Here’s a selection from my recent online “dialogue” (I use the term advisedly) with two British members of a Facebook group called “Open Buddhism”.

Me:  “I’ve only rarely encountered such prickly responses from Buddhists to a sincere effort at dialogue as I’ve experienced on this site.  It doesn’t speak well of you folks…from taking condescending pot shots at Nietzsche, to histrionic and angry accusations that I am intolerant of differing opinions, simply because I disagree.

The latter is quite clearly a projection, by the way.”

This rather pointed response was the culmination of my (alleged) conversation with Tibetan Buddhist adherent Justin Senryu Williams.  He broke into my conversation with another group member, with whom I was debating whether or not the Buddhist notion of altruistic devotion was legitimate, given that, in my view, any conscious-nee-deliberate attempt to curry “goodness” may involve significant elements of the same ego-involvement that the Buddha specifically warned against.  That is, it seemed to me that such a hyper-self-aware consciousness, compulsively bent on undertaking “good deeds”, is both mind-numbingly boring and possibly a “back door” through which to secret the ego and its desires.

I noted that I saw this as precisely contrary to the spirit of the spiritual tradition, expressed in Japanese Zen literary lore in the pithy statement to “Go as you will, act as you wish”.  I went on to cite the analogy of the wind, which, as far as I can tell, has no “intention” to be helpful to us, but which does a good job of it anyway…unselfconsciously powering sailboats and windmills, and eroding seemingly permanent rock formations.  Williams responded with the rather good point that the wind may in fact have its own form of consciousness.  This seemed to get the discussion back on the rails until I mentioned that I am not a Buddhist, but, rather, someone whose spiritual outlook has formed along Taoist and Nietzschean lines (the former being an immediate precursor to Japanese Zen, the latter essentially introducing us to modernity).  Taoism is mostly unconcerned with guidelines for what one “should” do in one’s social relations.  Its emphasis is upon attending to that still, small voice that reminds us of our place in Nature; that, in fact, we are as much a part of Nature as any other creature.  So, for the Taoist, morality grows from the ground up, as it were, as an instinct or impulse toward embracing existence, and not as a teachable doctrine.  And Nietzsche is simply suspicious of the will to promote “good” intentions and acts, which he saw as often insincere, a refuge for those who seek power but are too cowardly, or unconscious, to simply admit it.

At this Williams launched into a lengthy educational explanation of how he understood the Tao to be a moral force, a few key lines of which are excerpted here:

Williams: “My take on Taoism is that one should aim towards acting in a perfectly appropriate way in all situations.  And when one has really attained the Tao, that appropriateness is spontaneous….And it is possible to label that as ‘good’, and the deeds of those who have attained this as ‘good deeds’.

Regarding Nietzsche, sorry to say that I do not know about him…”

Scattered throughout the conversation string were Williams’ proclamations that a Buddhist life well-lived is perfectly devoid of suffering, anxiety, or worry.   I replied by noting that the classic Chinese Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, clearly contradicted his understanding of social “appropriateness” as a factor in its teaching, and further, that it does not aim at a “perfectable” life, but one that is characterized by the non-dual understanding of the hidden unity of all things.

Me: “Thanks for the effort, but I see little in Taoist thought that supports your interpretation.  In the Tao Te Ching we read , ‘When all in the world understand goodness to be good, then evil exists’, and ‘When family relations are no longer harmonious, we have filial children and devoted parents.’  Taoism, like Nietzsche, does not teach that existence is ‘perfect’, but rather that it is whole, an integer.”

That is to say, the disciplined attempt to nurture goodness and harmony best be eliminated, as such an agenda fosters the illusion that they are moral doctrines standing in an oppositional relation to amoral or what some religious people would deem immoral codes of action.  Worse, such an interpretation unwittingly creates the precondition for each end of the pole to display a jarring and sudden reversal into its (apparent) opposite, in much the same way that love can quickly metabolize into hatred and vice-versa.

Regarding Nietzsche, I urged him to at least gain a rudimentary grasp of Nietzsche’s thought, given that, in my view and that of countless others, he helped to lay the foundation of the modern world by, among many bold strokes of the pen, declaring the demise of obligatory, what he saw as life-denying, dualist categories of “good” and “evil”.  This is all that Nietzsche meant when he declared that “God is dead”.  That is, he saw traditional moral construction of the deity as in a sort of twilight, to be replaced by an ethos of the unity of opposites, in the manner of William Blake’s thinking.

Nietzsche Portrait by Ray Monde

I explained that Nietzsche interpreted the moral categories of good and evil as actually inseparable, occupying extreme positions on the seemingly – and only seemingly – opposing poles that comprise a vast yet unitary energic spectrum of pure will-to-life.  It is a continuum which naturally appears to our limited vision as neatly divided into opposing “good” and “evil” elements.  But the inside secret is that they are simply extreme versions of the same thing.  Hence, one moral pole gives rise to the other, on which it is secretly dependent for asserting the legitimacy of its particular vision of reality.  Hence the Tao Te Ching’s teaching that one should do away with the wish to “do good”, so that genuine goodness can appear, is more authentic because unprompted.

At this point one Matthew Simpson, with whom I had been engaged in a debate somewhat earlier, chimed in with the passive-aggressive comment “Shame about (Nietzsche’s) syphilis”, provocatively evoking the old yarn that Nietzsche was constitutionally defective, hence unable to rightly think about morality…or perhaps anything else.  I replied that new evidence suggests that the narrative of the philosopher as driven mad by syphilis was likely more the product of Nazi propaganda aimed at debunking him as a promoter of anti-state immorality, than anything else.  Within minutes he messaged me a link to an article suggesting that it was actually anti-fascist activists who attempted to undermine Nietzsche’s credibility, because he appeared to promote a racist social hierarchy.

Such a quick study, this guy.  You could practically feel the whoosh of manic activity from across the pond, as he scoured the internet for supportive evidence that Nietzsche was despised as a deranged and virulent supporter of Nazism.  Yet another highly debatable and inferential hypothesis.

So as to give proper recognition of his genius, let it be noted that in one fell swoop Mr. Simpson managed to subtly defame Nietzsche, one of the acknowledged prophets of the modern era, and to plant the suspicion that he was a racial purist, hence, that I am following the philosophy of a demented crank.

Suddenly Mr.  Williams reentered the conversation, hotly insisting that, while Western civilization may praise Nietzsche, he most assuredly does not.  He went on to prod me with the faux – essentially rhetorical – question “Who has ever achieved complete freedom from suffering by reading (his) works?”, to which I replied “no one”, adding that Nietzsche would see such a criteria for significance – “complete” freedom from the human condition – as unattainable, if in fact such a state even exists at all.  I posited the humbler notion of Nietzsche as providing millions, myself included, with the comfort of knowing that they are in the company of a sympathetic fellow traveler.

His diatribe struck me as the height of arrogance, given that, by his own admission, he knows nothing of Nietzsche’s thought.  He added frosting to the deathly stale cake of his intellectual contributions by suggesting that perhaps it is important to understand Nietzsche so as to dialogue with the “Western intelligentsia”.  Obviously a sentence designed to demean and humiliate those in the class of the “intelligentsia” into compliance with BUDDHIST TRUTH, narrowly conceived of in monolithic terms, and existing in full bloom when one has renounced one’s capacity for reasoned analysis.  In this sense, I think of these two characters as anti-intellectual in the best tradition of evangelical Protestant fundamentalism.  Such suspicion of reason is among the main characteristics of the rhetoric of mass movements, many of which have been involved in unleashing misery and worse on humans.  This interaction ended with Mr. Williams accusing me of expecting everyone to think as I do, which is really the kind of thing you should say to your spouse or girl/boyfriend, and then only after at least six months of dating, when you can be relatively sure that the relationship can withstand it.

But never say such a thing on a first date, if only because it ensures that you’ll never get laid.

I have been around the existential block enough to know the utterances of ill-informed and narcissistic children when I encounter them.  Some of this is rooted in my past experiences with religious communites.  Hence, my adolescent experience of worship in a Christian charismatic faith community back home in Connecticut taught me a lot, including two invaluable lessons that should be heeded by all modern Western persons: never surrender your critical faculties when enthralled by the belief that a more “genuine” existence will follow naturally.  It won’t.  Westerners are quite prone to thoughtlessly idealize the notion of the serene, “pure” and content Asian monk, thereby projecting their unconscious grandiosity onto a cultural stereotype.

Buddhist Teacher in Myanmar

Fueling this self-ensnaring projective process is the Western convert’s tendency to develop an untoward, often zealous and uncritical devotion to Asian religions, possibly more so than anyone actually ensconced in the tradition from birth: as newly-admitted foreign-born devotees, they are naturally eager to prove their identities as “all-in”, truer-than-true adherents.  This psychological dynamic creates marked defensiveness toward even reasoned and emotionally neutral exploration of their commitments to the sangha, as well as a strong temptation to narrow dogmatisms and a sometimes alarming certainty about their life courseAs analyst C.G. Jung once mentioned, zealotry is a fragile construction, as it is an expression of the presence of the adherent’s unconscious uncertainty and doubt.  These become defensively projected onto those unlucky enough to have posed critiques of their new-found, idealized reality.

So, secondly, don’t idealize Buddhists or Buddhism as providing a cure-all.  Despite the extraordinary subtlety and nuance of the Buddha’s view of the human condition, it is often not the case that this leads to anything like “openness” or genuine ego-disinvestment at the grass roots level of individuals’ daily practice.  

We crave freedom, true, but mostly we crave security and certainty.

Of course, it takes two to Tango, right?  Looking back on the aforementioned interactions, it occurs to me that I became provoked by these group members because I myself am something of an idealist, always looking for affiliations with others that match my inner imago of the genuinely religious person.  I understand, if largely intellectually, that I am setting myself up for disillusionment and, later, resentment when I try to impose such standards upon those in the real world of human relationships.  So, retrospectively, this entire series of ugly interactions has offered me yet another opportunity to practice ego-disengagement from this ideal, by first withdrawing my habit of projecting my distaste for idealizing aspects of my own psyche onto others, only to become indignant when they enact the selfsame quest for the “all good” religious experience that I too secretly desire.

That said, it is improper to explain any individual’s thoughts and behaviors through what theologian Martin Buber called a “psychologizing” lens.  “Psychologizing” is the wrong-headed attribution of another’s values entirely to their psychology.  It is a variety of solipcism, which asserts that all our experiences of reality are exclusively the products of our minds.  Hence, a la Buber, I believe my critique stands objective scrutiny, whatever the influence of my prior life experiences and inner conflcits.

An article in The Guardian (November 6, 2015) reports the results of a group of academic clerics from multiple faiths, studying the impact of religiosity on childrens’ developing morality.  The conclusion: overall, children raised in religious houesholds are less altruistic and more punitive, as compared to their nonreligious peers.  Their final statement is quite similar to Nietzsche’s view on the subject: “More generally (our results) call into question whether religion is necessary for moral development, supporting the idea that secularisation of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness”.

Hell, sounds like it might actually increase it.

I’ll always have a huge interest in spirituality, which I simply find…well, among other things, fun.  Now, I probably shouldn’t have acknowledged that, given the wise words of modern English philosopher Alan Watts.  Watts once mentioned that he likes his religion to have a public face that is mysterious, solemn, and mystically profound, so as to hide the guffaws of the Deity behind this marvelously-crafted stage play.  (And play it is!)

Just keep it to yourselves.

5 thoughts

  1. Sometimes when we talk to a person of a different culture, and that person holds a deep cultural belief, it is hard to discuss anything with them. Although I have limited knowledge on all of the above, I do have a lot of experience with talking to different cultures. I have been led to think of the Tao as the study of virtue, it is practiced by individuals who seem to act in concert with one another, yet they perceive and act the tao differently. There is also an academic bias, as well as a cultural one. I mean those who study, vs practice. Yet it seems all have something to contribute. My harshest critics tell me more than those who praise me incessantly.
    I enjoyed what you wrote, because I am interested in Buddhism, Taoism and a little bit of of philosphy-how one inquires empirically as well as philosophically regarding virtue, and how it relates to aesthetics, and practical realism- a kind of logic of words. I haven’t written or read much, as my eyesight is getting poor and I tend to paint more these days. So I hope this wasn’t a waste of time or pointless.
    Your writings are not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathyrn – Thank you for your most generous comments. Regarding the question as to authorship…I am the sole creator of this blog post. The experiences described therein are mine alone.


  3. Garth, it is a shame that you had the conversation that you had (though I have had similar experiences on Open Buddhism so I am not surprised). However, it’s a shame, because there could have been a perfectly coherent discussion, without you knowing much about Buddhism and without me (in this case) knowing much about Taoism or Nietzsche. Because Buddhism doesn’t define “good” and “evil” the way that Nietzsche or the Tao are defining it– or the way that guilt-ridden Judeo-Christian cultures define it. Buddhism defines what we mean by “good” and “bad” in terms of negative and positive emotions and actions– and purely in terms of whether they lead to happiness or suffering. Negative actions and emotions are defined as those that lead to suffering. Positive actions and emotions are defined as those that lead to happiness.

    Of course, ultimately, Buddhism does have the view of a complete freedom from suffering, a complete happiness, enlightenment. And also, when they speak of the results of actions, this does also infer karmic results and future lifetimes. So it’s true that this greater view is part of the picture for serious practitioners. This is the religious component. But most religions– and certainly Buddhism– have a philosophy that can stand on its own in discussions with scientists and philosophers. And it has been my own experience, as a Buddhist, that such dialogues can be deeply enriching. So that’s why I say it’s a shame you didn’t have that conversation.

    For example,there are some scientific indications that virtuous actions lead to better fulfillment and happiness– whereas non virtuous actions, while maybe providing a temporary benefit and relief, invariably cause more unrest and lack of fulfillment. E.g. neuroscientists have seen that meditations on compassion activate the hemisphere of the brain most associated with a sense of well-being. This can be reasoned out as well, in a more philosophical conversation. If I had been having this conversation with you, this is the aspect of the Buddhist philosophical perspective that I would have focused on.

    I think it’s not going to ever work to try to bring religious views into a discussion on philosophy. That will only make the religious person look like a zealot (which I don’t think Justin is) and make the philosophically minded person more convinced that religion is the opiate of the masses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your most thoughtful response. It occurs to me that the Buddha was not a Buddhist, meaning that he simply spoke from his private experience. It seems to be a loss that contemporary followers of his stance are too often adamant in their interpretation of the tradition that he founded as essentially proscribing “how to be”.


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