2011年2月28日 星期一

The Black Swan

Last Saturday felt a bit strange. Instead of my usual talks or concerts, I went to a movie theatre. After some initial hiccups, I was in time for the opening film of the 2010 Venice Film Festival, Darren Aronsky's The Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis.

It was a psychological drama. The film opens with a ballet rehearsal. Thomas Leroy ( Vincent Cassel) was trying to select a female dancer to play the Swan Queen, who would dance both as the White Swan and the Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake to premiere in New York. Nina Sayers (Oscar winning best actress Natalie Portman) danced a perfectly graceful, elegant and innocent White Swan and was then asked to dance a sensuous, cunning and evil Black Swan. She failed. Thomas said she was too rigidly perfectionist. She lacked the Black Swan's passion and sensuous abandon.  She tried again and again, but somehow was still too controlled. She was told she wouldn't be given the role of the Black Swan. She returned home disconsolate and was seen being welcomed by his solicitously controlling mother  Erica (played by Babarba Hershey), a failed ballerina who gave up her career to have her and who meticulously micro-managed her life so that she might serve as her alter ego, hoping thereby to bask in the kind of kind of glory forever denied her. She bought for her daughter her favourite strawberry birthday cake, with creamy flowers, candles and all. Nina said she didn't feel like it. The moment she heard that, her face turned black. She rushed to the garbage bin and made as if to throw the entire cake away, blazing her her eyes in Nina's direction with a barely disguised venom. Nina yielded and took a piece. 

Next we are shown Nina in front of her mirror in the dressing room. We see some scratch marks at her back above her right shoulder blade. She tried to cover it with powder. She continued to work hard, dancing until lights out at the studio to perfect her moves. In the meantime, we see another dancer, a newcomer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis). She also danced the part. She had a natural sensuousness but not Nina's perfection. Thomas said she was a natural for the Black Swan. An intense rivalry developed as the time neared for the announcement of the role. Nina thought she would lose to Lily because she bit Thomas when he tried to seduce her with a kiss after advising her to masturbate herself to relax herself. To her surprise, Thomas chose her perhaps because of her potential for violence and recklessness beneath her calm and controlled exterior. She was presented to the world as the new Swan Queen at a New York benefit ball at the same time as the annoucement of the retirement of the existing prima donna Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who got drunk and falsely accused Nina winning the role by having sex with Thomas and then proceeded to have a traffic accident for which she was hospitalized. Nina visited her idol in hosptial but was met coldly. To get herself into the role, she followed Thomas advice and started to touch herself in bed and in the bathtub.

Next we are shown Lily encouraging Nina to relax a bit with her at a disco-bar in which she was offered drugs and the chance to have sex with some gay or other men they met there just shortly before the opening night  She first rejected to do so but later relented. For the first time felt really relaxed but when she was home, she was met with an angry mother for coming home late. For the first time, Nina flew into a rage and swept the ballerina musical alarm clock on to the floor and shut herself in her room and fantasized having sex with Lily. When she came to, she was told by her mother that the latter had already informed the ballet company that she was sick. Nina immediately rushed out to the ballet theatre, only to discover that Lily was rehearsing her part and was told by Thomas that he must have a standby just in case. But she was determined that she would dance the part of the Black Swan.

The night just before the opening night. She continued to perfect her steps and saw/hallucinated Lily having sex with the Thomas to get her role and that that her toes had become webbed like a real swan and she had to detach them. Before going home, she visited Beth in hospital. and told her that all through the years, she adored Beth as her idol and that she found Beth perfect in the way she danced that that all she ever wanted to do was to imitate her. To her surprise and horror, Beth stabbed her own face with a nail file in a fit of jealousy, despair and impotent anger. She left dazed. When she arrived home, she saw herself in the mirror and discovered her face covered in blood but in Beth's dress. She rushed to the toilet, vomitted and when she went into her mother's room, she saw the pictures hanging there melted and the figures there oozed out like ghosts, mocking her and that the scratches on her shoulder blade had reddened even more and when she touched it, she found that it had grown some barbed feather quills in black which she slowly pulled out, her eyes became blood-shot and her legs had turned into those of a swan!

When Nina awoke the following morning, she was told by her mother that she had reported her sick to her company. She immediately rushed out back to the theatre only to to discover Lily dancing her part.  She insisted on dancing the part herself. She danced the White Swan perfectly until she hallucinated and was dropped by the Prince. She recovered an continued dancing and got a standing ovation. She rushed back into the dressing room, only to find Lily already dressed for the part of the Black Swan. She struggled with her and stabbed her stomache with the shard of the broken mirror. She hid Lily's body and rushed back to the stage and danced the Black Swan with complete abandon and sensuality. She felt that she had sprung black wings from her shoulder blades. She got a thunderous reception. Back at the stage, everybody congratulated her and she kissed Thomas on her own accord. She went back to the dressing room. Lily came in to congratulate her on her magnficent dance as the Black Swan. Then she realized that she had stabbed herself, not Lily! She covered the wound and went back on stage and danced perfectly as White Swan. As the White Swan, she fell to her suicidal death as the role required, to tumultuous applauses. When Thomas and the other dancers approached to congratulate, they discovered that she was all covered in blood. She was happy. The film ended with her dying gasp, "I felt it! Perfect. I was perfect"!"

Indeed, Natalie Portman was perfect. She showed the rigidity required of her in her dance movement in the first part and the sensuousness and evil in the final sequence. She actually studied ballet several months for this role! Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis were also wonderful respectively as an autocratic and talented artistic director of the American Ballet Company and a half friendly and half jealous "alternate" or surrogate prima donna. To increase the dramatic impact, the film was shot with plenty of close ups on Portman's face, eyes, and parts of her body. The fate of Nina was aptly symbolized by the bedside toy ballerina alarm clock bought by her manipultive mother and its banishment to the floor her spoke eloquently in images of the breaking of her mother's spell on her as mummy's sweet little girl. The loud and harsh sound of the music, however, was a bit more appropriate for rock music of the disco scene than the ballet scenes. The film brought out well, in a surrealistic manner, how the kind of concentation, commitment and dedication to art of some dancers strove for in their quest for artistic perfection can really possess the artist's soul, how they force her to delve into the deepest part of her soul, dredge out therefrom those murky forces which years of civilized elegance has managed to represss and hide from even herself and forge in the crucible of her psyche a kind of spine chilling splendor which finally explodes with passionate abandon into the beautiful movements of her dance in all its dark and sensuous magnificence. The emotional power of those majestic black wings as they rapidly expanded across the screen in all its evil glory is still lingering in my mind even as I am writing!

2011年2月26日 星期六

Weekend Fun

It's wekend. But the sky is overcast again. We need something to brighten it up. What better than another joke. So here it is:

       A young man was driving home late one afternoon in his new sports car.

      He looked in his rear mirror and saw a police car. "Surely, I can outrun this guy".

      So he steppped on the gas pedal. The cars were racing down the highway at 75, then 80 then 90 miles an hour. Finally, as the needle on his speedometer flicked past the 100 mark, the guy realized he was never going  to shake off the cop. So he slowed down and pulled over to the kerb.

      The police officer got out of his cruiser, approached the young man , leaned down, ticket book and pen in hand and said "Listen mister, it's Friday. I've had a really lousy day but I'll be off duty in just about 10 minutes flat. My buddies will be waiting for me at the pub. Just give me a good excuse which I haven't heard in my 30 years career so that I can  join them in time, OK? "

     The man thought for a moment and said, "Sir, you see,  my wife ran off with a police officer three weeks ago. When I saw your cruiser in my rear view mirror, I thought you were that officer and that you were trying desperately to return her to me!"

     The police officer was in the pub 10 minutes later.

Happy pubbing!

2011年2月25日 星期五

The Irrational Man

As a result of reading first one and then another book on Zen (or Chán) Buddhism, I found that I could not really do so unless I understand a little more about Buddhism in general and Chinese Buddhism in particular and so I extended the scope of my reading accordingly. At the end of two days of such reading, I found that no matter whether it is early Buddhsim, whether it is Hinayana (Theravada) or Mahayana (of which Zen (Chán) Buddhism forms part), whether it is Sanlun (三論宗) or Tiantai (天台宗), whether it is Fayan (華嚴宗) or Linji Chán(臨濟禪宗) or Caodong (曹洞禪宗), they all attempt to deal with the problem of human suffering on a rational basis. Whilst it is possible to do so, those who succeed must remain an extremely small minority because they tend to devote all their energies towards an understanding of the functioning of human mind and human emotions and aim to control human emotions through the human mind by way of constant meditation and ritual practice, not through the empirical study of human pyschology nor of giving vent to them within proper bound.  The Chinese religious experience is thus very different from that in the Christian West which through its peculiar historical development is still largely based on two different traditions: the rational tradition which went back to Plato and another minor esoteric tradition through Gnostic mysticism. But whether in the East or in the West, whether the tradition is religious or secular, they share one thing in common: they all purport to deal with the problems of human existence. So last night, when my eyes roamed upon the cover of a book which I bought a long long time ago, I picked it up again and tried to get another perspective on the problem. The book is William Barrett's The Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1962).

In Part 4 of the book, entitled Integral Vs Rational Man, Barrett drew attention to what I think a fairly important point: the need not to neglect our emotions in our concept of the ideal man. It is chapter 11 of the book under the title "The Place of the Furies". Existentialism, different from traditional philosophy, seeks to bring into philosophy the experience of the whole man, as a concrete individual in the context of everyday life, and not man as merely his brain in the manner of a Descartes or in a slightly different way, a Plato (or in the words of Barrett, of "man as an epistemological subject--as an intellect that registers sense-data, makes propositions, reasons, and seeks the certainty of intellectual knowledge") but "as the man underneath all this, who is born, suffers and dies."  

Barrett thinks that Western philosophy since Descartes has until the rise of Existentialism, been rooted in the values of the age of Reason or Age of Enlightenment and thus has largely ignored the unpleasant aspects of life which are treated, like the Furies, as hostile forces from which we could escape, by conveniently denying that they exist or if their existence is acknowledged, by ignoring or neglecting them as if they did not or if they did not ignore them, they would then try to suppress them, repress them or manipulate them with a view of vanquishing them. He notes that it is by no means an accident that depth or gestalt psychology, came into prominence in the same period as Existentialism: when the unconscious has forced itself upon our attention. But this is not the first time that man is forced to deal with the problems of his irrational emotions. Right at the dawn of modern history, the Greeks have already gone through a similar experience. Clyemnestra killed her husband Agamemnon and Apollo, the masculine god of reason, directed her son Orestes to avenge his father's murder. Orestes killed his father but was immediately set upon by the Furies, the old matriarchal goddesses of the night and of the earth in charge of protecting the blood line for his having committed the most heinous crime imaginable: patricide.  In the last play of Aeschylus' trilogy, Eumenides, the Olympian gods themselves were divided, with Apollo protecting Orestes against the Furies and the jury gathered on top of the Acropolis to decide whether to set Orestes free or to hand him over to the Furies.  At the beginning of the play, the Pythian priestess told the average citizens that the first prophetess or seer among the gods was old Mother Earth herself and it was only later that Apollo came to occupy the temples of the oracles throughout Greece. There was a tie in the votes of the citizens and according to the rule, Orestes was allowed to go.The crucial vote leading to the tie was cast by Athena herself, a female war goddess but the Furies had to be placated by being told that every child born of woman shall be born into their protection. Athena herself was born out of the brain of Zeus and therefore in giving this concession to the Furies, she was acknowledging that they are older and wiser than she. The Furies must be given their just dues and respect. They are the dark side of human life. There are no less holy than Apollo, the god of reason. We may be the children of Apollo but we are no less the children of the Furies.

We may praise and revere our reason, our enlightenment, our rationalism, our science, our technology but we must never forget that we are born of flesh and blood and that we share with the ape 99.99% of our genes. We may fly up to 30,000 above the earth in our huge jumbo jets. Yet, at some point, the jet must land and we must still walk on our two feet, not as we used to do, on fours, upon that same ancient but no less solid, chaotic but life giving earth. Barrett wonders: "how precariously situated these reasonable ideals are ( referring to our ideals of liberalism and rational view of life) in relation to the subterranean forces of life and how small a segment of thw ehole and concrete man they actually represent?"  We must recognize that at the very heart of the light of reason is a darkness, the darkness of our animal nature. To ignore this existential fact may be what he calls "the final error of reason--the point at which it succumbs to its own hubris and passes over into its demoniacal opposite, unreason--to deny that the Furies exist or to strive to manipulate them out of existence. Nothing can be accomplished by denying that man is an essentially troubled being, except to make more trouble." Barrett warns us" "We may, of course, be able to buy off the Furies for a while; much longer than the rational consciousness that would entirely supplant them, and so they can afford to wait. And when they strike, more likely than not, it will be through the offending faculty itself. It is notorious that brilliant people are often most dense about their own human blind spot, precisely because their intelligence, so clever in other things, conceals it from them."

To Barrett, "The conspiracy to forget them or to deny that they exist, thus turns out to be only one more contrivance in that vast and organized effort by modern society to flee from the self."  We must give the Furies their due. If not, we ourselves shall reap the whirlwind!

2011年2月24日 星期四

Sheng Yen on Making Distinctions

Read another chapter of Sik Sheng Yen (釋聖嚴)'s Zen (Chán) and Enlightenment (禪與悟) last night. During the process, something very peculiar happened. Before reading it, I was thinking that I would like to read something on the tendency our mind to always valorise things and for that purpose always to try to distinguish between different phenomena and classify them under  appropriate thought categories. When I opened the book at random, my eyes were met with the words " 有分別與無分別" on page 197 of the book, precisely on that subject! It's another example of what Jung describes as serendipity! Does our mind have the ability to subconsciously motivate our body to do precisely what we truly desire without our being conscious of it? Whatever the truth may be, I carried on reading and got some helpful guidance.

Sheng Yen started by saying that "making distinctions" is a kind of knowledge and an ability without which the world may appear to be confused but that the aim of the Buddhist Dharma is to lead us from a tendency to make distinctions of every phenomena towards a state of mind free or liberated from such a tendency and to have what he calls a "liberated mind" (解脫心).

To the Buddha, our troubles and distresses (煩惱) start from our tendency to always make distinctions and to focus on the differences between things and because of this, we are trapped within samsara or the endless cycles of life and death. (輪廻) and that is why we endlessly think either that others owe us or we them and thus create numberless relationships of gratefulness (恩) and hatred, enmity or resentment (怨) or karmic debt (業賬). Thus when some say that there are more unhappy events than happy ones in this life, they think that that is because there is less good nidanas (善緣) and more bad nidana (惡緣) such that when we encounter each other, we do more things to harm each other than in helping one another. To Sheng Yen, the more fundamental cause of such bad relations can be found in our habit or tendency to make distinctions between what is good and what is bad. 

However, our tendency or habit of making fine distinctions between things and phenomena is not necessarily all bad because all the progress we make in our material welfare starts from this ability to classify and categorize things to enable us to isolate them and to study them more closely and to trace and discover various chains of cause and effect between them. The trouble is that for the ordinary folk, everything starts from a particular concept of our "self". We do everything which we think will advance our personal interest. This is the source of our suffering. We also need to think of the interests of the others too. Here the term "others" refer to everything which is "not self" ie. other people and things (family, community, nations, other plants and animals and the universe in a hierarchy of categories of different scale). We must realize that everything we find in this world is the result of the interaction of a huge number of causes and effects in a network of causal relationships (因緣和合) some of which we know and can control and some of which we are ignorant and cannot control.

According to the Diamond Sutra (金剛經), the aim of Buddhism is to arrive at a state in which we no longer make any further distinctions between what is "me", what is "human", what is "everything" and what is "age". (無我相,無人相,無眾生相,無壽者相), the first three relating to space, the last relating to time. To the Buddha, once we start to distinguish between and within space and time, we start getting attached to such distinctions becasue so often they are helpful but once we get attached to them, we invite trouble at a deeper level. Once we get attached to anything, whether big or small, whether in whole or in part, whether we get attached to being or to nothingness, whether we get attached to what we regard as the truth or as falsehood, we fall into the trap of making distinctions within the realms of space and time and we start getting into trouble and we shall suffer accordingly.

Often, worldly wisdom and even some religions or secular moral philosophy get stuck at the level of urging us to take care of the interests of others: our family, our group, our society, our nation, the world etc., thinking that doing so is better than not doing so. We cannot say that that is wrong. But according to Buddhism, that is not going far enough. If we wish to radically banish all sufferings, we must start to root out the source of such sufferings at an even more fundamental or basic level ie. at the level of our tendency or habit of wanting to make distinctions in the first place. Even if we think more about the interest of others, we are still attached to the hidden or unspoken assumption that there is a distinction between "us" and "not us" or "them" or the "not-self". To Sheng Yen, the "big/greater-self" (大我) is a concept to philosophers, an identification experience (認同和經驗) to an artist or a religious thinker and still falls within the world of "being",whether in the material, psychological or spiritual realm. To the Buddha, to be truly liberated, we must detach ourselves from attachment to this tendency to make a distinction between the "self" and the "non-self" and abolish, destroy and annihilate such a distinction. Only then shall we be truly liberated and can then freely and comfortably move in and out of the world of phenomena without suffering (離開分別執著的自在解脫).

To Sheng Yen, some practitioners think that they have arrived at the state of the abolition of the "self" when in reality they still make a distinction between what is "self" and what is "non-self" . They think that since they feel that they are at one with the others, with the universe, they have arrived at the state of nirvana. They have not. To the Buddha, there are two levels of "no-self" (無我). To the Hinayana/Theravada Buddhist, if they have succeeded in emptying the "other/self" and left the three realms and entered into the realm of nirvana, leaving behind their "self" and ignoring the "big self" and regard every phneomenon in the world as illusions of arising from the operation of the principles of co-dependent origination and enter the world of no-birth, no destruction and treat or identify the state or law of nirvana with their "self". (以世間一切現象為因緣生滅的虛幻, 以出世間的湼槃境界為不生不滅的真實。他們不執大我為我,卻以不生不滅的湼槃法為我). But to the Mahayana Buddhist, we must not get attached even to the dharma of nirvana and get rid and detach ourselves even from the need to make any distinction between the nirvana state and the non-nirvana state and detach ourselves even from the relationship beteween the self and the nirvana (法我空) and not treat the operation of the law of co-dependent origination in the secular world as true or real nor treat the dharma of nirvana as true or real either. That is the ultimate state or stage. To the Mahayana Buddhist, there is no need to avoid having to face the secular world and all that happens within that world and deal with them as they come so long as we do not get attached to any anything that happens in that world nor to any particular view of all that happens in that world  including even the need to avoid getting into the world of samsara and abiding always in the world of nirvana. If so, we can freely move inside and outside of that world of samsara because we realize that in the end, nothing matters that much! Only then can we arrive at the state of true buddhahood or enlightenment!

In my opinion, whilst the Buddha may be right in analyzing the tendency or habit of man to make distinctions as one of the most important causes of human suffering, I do not think there is very much we can do about it except to be constantly aware of that tendency through prolonged training in "mindfulness" through meditation practices and hope that in the process we will get less "attached" to such distinctions in the control of our emotions at all times when we are engaged in doing so.    

2011年2月23日 星期三

Kill the Buddha Whenever you See Him

Linji Chan master Yixuàn ( Rinzai Gigen)(臨濟義玄禪師) ( died circa 866 or 867) arrived at the Bear's Ear Tower (熊耳塔). The abbot of the tower asked him, "Should we worship ancestors or the Buddha first?" The Linji Chan master replied: "Neither ancestors nor the Buddha.". The Abbot asked: "Is there any unsettled issue between the Master and either ancestors or the Buddha? Why not worship them?" The Chan master was silent. At a later stage, he told his disciples: "If you wish to attain true Buddhist understanding, you should never allow yourself to be misled or mystified by others, whether you are facing outwards or inwards. Whenever you see the Buddha, you must kill the Buddha. Whenever you see ancestors, kill the ancestors. Whenever you see an arhat, kill the arhat. Whenever you see your parents, kill your parents. Whenever you see any relatives, kill the relatives. Only then shall you achieve true liberation." This is said to be written in the Records of Linji (Rinzi-roku). Linji's method is characterized by abrupt and harsh and unexpected reactions from him to his students. Linji learned from Master Huang PiShiYun who advocated the ideas that "the prajna shall be its roots; the nothing shall dominate being and that nothing and being shall merge into one another." 

This is one of the most famous Chan stories. A lot of people do not understand the meaning of this story and why the Chan master said or did what he said and did what he did. According to Dr. Chan Pui Yin, in his book "Biting Chan" (刁禪) (2006), a possible interpretation may be that the whole point of Buddhism is to teach people to be the master of their own fate. We do so by stages. First we realize that everything is an illusion in the sense that nothing lasts forever and hence can only be true provisionally. That includes not only material objects and images of important people in our lives like, in the Chinese society of that time, the paintings, busts or statues or ancestral tablets of  our ancestors and the Buddha. One of the hidden assumptions in the question of the abbot of Bear Ear's Tower is that both ancestors and the Buddha ought to be worshipped. The question he posed to the Chan master  related to the priority of who should be worshipped first. But the Chan master answered by questioning the legitimacy of the assumption behind abbot's question by suggesting that the concept of worship may itself be illegitimate because that goes against the principle of self-determination or the primacy of freedom and liberation from all forms of illusions and attachment which concept itself is a concept at the core of Buddhism viz. the idea that at the heart of existence is emptiness and the void . What is worshipped can be nothing but effigies, images, pictures or statues which are nothing but "representation" or "imitations" of the "real" beings (our ancestors or the Buddha), taken in a relative sense. In a true sense, our ancestors are dead. So is the Buddha. All we have are what has been reported about them, our own mental concepts of them. Why should we worship an image of an image, like a mirror image of an image in another mirror showing that first image?

At a deeper level, if one takes the act of worship as a symbolic act of respect of some people considered to be especially important in our lives then one can still question whether the values behind such an attitude or customs are conducive to the attainment of true freedom. Values are little but guiding principles for our action and may be learned or adopted by us and unreflectingly embedded or embodied in the actions we perform in our daily life. The values of according respect to our ancestors and for the Buddhist, to the Buddha are examples of such values. They are adopted by most people unthinkingly simply because it is the thing to do in the appropriate social contexts. The whole point of Chan practice is to make us mindful or aware of the true meaning of what we are doing at all time and to jerk us or shock or surprise us from the habitual stupor of our unthinking mind.  By giving a reply which questions the very basis upon which the question of priority of respect is grounded, the Linji Chan master is forcing the abbot to become more aware of what he is saying by turning his mind to a new angle of looking at old problems. Instead of answering the abbot at the level at which the abbot's question is posed, he turns his mind into a completely new and more fundamental level, the level of the need not to be guided by mere habits and accepted values and the normally or habitually but unthinkingly accepted "authority" of society or for the Buddhist,, even the "authority" of the Buddha himself. Ironically, it is precisely by questioning the need to worship the Buddha himself that the Chan master is following the teaching of the Buddha himself viz. his teaching that we should be aware or mindful of what we are doing at all times. One of the Buddha's teachings is that there are more than 8000 different ways of achieving enlightenment and that if one method does not work for us, we should have no hesitation in rejecting that method and adopt another and not to be attached to any one method. The Buddha wants to liberate us from our illusions, including the illusion that there are "authorities" whose words must be adhered to to the letter, even his own words. We should strive at all times to be the master of our own fate provided we are fully aware of the true meaning of what we are doing: that is the meaning of liberation or freedom from attachment because according to the Buddha, all forms of attachment are a source of stress and suffering.

Even in Chan theory, there are different levels of enlightenment. At the highest level, we should be free to do what may be prohibited under certain intermediate levels e.g the prohibition against alcohol, the prohibition against avarice, not saying the right word, doing the right thing and all kinds of so-called "moral rules". What we should keep at the top of our mind is the spirit of Buddhism and not its various specific embodied material forms. The Buddha advises us like Jesus not to stick to the forms or the letter of the law, but the spirit which lies at the heart of the law and for the Christian, that heart is the spirit of love and for the Buddhist, that heart of Buddhism is the spirit of non-attachment to mere forms based on its realization or insight that at the heart of the universe is nothingness or emptiness or the void. Jesus said something analogous. He said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Thus the true master of Chan can do anything so long as it conforms to that understanding of the ultimate illusionist character of reality, including so-called moral reality or values because he realizes that at the most fundamental level, so-called "distinctions" of values are little more than "mental" concepts which have no "reality" and can have nothing but relative values which must change according to the specific circumstances in which decisions must be made. We never know what reality or the "truth" is. All we see and are able to see are the forms of different "phenomena" which are like images of images of images ad infinitum. So it makes little sense to make too fine distinctions between them, at the most fundamental level, which remains unknown and are subject to constant changes and everything  has only a certain provisional reality or truth or rightness or appropriateness..

2011年2月22日 星期二

Hypnotism & Brainwashing

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on hypnotism after attending a talk on the subject. Last night, I attended another one on the relationship between hypnotism and brain washing at the UUHK. The talk was given by Jonathan Chui, a hypnotherapist.

According to Chui, one of the techniques used by various groups or people with special interest e.g. religious cults, empowerment training camps, sales promotion workshops, pyramid selling sessions etc. is concentrated indoctrination to produce value change (and hence behavioral changes) in conditions of physical, psychological and social isolation where participants are gathered together at a physical location e.g. in religious cult, at their place of worship at some out of the way small town or village, where they are advised or even prohibited to communicate with the outside world on the pretext that they should devote themselves whoeheartedly to their declared or previously accepted aims. This will cut down the chances of the participants being fed alternative information which may conflict with or contradict some or all of the ideas advocated by the leaders of the interest group.

Then usually, to entice the participants to join the group, the organizers or proselytizers will be extra "friendly" to the intended targets. The targets will often feel that they have been "accepted" and will often derive a certain emotional satisfaction of having met with others sharing similar aims. Coupled with this social and emotional acceptance as one of the members of this religious or ideological "inner circle" of the saved or specially "blessed" is a strong sense of group identity. Then they will systemmatically destroy the target's confidence in his former "self", convincing him that he is bad or otherwise incompetent or inadequate, unloved, unlovable and unwanted or misguided and should feel guilt about what he is and repent because of his faults and inadequacies and then offer to help and save him. They make him feel tired and then confused as to who and what he is and then suggest an alternative. The corollary of this is the inculcation in them, after their conversion, of a sense that they are "different" from "the others": the "outsiders" which are often viewed as the bad, evil , damned or at least "unenlightened" or even potential enemies and thus to be treated with suspicion or hostility or at least indifference or pity. They will usually make clear distinctions between "them" and "us", those outside and those inside. They will often play upon the target's hopes and desires for favourable outcomes and fear of loss, of being abandoned to fend for themselves or not being saved unless they accept their doctrine (e.g the concept of heaven and happiness and hell and eternal punishment and the like.) .

There is usually a systemmatically constructed "ideology" which purports to simplify complex and difficult problems and issues to a few essential core ideas which are then offered as a panacea and a definitive and asbolutely guaranteed solution or answers to such problems as people may often encounter in their personal life and the adoption of which will free them completely from all  further doubts doubts or uncertainties. What Chui says seems to accord with what is said by Philip Zimbardo: "cult leaders offer simple solutions to the increasingly complex world problems we all face daily. They offer a simple path to happiness, success, to salvation by following their simple rules, simple group regimentation and simple total lifestyles. Ultimately, each new member contributes to the power of the leader by trading his or her freedom for the illusion of security and reflected glory that group members hold out.".There is often an initial plausibility to such an ideology. Thus religion purport to give answers to such questions as "why is there something rather than nothing?" , "what is the purpose and meaning of life, suffering and death?" "What must I do to be happy not just for the moment but forever or for all eternity?"   To facilitate the acceptance of such an ideology, there will often be specially and carefully prepared and manipulated occasions e.g. the event will often be hyped in advance so that the participants will expect to receive some ideas of great value to his or her personal life or a part or aspect of that life. The crucial pep talk will often be delivered by a charismatic and authoritative leader or speaker or guru who is able to argue or persuade with a mixture of reason, good will, charm and apparent sincerity for our own good, and would often claim to have special  knowledge and insight or inspiration or connection with some supernatural  being or some other authoritative figure and possess gifts ordinary folks do not. He will usually employ emotive language. Often he will give concrete examples of why his ideas work either through unverified episodes or in some cases he will call upon certain "witnesses" on to the stage to tell those present their "personal conversion experience", usually some otherwise perfectly "ordinary" person with whom the target can easily identify. Such testimony may either be true or false or partly both and is often a mixture of fact and fiction or wishful thinking or superstition.

To get the target to accept the correctness of their ideology, the brainwasher will often ask at the  participant at the start certain "trap questions" which are multi-barrel questions containing many hidden presuppositions or hidden assumptions so that once the participant answer in the positive or negative, they will have implicitly accepted the hidden assumptions and be committed to certain positions which the brainwasher intends the participants or target to accept and they will then follow with other loaded questions which the target will be forced to accept because of their previous acceptance of their presuppositions and assumptions because the latter follow logically or are a necessary consequence of the acceptance of the prior assumptions. The manipulators will thus lead the target further and further into accepting their pre-set positions. To facilitate such acceptance, the target will be often subjected to continuous physical and psychological strain or duress e.g long hours of programmed activities so that their body will be physically tired or exhausted to such an extent that they are dying to be relieved of further stress by getting that much needed rest, so much that they will say they "accept" the manipulator's ideas. In brainwashing camps, the "prisoners" will often be physically assaulted or deprived of food, water and sleep and subjected to all forms of physical torture or long sessions of interrogative bombardment until their wills break down. This also happens to some extent in all empowerment camps and in some "religious camps" or "workshops". This type of practice also happens in army training camps and even some corporate induction courses for the newly recruited: the aim being order, power or money. 

From the above, we can see that similar "brainwashing techniques" are constantly being employed in milder forms either alone or jontly with some or all of the other techniques in church gatherings or religious revivalist meetings e.g the use of an ideology which has the appearance of some plasuibility (all men are imperfect, guilty, sinful and have a need to be delivered from their suffering but there is a solution: belief in God or some other magic formula) which purports to give instant easy answers to complex problems (trust in God), isolation (at least during the religious worhsip session), charismatic leader ( persuasive preacher able to tailor his words to the reactions of his faithful) the importance and the emotional impact of which may sometimes be reinforced by certain specially performed "rites" or "rituals" , ''witnessing" by other faithfuls, claims of "miracles" (often playing upon the common folks' lack of knowledge of the principles of operation of the laws of probability and the calculation of odds, abetted by the "recency effect" whereby we tend to place undue emphasis on something which has just occurred recently by wrongly attributing false cause and effect relation to certain things which just happen to occur by chance at the same time and which otherwise have no cause-effect relationship at all e.g the farmer waiting for another rabbit to hit a particualr tree after having personally witnessing a rabbit hitting against that tree), the fostering of a sense of identity of the "saved", and the shutting out of contrary opinion or doubts as the work of the "devil" or the result of our "sins". Is religion not a form of brainwashing or self-hypnosis or a socially acceptable form of large scale "self-hypnosis" by its adherents? Is the efficacy of religion not a kind of "placebo" effect or "self-fulfilling prophecy"?

According to my research, the term "brainwashing" in fact was first used in 1950 and then later by an American Edward Hunter, an ex-CIA agent and later journalist to refer to way the Chinese systematically break down the will of American prisoners of wars captured in the Korean War in the 1950s so that they "realized" and admitted how wrong they were and would willingly work for the cause of socialism. It refers to certain kinds of technique for mind or thought control, coercive persuasion, principally dehumanizing and physically and pyschologically abusive and harassing treatments through propaganda and indoctrination and group social pressure. The purpose of brainwashing is to make the target conform to the desires and ideals of the manipulators so that the target's mind, emotions, decisions and behavior conform to those set by the manipulators. Religion may thus be a form of mind control. William Walters Sargant e.g. thinks that the precursor of modern brainwashing technique was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and also certain other Catholics and Protestant preachers. The only difference is that religion purports to bombard a person with "love" for the "good"of the target and simultaneously exploit man's fear by emphasizing man's guilt for his past wrongs. But we know how many crimes have been committed in the name of "love" of a person's "soul" e.g. physical and psychological torture, burning of witches during the Spanish Inquisition in the Middle Ages and more recently in  Salem witch hunt in Massachusetts in late 17th century. Brainwashing according to psychologist Philip Zimbardo aim to distort, modify perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavior of the target or victim. Robert Ciadini argues that mind control is possible through the covert exploitation of the rules governing the "normal" functioning of the human unsconscious in ordinary  human social interactions. But whatever may be the true causes or need for brainwashing techniques, their effects are seldom permanent. For those intestested, the phenomena has been studied first by Robert J Lifton, then later by such psychologists as Edgar H Schein, Donald Ewen Cameron, Abraham Maurits Meerlo, William Walters Sargant and Margaret Thaler Singer and Dick Anthony, sociologists Stephen Kent and Banjamin Zablocki. 

2011年2月21日 星期一

Mahler No. 6 in Hong Kong

Last Saturday was an important day for all Mahler fans in Hong Kong.  It was the evening of the long awaited Mahler No. 6, one of Mahler's most personal symphonies written by him at the height of his career as the head of the Vienna Opera following a string of successes of his previous symphonies, operatic productions and songs. He married in the singer Alma Schindler in1902, had his first daughter in 1903 and then started writing the first draft of his Symphony No. 6. And of course, by the time of its first formal premiere, he had a second daughter Anna, conducted his Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 5 and also produced Beethoven's Fidielio and started writing his Kindertotenlieder. The No. 6 was first performed on May 27, 1906 at Essen, an industrial town which later produced the tanks for WWI. It was said that the famous "blows of fate" in the symphony foretold the death of his daughter, his own heart disease and even the coming of the first world war. Whatever the truth of such so-called artistic premonitions, the No. 6 was a very remarkable symphony in many ways.

The symphony, nicknamed the Tragic Symphony and lasting a full 80 minutes, was rewritten a number of times, before and after its first performance in 1906, sometimes with 5 blows of fate, sometimes with three and sometimes with two, the version used in de Waart's Saturday concert. Edo de Waart had a sound box specially constructed with a window (I'm not sure if there are two because from the position I was sitting, I could not see the back of the oblong shaped box but I suspect it must be one, otherwise the sound would be dispersed) at the shorter end with a huge smaller oblong shaped wooden sledge hammer created purely for its sonic effect. The box drum was placed to the left hand side of the stage. Then there was the use of the cowbells the sound of which had to be produced sometimes off stage to create the impression of distance, as in the final movement. Finally, this is a symphony in which the brass winds and percussions were used to maximum effect, creating a most varied sonic landscape in contrast to those passages in which only one or a few instruments or sections of the orchestra was or were involved . No wonder my hi fi friends love this symphony and would frequently use it to test the capacity of their system to reproduce the sonic image of a full orchestra. I need not say what kind of dismay would appear on their faces each time they try to do so, no matter how expensive their systems, unless of course, their listening space is in excess of 1000 square feet and the speakers are correctly placed in relation to the relevant walls and there is appropriate matching of amplifiers and speakers with suitable digital and analog interconnect, speaker and power cables, appropriate anti-vibration devices like nails or pneumatic board to support the relevant  playback source, pre-amplifier and power amplifier and suitable sonic treatments to the walls of the room are added at the right places to improve the room accoustics and to remove unwanted booming and loss or addition of reflected high frequency sounds . 

The symphony opens with a very rhythmically in almost military fashion with strong opening which developed later into the so-called "Fate" theme and very far into the movement, the very soft and tender string "Alma theme" (Alma Schindler being the very attractive and colorful woman singer whom Mahler married and whom he made to promise to give up her career but who had torrid affairs with various artists in Vienna like Gustav Klint, his teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, the painter Oskar Kokoschka, the architect Walter Gropius whom she later married in 1915 after Mahler's death in 1911 and the writer Franz Werfel). Mahler then introduced the soft cowbells which he heard in the solitude of the mountains whilst he was composing the symphony to suggest the sound of the earth. Then we revert to the initial marching rhythm and the Alma theme and the movements ends on a heroic climax.

The second movement and the third movements, which were written first before Mahler wrote the other movements, were the Andante moderato and Scherzo, the first in , being very quiet, in complete constrast with the first movement in Allegro energico, ma non troppo but at its climax, the earth theme represented by the cowbells re-appears but the calm remains. The tempo kept on changing with its triple beats and it is said that Mahler was inspired by the wobbly walks of toddlers.

The third movement was in Eb major in 4/4 tempo again resumes the marching rhythm of the first movement but quickly develops into a climax with all kinds of sonic effects from the brass and the wood winds to imitate the play of little children according Alma, but the fate theme reappears to cast a dark shadow over their play.

The final movement in Allegro Moderato, in sonata form in C minor which later changed to A minor in 2/2 beat was the most dramatic. This is the movement in which the blows of fate, which Alma said, represents the death of the hero, appear in the form of the big wooden box drum, were intended to imitate the hacking of an axe. De Waart adopted the two-blow version.  It opens with shimmering strings and then a funeral theme appears but quickly rises to a climax in which the blows of fate were struck, after which the movement continues with reminisences of earlier themes including those of the cowbells and the symphony ends not in a climax but in the quiet sounds of A minor from the strings.

The HKPO gave a magnificent performance under de Waart and they got some well deserved applauses from the capacity concert crowd lasting nearly 5 minutes! This is a piece which requires perfect performance from each section of the orchestra and with military precision in the control of the sound of their instrument but except for a few uncertain low brass notes, the HKPO gave its all. A wonderful concert experience which one can never never get from his hi fi system, no matter how good!

2011年2月20日 星期日

Zen Buddhism & Enlightenment

I remember that when I was doing a special paper on "Revolutions in history" at the university, one of the 4 revolutions I studied viz. the English, the American, the French Revolution and the Russian Revoluions, amongst the contributing causes of two of such revolutions viz. the American and the French Revolutions, certain ideas from the thinkers from a particular period in the history of Western civilization were considered quite important. These were the ideas on secular rationalism, on freedom, on equality and on the spirit of the law and of justice of John Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau. They were all classified as thinkers in the so-called Age of Enlightenment. But in philosophy and in religion, the word "enlightenment" has got a less specific meaning, It usually refers to the acquisition of certain kinds of "wisdom" of on how to live in such a way as to achieve a rather more reliable and a more permanent form of "happiness" or at least freedom from suffering at primarily the personal level. Last week, I attended another talk at the HKSHP where there is a book sale. One of the books I bought was one by a writer whom I first read some 30 odd years ago by the name of Sik Sheng Yen ( 釋聖嚴) (1931-2099), the founder of Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山), a Buddhist organization based in Taiwan devoted to the idea  combination of Buddhist theory and practice and the patriarch of two Zen Sects or Schools, being the 52nd descendent of Master Dongshan (洞山) (807-869) per Japanese method of reckoning) of Caodong )(Sōtō)(曹洞宗) and the 57th patriarch of Linji (Rinzai) (臨濟宗) and a 3rd generational descendant of Master Hsu Yun (虛雲大師) and the direct descendant of Master Dongchu (東初老人 )(1908–1977), a student of Master Taixu (太虛大師) who was the abbot of 鎮江曹洞宗定慧寺 and the 50th descendant of Dongshan Liangjie (洞山良價) but was also teaching at 臨濟宗常州天寧寺 and also ordained a monk at that sect's temple at 普陀山, and therefore a descendant of both sects.  

According to the Wikepedia, Sheng Yen, born Chiang Bao Hong (張保康) in Nantong Chiangsu, became an apprentice monk at 13, studied as apprentice monk again at 15 at 靜安寺, Shanghai and remained there until 1949, when he joined the Nationalist Army for the purpose of going to Taiwan to evade Communist rule and was engaged in communcations and later transferred to work at the Ministry of Defence because he was a good writer, attaining the left of lieutenant and at the end of 1959 he left army to become ordained as a monk again, engaged himself in solitary retreat from 1961-1968 in southern Taiwan to study the 4 āgama (四阿含經)(being Sanskrit and Pali for "sacred work" or "scripture", being a collection of early Buddhist scriptures of which there are five, which together comprise the various recensions of the Sutra Pitaka the early Buddhist schools. He studied the first four of them being Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourse) consisting of 34 suttas (discourses) (Pali digha = "long") consists of 34 suttas, including the longest ones in the Canon. The subject matter of these suttas ranges widely, from colorful folkloric accounts of the beings inhabiting the deva worlds to down-to-earth practical meditation instructions, and everything in between; the Majihima Nikaya (the Middle Length Discourses (Pali majjhima = "middle") consists of 152 suttas of varying length. These range from some of the most profound and difficult suttas in the Canon to engaging stories full of human pathos and drama that illustrate important principles of the law of kamma; Samyutta Nikaya (The "Grouped" Discourses) (Pali samyutta = "group" or "collection") consists of 2,889 relatively short suttas grouped together by theme into 56 samyuttas. and the Anguttara Nikya (the "Further-factored" Discourses (Pali anga = "factor" + uttara = "beyond," "further") consists of several thousand short suttas, grouped together into eleven nipatas according to the number of items of Dhamma covered in each sutta.The first five collections nikäyas of the Sutta Pitaka of the Theravada or Hinayana school's Pali Canon), then obtained a Masters Degree in 1971 and a Ph D in Buddhist Literature in 1975 at Rissho University (立正大學) of Japan, became abbot of the Nong Chan Monastery of Taiwan in 1979, founded the Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture in New York in 1980, founded the Chung-Hwa Buddhist Studies in Taipei in 1985 and the International Cultural and Educational Foundation of Dharma Drum Mountain in 1989, taught Buddhism in America and established the Chan Meditation Centre in Queens, New York and the Dharma Drum Retreat Centre at Pine Bush, New York in 1995 and taught widely in America, Europe and other Asian countries and thus help spread Buddhism in the West and gave dharma transmission to a number of lay western student like John Crook who later formed the Western Chan Fellowship with his other disciples like Simon Child, Max Kalin and Zarko Andricevic. He was formally designated the 57th descendant of Linji Sect in 1978 by 靈源. (1902-1988).  He became for 2 years the chief editor a Buddhist monthly Life  (人生月刋) founded by Master Taixu( 太虛大師), who advocated the idea that to be fully human is also to be a buddha (人成佛成) and Master 印順 who advocated  Buddhist Humanism (人間佛教)。When he died, he left a poem "Growing old in business about nothing, there are tears and laughter in in the void; Never having existed, life and death also can be left" (『無事忙中老,空裡有哭笑;本來沒有我,生死皆可拋。』)

The book I bought wass Zen and Enlightenment (禪與悟) (1991). I read the second chapter the title of which is the title of the book. It consists of 5 parts: definitions of Chan or Zen and of Enlightenment or Awakening, the deelopment of Zen, Chinese Chan and what is Enlightenment. 

To Sheng Yen, Zen is the dhyānā or calmness (有定), silent reflection or meditation (靜慮), training in thinking (思惟修) does not refer to thought itself but is a method whereby we use our heart (心) or attention to focus at all times on that method and to concentrate an otherwis wild mind upon that method such that each time our mind wanders , we return to that method to the end that there shall be a unity between our earlier and later thought. If we can break or abandon even this concentration, then what will appear is a state of self-lessness and mindlessness (無我無心 i.e. our true nature revealing itself (見性) or enlightened (開悟) or the 5th paramita of dhyānā.

Per Sheng Yen, there is a doctrine of catvā dhyānāni (四禪天) according to which, at the first stage, we are detached from the joys of life, at the second, we are calm at the joys of life, at the third, we are detached from the joy of joys and at the fourth we are detached from all ideas and are clean (初禪離生喜樂,ニ禪定生喜樂, 三禪離喜妙樂,四禪捨念清凈).  According to the Book 17 of Agana," at the first dhyānāni state, language is silenced and vanishes; at the second, perception and awareness are silenced and vanish; at the third zen, the sense of joy is silenced and vanishes and at the fourth zen, the breathing in and out are silenced and vanish". It is part of the four mind without qualities and 8 methods of liberation八解脫法門  practised in common between Buddhists and part of the basic training for 4 stabilization of the limitless heart  四無量心 ( ie. benevolence, compassion, joy, detachment 慈悲喜捨),phenomena or stability of complete extinction (滅盡定) or the stabilization of the realm of the 4 non-material realities (四無色定  i.e. emotion, will/intention, conduct, thoughts 受想行識 ). The Chan is thus the principal training method of Arhat of the Hinayana and of the Buddha ( See Digha Nikaya Books 4, 6, 12 and Maijihima Nikaya Books 1, 42 & 56). Sitting Chan or Zazen was first developed by the Hindu's Yoga masters and relied upon control of breath, sitting, adjustment of the body, adjustment of the mind in a sitting position and recitation of the word "Om" and fixation of the mind upon an object and has been recorded by the Upanishad. In Pali, it means to sit near, meaning to sit in such a way opposite to each other. The method is said to have originated when it was said in a 14th century text that at a Dharma talk, the Buddha held a flower, half closed his eyes and smiled and one of his disciples Mahākāśyapa (摩訶迦葉) understood what the Buddha meant. He is credited to be the first master of Chan. Thereafter, it was trasmitted 28 generations when Bodhidharma (菩提達摩) brought it to China and became the first Chinese Chan master and then passed through 5 generation until it went to Huineng (六祖惠能). Later it developed two branches Linji and Caodong (臨濟宗 and 曹洞宗) and in such form went to Japan which brought it to North America.

The word 悟 means "suddenly become aware" but in various usages, the word can be understood as "inspiration" or ""intuition" in art, like music, painting, literature where an artist relies upon an unusual method or knowledge not normally dependent on what he has been taught or learned nor entirely dependent on techniques he previously learned and in science, it is said of a new idea which occurred in flash to a scientist which he later verifies to be true. In philosophy, some ideas may occur to a philosopher or forced upon him during adversity eg. the intuition of conscience or what is good  致良知 was discovered by Wang YangMing  王陽明 when he was exiled to 貴州龍場. But in religion, some people claimed to have received an inspiration direct from some supernatural sources in a revelation, miraculous appearance, some with their eyes, others with their ears or through a dream but sometimes the relevant idea or message may have come to the recipient in a flash too such that after that the person's faith is reinforced. But from the point of view of Chan, all such occurrences are not considered instances of true 悟 which really means to become aware (覺) and such 悟 may occur in three forms. According to Hinayana, to have achieved first level of enlightenment or  悟, one must have weaned onself completely from avarice, anger, ignorance and pride (貪嗔癡慢) based upon the ego or self and arrived at the state of the arhat through learning the 4 noble truths, practising the 8 right ways and the 12 laws of cause and effect. (四聖諦,八正道,十二因緣法門) and become completely detached (破執) but only after going through 3 other stages will he arrive at the fourth Chan (四禪) when he has completely achieved full or complete enlightenment 徹悟 or 圓悟. But in Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva (菩薩)  which literally means "aware of those still affected by emotions" (覺有情) are called "aware of others" (覺他) because they wish everyone to be buddhas like themselves  like the Ksitigarbha (地藏菩薩) who vowed never to enter nirvana until all the beings in the universe are removed from the cycle of reincarnation. In general, bodhisattvas are divided into 52 classes and when they arrive at the 11th stage, they will regarded as having been enlightened or awakened only when they achieve buddhahood will they be considered to have achieved complete or full enlightenment or awakening (大圓滿) because the Buddha is self-aware, aware of others and aware of his completeness. (覺自覺他覺滿). However, in the Chan tradition, the word enlightenment has some special meanings. It refers to a state in which someone who does not have to go through all the usual stages and still arrive at the state of enlightenment through a sudden flash of thought under the direction of a wise master but may also refer to those who become completely enlightened after years of study. When they are at that state, their mind is empty, clear, unobstructed, spotless and as clear as the mind of Buddha but for the Buddha, that state is permanent whereas the ordinary person, he may have to be enlightened time and again. One Chan master said he experienced Big enlightenment 30 odd times, and countless small enlightenments. Therefore even in enlightenment, there are differences in speed, and in depth but the kind of enlightenment referred to in Chan is often sudden but still it is difficult to achieve complete enlightenment.

To Buddhist thought, Chan practice must be based on correct thinking 正見 ie. "諸行無常,諸法無我,湼槃寂靜" . The practitioner must observe the five prohibitions (五戒) ie. not to kill, steal, lust, slander drink; practice 10 good (行十善) ie. not to use excessive, ignorant words, gossip, foul language, sweet talk nor be greedy, angry or addicted), to purify their body, their mouth and their intentions or minds and to progress up to 9 levels including 4 levels at the level of material body (四色界) affecting only our emotions but not desire for sex and food, without women but still affected by color, 4 levels of non-material rality (四無色界) affecting only 受想行識, plus the stabilization of liberation of the arhat. (九次第定). But the arhat has two kind of liberation : liberation through stabilization ( 定解脫) but there is another way called enlightenment through wisdom (慧解脫). Methodologically, the practitioner must adopt the methods called 5 stablization of the mind (五停心) ie. counting breath, cleansing, causation, benevolence and compassion, division (數息,不淨,因緣,慈悲,界分). In addition, one must practise the four unfathomable hearts (四無量心) i.e. 慈悲喜捨 ( detachment from all forms of rigiditites) according to the 4 levels of material reality (色界)  and also through being constantly aware of 4 foci of attention (四念處) i.e. be aware that oour body may be impure (觀身不凈), that we are frequently subject to our emotions and thus subject to pians and suffering (觀受是苦), that our thoughts are irregular and unpredictable (觀心無常) and that we should forget our sense of "self" and concentrate only on the dharma (觀法無我). To arrive at the highest level of Chan, a person not only have to realize that his basic nature is the same as Buddha's, can retain this clarity of mind and calmness of emotions at all times but must not get attached to that "blissful" state so that he can move in and out of that state as the situation requires and will not care if he does and further that not only is his sense of self false, even the Dharma is not something real to be attached to.

But to me, no matter what we do, we must always keep at the top of our mind the basic teachings of the Buddha that reality is always changing, never permanent, only that changeability itself is unconditioned and permanent, that everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smells are transient illusions destined to pass and that everything is subject to birth, growth, decay and death and that even our thoughts and emotions are changing all the time and that there is no self to speak of, to be protected, defended and whose interest is to be advanced against those of others and that we must strive at all times to free ourselves from our ignorance and be aware of the processes of our own emotions and thoughts and do our best to help others too achieve such level of enlightenment as we may have achieved. From this context, Chan is but one and certainly not the only way towards that ultimate goal. 

2011年2月19日 星期六

Saturday Fun

When I look out of the window, I see an overcast sky. Looks pretty depressing. But there's a bright spot somewhere up there. It says, "weekend!". Time for some fun. So here's a short bar joke to liven up your day.

A rather confident man walks into a bar. He takes a seat next to a very attractive woman. He gives her a quick glance, then casually looks at his watch for a moment.

The woman notices this and asks, "Is your date running late?"

"No," he replies, "I just bought this state-of-the-art watch and I was just testing it."

The intrigued woman says, "A state-of-the-art watch? What's so special about it?"

"It uses alpha waves to telepathically talk to me," he explains.

"What's it telling you now?" she asks.

"Well, it says you're not wearing any panties," he says.

The woman giggles and replies, "Well, it must be broken. I am wearing panties!"

The man explains, "Ah well, the damn thing must be an hour fast."

Have a nice weekend! I hope your watch runs on time, alpha wave or no alpha wave!

2011年2月18日 星期五

Plato's Cave

I went to another HKSHP talk on Wednesday. It was a talk on Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Dr. Chan Chi Kwan  This allegory was used by Plato in Book VII of his masterpiece The Republic, in which he set out his ideal of what a perfect state should be, one in which society is governed by what has been called a "philosopher king".

In this allegory, Plato describes in dialogue form an imaginative conversation between Socrates and his brother Glaucon to illustrate how are our natures are enligthened or unenlightened.  In this story, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a group of people who have lived all their lives being chained immobile from childhood to a wall in cave in which they could only look in one direction towards another blank wall. Above and behind the people was an enormous fire and in front of the fire pass along a raised walkway various people carrying "all sorts of vessels and statues and figures of animals made of wood, stone and various materials" the shadows of which are thus projected on to the blank wall in front of the chained people. Some of such men were talking and others silent. and "like ourselves, they only see their own shadows or the shadows of one another", which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave." There are also echoes off the wall  which they think comes from the voices of the shadows of those passers by on the walkway. To them, truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images." All through their lives, they would guess what would happen next based upon the echoes they hear which they would link to the form of the shadows they see on the blank wall.

Then one of them was freed. He walks up a path towards the entrance of the cave and as he walks past the fire, he sees how the shadows on the blank wall were caused by those figures and things in front of the fire and as he nears the entrance of the cave, he feels an excruciatingly painful sensation because his eyes are not accustomed to so much light and when he walks outside of the cave, he sees a completely different world, the real world with its flowers, trees, animals, the sun and the splendour of everything. Socates says: "At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eyes is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision--what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them--will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?", asked Socrates. "And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?"

Socrates speculates in the allegory "Suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun itself is he not likely to be pained and irritated? And when he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anythhng at all of what are now called realities....He will require to grow accustomed to the light of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflection of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon, and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?...Last of all, he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of it in the water, but he will see it in its own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate it as it is....And if they were in the habit of conferring honors amongst themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer 'Better to be the poor servant of a poor master"' and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? ....And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death." 

Once the man is outside of the cave for a sufficiently long time, his eyes will adjust to the new reality and he will see more and more things as they really are and he could then look even at the sun and will understand that the sun is the source of the seasons and the years, and is the stewart of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing.Wouldn't he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? And wouldn't he disdain whatever honors, praises, and prizes were awarded there to the one who guessed best which shadows followed which? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn't he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? Wouldn't it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it's not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on him, would they not kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn't they kill him?  What he sees outside of the cave are the true forms of reality, not the mere shadows of things and figures seen by the prisoners in the cave.

Socrates compares "the region revealed through sight" to " the prison home and the light of the fire in it to the power of the Sun. He says, "the prison house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun".  And in applying the going up and the seeing of what's above to the soul's journey to the intelligible place, you not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. At all events, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the region of the knowable the last things to be seen and that with considerable effort, is the idea of good, but once seen, it must be concluded that this is indeed the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful--in the visible realm it gives birth to light and its soveregin; in the intelligble realm, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence--and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it." .

He speculates further on how the benighted men would act in a court room. He says that a man "is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when--with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkensss--he is compelled in the court rooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?"  About "the journey upwards ...the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world", he asks people to consider that "Whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all and is seen only with an effort; and when seen, is also inferrred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed. ....You must not wonder that those who attend to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted."  

To Plato, the freed prisoner's journey towards the true source of light, the sun, the source of  power of knowledge is a journey towards enlightenment. According to Dr. Chan, a number of conclusions may be drawn from Plato's Allegory of the Cave:

1. Man is very much a creature of habit. What he perceives is very much affected or influenced by the conditions under which he grows up and the kinds of information which were then available to him to enable him to perceive the "truth". In that sense, we are chained to the prejudices and preconceptions of our own mind and are prisoners of our own mind. We beleive that certain ideas are true because they are what we have been told by our teachers, our peers, our society and we have not yet thought them through critically and offer alternative viewpoints. To this extent, we are prisoners of our own past knowledge or ignorance.

2. When confronted with unfamiliar facts, his former beliefs will interfere with his perceptions of such new and unfamiliar facts and it takes time for his eyes to get adjusted to the new facts. Learning is process, we must take it step by step. We may lose our bearings under the new circumstances or lose our centre

3. To know reality is a painful process. We need to face uncertainty and we have to be very critical of our own and our group's accepted views, with no firm guidelines as to what is right or what is worng.. Thus some people may prefer to continue to live in the dark because it feels more comfortable to remain unchanged. We may be considered to be a traitor to our groups. Often we may have to be dragged to confront new facts

4. It may even be dangerous for an enlightened man to insist on teaching a crowd whose members are not prepared to listen to reason if what is taught goes against their accepted beliefs to which they have become attached, rightly or wrongly. We may encounter resistance from our social group, our society eg. our parents, our teachers, our church or our political, intellectual or spiritual leaders.

Plato however interprets the allegory slightly differently. He says: "Ïs there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplation to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images of justice, and is endeavouring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?...Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eyes, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den".

Plato connects the Allegory of the Cave to his ultimate concern: what is good, just and beautiful. He says, "Whereas our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words of the good."

To me, the purpose of Plato's allegory is to illustrate in a vivid form the passage of a man from a state of ignorance to that of knowledge which he believes is inherent in man and that education is merely the process whereby what is in him but clouded by bad habits is again restored to him. The kind of knowledge that Plato is concerned with is knowledge of what is just, what is true, what is beautiful and ultimately what is good and the difficulties of what may be encountered in the passage from one state to the other, the kind of knowledge which, in a later passage, he says, would "draw the soul from becoming into being.". But it also forms part of a much larger argument of what is the best form of government ie. one to be ruled by the philosopher king.  To bim, what is good is the source of all that is right and beautiful. We must all learn to come out of our respective caves before we can emerge into the light of all that is true, all that is beautiful and all that is good. But ultimately it is part of his theory of forms (ideas) under which what is transient is imperfect and only that which is permanent and not related to particular examples of the relevant things's ideal form is real and should form the subject of our knowledge.

2011年2月15日 星期二

Substance in Aristotelian philosophy

It is often said that Western civilization has since the Renaissance been progressively dominated by the development of science. As a result, its glamour and its successes inevitably found expression also its view of man. Instead of a totality, man is reduced to the substance and materials of which he is thought to be made. In the second half the 20th century, with the increasing impetus of globalization, even older civilizations like China and India are following closely upon the footsteps of the West. The newspapers has just announced that the GDP of China has now overtaken that of America, for long the number one economy in the world. At the basis of materialist philosophy is the idea of material or matter. What is the origin of the idea of matter or subsantce in Greek philosophy, the source of modern Western thought? Last Saturday, I attended another talk at the HKSHP by Ip Tat Leung, a Ph. D candidate at a German university. Mr. Ip is well versed in both Greek and German. In his previous talks, he frequently refers to original texts of the Greek philosophers. Last Friday's talk was no exception.

According to Yip, Aristotle's idea on "substance" is set out mainly in three of his works, Metaphysics, On Categories and Physics but partly because the Metaphysics is a rather long work and partly because it was written rather unsystemmatically over a long period of time during which Aristotle used the same word rather loosely with various different meanings in different contexts, most scholars prefer to base their opinions of Aristotle's ideas on substance or matter upon his On Categories, a much shorter and more systemmatic work which conveniently forms part of his collected works, the Organon (literally instrument). In original Greek, the word equivalent to the modern word "substance" is "ousia". This translates into the Latin essentia (or being) or substantia ( sub meaning "under" and stantia being derived from the verb standere which means "stands" such that substantia means "that which stands underneath" the appearance of things. But ousia in Greek could also mean "realty" or "immobile property", something which is always there and connotes the idea of permanence or unchanging as distinguished from other things which move or changes or are otherwise impermanent.

The word ousia was first used by Plato in his theory of forms (or ideas) and was later clarified and elaborated upon by Aristotle as "being" or something whose existence does not depend on other things. Nowadays, when we talk about "substance", what we mean is more like material or matter but originally it is closer to being or essence or existence. Originally the word ousia was used by Aristotle rather loosely meaning sometimes matter or thing and at other times being or essence.

Originally, Aristotle talks about ousia in connection with logos or how words are being used. In Aristotle's Books 2 and 4 of On Categories", he talked about various ways ousia is related to various different kinds of beings. Here there are two concepts namely "S is in P" and "S is said of P". In the first case, something S is said of P but S is not in P eg. intelligence is said of Socrates but Socrates is not in intelligence. In the second category, something S is not said of P but S is in P eg. the word "silly"  is not said of a dictionary but the word "silly" is in a dictionary. Then in a third case, S is said of P and S is also in P eg. Man is said of Socrates ( in that Socrates is a man) and Socrates is also included in the category of man . Then finally, there is a fourth category in which something S is not said of P and neither is S in P . In this case, the subject has got nothing to do with the predicate of the sentence. In the last case, that something S is ousia or substance.

Later Aristotle futher refined the concept of ousia and found that that there are a total of 10 categories of "being" or "thing"  or 10 possible categories of predicates in a sentence in the context of logos, involving two "things" in a sentence viz.

1. ousia or what Aristotle's "substance"

2. quantity (how many)

3. quality ( of what sort)

4. relative (involving the relation between two things e.g. this is double or half of that, bigger or smaller than that etc)

5. where ( eg. I am in the market place)

6. when (eg yesterday)

7. being in a physical position ( eg. I am standing, sitting)

8. having something ( e.g having shoes on )

9. acting on ( e.g. I am cutting, burning a book)

10. being acted on ( I am being tortured by the Nazis)

Of these 10 categories, only category 1 is independent of the other. Categories 2 to 9 are all dependent in one way or another on the substance or being of the first category. Therefore only category 1 things or beings can be an independent subject. He calls this "primary substance" because what is said of that category 1 substance cannot be said of any other substance and the category 1 substance is not in any other category of substance. All the other substances or beings which do not belong to category 1 substances or beings are called by him "secondary substances" (substantia or beings). In this respect, Aristotle says: all other beings are predicated of them as they are predicated of the primary substances and they are only beings which reveal the primary substances.

In Aristotle's Metaphysics, a most difficult book in which Aristotle used the same word ousia  in different contexts and thus caused a great deal of confusion amongst scholars because he was then talking in rather loose terms. But when he dealt with the problems of metaphysics and not just physics, he began to talk about ousia in terms of what he calls actuality and potentiality, using the word "energeia" ( in its old meaning and not in its present day meaning ) or actualis for something which actually happened or occurred or is materializd or realized and distinguishes it from "dynamis" ( again in its old meaning not its present day meaning) or potentia which corresponds a little to the late Plato's theory of form in which the actual or hylé (materia) is always an imperfect example of a thing's ideal form or eidos (forma) . In this context, an actual man is a specific realization of his ideal form which is his soul or the form of mankind. In this context, each primary substance signifies something here which answers the question "what?" such that this what (as this) is separable from all other whats in nature and in logos (in knowledge) ( as what). Thus matter is "that from or out of which a being comes to be and which is present in that being". In other words, "matter" is "what is spoken of in relation to itself, not as any being by which or that from /out of which a being comes to be and that which is present in that being" . Matter is "something of which the beings of each category are predicated and something whose being is different from beings of each category" and something which when all the other beings are removed, nothing but that being remains. Matter is thus in that sense the most fundamental substance upon which all other secondary beings depend.

But in the later Aristotle, he returned to his teacher Plato's "form" and thought that matter or substance (ousia) is not as final as he originally thought and that there is something which is more ultimate ie. something like the "form" or "idea" or "essence" of Plato., something more universal than the more particular beings which belong to the category of ousia or substantia.