March 13th, 2015
illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
'Selflessness' (anatta) is the Buddhist antidote to the illusion of separation, the illusion of « my circumstances are different, my circumstances are special, I'm different, I'm special. »
The narrative of special-ness (and ultimately of some form of superiority) might take many forms. Among these many forms, two are particularly popular: « your solution works for you (that's the easy case), I'm glad… but it wouldn't work for me (my life is soooo hard, you couldn't possibly understand) » and « I know myself better than anyone, I know better than you what might support me. »
I wrote about this earlier (gplus.wallez.name/NPY9So13jED) but I'll propose another angle below.
Usually, the delusion of special-ness is self-servingly used to ask for special treatment, to request exemptions, to justify exceptions (e.g. breaking precepts… and then pretending that it wasn't "really" a breach, only some "expedient means" gplus.wallez.name/C1AU6vyRKUR).
However, the special-ness is often blown out of proportions, it is based on glossing over all that is common (biological, physical, climatic but also educational, political, social…) and narrowly focusing on some tiny difference. This is delusional: it is achieved via voluntarily missing the big picture! Moreover, the logic itself is usually flawed.
Here is a practical analogy of how flawed the logic is:
When one has cancer, an effective medical strategy consists in killing the cancer cells. It is not important to focus on the ineffable uniqueness of the cancer: which cell was the first faulty cell? why it started on a particular day and neither a day before nor a day later? how much precisely each genetic and epigenetic factor contributed to the arising? etc.
Killing the cancer cells without focusing on the uniqueness is a reasonably effective strategy: it isn't perfect, but it's a lot better than doing nothing.
For the mathematically inclined, a generic probability rule is
P[ x & y & z ] = P[ x ] . P[ y | x ] . P [ z | x & y ]
i.e. the probability of x and y and z occurring (together) is the probability of x occurring, multiplied by the probability of y occurring knowing that x has occurred, multiplied by the probability of z occurring knowing that x and y have occurred.
However, in some contexts or setups, causality might ensure that z is conditionally independent from x when y is known, i.e.
P[ z | x & y ] = P[ z | y ].
This is to say that all the information that x contributes and which would be relevant for z is already captured / summarised in the information that y provides (when co-present with x —which might differ from the information when y exists without x… just to keep things fun and simple ;-) ).
In such a situation, having levers to influence P[ z | y ] might allow one to provide a generic solution to some problem, regardless of the individuality of x… or at least a solution effective for most x, if not all.
In relation to cancer, x might be the individual triggers of the cancer, y might be the cancer itself, and z the potential death. The probability of "dying (z) from a specific cancer (y) in your particular circumstances (x)" is mostly reduced —by medicine— to the probability of "dying (z) from a specific cancer (y)": the methodology is based on tackling the cancer as it is, not the initial circumstances. This is to say the methodology is based on a particular link of the causal chain, and doesn't get lost in the small individual variations of other links. In the ideal world, medicine ensures P[ z | y ] = 0 and the initial circumstances become irrelevant: you'll survive, regardless of why the cancer manifested.
Let's now focus on psychology.
Let's assume there are myriads of individual narratives and views that might cause another narrative, e.g. one of powerlessness.
And let's assume that, for most people, such a narrative of powerlessness causes some dissatisfaction, a reduced appreciation of life, suffering.
If there exist psychological or mental tools to significantly reduce the causation from view of powerlessness to feeling of dissatisfaction —e.g. by a different way of relating to the view, by relativising the view, seeing it as "one among many", or by not believing it blindly, not promoting it from 'thought' to 'truth'— then there exist tools which can help the many, without denying the individualities (but also without being drowned by them).
Therefore, the key question is: do we have tools at our disposal to significantly reduce the probability of a view of powerlessness causing a feeling of dissatisfaction?
If we do, then this is great news:
• one can learn from the mistakes of others, one can appropriate the wisdom cultivated by others: no need to painfully and slowly reinvent the wheel;
• a methodology might be devised to help many (without pretence that it 'should' necessarily work for 'all');
• even if the methodology requires a few themes and a few keys, rather than just one 'perfect' single 'solution' —just like one would consider many types of cancer, not just one—, perceiving the multitude of individual stories as "variations on the same few themes" might still prove effective.
One should certainly use the tools and methodology at one's disposal… but, no tool being perfect and no finite words capturing the infinite diversity of the world, the need remains to pay attention enough not to blind oneself vis-à-vis exceptions that might arise.
I'm special… but is it relevant?
For many people, it is difficult to accept that some relatively generic answer might solve their individual suffering, they want to believe their suffering is special, exceptional, unique (and that therefore it deserves a special attention, an exceptional treatment, a unique approach). This is just a desire to exist separately, this is a "self view"… but, at the end of the day, it also is a refusal to see causality and how tendencies work: uniqueness of circumstances doesn't imply that the causal unfolding is similarly rich and unique at every step!
Most of the above qualifies as perfectly modern, does it not? Modern medicine, modern mathematics (inclusive of the Bayesian analysis of causality), modern psychology… And yet the Buddha mostly came up with the same, with his doctrine of Dependent Origination.
The key intuition of the Buddha was that, although views display the whole spectrum of individuality and uniqueness and variations and nuances, views (or 'ignorance') are only part of causal chains leading to suffering… and some links of these chains are common to most (if not all) views! A particular link might even be common to most (if not all) chains (gplus.wallez.name/gyr4iNrYS58).
Moreover, views lead to views (via "mental proliferation") so a limited set of secondary views (e.g. powerlessness) might be wholesomely addressed, without this necessarily implying the need to address the primary views they arose from.
By addressing 'clinging' rather than the diversity of views, and by appropriately responding (e.g. with precepts as guidance, or perfections as inspiration) to a few unhelpful secondary views (like the self view) rather than to the myriads of primary experiences, a "path" (i.e. a methodology) for the benefit of the many could be devised, without denying individuality but also without drowning in the illusion of special-ness: neither entities nor nothingness (nihilism), a Middle Way!
The first fetter abandoned by a stream-enterer is the "self view", notably the delusion that one's circumstances are so special that they require a specially tailored response. The kalama sutta supports personal enquiry, and the personal application of antidotes (no need to treat cancers that you don't have!), but it doesn't promote pointlessly reinventing one's "own" wheel, one's own medicine (gplus.wallez.name/PUQ2AeReGEM)!
The key idea behind having a teacher in Buddhism lies in accepting that one might benefit from answers a lot more generic than the ego would be flattered by. It requires to drop the unwholesome, unhelpful view of special-ness… It requires humility, the willingness to listen, the opposite of « I know myself better, therefore I know better what supports me, » the cessation of the superiority view. It requires the cessation of « I know » and the arising of « I don't know; let's look! What is this? What makes someone else think differently from me about this? » (gplus.wallez.name/Qg9iZzDGDkv).
It's not easy, sure, but neither is living in the midst of dissatisfaction! All in all, though, we might as well be happy… since we're here!
Photo: (recently auctioned) Chinese carved ivory Buddha, Qing dynasty
More 'traditional' version: Cula-Malunkyovada sutta (MN 63) and its "poisoned arrow" simile [ cf. e.g. accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html ]