My Heroes – Literature: Max Frisch

I want to write about a “hero” from the field of literature. I really want to! But I had some difficulties choosing one! First, I was very sure I would write about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). He impressed me sustainably with his psycho-horror and fascinating crime stories. From my point of view, he had an incredibly good sense for the “inner” terrors of people that are much worse than outer threats like diseases, losses, monsters or villains. The most horrifying “monsters” are our mental constructs, and in poems like The Raven, tales like The Tell-tale Heart as well as in his unputdownable novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, he illustrated these destructive powers of our vulnerable psyche extraordinarily well. However, after reading about his life, it is impossible for me to name him “a hero”! Besides being a literary genius, he seemed to have been quite a fool. He was alcoholic, sexually obsessed by women, married his cousine when he was 27 and she was 13 (!), and was an eccentric unreliable person. Not very heroic.

Then I remembered that I read all the books by the two outstanding Swiss authors Max Frisch (1911-1991) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). Actually, I like Frisch’s works more for several reasons. Dürrenmatt’s plays like Romulus the Great or The Physicists are outspokenly funny and intellectually deep at the same time, and his crime stories like The Pledge, Suspicion, The Judge and his Hangman, or A Dangerous Game are must-reads for every bookworm! However, Frisch’s criticism of postmodernism and his literary analysis of the ongoing alienation of man from his social and environmental lifeworld  (like in Homo Faber, Stiller, Gantenbein, or The Fire Raisers (German: Biedermann und die Brandstifter)), is much more profound and subtle than that of Dürrenmatt. My favourite book of his is the early work Bin or the Journey to Beijing (German: Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking)! It is a mental odyssey around the question How do we want to live our lives? and What is in our own power to do about it?, employing even a Buddhist touch of mindfulness, emptiness and inner balance. It is primarily this book that makes me choose Max Frisch as “my literature hero” over Dürrenmatt.

max-frisch

However, I was hesitating also with this choice. The reason is – same as for Poe – Frisch’s personal lifestyle. He was a notoriously unfaithful man. After his first failed marriage, he had a liaison with Ingeborg Bachmann (also a famous author). Over several years they had a kind of partnership that was dominated by dirty public fights and exhaustive pulling-each-other-down, affecting both their literary work negatively. Later, he married the 28-years-younger Marianne Oellers, but also this marriage was divorced after Frisch had several love affairs. He wrote about his sexual life in his novel Montauk (which is the name of a city in USA where he had an affair with a young American woman) which caused a public debate between his wife and him about where to draw the line between public and private life, ultimately leading to the divorce.

It seems, I have to find a compromise. Maybe, there is no “good literature” without its producer being a bit “weird”, notorious, eccentric, and unheroic. In any case, I learned a lot from Max Frisch’s works, and in terms of partnership conduct I’ll just take him as a negative example.

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Real Music vs. Pop

Another story I remember vividly from my childhood is “The emperor’s nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen. I had a nicely illustrated book in German, and now you have an even nicer Chinese version of it.

nightingale

Here is a short summary of the story: The Chinese emperor gets knowledge of a bird with the loveliest voice ever. It is a rather plain and ordinary nightingale – and the emperor and the citizen don’t hide their disappointment about this unspectacular appearance – but when it starts singing, however, everybody is amazed by its clear and beautiful melodies. One day, a gift from the Japanese emperor arrives: a mechanical nightingale with gold and gemstone applications that looks really precious and valuable. It’s melodies, however, are not as pleasant as the real nightingale ones. The people and the emperor, obviously more of the visual type, decide to give their admiration to the mechanical bird while the real nightingale is expelled from the palace. There is, of course, a dramatic twist in the story including death and regret, but no worries, it has a happy end! For now, however, this plot description shall be enough to explain a thought that I had after reading the story again.

It immediately reminds me of the contemporary situation of music. On the one side, we have great music, on the other we have good-looking puppets of pop industry. My definition of “great music” is related to its compositional sophistication, aesthetic value, or the creativity and technical skills that are put into it. Orchestral works, chamber music, blues and jazz, funk, reggae, rock, heavy metal, progressive music, even some of the electronic music like drum’n’bass, ambient or acid jazz – in these genres there is a good chance to find “great music” and admirable musicians. Music industry, in contrast, produces pop. The music is plain and boring, but the promoted stars look pretty, handsome, sexy or in any way “marketable”. The latter only exists because people are more competent with their eyes than with their ears and brains. Visual pleasures are easier to acquire than auditory ones. Moreover, music with high quality needs an understanding of music that many people don’t have or are too lazy to train. They are lured by the shallow but blinking and shiny pop business. Those who are really interested in music with aesthetic and qualitative value don’t need to bother, but there is one big problem with it: Acquiring musical skills and creatively producing outstanding music requires time and money. Also musicians need to make their living! However, the field of creative and valuable music is seared by music industry, because all the money is put into visually appealing puppets, because they are more promising for generating profit, because the masses (where the money is) are reached with prettiness rather than with musical quality. This shallowness (as a form of stupidity) will someday ruin mankind, I am quite sure! Music is just one example where it becomes very apparent. In more impacting spheres of society (technology, politics, economy, etc.) it will have devastating effects! Just saying.

Parenting Check: Supporting Your Self-Esteem

I came across a few illustrations by Leonid Khan on brightside.me which compare “common parents” with “wise parents”. The page originally presented the 10 graphics as the difference between Jewish parents and other parents, which is of course entire nonsense and earned them much criticism (upon which they changed it to the new wording). Whether parents are “common” or bad or wise is not a matter of nationality, culture, ethnicity or religious confession! Rather, we find all kinds of parents with all kinds of attitudes and flaws all around the globe. In today’s letter, however, I don’t want to compare parents. I tried to take the illustrations as an inspiration to check my own behaviour and attitude towards you in our daily life. Since currently I am a houseman and we spend a lot of time together, there are many situations and opportunities to reflect on my (re-)actions and habits. Some of the themes probably don’t apply to you, yet, because you are still too young. But reflection can never start too early! I’ll try to do it reasonably!

  1. Reaction to failure

parents1

You are still at the stage of trying many things. Naturally, there is a lot of failure! You want to draw, but hold the pen the wrong way and don’t produce any line. You want to eat by yourself, but whenever you scoop your food, it falls down before reaching your mouth. You want to stack blocks or do a puzzle, but the parts just don’t want to fit! In case of the food, I still help you and usually end up just feeding you. The rationale behind that is a pragmatic one: If eating takes too long you get impatient and whiny, and I don’t want to clean the huge mess that you produce. Maybe that’s wrong. I should just let you do until it works. In case of drawing and puzzling, I try to aid you more passively and let you figure out by yourself how you can make it work. However, this also has limits. You get increasingly frustrated when the piece doesn’t fit. Guiding your hand, hopefully, delivers the message “See! There is always a way! Just keep trying, for example like this…”. I observe that you are a fast learner, trying to copy what I do (for example, turning and twisting the puzzle piece until it fits). So, a little assistance can support your exploratory learning process. I have to be careful, though, not to be too impatient when you don’t succeed in your efforts immediately, but let you experience the feeling of failure and the sense of achievement after keeping trying. You are not too young for anything! Just not experienced enough. Providing situations to gain this experience is my task as your father!

  1. Supervising your activities

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The point, here, is that you feel more trusted when we let you do things without constant supervision. As in all the eight examples in this article, the pragmatic considerations we as parents have to make are risk and safety estimations. There is never no risk! You can always trip, fall down, hit your head, bump into something, etc. We keep the really dangerous things (electricity, fire, blades, falling heavy objects, etc.) away from you. In this environment, we can let you move freely and safely everywhere in our apartment without having to worry about anything that exceeds the “base risks”. When you find trash (and with your perfect eyesight you find the tiniest pieces of dust in the corners!) and show it to me, I tell you to throw it into the trash bin, and you go there and throw it in. I trust you on that and don’t watch you doing it. You come back with a proud face and clap your hands, me joining in. On the playground, you climb the play structures and slide down all by yourself. I usually stand in some distance and let you enjoy it without giving you the feeling that something could go wrong and that you would need assistance. Just do it! You seem cautious, but not fearful or afraid, and you are always happy when you find out that you can do something by yourself!

  1. Letting you get dirty

parents3

I failed on this one this week. When we played in the garden of our community, I scolded you for picking the soil from the flowerbeds and for being more interested in all the dirt than in the play structure and the toys. You still put many things into your mouth, so I worry you eat the dirt you pick up. I am still too concerned about your health (not so much about the cleanness of your clothes and hands). I should let you play more in the mud, especially when we are close to home where we can clean you again! I spent most of my childhood in the mud (in the countryside), so I should know how happy it can make a Kid! Relax, Daddy!

  1. Your intended achievement vs. The actual outcome

parents4

The point, here, is different from the previous illustration: It is not so much about fun over cleanness, but more about intention over outcome. At this young age, you have (maybe not yet, but soon) an undisturbed, untamed creativity and the urge to explore and transform the world you find. Making a cake, as in the graphic, is just one example. Painting something, building something, helping with housework, anything that you observe your parents do – could be other examples. Your intentions are always good: You want to make a gift for your beloved parents, or you just want to do something well. Naturally, at the age of 18 months, there is not much you do, yet, so there are not many situations in which the approaches illustrated here would apply. As mentioned earlier, you like to throw trash into the trash bin. Sometimes, however, you classify things as “trash” that actually are not. Once I told you emphatically that you must not put that into the trash, but of course that has no effect! You will just not understand why throwing away one thing gives you a praise, throwing away another earns you a scold. You firmly believe you did a good job. So I reminded myself of always thanking you whenever you did something out of your own motivation that you learned in earlier situations, no matter how “wrong” it is in this context, no matter how poor the result is, and no matter how much work it causes me to reverse the result of your effort.

  1. Your energy level

parents5

You sleep very well and, as an effect, are very active and attentive when awake. You run around a lot, climb everything that can be climbed (recently also the dining table) and often jump around like crazy. Sometimes I find myself trying to calm you down or stop you from jumping too wild on the couch. I shouldn’t! However, again, I think there is the reasonable pragmatic limit of safety! And a second consideration is the experience with the phenomenon of you being “over-tired” (I wonder if there is a proper term for that): Sometimes you are so tired that you get carefree and coltish, like in a state of euphoria, extremely rebellious and – with a 100% certainty – ending up crying, either after hurting yourself, or when we have to stop you and put you into bed. In such a state, it would be very unwise to wait for you running out of energy! Most of the time, however, it is a big joy for us to watch your energy and untamed vitality! Why would we stop you?

  1. Do it by yourself

parents6

As far as I understand, the idea of this picture is not “You can do it by yourself!”, but rather “You have to do it by yourself!”. It wants to deliver the idea that Kids must not always rely on their parents fixing everything for them, but learning that sometimes (and according to their abilities, of course) they need to get active by themselves. For a Kid of your age, there are not many situations, yet, in which this approach applies. All I can think of now is eating your food (insisting on you eating by yourself when you ask for being fed), playing with your toys (including opening boxes and bags, stacking blocks, solving puzzles, etc.), and climbing stairs or play structures (which you usually ask no assistance for). In the future, there will be more situations in which I hopefully remember to find the right balance between helping you (to not disappoint and frustrate you) and insisting on you doing it by yourself (even at the risk of failure, see point 1). So far, you want to be independent rather a bit too much than not enough. You are far from being a “lazy” Kid!

  1. Support your sharing ability

parents7

In contrast to the other seven illustrations that all show a particular attitude of parenting that aim at certain effects, this one here depicts a result (or an effect). It is, of course, desirable to support the formation of a habit of sharing, rather than having to be forced to share. The question is what parenting approaches and attitudes can support that. Apparently, you have a good sense of sharing. When I cut a Mango for you and give a small fork to you, you take turns putting a piece into your mouth and feeding one to me. You also do that with your main meals. You are very happy offering your food to us, which might be an expression of copying our behaviour (feeding you) in a playful way, rather than a truly virtuous act of sharing. However, our reaction (appreciation and expression of happiness and fun) will hopefully motivate you to form a habit of sharing. When someday you have a sibling we’ll come back to that…

  1. Reward your efforts

parents8

This is a very important point! I appreciate the illustrator’s choice to present the “bad” Mom with her attention focused on her smartphone, a serious symptom of our modern society. I try to leave my phone at my work desk, so that it doesn’t distract me whenever I deal with you, especially while feeding and playing with you. This gives me the capacity to really “spend time with you” (instead of just being around). I hope you can sense my appreciation of and admiration for everything you do! Same as for point 4, you don’t produce much that can be rewarded or praised. I posted some of your “drawings” on this blog, and the Mother’s Day gift that we prepared together is exposed on the fridge door so that all visitors can see it. I am sure that in the future you will give me many opportunities to show my pride and admiration for anything you do! I expect that this won’t be difficult for me!

Conclusion

All (human) life and its decision-making is risk estimation. As parents, we have to reflect day in day out on questions like “Is it OK for you or not? Is it safe or not? Is the risk level acceptable or not?”. In this framework, your self-esteem and your own ability to assess the acceptability of risk levels to which you expose yourself have to develop. Finding the right balance within this tension of “letting you do” and “keeping you safe” is not always easy. I tend to be too cautious in some situations (stopping your wildness, keeping you clean when playing outside), and I am convinced to do it right in others (not creating an atmosphere of caution when you climb the play structure, but letting you explore it by yourself). The most critical phase for most of these attitudes is yet to come, at a time when your abilities are more manifold and your urges to do something creative and effective will have grown. I hope I can establish a mindful awareness for the effects of my own habits and behaviours that trigger the formation of certain traits in you – one of them being a healthy self-esteem. Then we will see if Mrs. Khan’s illustrations prove helpful as an inspiration for self-reflection!

Four Levels of Truth

When reading Buddhist scriptures, especially those sutras that directly cite the historical Gautama Buddha, it can be confusing that there are often obvious contradictions and statements that downright oppose each other. Besides a few obvious mistakes that were made by ancient translators and later scholars, the majority of those result from Buddha’s conviction that it is necessary to adapt the teaching to the recipients’ capability of understanding. In this sense, a doctrine is true as long as it is appropriate to serve as a suitable means to the noble end of guiding people towards the right or the good (understanding, action, behaviour, insight, etc.). This argument was promoted in the most sophisticated manner in the later Chinese Buddhist school known as Tiantai (天台). The founder of this school, Zhi-Yi (智顗), divides all Buddhist treatises and sutras into four kinds (his famous “Fourfold Teachings”, 四教):

  • The Tripitaka Teachings (藏教): The Theravada teaching that renounces the experiential world, meant for people who have little intelligence and low ambition. Its truth is that the world is empty in the sense of being illusions. The path to Nirvana is the renunciation of the world of suffering.
  • The Common Teaching (通教): Shared by both Theravada and Mahayana schools, this teaching for people who can understand the truth of emptiness and recognise that dharmas have no real self-subsisting nature is still about emptiness, but with the notion that it means nothing other than dependent co-arising. It doesn’t necessarily advocate exiting the mundane world to reach Nirvana.
  • The Special Teaching (別教): A Mahayana teaching for people with compassion for other sentient beings. It preaches the Bodhisattva goal of attainment, based on the understanding of the Buddha-nature and the Middle Way (often referred to as the ultimate truth).
  • The Perfect Teaching (圓教): The teaching of the ultimate reality which is the Middle Way itself. It identifies Nirvana with the phenomenal world: One does not need to leave the phenomenal world to enter Nirvana. Under this teaching – in contrast to the Special Teaching – afflictions and attachments are not necessarily bad. One can gain enlightenment even in the midst of afflictions. One only needs to attain perfect wisdom with all that it entails (inner harmony, loving-kindness, pure awareness of dharmas, etc.).

I guess we can summarise it like this: The first approach is based on experiences and teaches rules on how to deal with those experiences. The second grounds on factual knowledge and teaches strategies on what to do with that knowledge. The third focuses on values and teaches virtues that preserve and cultivate those values. The fourth refers to wisdom and teaches how to attain a mindset in which perfect wisdom can flourish.

Obviously, there is a form of hierarchy in this list concerning the mental capacity of sentient beings. I don’t want to limit it to humans, since we can include animals in our reflections, as we will see. First, I think it is possible to link the teaching approaches to the different phases of development within the lifespan of one person. Second, we may group different members of society according to which kind of teaching they are best confronted with. In the first sense, I think of my ways of dealing with you (Tsolmo) as a father through the years:

Now, while you are little and without much knowledge, I will tell you rules and orders, like “Don’t touch the fire!” or “Don’t stick nails into the power sockets!”. It would be useless to explain to you that fire is the exothermic reaction of oxygen with anything organic (including your skin and the tissue underneath) and that the feeling of pain is a signal transduction of your nerve cells that triggers certain brain activities, manifesting in your consciousness as an unpleasant feeling, or that electricity is the result of a charge gradient along a conducive material like metal wires or your body (in which it causes pain, see above)… Your world at this stage is that of experience, so I guide you in your way of making experiences, keeping more serious dangers away from you.

Then you will acquire more and more knowledge about the mechanisms of this world, and simple rules and orders will not satisfy your insatiable curiosity about the Hows and Whys. You will learn a lot at school, but also at home. THIS is what happens when you expose your body to heat. THIS is what happens in a flow of charges. And THAT’s WHY you shouldn’t touch it. In this phase, however, you will sometimes learn “wrong” things in the sense of oversimplifications and half-truths. In primary school you might learn that electricity is a “flow of electrons”, but when you study physics or chemistry at university you will find out that it is not entirely “correct” to put it that way. The knowledge in this stage will help you to acquire technical skills: You will know how to switch on the gas stove and how to plug devices into the power sockets. However, you might need supervision, because you might underestimate the risks and expose yourself (and others, eventually) to dangers.

The next stage is the alignment of your choices and decisions with values and preferences: You need orientational knowledge to answer questions like “Why would I want this or that?” and “Why ought I to do this or that or maybe better not?” and “What kind of knowledge shall I look for in order to aid my decision-making?“. With this capacity you will also be able to relate your own interests to those of others and to mediate empathically in case of conflicts and dilemmas. Factual knowledge of the world won’t help in these cases, but only normative-ethical knowledge and prescriptive and evaluative modes of thinking (with subsequent action). Here you become a responsible person, so that I can stop being concerned about the risk of fire and electricity, because you will know how to deal with it properly. There is no more need to keep you away from the gas stove, because you will be skilled AND mindful enough to use it for your benefit without being in danger of its potential harms. You will be able to evaluate the outcome of your decisions, balance risks and benefits and even include the people around you in your reflections. I can trust you!

Finally, you might reach a level of wisdom. Here, it is not anymore about fire and electricity and their risks, but about the question “Why would I use gas stoves or electronic devices at all? Isn’t there an alternative?”. You let fire be fire, electricity be electricity and yourself be… well… what?… YOU. The point is not a nihilistic “Nothing really matters.”, but a visionary and clear-minded “This is how things are, and I see it!”. You see the larger picture of mundane and phenomenal conditionality and karmic interrelations. You will have inner peace and strength, resulting in a balanced mind. Yes, you will still burn yourself accidentally or make the fuse blow by improper handling of an electric device. But flawless perfection of worldly matters is not a goal anymore! The goal is: Seeing things as they are and approaching them with an unshakable clarity and momentariness. I have nothing to tell you in that stage.

The second way to interpret the Fourfold Teachings, as I mentioned, is a societal classification of mental capability. First, there are those who are ignorant. I say that without any judgment or offense. However, we need to separate two kinds of ignorant minds: Those who can’t be claimed to know it better, and those who can. Among the first are animals, small children, mentally disabled, comatose or in any other way unconscious or mindless patients, and those who have no access to proper education or even a “normal” way of life (for example, children that grow up in war zones). We simply wouldn’t expect children, dogs, people with down syndrome or Alzheimer patients to always know what is the right thing to do, so we decide for them in a paternalistic way (restrict them from access to certain things and areas, put them on a chain (I mean, the dogs!), or give them clear rules that are for the best of them). Among the second are people with a lack of intellect and with a high degree of narrow-mindedness. Now, the opinions might deviate strongly on who that typically is. My image of “common people” is rather bad, so I would put many (MANY) people into this group. Most of all, there are all the scumbags like racists, fascists, supremacists, haters, priggish and egocentric fools, but also many religious people (used to follow doctrines and dogmatic orders rather than questioning anything), mindless consumers (of all kinds of things), people with high susceptibility to addictions, emotionally incompetent people (bad-tempered, labile, or inappropriately overconfident). They all have one thing in common: They don’t know (or: are not aware of) something important (either worldly facts, or emotional self-management, or how to control themselves). It would take great effort to teach them knowledge (especially when they are adults), not to mention values or wisdom. Their picture (as in “the larger picture”) is so small that the only things that can keep them on track towards a more or less meaningful and fulfilled life are clear rules and guidelines. These are provided in the form of laws by the legal system these people live in, in the form of cultural, traditional and religious value- and belief-systems and their established ways of social sanctioning, or in the form of institutions and clubs with shallow messages and philosophies (like churches, gyms, meditation circles, WeightWatchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.). Again: There is nothing to blame, here! The only question is: What kind of approach is of any help or benefit for the people?

Then there are people who choose the way of (factual) knowledge as the best path towards a good life (whatever that means). Today, the access to such knowledge is better than ever! You don’t need to go to the library and spend hours there, anymore, but can look for and get all the knowledge you want almost everywhere with your mobile communication device. Most people know that it is not a punishment by a god when the room is suddenly in darkness, but a broken light bulb or a blown fuse – and they know how to fix it by themselves! They also know that racism has no scientific foundation, that addiction arises from certain psychological mechanism, that emotions can be managed, and that consumption of mass-produced goods (including cosmetics, smartphones, meat, and TV program) most likely has unethical implications like environmental destruction or mental decay. This knowledge increases the quality of your decision-making (but not necessarily that of each and every of your decisions!). So, what helps you to increase your quality of life? More knowledge!

Also this approach has its limits. As pointed out in other letters, factual and procedural knowledge about the world is not able to tell us what to do. This requires orientational knowledge: values, norms, goods. When realising that, your life is good when you are convinced that you made the right choice, in contrast to a correct choice as in the former strategy. Your decisions should, in this sense, be informed by possible consequences of them for you and for others. You see how orientational knowledge adds up to factual knowledge: In order to foresee consequences and implications of certain decisions and actions you will need particular factual knowledge (for example, of physics, of social mechanisms, of psychological interrelations, of values in a descriptive sense), so that you know what you need to apply your normative evaluations to. People that belong to this group – those who reflect on the question “How do I know what something is good for?” before making a decision – tend to be more altruistic, but also more hesitant and sometimes insecure, because it is always possible to make the wrong choice (which is a bad choice).

This problem is none among the very few people (if any at all) in the fourth group: Those with the farsighted wisdom similar to that of Gautama Buddha (possibly). I certainly don’t claim to be one of them! Therefore, I am actually not able to write anything here, because I (probably) didn’t really get what it means. However, let me try to explain my understanding of it: A wise person understands that it is pointless (because impossible) and unnecessary (because overambitious) to try to live a perfect and flawless life. We will never be capable of foreseeing all karmic effects of our actions, neither the physical ones (as if we were able to predict the exact position of every billiard ball on a table after knowing all the data of how the queue hits the white one) nor the personal ones (one’s position in the society, friend networks, impact of one’s actions and words on others and their subsequent actions and words, etc.). Trying to optimise our decision-making in terms of these factors has an obvious cognitive limit. Wisdom doesn’t mean to always do the right thing, but to figure out what is the best choice among given options in this moment (the moment of choosing). An important precondition for this state of mind is a complete freedom from attachments (including self-attachment) and mindless craving. A selfish choice, then, is per se not a wise choice. Pure wisdom concerning the ultimate reality leaves the self-perspective entirely and sees the world as a conditional network of karma that seeks harmonious equilibrium. Good, then, is what supports this larger scale harmony, which might often not be the direct personal benefit. There is no wrong or bad decision in this stage, because you will understand that the world is a dynamic momentary manifestation of karmic conditions and that your only choice is to take this moment to make a decision. If that is good or bad, right or wrong – who will ever know? However, a high degree of mindfulness and awareness of this moment will increase the chance that your decision will have more sustainable long-term effects on the quality of your life. All the rest (desires, interests, concerns, worries, fears, confidence, (in)security, etc.): Let it go!

This table summarises the reflections on the four levels of teaching (entirely debatable!):

Teaching Knowledge type Lifespan stage Societal group
Rules Experience Child Ignorant
Strategies/Skills Factual Teen/Adolescent Educated
Virtues Orientational/
evaluative
Adult Mindful
Clear Mind Vision/Wisdom Senior Wise/Enlightened

Once more, it (hopefully) became obvious why I don’t like the term truth. Certainly, there is no absolute truth. Statements can only be true in a defined set of conditions under which communicators can agree that its content resembles a certain form of truth, for example a semantic truth, a linguistic truth, a logic truth, a historical truth, etc. Here, in this letter, I wanted to show that the notion of truth necessarily needs a pragmatic component: Truth as expedient means to an end needs to be viable in a given context, enabling people with different capacities and intelligences to gain true enlightenment (at least an insight on how to live their lives well). It is not what a statement says, but what it does (that is, what it accomplishes), that makes the statement true.

buddhathink

Sand

Apparently, we don’t have a TV at home – but you don’t care, yet, because you don’t even know, yet, what a TV is. Television is a technology in the field of mass media. In the 1960s it entered almost every household in Germany, other European countries, the USA, Japan, and many other countries, soon ubiquitous all around the globe. It presented moving pictures which was regarded as a huge advancement compared to the other major mass media forms in place, the radio and the newspaper. Why, then, don’t we have one now? To be sure, we consciously and wholeheartedly decided not to have one. To explain that, I’d like to share a story with you:

A professor stood before his Philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty bucket and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the bucket was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a jar of pebbles and poured them into the bucket. He shook it lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open spaces between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the bucket was full. They agreed it was. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the bucket and of course filled up everything else. He then asked once more if it was full. The students responded with an unanimous yes. The professor then produced a cup of tea from under the table and proceeded to pour the entire content into the bucket, effectively filling the empty space between the grains of sand. The students laughed.

Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this bucket represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children, your friends, your favourite passions – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else – the small stuff. If you put the sand into the bucket first,” he continued, ” there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner dancing. Play another match chess. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.” After a few moments of silence in the classroom, one of the students raised his hand and inquired what the tea represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a cup of tea.”

This story is about priorities and about our important and useful ability to step back and reflect on our life, the decisions we make and the options we choose. On the one side, it is good to realise what our golf balls are, because only then are we able to lead a mindful and fulfilled life. On the other side, it is of the same significance to identify and eliminate all the sand! And I can tell you, what we call “progress”, especially the technological one, produces more and more sand, time killers that lure our weak and opportunistic minds to choose them. My standard example for “sand” in this respect is TV. To put it straight: 98% (roughly) of what is transmitted via TV channels is nonsensical, meaningless, stupidifying, dull bullshit (this will probably be the only time you will ever read this word from me here). Yes, there is informative News. Luckily, nowadays, we have more diverse and alternative sources for News, especially via internet. Yes, there are interesting documentaries and educational shows. These are either the remaining 2%, or they turn out to be much less valuable than other sources of knowledge and learning. And, yes, sometimes it is simply entertaining and funny, for example in form of good movies, live concerts, cultural shows, etc. Again, there are better sources for that. When you read a book, your imagination creates the visual impression from the words you are receiving. In your mind, a creative sense-making takes place. When you watch TV, your mind is much less creative and by far less challenged to “make sense” of what it perceives. Besides, culture and arts should also be consumed “directly”, not through a TV screen. Moreover, TV consumption is unhealthy both for body (sitting around, blue light screen) and psyche. This last point deserves more attention and explanation.

The major problem I have with TV consumption is that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t challenge our intellect, emotional and empathic skills, creativity, thoughtfulness and practical skills. The severe lack of self-fulfilment that goes along with watching TV leaves us behind with the inherent feeling of emptiness (not in the Buddhist sense), of having wasted time, and of stagnation. If you are already “empty” (like most of the people in “modern” countries), you might not even get aware of it. But if you grow into a mindful, creative, curious and active person that seeks self-fulfilment, you will probably choose to watch TV only when there is really nothing else to do (which means: never). When you delve into a book, create an artwork, practice a musical instrument, exhaust yourself with sports, socialise with friends, play in the sun or explore nature, I promise you will always feel “better” than after watching TV. Of course, it is not about always doing something “smart” or meaningful, there must be time for relaxing and low-level entertainment. But then, I imply, it is still about “making choices”, and the TV gives you only an illusion of choice, as Roger Waters wrote in The Wall in 1979: “I got 13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from.” As mentioned above, today, there are much more sources of all sorts of information and entertainment. We don’t need a TV to choose interesting movies, informative documentaries or comedy.

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The problem is: TV is a “simple” way to pass time. Same as alcohol is a simple way to cover sadness. Or as smoking is a simple way to deal with insecurity and nervousness. Or as chocolate is a simple way of self-reward. It is a temptation, a welcome counter-pole to the stressful and difficult “daily life” with school, job, conflict-solving, standing one’s ground and fulfilling one’s desires. People choose TV because they are tired. And because vegging in front of the TV doesn’t require any brain cells. What these people obviously didn’t experience is the power of a passion (a hobby, for example) or of interpersonal quality time (playing with children, meaningful conversation with close friends or the partner) to serve as a huge source of energy. In the terms of the story: sand sucks your energy out, while golf balls deliver energy to you! Even after a long workday, and especially when you are tired. You just need to get your ass up! In Buddhist terms: Watching TV is suffering (dhuka) in the sense that you give in to your deluded desires and your resistance to challenges. Our (your parents’) decision not to have a TV is motivated by the attempt to eliminate all sources of unhappiness and suffering. Instead, we (your Mom and I) play cards almost every night before going to sleep. This simple card game is as “stupid” and non-challenging as a TV show, but we look at each other, talk to each other while playing, interact (at least more than in front of a TV screen) and have fun “in our way” (instead of in a way dictated by a technological device). My vision of the future is a family life full of activities like this, outdoor activities whenever the weather allows it, and playing games, playing music, create or build something together, whenever we prefer staying inside.

I am totally aware that my aversion against TV is highly exaggerated and for many people even offensive. Of course, not everybody who watches TV from time to time is an idiot! But it is, as always, a matter of balance and – most of all –  a matter of mindfulness and conscious choice! For now, since you are still a baby, we decided not to expose you to TV consumption or any other form of “staring at a screen”. So far, you obviously grow into a curious, active, healthy, energetic, cognitively very skilled girl! Therefore, I believe, it is not the worst choice!

Let there be trees!

I am not very convinced of ancient Chinese philosophy. There is certainly an insightful metaphysical depth in the Yijing (易經) and its elaborations on change, harmony, conditionality and emergence. This was aptly substantiated by Laozi’s (老子) philosophy, but I always feel like something is missing in the Daodejing (道德經). His wu-wei (無為) idea is often not feasible in daily life and, therefore, appears a bit too easy and naïve. His follower Zhuangzi (莊子) is closer to my taste with his skepticism and pragmatism. Kongzi (孔子), Mengzi (孟子) and Xunzi (荀子) have been much too idealistic in their vision of “moral cultivation”, and much too optimistic concerning the intellectual and mental capacity of the “ordinary people”. At the same time, Mozi (墨子) and Hanfeizi (韓非子) have been too extreme, each in their way. Mozi was what we would now call a “Hippie”, convinced that human nature is unconditional love for everyone and everything, while Hanfeizi on the contrary depicted the human nature as evil and selfish, only tamed by strict law and punishment. Chinese Buddhist philosophy (Wei-shi, Hua-yan, Tian-tai and Chan) is much more inherently consistent and plausible from my point of view. However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn from ancient Chinese scholars!

There is an allegory told by Mengzi that I find very meaningful: The Ox Mountain (Niu Shan, 牛山, written in Mencius 6A:8). Imagine a mountain slope with a forest of tall firm trees. Lumberjacks come with saws and axes and cut down the trees. New sprouts appear, but the new open space is immediately occupied by oxen that eat the fresh sprouts or trample them down so that no new trees can grow. Therefore, once the lumberjacks did their work, the mountain slope will forever be bold, threatened by erosion and home to rampaging oxen.

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Nothing can grow here no more…

He used this image in the context of explaining why despite the inherent goodness of people there is, apparently, so much evil in the world. He regards morality as “firmly grown” in the human mind, but cut and corrupted by “human affairs” and the inevitable negative experiences that every human being makes throughout his or her course of life. Once the perforated morality gave way to “the dark side”, the void is filled with instances that support the evil ways, destroying all chances for the healing of morality. The trees are our morality, the lumberjacks are the negative experiences, the oxen are the powerful agents of evil that keep us on the immoral track.

I think this story can also illustrate approaches of psychotherapy and how we deal with “bad people” in general. To me, it appears reasonable to regard character traits as subject of constant change. This change can be actively influenced. Thoughts and “mindsets” lead to particular actions, and repeated actions form habits and customs, and these habits constitute a person’s personality and, therefore, his or her “fate”. It is of lesser significance whether the “nature” of human is good or bad. I regard it as more significant that human character depends strongly on experience and how meaning is constructed from it. That also means that nobody is like this or that eternally and unshakeably. The criminal is a criminal because his way of life made him that. The idiot is an idiot because his or her experiences formed certain character traits that make him or her appear as an idiot to me. The bad-tempered freak has a good chance to develop a calm and easy mindset if only the conditions for it were set right. There is always a chance for transformation and change. The question is: Do we spend efforts on directing and guiding this development in a desirable way, or do we fatalistically believe in destiny, get desperate over is-states and remain inactive? Let’s try to give everyone a chance. Everyone’s mountain slope (mind) has the potential to be covered by a vivid forest of tall firm trees of emotional, intellectual and moral integrity.

When dealing with a “weird” person, someone with a low integrity or with distorted character traits, the first question we have to ask is: What cut down the trees? What in this person’s life acted like the lumberjacks with saws and axes? Very often it has been incidents or continuous experiences in the person’s past, for example education, family situations, mistreatments, unfavourable outer conditions, stress, existential fears, etc. Of course, the past can’t be changed, but understanding the past and its role for the present state is the first important step to initiate the future course in this moment. Empathic skills and a good will certainly help to see a person in a more understanding light rather than from an accusing and reproaching stand. The second question, then, is: What are the oxen that prevent the new sprouts from growing healthily? Therapeutically, this is the most pressing issue. Most psychoses, neuroses, obsessions, addictions, emotional and other disorders, habits and character manifestations can be understood as compensations of a lack of something existential (for example love, attention, self-fulfilment (freedom), respect and acceptance) or as an outlet for suppressed desires and needs. This must not necessarily be grown into a psychological disorder or disease, but may be expressed through imbalanced emotions and their eruptions, in self-isolation and diminished self-esteem or self-confidence. These “oxen” kill every chance of “recovery” since they occupy the person’s mind, decision-making capacity, actions and statements, and thus dominate both inner balance and social interactions. When encountering people that we label as “weird”, “bad” or “sick”, we often don’t care about their lumberjacks and oxen. We just see them as “this” or “that”. Admittedly, we also don’t have the time and capacity to show everyone our empathic and caring side. However, in case of friends and family members, we should always be aware of the fact that every person has an individual narrative of his or her life, with a history full of lumberjacks and oxen, and at the same time a mountain slope full of sprouts that desperately try to grow into tall trees. Chasing away the oxen and inviting the lumberjacks for a tea so that they are distracted from doing their ruinous work, that would be true help and support from a friend or a family member! I am firmly convinced that not only studious psychotherapists have the competence to do that, but everyone who has the capacity to love a close person, who is willing to lend an ear or a shoulder, and who understands that NOW is the time to let the past be past and pave the way for a desirable change towards a brighter future.

Frederick and the colours

I re-discovered a book that I liked a lot when I was a little boy: ‘Frederick’ by Leo Lionni. Reading it again, I remember why I was fascinated by it! It tells the story of five mice living in a wall next to an abandoned farm, preparing for the harsh winter months. They work hard collecting grains, nuts and straw, except Frederick who seemingly just sits around dreaming. Asked why he doesn’t work he replies “I do work! I collect sun rays! I gather colours! I gather words!”

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The winter comes and soon all supplies are finished. The mice feel cold and stop chatting. Then Frederick distributes his supplies: He tells them about the sun rays and they feel warm. He tells them about all the colours and they can imagine them clearly. He recites a poem and entertains them by that.

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I liked this story (and still do) because it explains that intellectual labour is as valuable as physical labour. I have always been a “thinker”, a “theorist”. My Mom often told me “Why don’t you do anything?! Make yourself useful and mow the lawn/mop the floor/tidy up your room/help me with the dishes!”. She wasn’t aware that she forced me to leave behind an unfinished thought and mental construct, which was as unpleasant for me as an unfinished housework for her. A similar situation occurs today (I mean “these days”), in Taiwan, where the majority of people is convinced of technological progress and material wealth as the source of a good life quality. When they ask me what I am doing and I tell them I am an ethicist, they ask “But what do you DO? What do you produce? Nothing, uh?”. Again, I feel misunderstood.

I think this is a story for all those who believe that material achievement (things, money) is all we need for our lives. For those who think that science and technology are entirely sufficient for world explanation and human progress. For those who regard arts, philosophy and spirituality as useless blabla or waste of time and (mental and monetary) resources. For those who don’t understand what philosophers and artists do all day. We collect all those meaningful things that you are too busy to pay attention to and that you miss when your supplies are used up or turn out to be inefficient nourishment. That’s why – in academic terms – they are “humanities”. Frederick doesn’t contribute practical means, but he offers something as important as that: orientational knowledge that helps us remember the grand meaning of our existence, that gives us a choice to overcome the suffering of daily struggle and use our mental capacities to create warmth, community and positivity. To be prepared for that requires work (gathering sun rays, colours and words), even though for an outsider it might look like just sitting around. But both philosophers and artists (painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, writers, etc.) actually do spend big efforts on providing orientation, meaning, inspiration and humanistic visions in times of cold scientism, impersonal technocracy, inhumane economic profit chase, global political imbalance and the dawn of unpredictable but globally impacting environmental and climatic change. We are not living in a “different world”! It is this world that we are concerned about! And since winter is approaching, you will need us more than ever!