Thinking Nature: Selections from the Writings of John Muir

muirClimb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

There is not a “fragment” in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself.

Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet. The squirrel will come and sit upon your knee, the woodpecker will wake you in the morning. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains.

No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening – still all is Beauty!

In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal before we are aware.

When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.

Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common everyday beauty.

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed — chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. … It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.

So extraordinary is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert. And so the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees….

Surely all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes – all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them.

Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart.


Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.

By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs – now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life….

This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.

I have discovered that I also live in “creation’s dawn.” The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.
There is a love of wild nature in everybody–an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties.

How hard to realize that every camp of men or beast has this glorious starry firmament for a roof! In such places standing alone on the mountain-top it is easy to realize that whatever special nests we make – leaves and moss like the marmots and birds, or tents or piled stone – we all dwell in a house of one room – the world with the firmament for its roof – and are sailing the celestial spaces without leaving any track.

Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.

It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!

On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death… Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.

Pollution, defilement, squalor are words that never would have been created had man lived conformably to Nature. Birds, insects, bears die as cleanly and are disposed of as beautifully as flies. The woods are full of dead and dying trees, yet needed for their beauty to complete the beauty of the living…. How beautiful is all natural Death!

So the snow-flowers go home when they melt and flow to the sea, and the rock-ferns, after unrolling their fronds to the light and beautifying the rocks, roll them up close again in the autumn and blend with the soil. Myriads of rejoicing living creatures, daily, hourly, perhaps every moment sink into death’s arms, dust to dust, spirit to spirit-waited on, watched over, noticed only by their Maker, each arriving at its own Heaven-dealt destiny. All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams, and the myriad swarms of the air, called into life by the sunbeam of a summer morning, go home through death, wings folded perhaps in the last red rays of sunset of the day they were first tried. Trees towering in the sky, braving storms of centuries, flowers turning faces to the light for a single day or hour, having enjoyed their share of life’s feast-all alike pass on and away under the law of death and love. Yet all are our brothers and they enjoy life as we do, share Heaven’s blessings with us, die and are buried in hallowed ground, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity. “Our lives are rounded with a sleep.”

The snow is melting into music.

If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody?

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged.”

Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit – the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals…. This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.

One touch of nature makes all the world kin.

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

How many hearts with warm red blood in them are beating under cover of the woods, and how many teeth and eyes are shining! A multitude of animal people, intimately related to us, but of whose lives we know almost nothing, are as busy about their own affairs as we are about ours.

These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books. See how willingly Nature poses herself upon photographers’ plates. No earthly chemicals are so sensitive as those of the human soul.

Plants, animals, and stars are all kept in place, bridled along appointed ways, with one another, and through the midst of one another — killing and being killed, eating and being eaten, in harmonious proportions and quantities.


Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.


I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.


Going to the mountains is going home.





Mindfulness of Basic Goodness

This is the heart of mindfulness. I remember the first time I read the Rinpoche on this it fell into my mind like a stone into a pond, and the ripples keep on rippling. This idea has become the heart of whatever meager practice I have. Sometimes in life it is all I have to hold on to: breathe in/breathe out, be aware of simple goodness. In those instances the Idea of Goodness reminds me of the Tao (“Best to be like water”), which seems slight and simple and fragile, but which has an amazing staying power. No matter what is happening, however trivial or however fantastic, however positive or however horrible, basic goodness endures. It’s all we ever really have. I hope when I am dying it is my last conscious act: awareness and acknowledgement of basic goodness.


“Discovering real goodness comes from appreciating very simple experiences. We are not talking about how good it feels to make a million dollars or finally graduate from college or buy a new house, but we are speaking here of the basic goodness of being alive—which does not depend on our accomplishments or fulfilling our desires. We experience glimpses of goodness all the time, but we often fail to acknowledge them. When we see a bright color, we are witnessing our own inherent goodness. When we hear a beautiful sound, we are hearing our own basic goodness. When we step out of the shower, we feel fresh and clean, and when we walk out of a stuffy room, we appreciate the sudden whiff of fresh air. These events take a fraction of a second, but they are real experiences of goodness.” –Chogyam Trungpa

The Way of the One who Woke Up

“This existence of ours is as transient as Autumn clouds.

To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at

the movements of a dance.

A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,

Rushing by, like a torrent down a deep mountain.”

“Buddhism” is a western term; on its own terms, this way of thought we’ll be studying for the rest of the semester is about as far from an “ism” as anything I can think of; and on its own terms is known as the Buddha Dharma, or the way of the Buddha.

And “buddha means” awakened one, or the one who woke up: Buddhism is most literally the Way of the One Who Woke Up! And it represents to me, for various reasons, the purest form of philosophy I have ever encountered; and it is so unlike a religion at its core that its almost shocking, if by religion you mean something involving belief in transcendental realities based on the authority of authors

You’ll recall I’ve said that in my view philosophy is something like an attempt to discover

*what is most real

*through all that reason is and can be

*in order to know how to live in the light of that discovered reality

We can call that metaphysics and ethics in the light of reason (with the proviso that reason is something more than a calculative thinking which only accepts a quantitative mode of reckoning: reason being richer than that, and including qualitative and non-discursive elements grasped in intuition [explain non-discursive!])

So the idea I’m getting at is that philosophy tries to discover reality with all that a human being qua human being can bring to bear–and only that! Just reason, in the richer sense of reason, in terms of pragmatic human experience

And the Way of the One Who Woke Up is at its core just that: the Buddha Dharma is radically philosophical in its appeal to nothing beyond you as you are now–you and you and you:all of you–it appeals to nothing but the direct experience you have of yourself, and how you can reason about that experience (and the accent is on reason, in the richer sense of reason I mentioned).

In this way it reminds me of the Way of Socrates, which was known as the way of argument and refutation [elenchos], a sort of negative dialectic which sought through dialogue and questioning to draw out of you what’s there–and what’s not there–in order to show you what you don’t know: remember Socrates said he was the wisest man alive because he knew what he did not know; and he would go around arguing with others, in order to show them what they did not know too!

Well, the Buddha Dharma is a kind of refutation of the ego, the Self, encouraged through active and radical questioning in which you seek above all to discover what you are NOT, and so to become free

In fact, the One Who Woke Up actively encouraged questioning and experimentation in a sort of pragmatic, existential challenge, in order to have direct, experiential insight into reality.

And his way to wake up into reality seems deceptively simple. Using my translation of the traditional terms, we need to:

Live with Discipline [shila]

Cultivate Stillness [samadhi]

Pay Attention [prajna]

And keep your eyes peeled for the Suchness of the Void. And that Suchness of the Void sounds mysterious, but it’s not; listen to a story:

One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom? Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.” Is that all? asked the man. Will you not add something more? Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.” Well, remarked the man rather irritably, I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written. Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.” Half-angered, the man demanded: What does that word `Attention’ mean, anyway? And Ikkyu answered gently: Attention means Attention.

(Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen)

Well, according to the Buddha Dharma, what you really first see, when you try to pay attention to yourself, here and now, is that simply paying attention seems almost impossible. Because what we are really preoccupied with is not reality but our conception of reality, expressed in words, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes given to us by other people: the names that we talked about when we discussed Taoism, that can name no lasting name–but we start out thinking that they can.

And see how easily we move from group to group, trading one group of names for another, in our desire to feel safe and secure: unhappy with society’s names, we reject society and form our own names in an endless mirror-house of sub-sub-sub counter-cultural enclaves on the left and the right. But names can name no lasting names, not even the names that reject society’s values.

And obsessed with names and the security they represent for our desires we end up with this strange whirl-wind we call our ego or our Self–but what we think is reality is usually just a perception of it; and just like in a dream, we mistake the fantasies of our desire for something really happening around us–whether in society with it’s fantasies, or outside of society, in some subgroup and its fantasies

Now the One Who Woke Up claimed to teach a way to cut through these fantasies: a way to come out of it, like waking up from a dream; and that to do that, all you needed was what is here and now in your life as a human being: no gods, no supernatural forces, no magic words or rituals, no gods in a spaceship, but simply the realization of your own life and mind through Discipline, Stillness, and Attention to the reality that is right there in front of us, but which is obscured by this obsession we have with permanence

So through this philosophy, it is claimed, you can be freed from bondage to all forms of thought, visions, objects, opinions, beliefs, imaginations–what some people call the real world–and be brought to a state of Absolute Emptiness which is simultaneously the Fullness of What Is! Emptiness is the Fullness of Suchness, because, when you become empty or void of the words and labels and concepts we paste over the world, you see for the first time: THIS! [LOOK AROUND WHEREVER YOU FIND YOURSELF TO BE!!!] THIS IS THE VOID, THE EMPTINESS, SO HARD TO SEE BECAUSE OF THE CONCEPTS WE LAY OVER IT. Are you looking for heaven’s gate? Here it is, just like we are now.

And what is the way to achieve this? What incredible feats must you do? What astonishing searches? What awful sacrifices and penances? How do you start? Must you leave your family? Give up all your money? Fast and meditate? Spend 7 years in Tibet?

Well, the One Who Woke Up said, sit down, where you are, and pay attention to who you are! Sit down and know yourself! YOU WANNA KNOW WHAT’S REAL? Take a seat! [sit on desk and look at them] What a joker! Only a philosopher would say that! And it’s a trick: philosophers are full of tricks; because it turns out to be the most amazingly hard thing in the world just to sit down and pay attention to who you are; it requires in fact all of your life and thought to do it: to sit down and ehi passika, to sit down and come and see who you are

And who are you, according to the Buddha Dharma? well, listen to Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, who points a finger at the moon for us; LISTEN! LISTEN TO THIS FINGER POINTED AT THE MOON BY CHOGYAM TRUNGPA. ATTENTION! ATTENTION! ATTENTION!

Fundamentally there is just open space, the basic ground, what we really are. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had this openness. Take, for example, our everyday lives and thought patterns. When we see an object, in the first instant there is a sudden perception ;which has no logic or conceptualization to it at all; we just perceive the thing in the open ground. Then immediately we panic and begin to rush about to trying to add something to it, either trying to find a name for it or trying to categorize it or trying to find pigeon-holes in which we could locate and categorize it. Gradually things develop from there.

But the beginning point is that there is open space, belonging to no one. There is always primordial intelligence connected with the space, vidya–which means `intelligence’ in Sanskrit–precision, sharpness, sharpness with space, sharpness with room in which to put things, exchange things. It is like a spacious hall where there is room to dance about, where there is no danger of knocking things over or tripping over things, for there is completely open space. We are this space, we are one with it, with vidya, intelligence and openness.

This philosopher claims that you can pay attention, and as a human being, through reason and discipline, discover this experience of reality in a truly pragmatic sense: that you can step beyond the words that are appearance and that bewitch us into bland desire and mind-less egotism, and discover the reality that rolls all around us–what Lao Tzu called the Great Ordinary, as best as I can coordinate their two fingers pointing at the moon.

And the way he found seems to me to be what I would call radically existential and radically pragmatic in its approach to reality and life. Radically existential because, first of all, the Buddha only claimed to be a human being, and to have achieved what a human being can, unaided, through human effort and intelligence. What is most real, and how to live it out, depends on human intelligence and effort.

Radically existential, second, because it involves a life of truth involving how you, the individual, live: no one is responsible for you but you: and theory is totally unimportant except as it informs a life of truth

Consider  a quote from p. 12 of Rahula, What the Buddha Taught:

The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. It seems that there were some among his own disciples who did not appreciate this attitude of his. For, we have the example of one of them, Malunkyaputta by name, who put to the Buddha ten well-known classical questions on metaphysical problems and demanded answers.

One day Malunkyaputta got up form his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat on one side, and said:

Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: there are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely: Is the universe eternal or not? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or is the soul one thing and the body another? Does the Tathagata [realized Buddha] exist after death, or not, or both exist and not exist? These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me. This attitude does not please me.

Malunkyaputta, the frustrated metaphysician, then goes on to say he will quit being a buddhist and leave if his curiosity on these ultimate concerns is not satisfied. The Buddha then replied with a story about a poisoned arrow (found in Rahula):

Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: `I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions,’ he may die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata. Suppose a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: `I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me: whether he is a warrior, a priest, a businessman, or a servant; what his name and family might be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; from which village, town or city he comes from . . . until I know the type of bow . . .the type of arrow . . . and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made.’ Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, if anyone says: `I will not follow the Buddha until he answers questions like these, and so on,’ he would die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata . . . Why have I now explained these things? Because it is not useful . . . not conducive to full realization, to Nirvana.

This makes the philosophy of the One Who Woke Up radically pragmatic. In a pragmatic theory of truth, the truth is simply how things work out in action; the truth of a word or concept is in its actual effect, and is nothing beyond that. So the meaning of the concept `hardness’, for example, is that it cannot be easily scratched, and the truth of hardness is found in that and not in some theory of atomic structure. Similarly the truth, the meaning of the words `believe in God’ when I was a child seemed to me to be: get up on Sunday, dress up, go to a place where people said a lot of things I didn’t understand, experience excruciating boredom, go home and eat my grandmother’s pot roast, get out of those damn clothes and get on with my life! How it works out in actual habits of life IS the truth in a pragmatic sense.

So in a famous example, the Buddha compared his teachings to a raft (in Rahula):

O bhikkhus, a man is on a journey. He comes to a vast stretch of water. On this side the shore is dangerous, but on the other side it is safe and without danger. No boat goes to the other shore which is safe and without danger, nor is there any bridge for crossing over . . . So that man . . . makes a raft, and with the help of the raft crosses over safely to the other side . . . Having crossed over . . . he thinks: `This raft was of great help to me . . . It would be good to carry this raft on my head or on my back wherever I go.’

What do you think, O bhikkhus, if he acted in this way would the man be acting properly with regard to the raft? [Wouldn’t he be acting properly if he thought:] `This raft was a great help to me . . . It would be good if I beached this raft on the shore, or moored it and left it afloat, and then went on my way . . .’ In the same manner I have taught a truth similar to a raft–it is for crossing over, and not for carrying.

This meant that what was essential for him is that someone experience the truth of his words, and that nothing be taken on faith. What is essential is experiencing a thing so as to understand it. This gives the way of the One Who Woke Up an experimental, pragmatic flavor: you are asked to come and see, not come and believe.

As Rahula puts it (in What the Buddha Taught): Suppose I told you I had a diamond in the palm of my clenched fist. You would have to believe me if you could not see it–but once you see it, there is no need for belief. If I unclench my fist and show you the diamond, you can experience it for yourself, and the question of belief on my authority never comes up. So the Buddha always talked about knowledge of his teachings gained through experience, and never about believing through faith.

So another story is told about the Buddha visiting a small town, where he was asked about how one religious teacher or philosophy professor after another would blow into town, give his views, claim they were the truth, and say the others who were there before them were wrong! You know how it is: I think they had cable! This is what the Buddha told them (quoted in Rahula):

Yes: it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look: do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don’t be led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic and inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight of speculative opinions, no by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: `this is our teacher’. But when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up . . . And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.

The Buddha went so far as to repeatedly tell his followers even to examine the Buddha himself: to try it out and see for themselves if what he way saying was true: if it truly resonated with their actual experience of the world.

So what did he say was true, that he asked others to verify for themselves? Well, that’s quite a story! All I can do here is hint at it. But we can make a little start. Come and see!

The Buddha thought that when you began to really pay attention to what is most real, to discipline yourself with stillness and attention, that the first thing you realize is the truth of impermanence: that nothing is permanent and unchanging; and that the source of all our confusion was to try to make the impermanent to be permanent, which can only lead to unsatisfactoriness.

Nothing is permanent! Not even and especially your body, which the Tibetans call “something you leave behind.” And your always leaving your body behind! More and more it comes to seem to be not yours at all, as it grows and matures, and declines, and changes, and you can’t really do anything about it! PUKING! I ALWAYS THINK OF THIS TRUTH WHEN I’M PUKING! MY BODY IS CHANGING AND I CAN DO NOTHING ABOUT IT! Or think about what we call our “self”: conception, 1, 2, 3, 4 to 9 month in the womb; birth,  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18: which one is your self? Can you find something permanent there anywhere?

And he said that if you thought–really thought, in a disciplined way–about your actual experience of life, you can see that there are three marks of what is real: three basic features of existence:

anicca: impermanence

dukkha: unsatisfactoriness

anatta: insubstantiality

This means that every thing undergoes change and has no permanent substance; and from the point of view of desiring permanence and substance, this is dukkha: unsatisfactory: that from the point of view of ego existence is pervaded by a kind of frustrating confusion, a sense of irritating incompleteness, as we try to stop the change and make what is impermanent substantial.

And even the moments of happiness and joy, that are real too, never last; every joy is impermanent and has no substance; and to try to hold on the happiness or joy and make it permanent simply makes things more unsatisfactory.

The Buddha was called the Knower of the World: and said we only can begin to know how to live when we realize the reality of these truths: not in theory, but in a radical confrontation with the experience of your life as you live it, resulting in insight wisdom.

To know the world is to see it in the light of these three marks of existence. And Impermanence, unsubstantially, and the unsatisfactoriness of trying to ignore the truth of these marks, becomes really clear in the face of death. The thought of death focuses the mind on these realities and makes life become clear. So paradoxically, in Buddhist philosophy, it is the thought of death that teaches you how to live.

This doesn’t mean that you become morbid, or try to kill yourself, which would be a strange confusion; for to think about death is to think about life, and how you should live. The longer you live in the face of death, the more you are set free to live fully; that physical death will come soon enough, all on its own, who knows when. As the Buddha is reported to have said:

This existence of ours is as transient as Autumn clouds.

To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at

     the movements of a dance.

A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,

Rushing by, like a torrent down a deep mountain.

The truth of impermanence is only unsatisfactory, and the cause of suffering, to those who do not see that to live in the light of what is real is to be free from the suffering caused by unreal expectations. To begin to see that, the Buddha said, you need to sit down! Be still! And pay attention! attention! attention!


Myth and Metaphysics

Being human is being a maker.  We make ourselves, and in so doing we make our world; and we make our world, and in so doing we make ourselves.  There is a reciprocity between self and world, an interdependency rooted in the nature of the human being as a maker.  You cannot understand self without world, and you cannot understand world without self.  The key is always self-knowledge.

But by human being, I do not mean the individual per se; I do not mean the human being qua individual, but the human being as intertwined with humanity: both the ones who are dead, and the ones who are living.  We make ourselves, not “I make myself”; and in that distinction we can see what is distinctive about speculative philosophy, and how it is opposed to its alternative, the philosophy of reflection.

Reflection sets one off from the world; reflection isolates; reflection is rooted in the activity of the isolated subject in a world of objects.  Reflect comes from reflectare: a beam of light shot out bends back, reflects, from the surface.  Reflective philosophy sends out its thought-beams from the isolated subject, like a radar beam out into the darkness; it bounces off the outsides, and never reaches into the insides: it just bounces off, and returns its echo to the solitary thinker, who is a subject in a world of objects— a world of  surfaces with no depth.  And what’s oddest of all is that the subject itself becomes an object to itself: the beams flash inward, too, only to bounce off as well.  The self becomes another object to reflect on, in a kind of schizoid delusion that is taken to be the paradigm of normality. And that sums up for us the main division in modern philosophy.  Analytic, or Anglo-American philosophy shoots its beams outward, while Continental, or post-modern philosophy, shoots its beams of reflection inward: but the result is the same: a solitary subject in a world of objects: a spectator-consciousness.

Speculation comes from the Latin speculari, to reconnoiter, to spy out; so a speculator was a spy, one who spied out things, explored, reconnoitered, and moved around in the world to find things out; in speculation you go out into the world, out exploring the interconnections; speculation is also related to the Latin speculum, or mirror; but this is the mirror not of individual reflection, self-reflection, but of self-knowledge.  The self you know, then, is not that of an isolated subject in  a world of objects, but of the self formed in reciprocity and interdependence with all the other humans, living and dead, whose makings form the world and self.  And this means we need memory, imagination, and ingenuity, as we meditate the great commonalities of humanity, and narrate them to ourself and others with eloquence and prudence.  Some key topics: memory, imagination, ingenuity, eloquence, and prudence.

By memory I do not mean the psychological power of recall–recalling to mind the traces of past sense experience.  That is just a view of the human mind as a reflector: we recall the reflections of sense experience, etc. By memory I mean the power we have to re-make meaning: to remake past meaning, say, as present in our lives; through memory we re-collect, re-make the things that other humans have made in making themselves and their world, and in this way can learn what it means to be human now, through a return to the roots of our common humanity.  These roots are points of origin that structure the interdependent growth of humanity, and make us who we are.  Speculative philosophy returns to these origin points, spies them out, enters into them, and remakes them through the imaginative powers of the human mind.  And when you remake them, imagine them, in this way, you join yourself to these origins, you remake yourself as well.  And since the true is the made–you can only really know what you can make–you can have self-knowledge.  Memory in this  sense, then,  is an aspect of imagination, which is not the psychological  power to manipulate reflected and recalled images, but the very heart of the power to make: the maker’s imagination, which creates our world and ourself reciprocally. And this must be done with ingenuity, with the ingenious weaving together of past into present in a story of the whole.

To be eloquent is to talk about the whole of things, and not to get hung up reflecting on the parts.  And what you spy out is that there are no parts, really, but a play of opposites out of which a sense of the whole emerges.  Eloquence then avoids theory, which is a kind of bad story, a kind of unreal story that refuses to face the universe head on, but retreats into abstraction.

A prime aspect of what we can call  categorical thinking is that it longs for a single unreal story to tell about the world–a single, unambiguous story that is above all, consistent.  It is the consistency that makes the story unreal.  It is also the refusal of the story to acknowledge it is a story–the refusal to root itself in image and narration.

But in speculative philosophy, the universe is viewed as full of opposites that refuse to be made categorically consistent; in such a view,  the world cannot be made consistent: the world seems incredibly beautiful and incredibly ugly; made up all of wonder and all of terror; people seem all good and all bad–the world is both yes and no at the same time.  And a good story acknowledges this, says yes and no, seeks not consistency but balance in the play of light and shadow.  In reaching down, you have to reach up; in reaching up, you have to reach down.  No theory can cover this.

Categorical thinking fears this, though, and has a classic move to hide from the oppositional nature of reality: pick one side of the opposition, make it primary, and obliterate from consciousness the awareness of the opposite through a theory that explains away all the differences.  You might be a misanthrope: there is no love in the world–the world is loveless, then, and your theory explains away any apparent loving action (friend on parent and child); or, you might be one of these sentimentalists: any loveless action is really misguided love.  In both cases a theory gives us a bad story, a theory cursed by consistency.

But in speculative philosophy you do not seek a categorical synthesis, in which the difference of the opposites is made to disappear into the privileged category; instead you follow the play of the opposites and seek the point of view of balance.  Eloquence is the voice of this balance.  Prudence is the living out of the consequences of eloquence: it is to have the balance of wisdom, which is a kind of harmony with how things are, insofar as a human being can achieve such a thing. You imagine the whole, and you speak it out, and in doing so you make a life.  You achieve self-knowledge. We remember who we are. We do philosophy and myth. We must learn to do both myth and metaphysics.

Verstand and Vernunft (Kantian Thoughts)

“The great obstacle that reason (Vernunft) puts in its own way arises from the side of the intellect (Verstand) and the entirely justified criteria it has established for its own purposes, that is, for quenching our thirst, and meeting our need, for knowledge and cognition… The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same. The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.”–Hannah Arendt

“What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story… We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery… It is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.” –Marcello Gleiser


Sometimes you come across a statement that simply illuminates your self-understanding: it’s like finding a key that unlocks a central part of your life. Here is one of them I just came across in studying Noam Chomsky:

Anarchism is a tendency in the history of human thought and action which seeks to identify coercive, authoritarian, and hierarchic structures of all kinds and to challenge their legitimacy—and if they cannot justify their legitimacy, which is quite commonly the case, to work to undermine them and expand the scope of freedom. (Chomsky, On Anarchism)

I don’t mean to say that I am some sort of paradigm of this, but that as I look back at my life in my interactions with hierarchy and authority I find that this is the idea that drove me. By “idea” I mean something specific: an image of how things ought to be that you strive to realize. In a way, it’s like Plato’s concept of an idea (not the comic book Plato, mind you): In The Phaedo, for example, Socrates talks about how everything is striving to become what it ought to be—to realize the idea of it. In the midst of become we strive to BE what we are (=should be).

And so I think the pattern of my life can be seen in trying to BE but always only becoming. Or to use another metaphor and mix it up a bit: looking back at the pattern of my life I see it as a very crooked and trembling finger geturing wildly somewhere in the direction of the moon (and only on my best day, I suppose, if I’m lucky). I like Vico’s idea of “a metaphysics compatible with human frailty (See On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians). Or as Socrates nicely put it, an anthropinê sophia—a human kind of wisdom. (See The Apology).

Another Chomsky quote to amplify what he said above:

The basic principle . . . is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified—it has no prior justification. For instance, when you stop a five-year-old kid from trying to cross the street, there’s an authoritarian situation: it’s got to be justified. Well, in that case, I think you CAN give a justification. But the burden of proof for any exercise of authority is always on the person exercising it—invariably. And when you look, most of the time these authority structures have no justification: they have no moral justification, they have no justification in the interests of the person lower in the hierarchy, or in the interests of other people, or the environment, or the future, or the society, or anything else—they’re just there in order to preserve certain structures of power and domination, and the the people at the top. (Chomsky, On Anarchy)