November 21, 2006

Buddha Break 2006.11.21

Reclusive writer Robert Persig, author of the seventies bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is interviewed by the Guardian. Persig talks about about anxiety, depression, the death of his son and the road trip that inspired the best selling philosophy book of all time. The interview offers some sobering insight into Persig's somewhat dark and somber state of mind and his ongoing battles with mental illness (including his experience with electroshock therapy). Excerpt:
"I could not sleep and I could not stay awake,' he recalls. 'I just sat there cross-legged in the room for three days. All sorts of volitions started to go away. My wife started getting upset at me sitting there, got a little insulting. Pain disappeared, cigarettes burned down in my fingers ...but then a kind of chaos set in. Suddenly I realised that the person who had come this far was about to expire. I was terrified, and curious as to what was coming. I felt so sorry for this guy I was leaving behind. It was a separation. This is described in the psychiatric canon as catatonic schizophrenia. It is cited in the Zen Buddhist canon as hard enlightenment. I have never insisted on either - in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to."
While I'm no expert in Zen Buddhism, the impression I get from the interview is that Persig's condition is not so much a reflection of his personal enlightenment or the attainment of Zen nothingness as it is his battle with terrible tragedies and depression.

Interestingly, he notes at the end of the interview how he is on anti-depressants due to a "chemical inbalance." It's the 'human' aspect to his story -- the harsh realness of life -- that I find most poignant.

SciAm's article, "Darwin at the Zoo," asks: "Did humans invent right and wrong, or are these feelings part of the inheritance from our primate ancestors?" Behavioral scientists are learning that social animals have hard-wired moral skills and that humans are not unique inventors of empathy and morality. Excerpt:
In reality, de Waal reminds us, dogs are social, wolves are social, chimps and macaques are social, and we ourselves are "social to the core." Goodness, generosity and genuine kindness come just as naturally to us as meaner feelings. We didn't have to invent compassion. When our ancestors began writing down the first codes of conduct, precepts, laws and commandments, they were elaborating on feelings that evolved thousands or even millions of years before they were born. "Instead of empathy being an endpoint," de Waal writes, "it may have been the starting point."
The article reviews the book, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal, Stephen Macedo (Editor), and Josiah Ober (Editor).

There was A Free-for-All on Science and Religion recently at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA. Excerpt from the NYT article:
Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,” or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for “progress in spiritual discoveries” to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book “The God Delusion” is a national best-seller.

Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.
Sam Harris also reports from this conference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My take on Pirsig: He endures a kind of cyclical struggle -- knowing that nothingness leads to bliss, yet seeking some kind of engagement with the world. Looking for meaning in so many different places and trying to integrate all of its varieties into some overarching theory...knowing that really there is no ultimate meaning, so we must construct our own...and finding that unsatisfactory, too. Do you live in a monastery or in the world? Or do you try, like Pirsig, to be both places at once? All of the options are somehow unsatisfactory.

It's a kind of postmodern malaise, I suspect. One that's only a problem, really, when perspective is lost. But it's hard to maintain perspective amid all the contemporary confusions -- isn't it?