I’m reaching a point of conflict, here, where it comes to the story I’m working on — or was working on, before I took a break of a few days to reset. I’ve already written (EDIT: thought I had written) a lot of this out in my own log…but I thought I’d leave a note for myself here, as well (given that I tend to utilize this blog to remind myself of where I was at, mentally, at different points in time).
The reason I didn’t write that private log out, here? My public-facing writings tend to be self-edited. There are things going through my mind which I don’t necessarily want to share with the world, at this stage…and nor am I obligated to.
My own writings very much give me insight into what is actually going on in my mind: things I didn’t necessarily know, were there. (Or, as may be the case, still there.) Right now…I’m seeing the pain and bleakness of the story I’m working on (at least so, where it starts out). Because the story has been set up this way, it puts one of my characters at risk.
If I look at ways to resolve this issue…there are several, but none of them are totally, “clean,” except for the obvious and perhaps hardest one. It’s very clear that one of my characters needs to be in contact with others, in order to get through this period of their life. Selecting which others is going to be both their, and my, problem. I hadn’t worked out all of the backstory or my characters’ social networks before I started writing.
I’d say that I spent about a decade of my life, if not a decade and a half, interested in occultism (which is involved in most of the easy/emotionally tangled/sitcom reset, ways out). This was before I realized that a lot of what a person can absorb from books is rooted in culture, not reality; that the Western Mystery Tradition was, indeed, “Western,” thus culturally foreign to my sensibilities, even if we communicated in the same language. I could spend a lifetime studying this stuff and end up having wasted my life, if the goal was to find my own personal truth.
It’s the same thing as I recognized with Buddhism: one could spend lifetime(s) studying this, and still not know everything. (The question is, what do you want to know, and why?) We are also assuming that the field being studied contains useful information, not necessarily cultural constructions alone. Studying the entire canon and various schools about either Western occultism or Buddhism, one would end up knowing a lot about culture; and likely culturally-specific psychology. But culture does not necessarily ever reflect reality. Culture seems, in my view, to attempt to explain reality, though it doesn’t always find success in that, either.
In applying the knowledge contained in Buddhism to reality…well, it has a bit more obvious practical utility with fewer drawbacks than some other, “religions,” most prominently in the fields of mindfulness and meditation. I’ve noticed a theme of scholars being attracted to this thought — particularly people in Psychology and in Physics — but not being a Psychologist or Physicist, I have no especial insight into that.
The relative lack of drawbacks to Buddhism…it would be interesting to study why that occurs, but I think it’s related to being orthopraxic, not orthodoxic. “Orthopraxy” means there is such a thing as “correct conduct”; “orthodoxy” means there is such a thing as “correct belief” (at least as officially defined within the religion). Conforming to orthopraxy might mean not slaughtering animals to eat them. Conforming to orthodoxy might mean publicly espousing a person’s status as a literal deity.
Speaking to my knowledge alone: the “historical Buddha” declined to engage in commentary on metaphysics, meaning that we did not begin with any official position on what happens after death or in other potential worlds. It was seen as a distraction from the work of actually reducing or eliminating dukkha, which in turn was the point of early Buddhism.
This is, at least, if we’re looking at the big picture and not at specific sects like Pure Land Buddhism, whose adherents are said to wish to be reborn in a specific Heaven in which it is easy to attain nirvana…of course, the content of that, “Heaven,” in my view, is not necessarily going to be pleasant.
Whether there even was a “historical Buddha” named Siddhartha Gautama, has also come up — I don’t even know how long ago this started — though ultimately, it’s possibly irrelevant, if we’re looking at utility more than cosmology. Regardless of whether some guy named Siddhartha Gautama existed, the personage of Shakyamuni Buddha — who he is said to have become — does exist, fact-based or not. There is a thin line between the mythical or legendary, and valuable cultural heritage, here: we can’t expect people of all times and places, to stick to our norms of giving the literal facts when reporting on their reality.
One might be considered a virtuous Buddhist (live their lives according to “correct conduct”) without having to cleave to someone else’s thought. This also means that it’s possible to study or practice Buddhism without ever “believing in” what one might say are its tenets. (From personal experience, I’d say “belief in” tenets of Buddhism is a weak entry point; “retrospectively obvious statements on reality,” is closer to my own viewpoint, where it meshes. Of course, that does not apply to everything anyone falling under the label, “Buddhist,” has said.)
Granted that what we know about Buddhism in the English-speaking world is very much skewed, due to mistranslations and bias.
Mistranslations: such as the fact that there is no single exact word corresponding to the meaning of dukkha in English, so the First Noble Truth disclosed in many early texts, “Life is suffering,” is a lazy mistranslation which gives the wrong idea ab initio (“at the beginning”). Dukkha includes the English ideas of, “suffering,” and, “pain,” but also the ideas of, “unease,” and, “unsatisfactoriness.”
Essentially, the First Noble Truth just alerts us to the fact that life is going to include varying levels of discomfort, and that the inclusion of discomfort is a defining characteristic of samsara — or, everyday life. Nirvana is a liberation from samsara, but we aren’t told, really, what it is (other than “bliss,” and beyond the duality of life and death). I have my own ideas on this, but…you know, that’s me. And I’m not enlightened, yet.
Bias: such as the fact that the earliest popular transmissions of anything relating to Buddhism in English, were through the eyes of a missionary (Robert Spence Hardy) who was trying to convert people away from it in then-Ceylon. In short, he had a conflict of interest where it came to accurately representing the religion (if the people of Ceylon actually considered it a religion) to English-speakers who knew nothing about it, nor about the people — who were people (and not necessarily wrong people) — who practiced it.
So, for instance, now you have a situation where — in the U.S. — the most prevalent form of Buddhism is of the Pure Land variant, which is also one of the most strikingly faith-based variants. This matches the preexisting yearning for “faith” and desire to “believe in” something, which is widespread through mainstream U.S. culture: likely due to the fact that Christianity is the most widespread religion in the area, and heavily centers and values, “faith.” This is culture, again.
I’m not going to get into a discussion here of the transposition of elements of cast-off religions — particularly Christianity — into a participant’s adopted religion…though it’s a conversation to be had, and has been had, frequently, especially in the NeoPagan circuit. (Is NeoPaganism still a “thing”?)
And actually, now that I think about it, this is one of the reasons I was originally motivated to learn an East Asian language: I realized that, when I was studying Buddhism, I was learning about aspects of my own culture through the eyes of outsiders to my culture. Because I have a partially Japanese-American background, Japanese language seemed the most appropriate to study. And, yeah, maybe I should have gone through with it, as a major — even though it would likely have had me waking at 5:30 AM to get to class, for several semesters.
If I had done that, I actually might have had a shot — close to now — at becoming a Cataloging Librarian in an East Asian Library, specializing in Japanese Languages and Literatures. But I don’t have that skill set, as I didn’t go down that path. I majored in a branch of English instead, thinking that I would just confront more racism if I decided to major in a language which was spoken by people who had a pattern of treating others (including myself) poorly, for reasons of falling into stigmatized categories.
But hey — there are a lot of people in life who will treat anyone poorly, either for no reason, for stupid unthinking reasons…or, for rational but selfish (or, dare we say, “evil,”) reasons. And they speak all kinds of languages. It’s not like English teachers are, collectively speaking, the greatest at confronting their unconscious bias, either.
Anyhow — this thing with the story. Right now…I’m being led to make some decisions about the rules the fiction plays by. Although I don’t believe that what I’m dealing with right now really has to do with the bardo (at least as written in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), it is occupying that kind of space in my mind. There are ways to deal with it which…lead to less complexity, confusion, and suffering, and then there are ways which probably, shouldn’t be touched — even if they are possible (in fiction).
Going down any of the latter paths, is probably going to be dark and painful. I’ve had to consider whether I’ve wanted to go with it, and actually intentionally make the story dark and painful, or whether I’ve wanted to use my own creativity toward more constructive, light-based, harmony-based, ends. Especially, I’ve been concerned about the fact that Americans — just as a kind of overarching generalization — have a difficult time distinguishing fantasy from reality. I don’t want to give false hope that going down that path is possible — or even if possible, desirable.
My own major issue is that the finality of a character’s death is hitting me, and this is a character whom I’ve been dealing with for at least 25 years. But, I mean: even in the earliest versions of his character — the ones I drew out in comics, as a teenager — he was dead at the beginning.
The difference between now and then is that death didn’t seem final, then. At 14, I had no one in my life who had actually passed away. At this point, I’ve lived through deaths in the family. I realize now that he’s not coming back, unless we do some machinations which would probably be called “unnatural” in some sectors.
As a person who puts their trust in reality (including the unknown and humanly-unfathomable parts of reality) over myths which teach nothing about the real world (there are some — maybe many — which do), the idea of bringing someone back from the dead just out of the desire of the living, and without regard for the good of the dead person, makes me a bit leery.
It is, after all, one of the life lessons of aging, to learn how to understand death (and deal with the personal emotions it brings up). Running away from those emotions through “magic” is not productive, and essentially teaches nothing about how to deal with this in the real world.
In any case…I’m looking at getting back into my Buddhist texts as reference work for this story. I believe it will help me make my way through the story. It might also help, me.
One response to “Dukkha”
What an interesting article! I get how you feel (I think? I may not understand correctly) so that’s why I never base my stories on reality as it is. It’s similar to my perception of reality. Reality is personal for everyone—reason is too. I think that it’s nice that you care how other people perceive the reality of your story, but I don’t think it would directly be your fault how someone perceives it. I could see if you were writing something nonfictional, but it sounds near realistic but not realistic as nonfiction. 🤷🏾 I still think what you’re writing sounds interesting!
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