Okay, “Enlightenment or bust” might be a bit dramatic, but…

"Dang Zang" is an empty name. The blog has to do with the dharma; material related to Buddhist teachings (Tibetan style in particular, Kagyu in even more particular), meditation, gurus and lamas be they genuine or flaky, books and events. I do have a more personal blog, Pica Pica, and a site for my work.

Oh yes, it's by Alex Wilding

Archive

  • A Brexit puzzle 03/07/2017
    No, not the one about “why did we ever…?” This: Let’s think of an election, perhaps a general election. A vital part of our democratic process, of course. Usually it’s a two-horse race with a few also-rans, so let’s just concentrate on the two main parties, and call them left and right. One side wins, […]
  • Kathmandu trip 30/06/2017
    For the last few weeks I’ve been writing up “what I did on my holidays” in Kathmandu this April. It’s on this site, but not on this blog. You’ll find it at http://alex-wilding.com/the-kathmandu-report/  
  • Untitled 27/02/2017
    https://www.theguardian.com/…/grandmother-deported-from-uk-… How is this fair? How is this not vindictive? How is this not a failure to use discretion? How is this not a failure of compassion? How is this not a failure of common sense? How is this not narrow-minded? How is this not mean-spirited? How is this not pig-headed? Sorry, pigs, it’s just […]
  • Donny, Theresa and the Brexit effect 29/01/2017
    In her attempt to pretend that there is enough other “free trade” out there in the world to compensate for the financial hit to the UK (lower wages and higher prices, to you and me) that Wrexit will cause, we have seen Theresa May cosying up to a variety of questionable characters, most notably the […]
Friday December 30th, 2011. Posted by Alex W:

Happiness is Overvalued

Happiness is booming: its stock is riding high. In 2012 you will be able, for a mere thousand Australian dollars, to take part in a conference on “Happiness and its causes” in Sydney. Unless, that is, you happen to want to join the additional workshops, which take another 700 dollars or more out of your wallet. As a Buddhist I am well aware of books and DVDs credited to the Dalai Lama and featuring “Happiness” in the title. I wanted to count them, but with more than 700 hits for “Dalai Lama happiness” at my favourite online bookstore, I gave up. There is a bubble in the happiness market, and Buddhism has taken a big share.

I have no doubt at all that giving high priority to the pursuit of happiness is no bad thing. This surely be reinforced if we don’t limit our target to our own happiness. Aiming to be happy must surely be wiser than aiming at maintaining an endless stream of pleasure, becoming exceptionally famous, madly popular, wildly wealthy or seriously powerful. Success is also a tad more credible.

At first sight this makes perfect sense. We feel that we need, let’s say, a new sound system before we can be happy. It is delivered. Our eyes shine as we open the boxes, plug it in and configure the bluetooth. It’s great. Of course. And how long does the glow last? Days – or minutes? Probably not weeks. We weren’t really after a gadget – we were after a state of mind, and we thought that the sound system would give us happiness. But the credit card repayments are likely to last longer than the glow. This much is elementary.

The next step in the argument goes: if it’s the state of mind we are after, not the gadget, why don’t we just go straight for the state of mind? This is where a circus of therapists and life coaches including, I have to admit, Buddhist meditation teachers, come in. Fine – up to a point. I’m sure it works – up to a point. But are there not a couple of problems? One with the goal of happiness, the other with the place of happiness in Buddhism.

Unexamined, happiness is slippery as a haddock. Suppose we pay the fee, do the course, practise the meditation and invest heavily in the pursuit of spiritual happiness. We begin with a picture of ourselves endlessly glowing with happiness, smiling, laughing, radiating warmth and love. But is that really likely? Not only are we sometimes unhappy – naturally – but, our unhappiness is now compounded by a sense of failure. Have we wasted our money? Are we hopelessly unspiritual? This could just be a learning experience. Yet what of those of us who take up this chase out of depression, grasping for a lifeline, perhaps even looking for a cure for self-loathing? It is easy to imagine that the failure to sparkle with happiness could push us even further into misery. Isn’t it enough just to cope, without the added pressure of being happy?

Nor is happiness as central to Buddhism as some literature suggests. True, the first step towards Buddhist practice is to recognise that we are not happy. The path to curing our unhappiness and achieving “nirvana” – the extinction of the poisons that make us suffer – is then described. Altogether less is said about the positive side of this experience. Wishing others to be happy, to be free from suffering, is a regular feature of Buddhist practice. But as far as we ourselves are concerned, the emphasis is more on insight into how our minds work than on making ourselves happy.

There are even some Buddhist traditions who teach that “great bliss” is at the core of our being. The trick is, they say, to remove whatever obscures it. The word “bliss” here is the same as what is often translated as “happiness”. However, if we look more closely we find that “great bliss” is described as “the union of bliss and emptiness”. What are we to make of that? The very words should warn us that whatever this is about – and the meaning is far from obvious – is not quite the same as the happiness that comes with a new sound system.

Although happiness is surely a better and healthier target than power, wealth or fame, it is unlikely that it can be bought like a conference ticket. My unease is not about happiness, but about the way it is being marketed, almost as if, provided you pay to take part in the conference with the Dalai Lama, then at last you will know how to be happy. The happiness of others is an inspiring goal, perhaps even a moral compass. But when it comes to ourselves, might it not be better to aim at knowledge and understanding? Growth may be slow, but the final dividends might be higher than those of buying up shares on the happiness market.

Monday December 21st, 2009. Posted by Alex W:

“Faith Traditions”- what?

Last night a rather worthy – and not entirely unpleasant – TV program dealt with the run-up to Christmas from the point of view of three different “faith traditions”. My question, therefore, is: “what’s one of them?” The fact that the three concerned were Christianity, Judaism, and a very open-minded, friendly version of Islam did not bring me much clarity. I had an uneasy feeling that the term is being used to sweep diverging beliefs into a dark corner where we need not talk about them, as if they were a  mad cousin who has been shipped off to the mental home.

I do, certainly, realise that “faith” should be about something much more than mere “belief”; reducing somebody’s faith to a mere belief, or set of beliefs, might be useful in primary school, but it does not encourage insight into any mature kind of spirituality.

I find, however, it hard to accept that these “faiths” do not also imply certain specific, possibly conflicting, beliefs. What seems to happen in my own mind, and I suspect that this is what the use of the phrase “faith tradition” tends to do, is to reduce “faith” again, but in a different way. Rather than reducing it to a mere set of beliefs, “faith tradition” tends to reduce it to a set of traditional observances. My picture of the follower of a “faith tradition” (and I know I use brackets too often, but I can’t help also but wonder how many people think of themselves in those terms) is of someone who perhaps has some beliefs at the back of their mind, but these beliefs are held for reasons that have as much, or more, to do with tradition as with intellectual rigour. Once the reduction has been done – I would like to say “emasculation”, but I’m not sure if that word still has the right connotations – we can go on to say:

“Look, this lot light candles around Christmas time, that lot light candles to celebrate Hanukkah, and the other lot light candles at the time of Ramadan: ergo it’s all jolly nice and jolly similar and we can all be jolly friendly.”

Well, of course, being jolly friendly to one another would be a wonderful thing, and there ought to be more of it, and I applaud the points the programme was overtly making. Thoroughly. But I can’t help but feel that talk of “faith traditions” is selling real spirituality down the river.

OBC (Obligatory Buddhist Content): many Buddhists light candles at the time of the full moon in May.

Sunday July 5th, 2009. Posted by Alex W:

What do Buddhists with pets think about euthanasia?

This question often comes up, and did so just yesterday on e-sangha. I thought I’d repeat the answer I suggested to someone else a month or two ago, where the animal involved was a cat:

Dear …,

I do feel for you, as a cat lover myself. Many Western Buddhists have been through this. I can only offer you my opinion, based on discussions with quite a few other people.
1) You have already given your cat a far better, longer life than nature would.
2) The ulitmate critereon has to be compassion.
3) It’s obviously got to the stage where all that awaits your cat is more suffering.
4) *If* there is something “bad” about the euthanasia, take the consequences on yourself (the “bad karma”, if there is any, and the heartache) gladly out of love for your cat.

I have known people who have wished that they could be given the same release.

Like I say, only my opinion, but one that is widely shared.

Obviously, if you also know any prayers for the dead, they may help a bit, especially with your own feeling.

Best wishes to you both

It really gets up my nose when people start to put rules and speculations about the way karma works (suggesting, for instance, that you should leave the animal to suffer so that it can “complete working out its karma”) above compassion.

Sunday February 8th, 2009. Posted by Alex:

Barmy Karma

On a list I read (the kagyu group at yahoo – in fact I’m the “owner” which means that, technically, I’m the big cheese there, for which reason I make a deliberate effort not to dominate the conversations) somebody recently made a passing remark that reminded me of some of the stupid ways the “karma” doctrine is sometimes misrepresented.

It’s well known that Buddhism puts a lot of store by karma, in the sense that whenever we act (“karma” literally just means “action”) we create consequences; these consequences will rebound sooner or later. The idea is that actions leave traces in the “substratum of our being” (so to speak), and that these traces eventually, when conditions permit, draw us back to circumstances that correspond to the original action.

Well you may or may not feel that what I’ve just said makes sense. But what am I complaining about? Most of all I’m complaining about the suggestion – and you do hear this suggestion – that literally everything that happens to us is a result of our past karma. This is such a disastrous idea that even if it could be true (which it can’t) one would wish for people not to believe it. Consider this:

I smash you in the face! Don’t blame me! It’s your karma. You are the one to blame. Hey, really I’m the victim here, as your karma made me do something bad! Oh and while we are about it, it’s your karma, and therefore your fault, that you are poor, ugly, stupid, deformed, sick, uneducated, born in a family and social class that gives you no options. What bad thing did you do in the past? Obviously only the rich, beautiful and powerful have good karma, so they deserve to be rich and powerful. The poor, the starving, slaves and everyone else has clearly earnt a hard life. Ha ha! I larf, and I larf and larf out loud at your misfortune!!!

So it’s an objectionable idea. It also makes no sense. The very idea of karma is that we can act, and our acts have consequences. What happens next therefore *has* to be open ended – conditioned in part by karma, perhaps, but not determined by it to the last detail. I may act in an unexpected way – so may you.

The possibilities of what the future might become therefore shift, within the constraints of karma and karmic “seeds” which might germinate or might lie dormant. It is like being in a river with a very powerful current – karma.You can’t avoid being swept along by it, but you can still swim, and this can affect whether you are smashed against the next rocks or manage to find your way to the bank.

So the idea is nonsense because, if every detail of what happens is a result of past karma, we are not free to act, therefore we cannot be responsible for our actions, and the whole silly doctrine disappears up its own backside.

For Buddhists it should also be significant that

  • according to “scripture”, events – death, for instance – can have several causes, of which karma is only one. Malice, environmental factors, and sheer bad luck are also possible causes, and
  • all the Buddhist practices intended to “purify past karma” make no sense if karma has already fixed everything that is happening and is going to happen.

End of rant, and not even a picture!