Brain Pickings

In Praise of Shadows: Ancient Japanese Aesthetics and Why Every Technology Is a Technology of Thought

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“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”

At least since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we’ve seen shadows as a metaphor for the illusory and wicked aspects of life, for that which we must eradicate in order to illuminate the truth and inherent goodness of existence. And yet we forget that the darkness they cast evidences the light — palpable proof without which we might not appreciate or even notice the radiance itself.

The 1933 gem In Praise of Shadows (public library) by Japanese literary titan Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) belongs to that special order of slim, enormously powerful books that enchant the lay reader with an esoteric subject, leaving a lifelong imprint on the imagination — rare masterpieces like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s love letter to moss and Glenn Kurtz’s paean to the pleasures of playing guitar.

Tanizaki, translated here by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, examines the singular standards of Japanese aesthetics and their stark contrast — even starker today, almost a century later — with the value systems of the industrialized West. He writes:

We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

At the heart of this philosophy is a fundamental cultural polarity. Unlike the Western conception of beauty — a stylized fantasy constructed by airbrushing reality into a narrow and illusory ideal of perfection — the zenith of Japanese aesthetics is deeply rooted in the glorious imperfection of the present moment and its relationship to the realities of the past:

The quality that we call beauty … must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends.

One of the most enchanting celebrations of shadows is manifested in the Japanese relationship with materials. Tanizaki writes:

Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose… Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.

Embedded in Tanizaki’s lament about how Western innovations have infiltrated Japan’s traditional use of materials is a reminder that every technology is essentially a technology of thought. He considers the broader implications of material progress based on assimilation and imitation:

Had we devised independently at least the more practical sorts of inventions, this could not but have had profound influence upon the conduct of our everyday lives, and even upon government, religion, art, and business.

He offers the example of the Japanese writing brush and the Western fountain pen, examining how the latter might differ had it been invented in his homeland:

It would surely have had a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to seep down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper — even under mass production, if you will — would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture.

Tanizaki’s point is both poetic and practical. Many decades later, it is now believed that another invention — glass — is what planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West.

He considers another facet of this perilous proclivity for what he calls “borrowed gadgets”:

Had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless.

Although Tanizaki is writing at a time when a new wave of polymers was sweeping the industrialized West, he paints a subtler and more important contrast than that between the Western cult of synthetics and the Japanese preference for organic materials. This elegant osmosis of art and shadow, he argues, is to be found not only in what materials are used, but in how they are being used:

Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best; but even unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires an inexplicable power to calm and sooth.

This temporal continuity of beauty, a counterpoint to the West’s neophilia, is central to Japanese aesthetics. Rather than fetishizing the new and shiny, the Japanese sensibility embraces the living legacy embedded in objects that have been used and loved for generations, seeing the process of aging as something that amplifies rather than muting the material’s inherent splendor. Luster becomes not an attractive quality but a symbol of shallowness, a vacant lack of history:

We find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice… We begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for.

[…]

We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

Tanizaki speaks affectionately of “the glow of grime,” which “comes of being touched over and over” — a record of the tactile love an object has acquired through being caressed by human hands again and again.

But nowhere does Tanizaki’s ode to shadows flow more melodically than in his writing about Japanese lacquerware:

Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware… [Traditional lacquerware] was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived.

But lacquerware, Tanizaki notes, isn’t merely a visual delight — its magic is multi-sensory, amplified by a sense of mystery:

I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soul bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby… With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly different from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment wen soup is served Western style, in a pal, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.

This mysterious mesmerism of well-placed darkness is especially vital in the culinary experience:

It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.

[…]

With Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half.

[…]

Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.

Indeed, he argues that excessive illumination is the most atrocious assault on beauty in the West. A mere half-century after Edison’s electric light shocked American cities with its ghastly glare, Tanizaki contemplates this particularly lamentable manifestation of our pathological Western tendency to turn something beneficial into something excessive. Decades before computer screens and Times Square billboards and the global light pollution epidemic, he writes:

So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.

[…]

In most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head… One of these balls of fire alone would suffice to light the place, yet three or four blaze down from the ceiling, and there are smaller versions on the walls and pillars, serving no function but to eradicate every trace of shadow. And so the room is devoid of shadows.

[…]

Light is used not for reading and writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs agains the basic idea of the Japanese room.

Nowhere, Tanizaki argues, is this vice of ravenous radiance more evident than in the most intimate of rooms. Wincing at “how crude and tasteless [it is] to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination,” he extols the virtues of the old-style Japanese toilet — a dimly lit outdoor bathroom typically located a short walk from the main house:

The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves… There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beautifies of nature.

His inquiry into the origin of these cultural differences, paradoxically enough, calls to mind both Buddhism’s basic teaching of acceptance and the memorable words of one of the West’s greatest thinkers — Albert Camus’s observation that people often “refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Tanizaki writes:

We Orientals seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are, and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.

But Tanizaki’s eulogy to this setting world of shadows transcends the realm of material aesthetics and touches on the conceptual sensibility of modern life in a way doubly relevant today, nearly a century later, as we struggle to maintain a sense of mystery in the age of knowledge. He remarks in the closing pages:

I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration… Perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.

Like its subject, In Praise of Shadows derives its splendor from smallness and subtlety, distilling centuries of wisdom and bridging thousands of miles of cultural divide in an essay-length miracle of a book. Complement it with the breathtaking Little Tree, a pop-up book celebrating the Japanese reverence for darkness and impermanence — one of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids process loss and mourning — then revisit this rare look at Japan in hand-colored images from the 1920s.

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An Animating Presence: Dani Shapiro on the Quest for a Connected Consciousness

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The art of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue.

“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” physicist Margaret Wertheim asserted as she turned to Dante in reconciling science and spirituality. Centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, had articulated the same sentiment — and yet here we are today, we secular moderns, still struggling to find a form of spirituality without religion.

That’s what novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance, unselfconsciousness, and unaffected candor in Devotion (public library) — her moving memoir of the search for a sense of sacredness as a nonbeliever shackled by the tyrannical routines and responsibilities of contemporary adulthood, longing for some form of tangible assurance that there is a greater meaning to be savored.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Jolted out of the trance of productivity by the prod of pain — her father’s untimely death, followed by the near-loss of her baby boy by a rare disease that strikes seven out of every million infants — Shapiro finds herself on the so-called spiritual path, skeptical of even its terminology. But the journey that unfolds is unexpectedly revelatory, her record of it profound without the slightest trace of precious.

As she plunges into the Eastern traditions — arguably the most common refuge for those disenchanted with the organized religions of the West and drawn to the philosophical aspects of spirituality — Shapiro is discombobulated to encounter the familiar demons of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which she had long left behind and was now, in the wake of her father’s death, trying to understand.

Amid a Metta meditation — Metta being the Buddhist practice of “inclining the mind in the direction of good will” — she is suddenly gripped with unease at the required chants:

After a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer. Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself: judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl once again, and I could barely sit still.

When she raises the question to the group, the teacher — none other than the venerable Sylvia Boorstein — explains that rather than metaphysical sorcery, the chants are meant to channel our deepest wishes. (“May I feel protected and safe,” this particular one goes. “May my life unfold smoothly with ease.”) Shapiro’s initial reluctance to give the notion of a wish much credence (“Wishing was something children did — wasn’t it?”) eventually gives way to grasping the deeper significance of these ritualistic incantations:

What did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? … To speak out of a deep yearning — to set that yearning loose in the world? … Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer? … Maybe it wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.

Writing itself, she comes to observe, works much like a prayer. With an eye to Buddhist scholar Steve Cope’s term for early meditation experiences — “the noble failure” — Shapiro, who has since expanded on this idea in the magnificent Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, reflects:

In novels — as in life — there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Given that we are changing, the tools are changing, the thing itself is changing — there must be a moment when we stop. When we say, This is the best I can do for now… There is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness — the doggedness. It is a process of trying and failing. Of beginning again.

And so it is with the search for meaning — like writing, its rewards spring not from the finished product but from the integrity of the process, from the act of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue along its ongoingness.

Shapiro brushes with a stark testament to this as she nears the end of her journey. Over tea, a friend asks whether she has found an answer to her spiritual inquiry. She recounts the exchange:

There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief. Add on top of that trying to talk about personal belief with a very smart atheist. But I had some things to say. And wasn’t that the whole point, really? To opt back in? To form — if not an opinion — a set of feelings and instincts by which to live?

“I would say yes.” I took a leap. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me — or anybody else — in the book of life.”

“So what exactly do you believe, then?” She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that exactly and believe don’t belong in the same sentence.

“I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”

I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding.

“An animating presence,” she said.

That was as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something — rather than nothing. While sitting in meditation or practicing yoga, the paradox was increasingly clear to me: emptiness led to fullness, nonthought to greater understanding.

[…]

I thought of Sylvia Boorstein’s elegant phrase: complicated with it. We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all — nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.

Devotion is a beautiful and deeply gratifying read in its entirety. Complement it with Shapiro on vulnerability and how to live with presence and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown, then revisit neuroscientist Sam Harris on cultivating nonreligious spirituality and Alan Lightman on finding transcendence in everyday life.

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The Art of Science Communication: William Zinsser on How to Write Well About Science

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How to master the inverse pyramid of transmuting information into wisdom.

I have always considered writing a way of organizing reality — of organizing one’s own mind and, in recording that process, decluttering the reader’s understanding of some subtle or staggering aspect of the world.

Few writers have articulated the philosophies and practicalities behind this artful organization with more clarity and conviction than William Zinsser (October 7, 1922–May 12, 2015) in his 1976 classic On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (public library) — a masterwork partway, in both time and tenor, between E.B. White’s vintage bible The Elements of Style and psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s contemporary counterpart The Sense of Style.

William Zissner (Photograph: Damon Winter / The New York Times)

With the hindsight of three decades, Zinsser — who had written the book in the early 1970s with nothing but “a dangling lightbulb, an Underwood standard typewriter, a ream of yellow copy paper and a wire wastebasket” — reflects in the preface to the 30th anniversary edition:

Computers have replaced the typewriter, the delete key has replaced the wastebasket, and various other keys insert, move and rearrange whole chunks of text. But nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read.

But Zinsser points out that while the job of the writer may have gotten easier as the computer became “an everyday tool for people who had never thought of themselves as writers,” the task of the writer — that ability to say something which “other people will want to read” — has gotten, in many ways, harder:

Any invention that reduces the fear of writing is up there with air-conditioning and the lightbulb. But, as always, there’s a catch. Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.

[…]

Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences—pruning and revising and reshaping — without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen. How could such beautiful sentences not be perfect?

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Even in the decade since the 30th anniversary edition, the technological barriers of entry for writing and publishing nonfiction online have gotten exponentially lower and the stakes of good writing and journalism exponentially higher — nowhere more so than in science, where bad writing is not only unpleasurable for the reader but also potentially dangerous.

Indeed, one of the most enduring and urgently important sections of Zinsser’s classic deals with the art of writing about science — something that often befuddles both writers and scientists. The most solid common ground between them, Zinsser playfully suggests, is built upon a shared panic at the prospect of writing — with the expectation of writing well — about science. He addresses this often irrational trepidation:

Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.

[…]

Scientific and technical material can be made accessible to the layman. It’s just a matter of putting one sentence after another. The “after,” however, is crucial. Nowhere else must you work so hard to write sentences that form a linear sequence. This is no place for fanciful leaps or implied truths. Fact and deduction are the ruling family.

To illustrate the importance of this sequential storytelling, Zinsser cites a science assignment he often gives to his writing students — the seemingly simple exercise of describing how something works: “how a sewing machine does what it does, or how a pump operates, or why an apple falls down, or how the eye tells the brain what it sees.” Reflecting on how this assignment plants the seed for good science writing, Zinsser touches on the essential function of writing as a tool for organizing reality:

Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you. I’ve found it to be a breakthrough for many students whose thinking was disorderly.

This principle of science writing, Zinsser points out, applies to all nonfiction writing, for it teaches the writer to lead the reader, step by step, from knowing nothing about a subject to understanding enough to grow enchanted with its broader significance.

Zinsser illustrates this approach by outlining an inverse Maslow-style pyramid of informational needs:

Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation — how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact.

But as someone who thinks a great deal about the challenge of transmuting information into wisdom, I find myself inclined to push Zinsser’s model a step further and consider the importance of cultivating a layer of wisdom above the layer of “significance and speculation.” The difference might be subtle, but it’s an important one: After all, when one reads the very finest science writing — be it Oliver Sacks writing about the mind or Diane Ackerman about the senses or Stephen Jay Gould about lepidoptery or Robin Wall Kimmerer about moss — one walks away informed about the significance of these scientific phenomena, certainly, but more than that, one walks away elevated and enriched and illuminated with a new appreciation of our “strange and shimmering world.”

On Writing Well remains absolutely indispensable, exploring such essential aspects of the craft as the key to sophisticated simplicity, the core transaction between the writer and the reader, the art of the interview, and the most fruitful attitude for the writer. Complement it with Cheryl Strayed on the importance of faith and humility in writing, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, E.B. White on the two faces of discipline, and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the most important tool of writing, then revisit this ongoing archive of great writers’ advice on the craft.

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A Biologist-Turned-Buddhist and His Philosopher Father on the Nature of the Self and the True Measure of Personal Strength

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“You first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”

For the past few centuries, Western philosophy has maintained that human beings are driven by enlightened self-interest — a view predicated on the needs and desires of a solid self. Meanwhile, Eastern philosophies and spiritual traditions have long considered the self an illusion — a view with which modern science has recently begun to side.

These contradictory conceptions of the self as a centerpiece of identity and success, per the Western view, and as an illusion, per the Eastern one, are what French philosopher Jean-François Revel and his biologist-turned-Buddhist son, Matthieu Ricard, explore in their extraordinary conversation, published as The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (public library).

What makes the conversation particularly compelling is the unusual pairing of perspectives — it is not only an intergenerational dialogue between a father and a son who both possess enormous intellectual potency, but a dialogue between Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality with a strong emphasis on science. The scientific perspective, in fact, comes not from Revel but from Ricard, who gave up a promising career as a molecular biologist — he had worked with Nobel laureate Jacques Monod — to move to Nepal and study Tibetan Buddhism. Doubly significant is Ricard’s route to Buddhism: Raised in the strongly secular home of two prominent French intellectuals — his mother, Revel’s wife, was the painter Yahne Le Toumelin — he grew up with only an intellectual curiosity toward religion and turned to Buddhism not out of disappointment with Western faiths but out of what his father calls “a state of indifference to any religion, a kind of religious weightlessness.”

Matthieu Ricard (right) with his father, Jean-François Revel (Photograph: Raphaelle Demandre)

So in 1999, when Revel traveled to Ricard’s home in Kathmandu and the two sat down for this remarkable intellectual encounter, it was the philosophical rather than the religion dimensions of Buddhism that took center stage as the father and son contemplated such immutable human concerns as free will, the meaning of life, the value of scientific progress, and the pillars of the good life. As they speak, each addresses the other as much as he is confabulating with himself, which results in a masterpiece of the art of conversation at its most elevated and ennobling — an exchange of dynamic contemplation between and within minds, driven not by the self-righteous slinging of opinions but by a deep commitment to mutual understanding and to enriching the shared pool of wisdom.

One of the most pause-giving dimensions of the conversation deals with this notion of the self and its illusory nature. When Revel takes issue with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, pointing out its mystical and scientifically ungrounded suppositions, Ricard emphasizes its metaphorical and philosophical importance over its literal interpretation. Embedded in that notion, he suggests, is the key to unmooring ourselves from the tyranny of the self in the here and now:

It’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some “entity” or other… As long as one thinks in terms of entities rather than function and continuity, it’s impossible to understand the Buddhist concept of rebirth.

[…]

Since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together… It’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.

Illustration from 'The Magic Boat' by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud's niece. Click image for more.

Ricard likens this concept to “a river without a boat descending along its course” and is careful to point out a common misconception: Although Buddhism denies the existence of the individual self, it doesn’t deny individual consciousness. He explains:

The fact that there’s no such discontinuous entity being transferred from one life to the next doesn’t mean that there can’t be a continuity of functioning. That the self has no true existence doesn’t prevent one particular stream of consciousness from having qualities that distinguish it from another stream. The fact that there’s no boat floating down the river doesn’t prevent the water from being full of mud, polluted by a paper factory, or clean and clear. The state of the river at any given moment is the result of its history. In the same way, an individual stream of consciousness is loaded with all the traces left on it by positive and negative thoughts, as well as by actions and words arising from those thoughts. What we’re trying to do by spiritual practice is to gradually purify the river. The ultimate state of complete clarity is what we call spiritual realization. All the negative emotions, all the obscurations that render the underlying wisdom invisible, have then been dissolved.

Echoing the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Ricard argues that this recognition of individual consciousness is central to the dissolution of the ego-shell:

It’s not a question of annihilating the self, which has never really existed, but simply of uncovering its imposture. Indeed, if the self did have any intrinsic existence we’d never be able to bring it from existence into nonexistence.

[…]

A nonexistent self can’t really be “abolished,” but its nonexistence can be recognized. What we want to abolish is the illusion, the mistake that has no inherent existence in the first place… whatever we judge to be disagreeable or harmful. But as soon as we recognize that the self has no true existence, all these attracting and repelling impulses will vanish… The self has neither beginning nor end, and therefore in the present it has no more existence than the mind attributes to it.

Ricard, who has since written about the secret of happiness, considers how our natural, everyday experience of the “I” mutates into the illusion of the self, from which all of our suffering stems:

There’s a natural feeling of self, of “I,” which makes you think “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m walking,” and so forth. By itself, that feeling is neutral. It doesn’t specifically lead to either happiness or suffering. But then comes the idea that the self is a kind of constant that lasts all your life, regardless of all the physical and mental changes you go through. You get attached to the idea of being a self, “myself,” a “person,” and of “my” body, “my” name, “my” mind, and so on. Buddhism accepts that there is a continuum of consciousness, but denies any existence of a solid, permanent, and autonomous self anywhere in that continuum. The essence of Buddhist practice is therefore to get rid of that illusion of a self which so falsifies our view of the world.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

When his father probes how one is expected to effect positive change in the world without a sense of personal agency — another common critique by those who misunderstand the foundational philosophies of Buddhism — Ricard responds:

The wish to allay others’ suffering, which may inspire a whole lifetime’s work, is an admirable ambition. It’s important to distinguish between negative emotions, like desire, hatred, and pride, that solidify still further our self-centered outlook, and positive ones, like altruistic love, compassion, and faith, that allow us to free ourselves little by little from those negative and self-centered tendencies. Positive emotions don’t disturb our mind, they reinforce it and make it more stable and more courageous.

In a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Ricard makes an important distinction between the two types of ambition:

Positive ambition — the pursuit of others’ well-being by all possible means, the fervent wish to transform oneself — is one of the cardinal virtues in Buddhism. In fact, Buddhists nurture one main ambition without any limits, that of removing the suffering of all living beings throughout the whole universe. That sort of ambition stops you succumbing to inertia and makes you strong-minded and determined. So the distinction between the positive and negative, selfless and self-centered sides of ambition is important. You could say that ambition is positive if its aim is to help others. That’s the simplest definition. Conversely, ambition is negative if achieving it is detrimental to others, and an emotion is negative if it destroys your own and others’ inner peace.

He illustrates this with a verse from the eight-century Buddhist sage Shantideva:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
Is there need for lengthy explanation?
Childish beings look out for themselves,
While Buddhas labor for the good of others:
See the difference that divides them!

With that great Eastern capacity for holding paradox and fusing contradictory concepts into a unity of wisdom, Ricard argues that shedding the ego-shell actually requires first fortifying our ego — more than that, he suggests, true altruism is the product not of selflessness but of a strong sense of self:

Buddhism’s goal of uncovering the “imposture of the ego,” this ego that seems so powerful and causes us so much trouble while having no existence in itself. Nevertheless, as a first step it’s important to stabilize this feeling of a self in order to distinguish all its characteristics. You could say, paradoxically, that you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist. Someone with an unstable, fragmented, amorphous personality has little chance of being able to identify that powerful feeling of “me,” as a prior step to recognizing that it doesn’t correspond to any real entity. So you need to start with a healthy and coherent self to be able to investigate it. You can shoot at a target, but not in fog.

[…]

But it’s important not to think that once the imposture of the ego is unmasked you find yourself in a state of inner nothingness, to the point that the destruction of the personality renders you incapable of acting or communicating. You don’t become an empty container. It’s quite the opposite. When you’re no longer the plaything of an illusory despot, like the shadows in Plato’s cave, your wisdom, love for others and compassion can be freely expressed. It’s a freedom from the limitations imposed by attachment to a self, not at all an anesthesia of the will. This “opening of the eyes of wisdom” increases your strength of mind, your diligence, and your capacity to take appropriate and altruistic action.

Revel contrasts this with the West’s “cult of the self” and our civilizational emphasis on “the strong personality” as a hallmark of success, questioning whether there can be a common ground between cultural and philosophical traditions so diametrically opposed in this regard. But Ricard, once again, meets the problem with semantic lucidity that melts away the apparent conflict:

If by personality you mean exacerbation of the ego, simply to have a strong personality seems to me, unfortunately, a highly dubious criterion of success. Hitler and Mao Tse-tung had very strong personalities.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown' by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Echoing Bertrand Russell’s famous assertion that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult… and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Ricard adds:

It’s important not to confuse strong individuality and strength of mind. The great teachers I’ve been able to meet had indomitable strength of mind. You could say they had very impressive personalities, and that they radiated a sort of natural strength that everyone who met them could perceive. But the big difference was that you couldn’t find the slightest trace of ego in them. I mean the kind of ego that inspires selfishness and self-centeredness. Their strength of mind came from knowledge, serenity, and inner freedom that were outwardly manifested as an unshakable certainty. They were worlds apart from Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and the like, whose powerful personalities arose from an unbridled desire to dominate, and from pride, greed, or hatred. In both cases, we’re faced with immense power, but in the first that power is a flow of constructive altruism, while in the second it’s negative and destructive.

The Monk and the Philosopher is a remarkable read in its totality, addressing with enormous depth and dimension such aspects of the human experience as happiness, suffering, education, ethics, and love. Complement it with D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character and Jack Kerouac’s Zen-inspired meditation on the self illusion and “the golden eternity,” then revisit Albert Einstein and the Indian philosopher Tagore’s historic conversation entwining Eastern and Western perspectives with great mutual curiosity and goodwill.

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