Sunday July 11, 2010
If it’s been quiet around here lately, that’s partly because of my temporary relocation to China, where I am doing some research for a forthcoming novel. This has knocked almost everything else for six, what with organising everything for my departure, and then getting my head round life in a different part of the world and (oh, dear!) a different language.
Anyway, today I noticed that thinkBuddha is close to its fifth birthday, which is just over a couple of weeks away. If I have internet access at that time, I’ll have some modest festivities online. Without cake, of course, because a virtual cake is no cake at all. And talking about cake, or the absence of cake, brings me nicely to today’s topic.
Early today I wandered up the road from where I’m staying in Beijing to the Wanshou Temple (万寿寺) – the temple of longevity – which dates from the sixteenth century, and which was apparently much favoured by the Empress Dowager Cixi. Sunday was probably not the day to visit, as it was bustling with tour groups; but it’s a lovely place nonetheless – Empress Dowagers, I imagine, would settle for nothing less – with a good, if small, display of Buddhist art. The labelling in English was a little eccentric – although not as eccentric as it would be if I tried to label anything in Chinese – and it’s easy to take cheap pot-shots at these kind of things; but I was intrigued rather more philosophically by the caption on an image of the Buddha Shakyamuni. It said a Buddha was someone who has “woken up after practising mortification.” This got me thinking about the place of mortification in Buddhism. Because even if, as is well known, the Buddha explicitly rejected both mortification and excess, nevertheless the story of his austerities has a kind of dramatic role that is a bit odd. So even in the texts where the Buddha says, in short, that mortification is useless for developing any kind of insight into things, at the same time he says that when it came to mortification he was the top banana (by virtue of eating none, no doubt). And this carries on throughout the various Buddhist traditions, with the Buddha being admired for his austerities, whilst at the same time this mortification is doctrinally dismissed as being of no use. On the one hand the Buddha is claimed to be pretty damn great because he could mortify himself to the n th degree; on the other hand it is claimed that there is no value to this. There’s something a bit suspect here, methinks. The strong implication is that this mortification is, in fact, something to do with his eventual awakening; but this is at the same time rejected.
Of course, one could come to a kind of uneasy psychological resolution of the apparent paradox. Once could say that this story (if it is true) shows the Buddha’s determination, determination that, properly channelled, would be of benefit to him. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it is hard not to think that there is something here that is close to having your cake and eating it. Or, given the circumstances, of not having your cake and eating it. Or – hey, who can pass up the chance of indulging in a spot of Buddhist logic when it arises? – of both having your cake and eating it and also not having your cake and eating it. Or, to complete the tetralemma, of neither having your cake and eating it nor not having your cake and eating it.
Hard work, logic. I’m going for a slice of cake. They go great Portuguese custard tarts (葡式蛋挞) here in Beijing.
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