Boy Scouts: be prepared. Buddhists: not so fast…

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The Golden Spires of Shwedagon Pagoda

This is one of the problems I have with Buddhism, the whole ‘no-thought’ paradigm, that always seems to find currency, notwithstanding the fact that the Buddha never said anything like that, not to my knowledge, anyway, and the term sati, which has taken on the meaning of ‘mindfulness’, probably had no such lofty connotations at the time, the problem now being one of vagueness, if not deliberate obfuscation, in order to inspire awe and reverence, apparently, as if it is untranslatable to the ordinary mortal…

But it certainly is a common ordinary word in modern standard Thai, something like simple ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’, so ‘mindfulness’ is a marketing hook to sell a fad to the West, that special sauce and some righteous hocus pocus, such that the makers of the film ‘Samadhi’ have to explain that the term is untranslatable to English, notwithstanding the fact that it is done all the time outside the rarefied circles of New Age fad religions…

I’d like to think that Buddhism is better than that, samadhi meaning simply mental concentration and one of several terms for meditation, along with bhavana and dhyana, depending on the country, language, and tradition. But back to the issue of ‘no-thought’: a Thai senior monk is one of the foremost proponents of the idea that thought is inimical to the practice of Buddhism in general and sati in particular, and even goes so far as to say that some people are ‘addicted to life,’ ahem…

Then he goes on to add that maybe it’s better not to work, because then those pesky thoughts creep in. So that’s a nice life if you can get it, and I hope you like the color orange. He even waxes eloquently on how his first abbott ‘never let the monks go anywhere’. Now I don’t wish to start a fight, but I beg to differ. I don’t know why monks are confined to quarters, like animals in cages, when once they roamed free wandering, bound to their base only during the rains retreat…

Equally or more popular now is the ‘one-thought’ definition of mindfulness as popularized by Thich Nhat Hanh in his mantra and mandate to ‘wash dishes to wash dishes,’ i.e. do only one thing at the time, as if that makes everything clearer. Can I sing in the shower? Can I apply soap? Can I use both hands? You see where this leads. So, there’s certainly a point to be made there, but I still don’t think that’s exactly what the Buddha had in mind, subject to further inquiry and speculation…

And much of the extended meaning echoes that of Jesus when he said something like (forgive my poor Aramaic): ‘Do birds gather up grain and store it in barns?’ There’s only one problem with that: that’s exactly what birds do, though we usually call them ‘nests’. So this is a recurrent theme in religious history, that somehow ‘God provides’ and we don’t have to worry about such trivial matters. Yeah, right, tell it to my kids when they’re crying with empty bellies. I believe Jesus later called this ‘my greatest blunder’, haha…

But this is exactly the life that Buddhist monks are supposed to live nowadays, locked-up in lock-down, and any discontent will only get you a transfer–to another temple or monastery. Of course that doesn’t mean that a monk can’t have a smartphone, as long as he does nothing constructive with it. That’s for laypeople. So is Buddhism served best by monks removed from the society that they are supposed to serve? I don’t know…

But I’m pretty sure that thinking was never dissed by the Buddhas as a kilesha–mental defilement. My own definition of sati is a bit more nuanced. For purposes of meditation, no-thought is exactly what I need–for meditation, I repeat. For life in general, meditation does not fill a 24-hour day, and thought is best if focused and not scattered, no doubt. But I see the problem as one of random repetitive narratives filling empty psychological space which would be better off thinking–or empty, either one, anything but filler!

And since nothing is more guilty of this than pop music, I’ve always blamed language for that, the issue of repetitive narratives. The problem is that it happens even when I barely know the language! So is it that silly math of musical notation that’s at least part of the problem? If so, is that bad? Is chanting ‘Buddho Buddho Buddho’ any better? If the object is not to think, then it shouldn’t make any difference. My theory is that we need to develop more visual thought, thinking without language, primordial and original…

First there was pure consciousness, awareness of surroundings and not much else, like that of a baby or that of lesser animals, just the urges to eat sleep and poop cluttering up an otherwise uninterrupted stream of consciousness, probably closest to what I as a Buddhist would call ‘mindfulness’. Then came simple notions of inclusion or exclusion, i.e. greater, lesser, or equal, Boolean logic, and then cause-and-effect ‘if…then’ silly syllogisms, the Aristotelian kind, even if often post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacious…

Only later came awareness of self, the ghost in the machine, and with it the idea of consciousness, self-consciousness, awareness fed back for further consideration, and complex language, abstract nouns created from adjectives, the reification of simple existence into complex forms and constructs, such that it’s hard to know what’s real any more, the thing itself, supposedly, or the words describing it…

What does all this have to do with Boy Scouts? Well, ‘Be prepared’ is the motto there, and personally, I still think it’s a pretty good one, no conflict with Buddhism, that I can see. As always, the ‘Middle Path’ says it best: avoid extremes. Don’t obsess, but don’t digress, either. Don’t over-think, but still you need to think. Don’t over-prepare, but don’t cast caution to the wind, either. There’s always a sweet-spot of involvement there, if you care to look for it. No one said that it’d be easy…