Friday, January 4, 2008
Buddha v Darwin
I don't have much time for philosophy as such. Between the arcane vocabulary and various dialectics and epistemologies (did I mention the vocab?) it does my head in. I gave it a burl and came away none the wiser. I suspect if I was to spend my life pursuing philosophers and philosophy I'd end up knowing less than when I started. That says as much about me as it does about them.
I decided there were only two men I had any time for. They are Charles Darwin and the Buddha. There have actually been many buddhas but this particular one was named Siddhartha Gautama. When you hear of Buddha or Buddhism he's the one they're talking about. Darwin, of course invented evolution, which is to say he defined it for Westerners. What he defined had always been there but had always previously been explained in as many ways as exist in the human imagination and in none of them usefully.
But I had a problem with these two. I knew both of them were true. When I talk of them, Darwin and Buddha, I conflate their names with their 'philosophy'. This suits me. Just go with it. Anyway, they seemed at odds with each other. They couldn't both be right. One described a system without thought and one with. One seemed to embrace cruelty and one emphatically rejected it. They fought battles in my head and it wasn't until a particularly lucid and thoughtful joint that I reconciled them. But I'm leaping ahead.
There's a lot of shit written about these two and now it's my turn, ha ha. When I talk of them I'm really describing a distillation of my own making. This is necessary. Darwin first. Darwin, apparently extolled the concept of 'survival of the fittest'. Thus we should admire lions, tigers and other predators. They are the 'fittest' and therefore the best. Unfortunately this is a load of shite. Some other guy came up with the 'fittest' phrase and other people, whom I generically call motherfuckers, use it to justify war, eugenics, time-and-motion and every other fucked up thing they could think of. This is called 'social darwinism' and has nothing to do with Darwin.
In essence, under Darwin, things that self-replicate will deal with environmental changes or they won't. If you're eyesight is great it is precisely as great as is required to catch prey and not become it. If you're eyesight goes to hell when you're forty, that's cool. Once you're forty your offspring, to whom you've hopefully passed on your great eyesight, are either viable or not. If they're viable Darwin says you may become prey. He's ceased caring.
Don't be confused by things that have nothing to do with surviving and having kids. You can use those same eyes for star-gazing, admiring Matisse or looking at porn. Darwin doesn't care. Not everything has to be about the viability of offspring - it's just that it can't be against it. I briefly wondered about homosexuality under Darwin. I'm being clinical here you understand. How can he tolerate behaviour so contrary to offspring, never mind their viability? Clearly he does tolerate it. People who prefer members of their own sex have always existed and always will. But there will never be a population that is 100% gay. The percentage of gay people in a population must be less than 100%, a lot less, more like a few percent. Probably 2.1 standard deviations from the norm, ha ha. This is fine with Darwin. The population will carry on and our Charles won't bat an eyelid. Distractions don't matter.
You can see the cruelty in Darwin though. The shit that social darwinists prize is all there. I've seen adolescent bell magpies peck the weakest sibling to death. For an otherwise admirable bird it's shocking. But magpies will spend their entire adult life fighting for turf. There's only so many bugs and worms to go around. With inter-species negotiation impossible, tough guys only need apply. But apart from the aforementioned adolescent viciousness they're like every other bird and avoid a fight at all costs. They're not wantonly cruel. They're precisely as cruel as they need to be. Darwin doesn't advocate this - he just has no opinion.
And what was Buddha on about? A ton of things. It depends on who you listen to. If you've read this far you're listening to me. But don't worry, my opinion of Buddha is pretty unobjectionable. Buddha said there is no self. He knew this because he achieved selflessness. 'Selflessness - As used and recommended by the Buddha!' And the opposition brand is selfishness - as used and recommended by motherfuckers. Never mind the crap copywriting, this dichotomy, or continuum, can be as profound as any ever invented. It's got rules beat. Rules equal loopholes. And loopholes equal 'lying'. The rules about lying and the lying to justify it are, for fans of hypocrisy, exquisite. The four words 'Thou shalt not lie' has magically created an entire ornate edifice of nitpicking bullshit - "I didn't tell you because you didn't ask..." - "I never said that. My precise words were..." - "You asked me if I 'slept' with her. We never slept..." blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum. Under the 'rules' none of these people actually 'lied'. Bully for them and their sense of rightness. But what they inescapably did do is misrepresent reality for selfish purposes. And what of that old chestnut 'the white lie'? That's against the rules isn't it? Or not? Would a saintly rule-obeyer be compelled to tell someone they have a fat arse? To hell with it - forget the rules - forget the words 'lie' and 'lying'. They're worthless. Any discussion involving them inevitably disappears up its own oh-so-clever arse, fat or otherwise. Keep it simple. Did the person behave selfishly or selflessly? A continuum that has selfishness at one end and selflessness at the other is a knife that cuts through bullshit.
And if you ask me, I will tell you Buddha was not a god. He simply achieved complete selflessness. A person who does this becomes one with the universe. Even people a fraction of the way there are spooky. They are possessed of whatever it is that Shinto reveres. I won't describe it, but visit a Shinto shrine, be quiet and understand why the shrine is there. That's what I reckon anyway. But how about you and me - we aspirers to Buddha-dom? Relax. There's no need to leap in the deep end. Satori are possible but unlikely. Best to start small. Small acts of selflessness will do wonders for you and everyone around you. It's absurdly easy and yet it's absurdly difficult. In this world nobody wants you to be selfless. Everybody wants you to be selfish. The entire purpose of corporate media is to encourage you to be so - Buy that thing! You deserve it! Pamper yourself! Whatever you desire! - It's difficult to keep selflessness in mind when everything and everyone urges you to be the opposite. It comprises the air that breathe. In trying to become selfless a sense of dislocation is almost inevitable. But this is good. Go with it. It's the only way you'll know who you are. And if you do it right you become Buddha - but I wouldn't hold my breath. What's far more likely, in fact almost a certainty, is that you become a better person, make the world a better place, and find happiness. Don't look to me. I suck at it. I'm lazy, self-impressed and love to interrupt. Read carefully, it's obvious in every word I write. This 'easiest thing ever' requires perpetual mindfulness. It's hard.
But forget the bombast. This is Darwin v Buddha. A Battle to the Death! Darwinian cruelty versus Buddhist selflessness. One trumps the other. Aaargh! Stop! Forget social darwinism. It's bullshit, which is to say it's a self-serving misrepresentation of the truth. It's nonsense designed by wicked, selfish people to excuse their wicked, selfish behaviour. It conflates Darwin's failure to judge with an endorsement. Darwin Endorses Nothing. Forget the lions and tigers and magpies. Darwin equally addresses earthworms, peach trees and butterflies. A complete absence of cruelty and yet each of these species, and millions like them, persist successfully. Hats off, says Darwin. Whatever works is fine by him. On the subject of human selflessness as a method of dealing with the vagaries of survival he's neither for nor against. Darwin is not a social darwinist, ha ha. If a people can be selfless and have children that live to carry on in like fashion then that's fine with him. Darwin smiles serenely - if it works, it works.
And Buddha? Buddha is uninterested in magpies, worms or any other creature of little brain. These are animals of instinct not thought. None are capable of mindfulness nor can they achieve oneness with the universe. Only we can achieve, or even attempt this, and Buddha addresses us. That we can be cruel is beyond obvious. We can emulate thoughtless creatures if we choose to. Buddha stands shoulder to shoulder with Darwin in acknowledging this. But he goes one step further. He knows that humans can wake from mindlessness. Darwin, immutable avatar of life and death has no opinion. Buddha smiles serenely - selflessness is possible.