May 26, 2010

Breaking News - Meditation and the Buddha

“What do like to do best in the whole world, Pooh?” “Well’, said Pooh, what I like best…” and then he had to stop and think because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” Winnie the Pooh. AA Milne

When I am asked on a census form to state my religion, I will write Buddhist. I was not born a Buddhist, nor am I recognized member of a Buddhist group. My wife is a real Buddhist from Thailand and does not discourage my claim to be a Buddhist, although we have many discussions about the differences between my version and her version. My wife’s name is Sanskrit, Sumala (Rathaporn) Pawakanun. She recites devotional chants in Sanskrit and Pali, the ancient languages of Theravadan Buddhism.

Thailand was Siam until 1939. Human history in this part of the world, extends back thousands of years. Pottery and bronze tools have been found that date to about 5000 years ago. More recent settlements by Thai tribes came from southern China as early as the 4th century. Deshpande described Siamese Buddhist history in terms of the prolific art that emerged: “In the 13th-15th centuries, Thai tribes were assimilated, absorbing the cultures of their predecessors that had arisen from Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Mediaeval Siamese art reflected the ideas of Theravada Buddhism. The distinctive character of Siamese Buddhism lay in its ethical orientation, the pursuit of bun - religious merit - that improves the believer's karma. One common form of bun was the creation by one's own hands or by commissioning of sculptures of the Buddha that were presented to a temple. The most popular Buddha image depicts a key moment in the process by which the earthly prince Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha - a being who discovered Sublime Wisdom. Sculptors made use of a language of symbolic gestures - mudra. A combination of pose and gesture pointed to one particular episode in the life of the Buddha, some particular aspect of doctrine.”

Many years ago when the Tibetan Karmapa visited Vancouver, I attended a Bodhisattva initiation ceremony and he placed a red string around my neck that signalled my new status. The task of the Boddhisattva is to develop compassion in the service of fellow sentient beings. I have studied Buddhist texts from many countries, practiced meditations and developed a personal version of Buddhist philosophy which I will outline here. This is the sunshine coast school of Buddhism circa year 2550 (Buddhist calendar):

The Buddha’s path directs you toward disengagement from goal-oriented activities so that you can explore your own mind, develop insight into the really real and emerge with equanimity and compassion. Meditation is one method of understanding how our mind works, how we know things and what conclusions we can derive from our knowledge.

I prefer sitting on a beach, on a mountain, in a garden, in a boat, or floating on an inflated tire on a lake. Sitting inside buildings is not so appealing. One of my practices is sky and cloud watching which requires you to lie on a grassy or mossy patch of ground and looking up. One of the rules of mediation is not to look around and become distracted. Sky watching requires you to look up at the same patch of sky and let events such as birds, clouds and insects pass without following their paths.

The practice of meditation is based on a fundamental disinterest in the redeeming possibilities of language. Meditation leads to ineffable experiences and away from the beliefs, demands and rules of the local group. The Buddha manifests his identity as a professional philosopher by sitting upright in the Lotus position, poised, calm and alert. The lotus position is stable and can be maintained for hours. He has a gentle smile and his philosophical work looks effortless and natural. The Buddha required no books, wrote no books and said nothing during years of intense mind study. He studied the processes of his own mind and focused on being present in the world. His PhD thesis required seven years sitting under the Bo tree.

The Buddha recognized selftalk and all the other spontaneously arising contents of mind. He discovered the reactive aspects of mind and all the manifestations of selfish desire.

The Buddha discovered the constant contest between self-interest and generosity.

The Buddha explored the causes and nature of pride, greed, criticism, anger and hate. He explored the illusions of self.

The Buddha revealed the truth of spacetime as a ceaseless and integral flow of events.

The Buddha discovered the meshiness of events all interconnected; causes and effects without beginning and without end.

He developed, compassion for sentient beings caught in Samsara – needs, desires, passions, confusion, conflict and impermanence.

The Buddha discovered the way out – enlightenment. Even if we do not know exactly what enlightenment means, we all have a glimmer of hope that there is a state of grace available to us characterized by peace, happiness and profound understanding.

The Buddha’s path does not point you to a college course, a career, an investment, a new car or big house as way stations or destinations on the path toward enlightenment.

Much of the work on the path is solitary and has little or no outward manifestation. The path of enlightenment is a non-event and is boring. We can develop a sketch of how a highly developed mind might work and refer to an ideal or enlightened mind.

The enlightened mind sees all, knows all, and identifies with none of the local conditions that would limit knowledge and understanding.
The enlightened mind creates the best conditions for the greatest insight, understanding and greatest opportunity to experience rapture.

The enlightened mind recognizes the interrelationship of all living beings; cherishes life and treats others with tolerance and compassion.
The enlightened mind thrives in the natural world and never kills other sentient beings.

From Religion for the 21st Century by Stephen Gislason.
Persona Digital Books 2010.

May 17, 2010

Music Unites Humans

Recently, I promised to stop writing and speaking and to rely only on music for communication. But, the time has not yet come. I am a language addict. The compromise is to create music and also write about music, even though I have been convinced for years that my writing mind competes with my music mind. Some of the best musicians I have know could hardly speak and used only a strange morse code to communicate musical ideas.

I will argue that human dynamics can be described Wittgenstein-style as simple statements. For example, Humans can play games or they can do battle. Humans can dance, sing and play music or they can fight.

I wrote in my Music Notebook:

Music is a powerful ingredient in human societies that facilitates group bonding and conveys feelings more poignantly than other forms of communication. Shrock suggested:” As a college student, my eyes would often well up with tears during my twice-a-week choir rehearsals. I would feel relaxed and at peace yet excited and joyful, and I occasionally experienced a thrill so powerful that it sent shivers down my spine. I also felt connected with fellow musicians in a way I did not with friends who did not sing with me. I have often wondered what it is about music that elicits such emotions. Philosophers and biologists have asked the question for centuries, noting that humans are universally drawn to music. It consoles us when we are sad, pumps us up in happier times and bonds us to others.”

Pinker suggested that music offers a system of communication rooted in emotions rather than in meaning. Oliver Sacks in his book Musicophilia suggested that music is as important communication as language and gesture. I prefer to recognize that music is a collection of powerful languages, gestures, and whole body movements.

A scholarly investigation of music will emphasize the efforts of highly skilled professional musicians and forget that music begins with full participation of all members of local groups. Singing, dancing, chanting are aspects of group identity and group cohesion.

An ideal human group is coordinated by rhythmic expressions; they play instruments, sing and dance often. Music, as a performance by skilled musicians who play to silent audiences sitting in chairs is a recent innovation that only partly represents the deeper meaning of musical communication as a group experience.

Schrock suggested that music “is almost always a communal event: everyone gets together to sing, dance, and play instruments. Even in Western societies, which uniquely differentiate musical performers from listeners, people enjoy music together in a wide variety of settings: dancing at a wedding or a nightclub, singing hymns in church, crooning with their kids, Christmas caroling and singing “Happy Birthday” at a party. The popularity of such rituals suggests that music confers social cohesiveness, perhaps by creating empathetic connections among members of a group.,, music’s power stems from its tendency to echo and synchronize our activities.”


Humans have a strong tendency to bond to sounds early in life and prefer to hear or sing simple songs they learned earlier. Popular songs can be repeated throughout their life with the same strong feelings of identity and comfort. Simple melodies have the greatest appeal and widest audience, because they are easy to remember and resemble the simple phrases of ancient animal communication. Songs, of course, combine words and music and are potent in eliciting emotional responses.

A singer communicates emotionally with the audience, using gestures and dance to emphasize the emotional values of a song. I must admit that singers who indulge in exaggerated and strenuous gesturing and frantic dance steps often offend me. In contrast, I am enchanted to hear and watch Andrea Bocelli, the blind and eloquent Italian tenor. He stands motionless on the stage with his eyes closed. Bocelli sings with a perfect composure that is consistent with the mastery of his art. He is a Buddha.

Chanting is soothing to humans and group chanting can induce euphoria that some humans call a “religious” or “mystical” or “spiritual” feeling. The benefits of chanting are independent of the meaning of the words, although meaning can enhance the experience of chanting. Words used in chants are simple and often have a musical quality of their own.

Repeating the same phrase rhythmically has a trance-inducing power. If you combine chanting with dancing or just holding you arms in the air, swaying back and forth, you become euphoric and feel bonded with others in your group. Music induced trances work at Woodstock, folk concerts, rock concerts, support groups, churches, all night voodoo dances and on camping trips, sitting around a camp fire.

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