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Lord of the Rings

Journal WillWare's Journal: Thanissaro Bhikkhu, other stuff

A few final thoughts on libertarianism. One: read David Friedman's brilliant book The Machinery of Freedom. Two: the "free market" is often distorted because deep-pocketed corporations and organizations can change the rules of the game by buying cooperative legislators and politicians, which is hardly news, but it argues against Bill Gates's notion of "frictionless capitalism". Sure, it's frictionless if you have several billion dollars to spend on grease. Three: if I were a standard-issue libertarian, I'd indulge a knee-jerk impulse to blame the recession on violations of the free market, but free market violations don't appear to me to be playing a big role here.

The other day I stumbled across this rather fascinating essay by one of my favorite authors on Buddhism, Geoffrey DeGraff, who was ordained in the Thai forest tradition under the name Thanissaro Bhikkhu ("bhikkhu" meaning "monk"). Some other of his really interesting writings are Wings to Awakening and The Mind Like Fire Unbound, the latter being an exploration of the use of fire imagery in early Buddhist literature. Really fascinating stuff. I find his writing to be both accessible (unlike a lot of over-mystified Buddhist lit) and intellectually engaging.

A lot of Buddhism is quite self-evident. Impermanence (anicca) is logical, especially to an old fart like me. My body and my world are burning and crumbling before my eyes, and my mortality towers before me now. The notion of selflessness (anatta) makes sense too: I am a temporary assembly of pieces, imagining itself to be a monolithic whole, and hoping that the monolithic wholeness will enjoy some kind of mystic permanence after the pieces have fallen apart. (DeGraff addresses the interesting question of whether Buddha intended us to regard anatta as a metaphysical truth or as a teaching aid to help us attain the goal of nibbana.)

As an old fart, getting older all the time, I am of course keenly interested in the question of what lies beyond. On this point Buddha was notoriously murky; I can find only one translation of one conversation where he addressed the question straightforwardly. The Buddha describes a life-to-life continuity that I think I could be happy with, if it's for real.

DeGraff offers his own take on the matter: of the important stages of meditation is when you discover within the mind a knowing core that does not die at the death of the body. If you can reach this point in your meditation, then death poses no problem at all. That's great for those who can attain such levels of meditation, but I doubt I'll ever get there myself. DeGraff and other writers variously refer to this as the Deathless or the Unconditioned, by contrast to the "conditioned things" that suffer impermanence and deterioration, like this old body of mine.

But going back to the rather fascinating essay that I first mentioned -- here DeGraff discusses the plight of Buddhist practice in Thai society. While it's a nominally profoundly Buddhist country, there are societal forces there that work to limit the accomplishments of innovators in meditation. An interesting read, check it out. And imagine a time and place in human history where the very best of human ingenuity went not into computers or electronics or software, but into the study and training of the human mind. I first got a glimpse of this myself at a weekend retreat at Kripalu, a yoga center here in Massachusetts.

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Thanissaro Bhikkhu, other stuff

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