Tag: Buddhism

Slavoj Žižek Fails to Fully Understand Hierarchies

Daniel Szewc | Poland

One must understand the realities of Eastern Europe from 1945-1989 to understand Slavoj Žižek’s mentality. His embracement of the Marxist way of being is completely the result of his comparatively strong societal position in Slovenia before the fall of the Eastern Block. This was exemplified by the fact that this hierarchal position, created on the basis of being closer to the Marxist view of a perfected human than the average man, got even stronger after the acceptance of capitalism in his native country (for all intents and purposes, Slavoj Žižek is a celebrity in Slovenia). Of course, this brought to his subconscious the notion that being closer to Marx makes you a more efficient human in general, whilst in reality, it was just the manifestation of parts of the old, synthetic establishment, Žižek included, surviving into the new era, and adapting to the new circumstances.

As for his support of leftism, contrasted by his dislike of societal decay, it is comparable to liking uranium, yet disliking the particles that it emits. No matter how hard you try to keep society stable, without the philosophical absolute, you are unable to do so.

The Maintenence of the Hierarchy

Any hierarchy without an unreachable entity, whether it be a value or a being, that cannot be toppled from the bottom is doomed to fluctuate drastically, as well as to crash in a time proportionately short to the number of active members in the said structure. For example, the morally unthinkable happened in France, the regicide of the revolution, and the hierarchy’s immovable peak was shattered.

Soon after, the bloodshed flooded over to the initial instigators of the crime, causing the whole megastructure to topple. In the end, a new hierarchy arose, with Napoleon rising to its peak. He was able to justify his role sufficiently enough not to be toppled by power-hungry contestants for his position only because of his idealization and even stronger emancipation of the traditional role of emperor.

For such processes to not happen, equality, not hierarchy, would have to dominate throughout life forms- something that is mathematically ridiculous. To assume that the total sum capability of creatures as complex as us to have equal chances at maintaining our positions at a zero level hierarchy is simply improbable. Too many variables influence our lives on the daily for this to happen naturally, and for any individual even remotely knowledgeable about cybernetics, it is obvious that no circuit can encompass a circuit equally or more complicated than themselves, therefore the human mind may never manage to understand it’s own secrets (…and variables that make us so different in outcome).

Of course, #MeToo became dominated by empty media icons, because it’s the natural consequence of having a promiscuous society, something one can earn money off, and human nature. The last of the three implies inequality in intelligence and ability, whilst the first is implied by leftism. You cannot have all three and not get the result that #MeToo got.

In general, however, I personally like Žižek’s look on Buddhism, as well as I think that his views on love can be put to good use by any thoughtful person on any side of the political arena. Alas, 90%+ of what he says is based on some ridiculous imaginary plasticity of the human condition. For example, Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, if anyone, knows the most about empirically proving the aforementioned rationalist perspective of it being improbable.

Who will win the debate between the two? Well, the better question is whether the side that in fact loses will be able to comprehend it’s fallibility, or will it stay in its shell of Marxist presumptions.

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In Cambodia, Tourists Buy and Shoot Cows with Rocket Launchers

By Ryan Lau | @agorisms

In third world countries such as Cambodia, animal rights are often cast aside. Naturally, the lives of oppressed people and their struggle for food, water, and other essentials come first. As a result, individuals in these countries are often able to commit gross atrocities against animals.

In modern Western culture, there is much debate over animal rights. Vegans and vegetarians disagree with those who believe it is morally okay to kill an animal for food. However, most would agree that it is wrong to kill an animal without purpose. Such an action is wasteful, at least in the eyes of the West.

In Cambodia, though, the attitude is a little bit different. Over the past few years, rumors have surfaced on various blogs and informal reports that it was possible to shoot a cow in Cambodia with a rocket launcher. Some even stated that they were offered an animal target by default when shooting. Though it was, until recently, difficult to verify this, a recent Netflix documentary has opened the door to this atrocity.

In the show, Dark Touristhost David Farrier tours the world, searching for everything ‘mad, macabre and morbid” he can find. In an episode about South Asia, he visits a war-torn Myanmar and a resurrection in Indonesia. But before this, Farrier wants to see if the old Cambodian myth is true.

Arriving at a shooting range, the workers present him with a number of different weapons to choose from. After shooting at non-living targets, Farrier asks for the prize cow, and sure enough, he gets it. Though he chooses, out of common morality, not to shoot the animal, it is clear that this chilling practice is a reality in the small South Asian country.

Cambodia and its Lack of Cultural Justification

In Western culture, shooting a chained animal is inhumane. Yet, the interesting thing is, based on many aspects of Cambodian culture, one may expect it to be even more so on that side of the world.

In Cambodia, the vast majority of people are Buddhist. In fact, 95% practice Theravada Buddhism, the much stricter and more conservative of the two main branches. When Buddhists die, they believe that based on their actions in life, they will be reincarnated as another life form, often times an animal. Thus, they believe that the soul within a human may be exactly the same soul within an animal, but at a different point in its existence.

As a result, one may think that Cambodia would place a higher importance on the life of animals. Though they often use animals for important sacrifices to their spirits, this is understandably an honor killing.

The recreation of blasting chained cows, however, appears antithetical in a culture where the dominant religion is often vegetarian. Theravada monks, in fact, were only permitted to eat pork, chicken, and fish, and only if the monk knew the animal was not killed specifically for them. Still others are vegetarian entirely.

Thus, it appears that rather than a religiously sanctioned activity, this tourist activity is not representative of mainline Cambodian culture. Nonetheless, it still occurs with relative frequency in the formerly war-torn nation.

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Creation Guides the World All the Way Down

By Craig Axford | United States

According to Buddhist teachings, life is Dukkha, which is commonly translated as suffering or being unsatisfactory. The source of this underlying dissatisfaction is our attachment to particular things, concepts, or even our own identity (self). Find a way to let go of the attachments and the suffering will disappear as well.

Creation is often paired with the act of destruction. The economist Joseph Schumpeter described destruction as an essential component of capitalism’s creative process. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy he wrote, “Displacement of existing managements is an important, perhaps the most important, part of the show.” Indeed it is.

But it is more accurate to describe creation as transformational rather than the destruction of the preexisting order. Destruction, in truth, is an illusion that arises from our attachment to the status quo, and that attachment, the Buddha would point out, is the source of much personal and social woe.

Seeing life as a series of losses — one destruction after another — requires us to narrow our focus to the object, person, or concept in question. In other words, seeing the world as fundamentally destructive rather than creative and transformative necessitates a refusal to see things in context.

If we imagine a tree falling in a forest, we can see the tree’s plunge to the earth as its death or destruction only if we concentrate our attention on the tree alone. However, if we see the tree in context we realize its fall created an opening in the forest, a new habitat for creatures, fungi, and bacteria that will make the dead wood their home and consume it over time. Ultimately these will transform the wood to mulch that will foster renewal and new growth. In other words, the death of a tree is merely transformative. It is only destructive if one had an attachment to the tree itself without any regard for the system it belongs to.

This type of contextual thinking not only allows us to see the world as transformational but empowers us to become better participants in the process of creation itself. “Creativity does not happen when we withdraw from the material world,” says the travel writer Eric Weiner in The Geography of Genius, “but, rather, when we engage with that world, and all its messiness, more authentically and more deeply than we are accustomed.”

Openness and engagement nourish the creative process by liberating us from the clinging the Buddha warned against, and from judgments which ultimately skew our perspective. “For creative people,” Weiner continues, “it matters not whether their surroundings are good or bad. They derive inspiration from both, taste the salt in all things. Everything is a potential spark.”

Ideology and attachment are blinders that narrow our vision. Through them, we become one-dimensional thinkers who too often default to what seems intuitively true from our limited viewpoint. By seeing things in their larger context rather than individually we begin to approach others, objects, and ideas obliquely.

Obliquity is the opposite of the direct linear approaches that we often take in the interest of speed and efficiency. It is the recognition that inspiration doesn’t just come from one direction. It can come from anywhere, including sources that have no obvious connection to the problem we are considering. There is a greater tolerance for error when we see things obliquely because experimentation is part of the process. The economist John Kay put it this way:

In general, oblique approaches recognise that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with one another, and that we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery. Oblique approaches often step backward to move forward.

Destruction is an illusion not because things don’t really change, or even disappear entirely from our lives. It’s an illusion because we believed them to be immutable in the first place. We refused to see change rather than permanence as the process that underlies everything, including ourselves. It’s just a continual process of creation all the way down, a creation generally missed by the human eye.

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent, when they are not.” From this perspective, even death is just another turning of the wheel. Sooner or later every tree in the forest falls, creating a new opening for fresh light to shine in.


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Other stories by Craig that you may enjoy:

Essentialism: The Mother of All Linear Thinking

Craig Axford | United States

There are some feelings

we just can’t think our way out of or ignore until they go away. A case in point is the conviction that we all carry with us that we have a core or essence — a certain je ne sais quoi that makes us who we are.

From this false sense of self we extrapolate to the world around us. If we have an essence that we can be reduced to, then just about everything and everyone else has the same quality. There is one fundamental thing that gives virtually everything in the universe its particular character. Even if we can’t put our finger on it, it’s there.

From this perspective essentialism isn’t so much a philosophy as it is an attitude. It’s an attempt to take our point of view and build a justification to back it up rather than an effort to better understand the world as it really is.

… the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future.” ~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Our environment consists of complex systems — ourselves included — that have many necessary parts but no sufficient ones. Each is carrying out a number of processes that react dynamically to other processes going on both within the system itself and within the larger world. Finding an essence in this pea soup of moving parts and feedback loops isn’t so much like looking for a needle in a haystack as it is like trying to find the butterfly in China that caused the hurricane in the Caribbean. It turns out there was an awful lot that had to go right from that hurricane’s perspective between the flapping of the butterfly’s wings and its development into a storm. Take away any one of them and you end up with something weaker than a hurricane, or maybe even nothing at all.

Furthermore, why stop with the butterfly? Before it there was a caterpillar, so the caterpillar, not the butterfly, must be the fundamental (i.e. first) cause of the hurricane. But we can’t consider the caterpillar without considering everything that went into making it, can we? And so on, and so on…

. . .

Essentialism is defined as “The principle or theory that any entity such as a person, group, object, or concept has innate and universal qualities.” The online sociology dictionary from which this definition was pulled gives as an example “a person is born gay.”

Homosexuality is an interesting choice, given it’s relatively easy to dismiss sexuality as an example of a “universal” quality, even if it is demonstrably innate. Let’s consider for a moment some of the varieties of human sexuality: heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, & asexual. These can refer to preferences, behaviors, or both. The preferences may be strong, even absolute and inflexible in some people, while being weaker in others. A person who is very sexual in their teens and 20s may be largely asexual in their later years, or visa versa.

But if the quality of being universal is relatively easy to challenge, what about innateness? Certainly it is pretty well established at this point that homosexuality is genetic, isn’t it? There definitely is strong evidence that homosexuality, at least in most cases, has a biological basis. But then again sexuality in general has a biological basis, so attributing it to biology isn’t really saying much. Regardless, it’s not clear why identifying a gene(s) or other physical trigger with a particular behavior or preference qualifies as uncovering something essential about a person.

It is precisely because people exhibit a variety of sexual preferences and behaviors that no single one of them can be essential to being human. It follows then that no physical cause we might correlate with these behaviors will be essential either. Regardless, there are certainly instances of homosexuality (and heterosexuality, etc.) out there where the biological indicators of a different preference are present to at least some degree. In such cases we have to conclude that cultural, psychological and/or other environmental factors played a role. These cases cloud the either/or choices genetic/biological essentialism attempts to force upon us even further.

Photo by Audi Nissen on Unsplash

Essentialism doesn’t just fail to find something universal, let alone necessary, in particular expressions of sexuality. Differences in our physical abilities likewise reveal the weakness of linear essentialist thinking when it comes to human identity.

We are, with very very rare exceptions, born with two legs and arms, ten toes and fingers, etc. These features of the human body are, most definitely, innate. Bipedalism and opposable thumbs are two features we use to distinguish ourselves from other species. If essentialism was to find a home anywhere, surely it would be in these truly innate universal traits.

As it turns out losing a limb or limbs, while having a profound physical impact upon a person’s body, does not impact upon the essential humanity of the person suffering the loss. Indeed, thanks to advances in medical and other technologies these losses, though still traumatic, are arguably less significant now than they have ever been.

As I was completing this piece, the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking died. If anyone proved the essence of a human being does not reside in a healthy fully functioning body, he did. Hawking spent more than five decades crippled by the debilitating illness known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Yet in spite of being unable to move his limbs and having to rely upon sophisticated technology to communicate, his mind remained sharp. Indeed, few in history rivalled his capacity to transform the way we think about the universe.

. . .

So what does it mean to be essentially human, or anything else? Is there one component or quality that a person, group, or object can be reduced to that defines their essence?

In his book Scale, the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West puts the problem this way: “Because the essence of any measurable quantity cannot depend on an arbitrary choice of units made by human beings, neither can the laws of physics.”

West wasn’t talking about essentialism in a sociological or philosophical context, but still his point is well taken. If anything can arguably be described as the essence of a thing, it cannot be “an arbitrary choice” by humans that we depend upon to define it. In physics a good example is an object’s mass. Mass doesn’t vary according to whether we are using kilograms or pounds to articulate it. The unit of measurement is referring to something that is invariant and should not be mistaken for the thing (i.e. mass) it is referring to.

Can humans be reduced to a single invariant quality? Can other species for that matter? Keep in mind we are talking about an invariant quality, not biological processes that follow the same scaling laws regardless of species or environment. Do we even want such an unmovable center at the heart of our complexity given the implications that follow from it for things such as choice, resilience, and openness to new experiences?

. . .

The effort to reduce human beings to as few data points as possible, with one being the obvious if unobtainable ideal, has taken on new urgency in the age of big data. That correlation does not equal causation has not stopped marketers, corporations, and governments from correlating the hell out of us. With every click or swipe they make new assumptions about our personalities and preferences. By nudging us in that direction with the next ad or search result that appears on the screen algorithms seek confirmation through their own self reinforcing feedback loops.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, if there’s one thing humans can’t be objective about it’s themselves. But even if we could, somehow, find a magic place from which to cast an unbiased eye over our own experiences (collective as well as individual), it’s hard to imagine finding from that transcendent perch a single essential thing at the core of the human experience from which every other aspect of our existence could be understood and predicted.

The gene won’t do. The more we learn about genetics the more mutable the gene becomes. The relatively new field of epigenetics has revealed that changes take place in gene expression over our lifetime which even have implications for future generations not exposed to the original environmental trigger. These impacts are in addition to the usual mutations that play a key role in both disease and evolution.

Likewise, the brain has proven itself to be incredibly modular and plastic. Finding something essential there is a quixotic endeavor in light of this fluidity. Attempting to pin the essential tail on the existential donkey when the donkey in question is different from one day to the next at the cellular, organ, and experiential level isn’t just difficult. It’s an exercise in futility.

. . .

Essentialism is a product of our tendency to categorize things in our environment and to draw clear lines between these categories that connect a supposed cause to an actual effect. Historically these lines have often been fantastic, leading to all manner of superstitions and myths being offered up as explanations for everything from the weather to illness.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” ~ John Muir

But with the possible exception of the most fundamental forces in nature connections are rarely few and linear. As systems become more complex, the list of influences contributing to a particular outcome grows creating a web of variables that no algorithm or supercomputer can possibly deal with entirely, let alone comprehend.

This isn’t to say life is just too complex for us to get closer to the truth of the matter. However, it is to say we can’t get very close to the truth by thinking in simple linear terms the way essentialism invites us to. Essentialism is the easy way out.

As Andrew Shtulman put it in his book Science Blind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, “Essentialist construals of genetic information are neither accurate nor productive, but they are an enduring obstacle to how we interpret such information because essentialism is our universal starting point for thinking about inheritance.” Shtulman concludes, “Even geneticists were once preschoolers intent on imbuing the biological world with discrete, immutable essences.” That isn’t just true of genetics and future geneticists playing in the preschool sandbox, but of virtually every area of human inquiry and everybody else. Fostering greater tolerance for nuance and uncertainty may not be as reassuring or intuitive as essentialism, but in the long run it’s by far our best bet.

Photo by Tiago Gerken on Unsplash

Other recent articles by Craig: Are You Getting Enough Awe in Your Experiential Diet? & This Darwin Day Let’s Remember Evolution is About Kinship Too

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