiful of and unique to Buddhism, is that it applies this idea of deep non-attachment even to itself. In Buddhism, we are meant to view all beliefs and practices (collectively called the Dharma) as a raft whose only purpose is to see us safely across a turbulent sea to a tranquil shore, and as something that should be let go off once the destination is reached. Put more bluntly, Buddhism is to be viewed as a tool to achieve peace and happiness, and not something to be consumed by, as this would be counterproductive to its goal. Buddhism is a self-constraining religion by its very nature: the only way to be extreme is to not be extreme at all.

Pragmatism aside, I hope that I've shown enough cause for any reasonable person to see craving and attachment as irrational and futile and as things that should be eliminated, at least on a purely intellectual level. Realizing the true implications of the empty nature of experience and clinging on an emotional level takes much more time and commitment, and requires practice to fully cement.

Monday, February 4, 2013

In Defense of the Poor Live Performer

Let's say you have a band that you absolutely adore listening to. You love listening to the studio version of just about anything they put out. More importantly, by some chance you've never heard them live (fairly common in today's world of digital distribution)--until now. Somehow, this band that you love, for the lack of a better word, sucks when it comes to live performance. Maybe their voices are a bit shaky, or off key--whatever it is, it sounds nothing like their studio recordings. What's the right response here? Ditch the band and find one that can perform live well?

In short, it depends. Obviously, I'm not going to tell you what art you should and should not consume, all I can try to do is convince you that for an artist a good live performance should not be the litmus test for excellency. Instead, we should look at the relationship between you and the artist's music, and the relationship between the artist and his own music.

Starting with the former, we should ask ourselves: is it the physical act of performing music that enchants us, or the music being performed itself? My conjecture is that it's more likely to be the music being performed itself. Think of a player piano for a moment--one of those old upright pianos that can play music without a human player. Even though it will flawlessly play Beethoven or any other piece of sheet music fed into it, no one would ever call a player piano an artist. The reason for this is because the piano had no part in the actual creation of that music; it simply reads and plays perforated sheets of music using a clever internal mechanism (as an interesting aside: these perforated music sheets are likely the first examples of structured programming languages). In other words, it's not the technical rendition of a piece of art that makes it beautiful, but the original thought that conceived it to begin with. At best, all an artist can hope to accomplish in their career is to transmit some small part of the awe that he feels in his brain to your brain. And if the artist accomplishes this with a studio version, then mission accomplished, and any live performance thereafter is superfluous.

Please note, however, that I'm not denying that there is artistry involved in playing a musical instrument (including the human voice); there absolutely is. And appreciating musical talent and artistry in that respect is a wholly separate topic that I'm not at present discussing. What I am arguing is that we (your average music consumer) don't listen to Jimi Hendrix for his mastery of the guitar, we listen to Jimi Hendrix for the string of sounds that his mind was capable of producing (though his mastery of the guitar certainly aided in this step, but that's neither here nor there). If a machine played a Hendrix song without error, and sounded identical to his version, we wouldn't truly care which version we listened to. It's the original thought and emotion that created the music and the emotions and thoughts that the music creates within us that we appreciate.

To reiterate the point one more time, let's look at one example of art from a different medium. Consider Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory:

While Dali's technical skill is impressive and should be appreciated on it's own merit, the painting per se should be appreciated for an entirely different set of reasons. As some examples: the painting's representation of a salient aspect of the human condition (the passage of time and our mortality), and the way in which Dali uses aesthetics to project that representation (surrealism).

Would you appreciate the painting any less if Dali were incapable of replicating it exactly, or even remotely close? Probably not. What matters is that Dali had this beautiful thought in his head, and by chance had the skill necessary to put it to paper. Even if Dali were a terrible painter, but had a vivid enough imagination to picture this image in his mind's eye, and the communication skills necessary to dictate what he sees to an artist capable of rendering it, then the painting would still be impressive with respect to Dali. Of course if Dali's dictation in this hypothetical scenario of what he sees in his mind was less than perfect, and left some ambiguity for the other artist to interpret, than the other artist would certainly share the credit for his contribution. Otherwise, it would be no different than creating a picture on a computer and printing it out without attributing any artistry to the printer itself.

Moving back to music now, based on this principal, it's also important that we consider the artist's relation to his own music. If, for example, the artist had little or no hand in the creation of his music, then for all intents and purposes he's worse than the player piano. At least the player piano can perform at a live concert and sound good. For this reason, pop "artists" who neither write their own music, nor perform it well, should at least be considered lesser artists with respect to those who do either of those things. And those pop artists who neither write nor perform but generate volumes of income for corporate labels... well that's an entirely different circle of hell, I mean future blog post idea.

What it boils down to is this: Did the artist have a beautiful, awe-inspired, or awe-inspiring thought? Did he deliver some morsel of that thought to your mind? Did that morsel, upon delivery, resonate within you and cause some sort of emotional response? If the answer is yes to all of these, then the artist succeeded where most fail miserably, and should be commended thoroughly. What makes art "art" is not how well you can replicate it, but the emotional impetus (whether it's some social critique, a personal experience, something entirely abstract, or anything in between) and its aesthetic encapsulation that makes it "art".