Saturday, February 02, 2008

Towards a Solution 4

These days, since I have joined the 50 years plus club on January fifth 2008, my mind is very reflective, pensive and meditative.  When one has lived exactly fifty years on planet earth and knowing that one has much more than half of one's life span lived, one wonders what one has achieved, what all the fuss has been and is about and where exactly one should be going.  Older preoccupations with worldly success and achievements of various sorts have well and truly paled into less significance.  Older biases and prejudices have declined and some few are almost faded away entirely.

I suppose a fifty year old is more tired of struggling against the vicissitudes of life than his younger counterpart; is more inclined to go with the flow; is more inclined to fight in a more realistic and less energy-consuming fashion; is more inclined to accept criticisms; is more likely to be far more compassionate on the weaknesses of self and others; is somewhat more likely to be more open to possibilities, and probably more realistic of what he can hope for from life.  He or she is also probably more receptive to a depth-dimension to life - to a spirituality in the widest possible meaning of that word, a meaning that stretches beyond the boundaries of confessional or denominational religions. Also it is a spirituality that stretches to embrace and confirm not to reject and deny.

It's at times like these that I need to be compassionate for the little boy within.  I have always subscribed to the Onion Theory of the Personality - that is, that rather than throwing off each previous stage of growth, we add a new layer of growth like the onion as we grow older.  Our task is to have compassion on each of our previous layers of existence.  And so like Siddhartha Gautama, we set out anew to find some small glimmers of hope on our pilgrim journey and who knows perhaps some day enlightenment.

I mentioned in my last post how the young prince Siddhartha Gautama later to be called Shakyamuni Buddha or Gautama Buddha or more simply still The Buddha had left his father's palace to find the answer to the great questions of life - like the meaning of ageing, suffering and dying.  That's where we left the young prince Siddhartha in yesterday's post.  Like most of our spiritual leaders and gurus from early history the facts about the man himself are sketchy, though we know a lot about his teachings and philosophy.  Today the majority of scholars give dates within 20 years either side of 400 BCE for Gautama's death and he lived for approximately 80 years.  These are nice round figures and are easy to remember so I like to stick with them.  Also it is good to know that he was born in the city of Lumbini in Nepal, that he married a cousin at 16 and bore a son.  While his father sought to protect Siddhartha from all possible suffering by keeping the ill out of sight, Gautama longed for a deeper understanding after his father's vain efforts failed in this matter.

And so our hero fled his royal palace in pursuit of the key to the meaning of life and suffering.  He now became a medicant monk and accordingly went from place to place begging for alms.  He also experimented with asceticism which became very extreme at one stage - long days of fasting, long periods of holding his breath and exposure to bodily pain.  (It is interesting to recall that the ancient Irish monks experimented in such ascetic practices also - not to mention the Desert Fathers).  However, Siddhartha was quick to realise that these extreme practices brought no genuine or long-lasting spiritual benefits.  In fact, he found like many before and after him, extreme measures never lead to any great satisfaction at all.  Hence he abandoned these extremes.  He then realised that surely there must be a Middle Way.  The Middle Way is a path of moderation that lies mid-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He began to meditate, and in his meditation he started by following a practice called Anapanasati which literally means the awareness of breathing in and out.

One day while he was sitting under a sacred fig tree (almost Biblical indeed) he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth (again with Biblical and literary  resonances - "What is Truth?" said jesting Pilate and he did not wait for an answer." Francis Bacon).  This sacred fig is also called the pipal tree or the Bodhi tree.  His then five followers thought that he had lost his mind and abandoned him to his impossible quest as they thought.  It is said that after 49 days meditating under the Bodhi tree, at the age of 35, he attained also what is also easily remembered bodhi which is also known as "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West.

From this on out Siddhartha is now known as Buddha or Gautama Buddha.  For the next 45 years he went around teaching his insights into life.  These insights are collectively referred to as the Dharma.  With Siddhartha's complete awakening came his insight into the mystery of suffering in this world.  The cause of human suffering he taught was humankind's ignorance of the very nature of the world.  Initially he was loathe to teach his insights as he felt humankind were neither ready nor willing to take them on board.  He could see around him the many lost, deceived and deceiving souls afflicted with all their various desires - greed, ambition, pride, lust for power and all their delusions of grandeur.  Could they be ready for a wake up call?

I will finish with a few timely Buddhist quotations that I love:

The happiness we seek, a genuine lasting peace and happiness, can be attained only through the purification of our minds. This is possible if we cut the root cause of all suffering and misery—our fundamental ignorance.
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The World of Tibetan Buddhism


Sakka asked: "What is the cause of self-interest?"
The Buddha answered: "It is perception of the world as one's object."
"How does one overcome this perception of the world as apart from oneself?"
"By acting for the increase of goodness and happiness. It is in this way that the world ceases to be one's object."
-Digha Nikaya

From "Buddha Speaks," edited by Anne Bancroft, 2000. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Boston,

"I, without grasping, will pass beyond sorrow,
And I will attain nirvana," one says.
Whoever grasps like this
Has great grasping.
-Nagarjuna; Mulamadhyamaka-Karika

From "365 Buddha: Daily Meditations," edited by Jeff Schmidt. Reprinted by arrangement with Tarcher/Putnam, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

The key, during both life and death, is to recognize illusions as illusions, projections as projections, and fantasies as fantasies. In this way we become free.
-Lama Thubten Yeshe, Introduction to Tantra

Copyright Wisdom Publications 2001. Reprinted from Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations, edited by Josh Bartok. Reprinted with permission by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm St., Somerville MA 02144 U.S.A,

Above I have uploaded another "reflective" image which I took along the banks of the Garravogue Summer 2006.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Towards a Solution 3

Let me start with a short but beautiful quotation.  I mention this quotation on my Facebook page and very often elsewhere, a fact to which those who know me well will attest.  It runs thus:

The day the child realises that all adults are imperfect he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise. - Aiden Nowlan

When we grow older we grow wiser - at least such is the case with most human beings.  It's a bit of a shock to the system to realise that the world is imperfect, that others are imperfect and hence oneself also is imperfect.  However, that's one of the many lessons life teaches us.  Aiden Nowlan brings this wisdom a stage deeper by applying it to our interpersonal relationships.  All relationships are hard and have to be worked at.  I can remember realising how imperfect my parents were as an adolescent.  Years later I did learn to forgive them for what I had adjudged to be dreadful flaws when I was young.  We all, I feel, become more sympathetic to our parents when we grow older and begin to repeat their mistakes with our own children.  However, Nowlan brings us further along the path to self-knowledge by stating that as we grow older we also learn to forgive ourselves for our mistakes.  When we can truly do this, we have indeed become wise.

In other terms, what Nowlan is referring to is in a  nutshell what we call Compassion for the SelfCompassion is the very essence of Buddhism and Buddhist practice and philosophy, and it can never be a mere sentimental emotion. Rob Nairn, an international expert on Buddhist meditation, defines it as a "vital active knowledge of what is appropriate in a given situation." (What is Meditation? : Buddhism for Everyone, Shambhala, Boston, 2000, p. 6)  In other words compassion is a knowledge born of love.  It begins with an openness first to ourselves, to our own inner personal experience and it welcomes and accepts the self as it finds it.  Most writers and practitioners state that only when one has true compassion for the self can one then have true compassion for others.  I believe they are correct in this assertion.  I will quote Nairn more extensively here:

Compassion is all-embracing caring that arises within the mind of an enlightened being, a caring that sees all forms of life... as equal.  It can only arise in a mind that is completely open, a mind that is not narrowed by preferences, judgements, intolerance, or by blocking off.  We can all reach the stage of enlightened compassion; the first step is to start accepting ourselves and others without judgement. (Op. cit., p.6)


Compassion for self and others not alone reduces suffering by encouraging us to charitable actions, but also it brings about a change of heart and mind that prevents us from clinging to our own various complexes, biases and narrow views of the world about us.

The problem of suffering in the world caused the historical Buddha much angst.  Indeed, it was to the solution of this mystery that he dedicated his whole life and energy.  His father, who was reputed to have been a great King, sought to shield his young son from all forms of suffering.  However, one day when the young Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni or the Buddha) was 29 he went outside the palace and encountered what are often termed the "Four Sights," that is four experiences that convinced him of the presence of suffering in the world: (i) an elderly man, (ii) a diseased man, (iii) a decaying corpse and (iv) an ascetic monk.  After this Siddhartha was a changed man.  He vowed to resolve this problem and to make its solution his life's task.  It is to Siddhartha Gautama's suggested solution for the mystery of suffering that I shall turn in future posts.

Above I have placed what I consider a "reflective" picture. I took this view on the banks of the Garravogue in July 2006.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Poetic Interlude


The card we left unturned

Beside the joker in the grass

Is the tightrope we walk –

Better not to know the future –

It can be anything – up or down –

Let the mystery remain.


“It’s all part of the mix,” she said.

It was Christmas time

And our mother was making puddings

And our father shining his new black shoes

And he was promising us

The moon and the stars.


And now they bring her cakes

In the evening time for tea,

Long after she has ceased to know

What anything means to be,

But her smile of recognition

Far beyond words is enough,


Enough for us many years on

Beside her demented bed.

We search for a rhythm

Beyond the melody instead

Where nothing rhymes

Yet all is music.


Now as we sit and count out

The pennies of our soul –

The balance of our days and ways –

There go the shadow of her hand

On the table as we write

And the wisdom between the lines.

Above I have inserted a poem that I wrote for my mother shortly before Christmas 2007.  She has now been six years in a Nursing Home called St Mary's where the nursing care is simply superb and ennobling.  The ward my mother is in is for elderly ladies, all over 80 years old, and one, a lady called Daisy is 105.  They are all demented to varying degrees needless to say.  My mother barely recognises us now as her brain is succumbing to mini-stroke after mini-stroke which takes her memory aware piecemeal.  She suffers from dementia, a cousin of Alzheimer's disease.  The proper medical diagnosis for my mother is that she suffers from Multi-infarct dementia, also known as vascular dementia which is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer disease (AD) in the elderly (persons over 65 years of age). The term refers to a group of syndromes caused by different mechanisms all resulting in vascular lesions in the brain. Early detection and accurate diagnosis are important, as vascular dementia is at least partially preventable.  So much for the medical diagnosis.  I was listening to a wonderfully moving radio programme on RTE 1 about a man who has been caring for his wife who suffers from  AD for the past ten years.  He defined the experience of caring for his wife as "the long goodbye" which I think was the title of the programme.  My mother Mary had her first mini-stroke at 84.  She will be 91 in April 2008.  Above I have inserted one of the many pictures I have taken of her in the past 6 years of hospital care.

The above photo I took somewhere around November 2007

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Towards A Solution 2


Asymptotes always intrigued me when I was studying mathematics, not that I managed to go any further than a tolerable pass degree in the subject. What intrigued me was the idea of the graph stretching outwards forever and ever towards the X and Y-axes but never actually touching them. A simple mathematical definition is that when f(x) = 1/x is graphed on the Cartesian Plane, the X and Y-axes are called the asymptotes. There is, of course, a far more complex statement of this phenomenon but I simply cannot grasp it. However, the beauty of the asymptotic mathematical illustration intrigues and captivates my mind. The late Dr Brian McNamara, S.J. who was the first director of my Master’s thesis in philosophical theology many years ago always adverted to the fact that we can approach mysteries and problems asymptotically. I loved this metaphorical use of language.

We never really reach a full solution, according to Brian, but we reach near enough as makes no difference. Brian, as a Jesuit priest was a convinced Catholic and would have subscribed to the traditional theodicies advanced by St Augustine, St Irenaeus or St Thomas Aquinas. Be that as it may, I loved his metaphorical use of language.

I have already mentioned in previous posts that suffering increases where the person’s expectations from life are unreasonably high and where he/she desires to live in the best of all possible worlds and where they possibly might subscribe to the dream of ultimate perfection and continual perfectibility. A person who has such unrealistic goals will be disappointed and will suffer. Indeed, anyone who has an unrealistic take on life will undoubtedly be disappointed and will suffer.

Without a doubt also, religion meets the needs of certain people. It provides them with social supports (obviously religion is a social phenomenon) and not a little personal and spiritual sustenance through communal worship and prayer. For example, take a fairly recent study that involved over 160,000 people in Europe. Among weekly churchgoers, 85% reported being "very satisfied" with life, but this number reduced to 77% among those who never went to church (Inglehart, 1990). This kind of pattern is typical - religious involvement is associated with modest increases in happiness. Fair enough, but most of the countries in Europe have a low attendance rate at church, as indeed does Ireland. Obviously, we could argue that religion is not now meeting the needs of the majority of our population. One might, therefore, conclude that people are somewhat less happy or less content. Judging by the high crime rates, the growing levels of anger and violence in society, not to mention the rise in murder and suicide rates, the high stress levels and the preponderance of depressive illnesses in general, I would venture to advance the hypothesis that people today are far less happy than they were fifty years ago in the more rural and agrarian society that Ireland then was.

When researchers have examined how religious experiences relate to happiness and general contentment, they find the same sort of pattern as with church attendance. Religious experiences, particularly when they happen during prayer, have been the most powerful indicator of happiness in some studies. (For more information, see Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle, 1997). This relationship also seems to be stronger among older people as might be expected. It is patently obvious also that happiness and life satisfaction increase when we have a sense of where we are going and what is important in life, and religion offers such a clear direction to its followers. This might also be related to the rise of 'strict' or conservative churches, which offer more certitude than do more liberal churches., e.g., the Mormon Church or the Church of Latter day Saints would be good examples here.

Then more personal religious experiences are very significant for a person’s happiness. They offer a person a feeling of being in contact with God (also known as "transcendence" or “the transcendent”) and contact with others. These are usually positive things and, of course, if someone is more involved in positive things, they will tend to feel happier than someone who is less involved in those things.

However, when Religion ceases to meet people's needs, they will move on to a variety of other sustainers as it were.  Many will take refuge in some New Age Movement therapy, or better still will, if they have the wherewithal, attend for psychoanalysis, psychotherapy or counselling under the various licensed bodies world-wide.  Here, they will have their needs met.  In a way, I suppose, I'm essentially arguing for a "reductio ad psychologiam" if I may coin a neologism - that is, I'm fundamentally arguing that humankind's problems are fundamentally psychological, that our problems with evil and suffering are fundamentally "in the mind."  Now, in advancing this argument, I am in no sense denying the actuality of evil as it acts in and upon our world, nor indeed am I gainsaying the horrific nature of pain which some of us have to suffer in life.  As readers of these pages will have noted, I have referred many times to my own suffering from endogenous depression of the unipolar variety.  In other words, I am no stranger at all to the reality of mental pain and suffering.  I have also referred in many posts to the many examples of evil and suffering with which this oftentimes sad world is afflicted.  But, existentially, here and now in my life, I feel and believe that I can deal with, assuage and control, though, of course, never fully cure, the presence of suffering in my own life.  How?  Well, quite simply by changing my attitude to life, by lowering my expectations of self and others and life in general, by contextualizing evil and suffering within wider parameters than my own limited mind can ever possibly allow.  In this way, the psychological lessons of Buddhism can help me to cope, and not alone to cope but to cope very well; to develop not a fatalism but an acceptance of things that cannot be denied or fought or turned around.  Such an acceptance is a realistic stance and it certainly is no blind acceptance of fate.  Like all Eastern philosophies and techniques it thrives by going with the flow of things; not ceasing to swim as it were, but rather to swim with the tide; to use the energy of the enemy by way of fighting whatever it is with which we are contending.  In this way, we become more accepting of life; more co-operative with life in working with it in the correct direction; more willing to fight not in denial of something but in acceptance of it while at one and same time fighting whatever disease it is on its own terms.  Words are patently failing me here, but I hope the reader will sense my drift, while I work further towards a possible albeit limited and partial solution to the problems posed by the Mystery of Evil and Suffering.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took recently in Paris at the Rodin Museum. The above photograph shows one of the Burghers of Calais. Rodin was superb at showing suffering in the human features!