Philosophy Riffing | Ethics cont. – evil is mistaken choice, a challenge to that, virtue ethics and friendship/relationships, and choosing a partner

This was another meandering exploration of this topic with a payoff in the particular of our connections to others and how they should enhance our excellence. I take a lot of time in the first half of exploring the Socratic position on evil and my problems with it. There are also examples of the Buddha prior to giving the sermon on the Four Noble Truths and some further commentary on the bodhisattva ideals and goodness as well.

An aside: I wanted to include this brief poem by Yung Pueblo somewhere along the line, but I didn’t remember to place it anywhere in the discussion. Adding it here for it’s brief, beautiful resonance with the second half:

it is not love
if all they want
from you
is to fulfill
their expectations

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 12

I just found this other great poem when looking through as well.

when passion
and attachment
come together,
they are often
confused for love

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 24

And as promised, here is the link to the previous post I reference in the second half: Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship.

Philosophy Riffing | Ethics – excellence, ethics vs. morality, good and evil, and a spiritual expansion

This was a meandering recording that pulled up a lot of details I didn’t originally have in mind and left many others unsaid that I had originally intended. May come back with a part 2 soon. I hope this gives others many things to ponder or at least some ideas/sources for them to go look at further. Feel free to ask questions in comments.

Note: At about an hour and 10 minutes, I make a mistake with Carl Schmitt. He described the distinction that grounds the concept of the political as the friend-enemy distinction.

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Presence | Each Moment is the Universe

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting. A recent release of an old favorite band inspired this post.


A few weeks back, an old post-rock favorite released a revamp of a previous album. The second song grabbed me in particular, leaving me almost in tears due to several layers of personal meaning in the album.

First, this album was one of the first post-rock points of connection between myself and the woman whom my heart was still broken over. Second, the album was being released on the 2nd anniversary of the day we met. Third, the song feels like an exploration of the faith in facing each day with perseverance, even in the difficulty of a human life.

I had meant to write this post earlier. Now, it feels out of tune with my emotional landscape, but I still feel the poignancy of that idea/sentiment should be shared: the presence of getting up and doing one’s best to be present, kind, and open-hearted to whatever arises day to day, no matter the difficulty involved. In my other blog, I’ve spoken many times about the Zen saying of “before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water.” So much of the pursuit of release from suffering, no matter the pursuit (including many practitioners takes of Buddhism) falls into an idea of deliverance from suffering, such as nirvana/enlightenment being a fully different realm or life, but that’s not the case. I touched on this in my most recent post on my other blog – the Buddha lives in the burning house, i.e. nirvana is right in the middle of the burning suffering of samsara. There’s no other life or existence out there. Opening to the moment vulnerably and being present to the full unfolding of it is key to showing up with an appropriate response that is the wu wei skillful action of a buddha. I struggle to express this, but ultimately, this comes forth in the realization of selflessness and the interdependence of all things: each moment is the universe.

Another much more beautifully poetic and philosophical way for us to express this is some evocative statements from Dogen’s Genjokoan (my title here is somewhat inspired by Katagiri Roshi’s book on Zen and Dogen of the same title). Warning – these truly are confusing to the extent of almost being infuriating to standard logic: truly a koan. I posted some of this on facebook years ago, and several friends got full on annoyed because they didn’t understand. However, in philosophy, and especially in Zen koans, we need to open ourselves to the conundrum and let it break our standard conceptual barriers.

Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas.

Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them. Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out pratice-enlightenment through the self is realization. Those who greatly realize delusions are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings. Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky.

When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality (genjokoan). When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualization of reality (genjokoan). This path, this place, is neither big nor small, neither self nor others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. Therefore [the reality of all things] is thus. In the same way, when a person engages in practice-enlightenment in the Buddha Way, as the person realizes one dharma, the person permeates that dharma; as the person encounters one practice, the person [fully] practices that practice.

Translation of Dogen’s Genjokoan as presented in Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo – Shohaku Okumura (pp. 1-4)

This may all seem obscure, but it’s worth summing up with pointing out how Dogen focused on the practicalities of life. Practice was outlined in such examples as how a cook should prepare food to stay fully present to the process. The day in and day out is precisely this: the actualization of reality that is chopping wood; the actualization of reality that is carrying water. In other words, it’s a mindful openness to the interdependence of each moment, and furthermore, that engagement is not one where delusion is forever left behind, it happens within our deluded life. Buddhas are those who greatly realize delusions – sitting awake right in the middle of them. The Buddha lives in the burning house.

When I listen to this song, “When I Rise & When I Lay Down”, I feel this engaged, living practice. Another way we could think of it – that realized delusion – is the creative affirmation of Sisyphus that closes out The Myth of Sisyphus. Even in struggling to push a damned boulder to the top of a hill in the afterlife over and over, we have to imagine Sisyphus happy in some of the most poetic, heartlifting, Nietzschean words you’ll ever read:

One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus. Trans: Justin O’Brien (p. 123)

Oddly enough, Old Solar is a Christian band with religious themes resonant throughout – the album is called “Quiet Prayers” and has other songs with titles such as “Help Us to Be Faithful”. As such, taking a deeply spiritual tone as a call to holding to a faithfully engaged life throughout the burdens of the day to day is perfectly on point with this song, just with a very different perspective of what that kind of practice entails: not one of the grace of God, but one of the practice of actualizing this moment in its totality, even in the midst of suffering.

This song may have made me cry for personal reasons, but these considerations I’ve outlined are so much deeper and more profound, and I hope you’ll find them in listening to it too.

Reevaluation | Taking refuge

Today, I saw a facebook memory post from 2 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about the last 2 years recently, wishing I could somehow jettison it all or twist it into something completely different. The post reminded me instead to find strength in reaffirming my values and path in its ongoing depth of intention that has gone above and beyond the pain of obliterated personal goals and the loss of meaning.

The post:

“Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” – Nietzsche (One who has their why of living can withstand almost any how.) Tonight was cold, and I felt tired, old, and unenthused, but ultimately, if you commit to practices like running, like philosophy, like becoming a bodhisattva, the “warum?” of being engaged in such a life carries you along through the challenge of such obstacles.

In the last several months, when it was all I could do to pick myself back up every morning and try again, to not give in to the despair that made me want to commit suicide, I focused on things like bodily exercise, digging into spiritual texts, and caring for those in my life – just like the post. We could call this: body, wisdom, and compassion. To me, this is the “chopping wood, carrying water” of the ongoing path that is life, and no matter what I may lose or how much I may feel dead in comparison to past versions of myself (does such language even truly make sense?), these continue to move me forward and hold me accountable to myself and the universe from which “I” have no separation. In a weirdly resonant note, I think of this challenge and self-destruction in both Nietzschean ways of the “going-under” that is progressing forth as human over the abyss and the Buddhist insights of realizing that all this form and meaning we cling to is empty. It’s all a dream, even the things that “defined” us, even the experiences we cherished, even the pain that arises. The condition of a human life in all that becoming is the constant, and that’s what can inspire the larger choices to awaken: be present and do your best to do well to yourself and to do so for others by offering understanding and care.

In looking through quotes to match up with this Nietzschean inspired post from the past, I found a great section in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart about the Buddha facing and overcoming Mara to achieve enlightenment. It halted me in my tracks of wanting to throw away the past with some sort of harsh reevaluation, instead taking refuge in the dharma of tenderly opening to just this – all the experiences of pain, loss, disappointment, doubt, fear, heartbreak, depression, despair annoyance, self-criticism, and the absurd – and trying to bring my best intentions of wisdom and compassion forward as I have continued to do from the past, knowing that it will always be an “on the way”, a process and path upon which I walk. I feel so much to be the person who’s thrown off by big events in the quote below, doubting that his efforts are any good at all in that very process, and the insight is to embrace that difficulty and continue in it. In a sense, the refuge of buddha, dharma, and sangha is finding peace right in the middle of everything being on fire (The Fire Sermon), of recognizing that you are in the burning house (The Lotus Sutra), and sitting in it with ease. As Dogen says, the Buddha is in the burning house:

I think maybe all of the maras arise from fear of death, but yama mara is particularly rooted there. When we talk about a good life from the usual samsaric point of view, what we mean is that we’ve finally gotten it together. We finally feel we’re a good person. We have good qualities, we’re peaceful, and we don’t get thrown off balance when arrows are shot at us [note: allusion to the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment from the beginning of the chapter – basically here a metaphor for the various daily things that our mind pursues and pulls us off a steady path of mindfulness]. We’re the person who knows how to turn an arrow into a flower. We feel so good about ourselves. We’ve finally tied up all the loose ends. We’re happy. We think that’s life.
We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we’re going to find out we have cancer, a brick is going to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head, somebody’s going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit, or we’re going to arrive at our favorite restaurant and discover that no one ordered produce and seven hundred people are coming for lunch.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in a no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.
We want to be perfect, but we just keep seeing our imperfections, and there is no room to get away from that, no exit, nowhere to run. That is when this sword turns into a flower. We stick with what we see, we feel what we feel, and from that we begin to connect with our own wisdom mind.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (pp. 93-95)

May this offer inspiration to those who need it and help them find their own refuge in difficulty.

Gassho!