Friday, January 27, 2017

Chinese New Year and the Era of Civilization

On Saturday, the Chinese will celebrate the new year on their Lunisolar calendar. It will mark the year 4715.

What happened 4715 years ago? In Chinese myth and religion, apparently 2698 BC (on the Gregorian calendar) was the beginning of the reign of the Yellow Emperor, thought to be the "initiator of Chinese civilization" according to Wikipedia. That's not to say that the Chinese didn't exist before then, but his place at the beginning of their calendar at least signifies an important distinction between what came before and everything after. Of course, there are a LOT of historical reasons for the way the current Chinese calendar is formulated.

Placing Year One on a calendar at the beginning of civilization makes a lot of sense. Calendars are an invention of civilization. They don't just tell time, they tell a story about the culture it belongs to. For example, the current year on the Hebrew calendar is 5777, with Year One taking place a year before the creation of the world in the Jewish myth of Genesis.

The calendar used all over the world today, the Gregorian Calendar, is of course a Christian invention, placing Year One at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. This calendar frames the history of Western civilization, and indeed the entire world, as the story of a Christian world. But Western civilization, and indeed civilization as a whole, is far older than that. Why should the world run on a calendar based around a religion followed only by a third of the people in it?

I think there's something very satisfying about placing Year One at the beginning of civilization, as it marks the beginning of humanity as we know it today. The distinction is important, as humanity was thought to have achieved "behavioral modernity" about 50,000 years ago, which means that the project of civilization itself is a a relatively new one in the history of our species. We are still sorting through the various ways the environment of civilization has forced us to evolve, be it physically, mentally, socially, or otherwise.

But when to put Year One on the calendar of civilization? Western civilization is thought to have its roots in ancient Mesopotamia (meaning "between rivers": the Tigris and Euphrates, located in current-day Iraq and Syria). The first civilization to be founded there is thought to be Sumer, from which we get the story of Gilgamesh.



There's no exact date on the founding of Sumerian civilization, as written records from that time didn't emerge until a good while after the Sumerians arrived on the scene. Additionally, there is some debate among historians about when to place such a date, with some saying around 4000 BC and some saying a good deal older. However, that ~4000 BC date seems to be what is conventionally accepted, as it is the beginning of the Uruk period, named after the city of Uruk, thought to be the oldest of the Sumerian cities. Additionally, the fourth millennium BC is the beginning of the Bronze age, marking a significant departure in human development.

So, if one wanted to create a calendar based on the story of civilization (or at least Western civilization, though the Chinese and Indians popped up separately and around the same time as the Mesopotamians), one might simply add 4000 to our current year, which would make this year 6017. That's 6,017 years of organized agriculture, social stratification, government, written history, taxes, population density, specialist occupations, and politics, things we all take for granted today. That's 6,017 years out of 50,000 years of behavioral modernity, a mere 12% of the existence of humanity.

I think this is a fascinating, and even useful, formulation of time. In today's world we are still dealing with the problems posed by civilization, be it social stratification, the concentration of power, the effect on the environment, and the roles that it forces us into in order to survive. And there's a rich history in those 4000 unacknowledged years, from which the basis of our culture today was formed. I think we are better off looking at the bigger picture.

Here are some important historical dates revised with 4000BC as Year One (subtract all BC years from 4001). I separated them by millennia. I know this is lacking quite a lot, and it's very U.S.-centric, but I'm not trying to give a history of the whole world here. Significant dates in the history of the Roman Empire are in bold because of the through-line it makes in Western history.

THE INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION

With a few other dates thrown in

FIRST MILLENNIUM - Early Bronze Age
  • 1: Sumerian Civilization in Mesopotamia
  • 801: Invention of writing in Egypt and Mesopotamia
  • 851: Unification of Egypt and founding of First Dynasty
SECOND MILLENNIUM - Bronze Age
  • 1111: Second Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1200~1500: Estimated date that Gilgamesh ruled Uruk
  • 1300: Minoan Greek Bronze Age
  • 1303: Beginning of the reign of the Yellow Emperor in China
  • 1461: Great Pyramid of Giza built during Fourth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1503: Fifth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1651: Akkad arises from Sumeria
  • 1871: Tenth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1900: Sumerian poems of the Epic of Gilgamesh dated to around this time
  • 1951: Assyria gains independence from Sumeria

THIRD MILLENNIUM - Middle-Late Bronze Age, Collapse, Iron Age
  • 2000: Canaanite city-states founded in the levant
  • 2107: Babylon arises from Akkad
  • 2401: Mycenaean Greece
  • 2561: Moses leads the Jewish people out of Egypt (estimated date)
  • 2689 - 2729: Writing of the Torah
  • 2722: Ramesses II rules Egypt as part of Nineteenth Dynasty
  • 2807~2817: Estimated date of Trojan war
  • 2824: Bronze Age Collapse, affecting Egypt, Greece, and much of the Mediterranean. The Greeks lose the ability to write.
  • 2976: King Saul rules the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, followed by David and Solomon (estimated)

FOURTH MILLENNIUM - Late Iron Age, Classical Antiquity
  • 3041: Solomon's temple in Jerusalem completed
  • 3200s: Greeks adopt alphabet from Phoenicians
  • 3240-3290s: The Iliad is written, followed soon by the Odyssey
  • 3248: Founding of Roman Kingdom
  • 3261: Assyria conquers Israel
  • 3396: Jewish Babylonian captivity
  • 3407: Athenian Greek Democracy
  • 3415: Destruction of Solomon's Temple by Babylon Empire
  • 3434: Birth of Buddha
  • 3451: Zoroaster, founding of Achaemenid empire
  • 3462: Fall of Babylon to Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great releases the captive Jews the next year
  • 3476: Fall of Egypt to Achaemenid Empire
  • 3485: Second Temple in Jerusalem constructed
  • 3492: Founding of Roman Republic
  • 3511: Battle of Marathon, between Greece and Achaemenid Empire
  • 3518: Death of Buddha
  • 3521: Battle of Thermopylae, second invasion of Greece by Achaemenid empire
  • 3561: Herodotus' Histories published
  • 3669: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt, then Judea, the next year conquers Achaemenid Empire
  • 3721 - 3871: Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) written
  • 3855: Roman rule of Greece
  • 3956: Julian Calendar adopted (709 AUC - 709 years since founding of Rome)
  • 3957: Death of Julius Caesar
  • 3971: Ptolemaic Egypt falls to Rome
  • 3972 - 3982: Virgil writes the Aeneid
  • 3974: Founding of Roman Empire
  • 3997: Jesus of Nazareth is born

FIFTH MILLENNIUM - Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages/"Dark Ages"
  • 4030: Jesus executed by Rome for the crime of sedition
  • 4070: Rome besieges Jerusalem and destroys the Second Temple. Books of the New Testament written in Greek.
  • 4284: Emperor Diocletian splits Rome in two, with the eastern capital in Byzantium, later called Constantinople
  • 4325: First Council of Nicaea, organized by Emperor Constantine
  • 4391: Library of Alexandria in Egypt destroyed by imperial decree against paganism
  • 4434 - 4453: Attila rules the Huns, invades Europe, dies
  • 4476: Fall of Western Rome during age of Germanic migration
  • 4632: Death of Mohammed
  • 4639: Egypt, ruled by Eastern Rome, falls to Islamic Empire
  • 4793: Viking age
  • 4800: Charlemagne, beginning of France and Holy Roman Empire

SIXTH MILLENNIUM - Late Middle Ages and the Modern Period
  • 5066: William the Conqueror invades and rules England
  • 5095 - 5192: First - Third Crusades
  • 5202 - 5204: Fourth Crusade, including sacking of Constantinople
  • 5215: Signing of the Magna Carta
  • ~5300 - ~5600: The Renaissance
  • 5337 - 5453: Hundred Years' War between England and France
  • 5346 - 5353: The Black Death
  • 5453: Fall of Byzantine Empire (Eastern Rome) to Ottoman Empire
  • 5475: The Printing Press
  • 5492: Columbus discovers America
  • 5517: Protestant Reformation
  • 5582: Gregorian Calendar adopted
  • 5650: Age of Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution
  • 5754 - 5763: Seven Years' War
  • 5760: Industrial Revolution
  • 5776: Declaration of Independence (United States)
  • 5789 - 5799: French Revolution
  • 5803: Louisiana Purchase (United States)
  • 5804: Napolean titled Emperor of France
  • 5806: Fall of Holy Roman Empire to Napolean
  • 5810 - 5821: Mexican war of Independence
  • 5821: Greece gains independence from Ottoman Empire
  • 5836: Texas revolution, gains independence from Mexico
  • 5845 - 5848: The United States annexes Texas and goes to war with Mexico, which results in the additions of land from Texas to the west coast.
  • 5861 - 5865: U.S. Civil War and end of slavery
  • 5870 - 5871: Franco-Prussian War, resulting in formation of French Republic and German Empire
  • 5876: Canadian Independence
  • 5914: World War I
  • 5920: Women granted right to vote (U.S.)
  • 5939: World War II
  • 5963: Civil Rights (U.S.)
  • 5990: Widespread use of the Internet

SEVENTH MILLENNIUM - Contemporary History
  • 6001: 9/11
  • 6017: Today

EDIT: A friend just sent me the following video, proposing a different scheme for setting the era. 


I personally prefer starting the calendar at the beginning of Sumerian civilization for my reason stated above, that the calendar itself is an invention of civilization, and civilization itself was a major turning point for humanity in that it permanently altered our environment. As the Indus Valley civilization and Chinese civilizations were getting started around the same time, it would be just as inclusive. Instead of HE: the Human Era, I'd propose HC: Human Civilization. All prehistoric achievements like the first temples would be marked as BHC.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Zen Stoicism: Meditation and Mindfulness

When did you first consider meditating? I'm not saying you've done it, but a lot of people at least think about it these days. That openness is in part due to a strain of meditation practice, called Mindfulness, that has caught on among the corporate class. Stripped of any woo-woo, and backed by science, Mindfulness has largely brought Zen meditation into the mainstream.

I say that Mindfulness is a form of Zen meditation because its founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, practiced as a Zen Buddhist with none other than Thich Nhat Hanh, arguably the most famous (in the West) Zen Master that isn't Shunryu Suzuki. Kabat-Zinn repackaged Zazen, a technique that's been around for millennia, and centered his new therapy on one of Zazen's most helpful side-effects: mindfulness.

(Point of order: when I refer to Mindfulness with a capital M, I'm referring to Kabat-Zinn's technique and program. When I refer to "mindfulness," I mean the buzzword. And when I refer to mindfulness, I mean the state of mind.)

Mindfulness is, as a Zen priest once told us at AZC, a tool for awareness. It is something that naturally happens when one sits Zazen. However, Zazen - Zen meditation - is not a technique aimed at fostering mindfulness. Zazen has its own purpose, which is complicated but ultimately involves experiencing the non-dualistic nature of reality. Piece of cake, right? Mindfulness, in Zen practice, is the icing on that cake.

In practicing Zazen for about six years, I've experienced mindfulness as a strengthened faculty of inner awareness. With practice, I've learned to separate feeling from immediate reaction. Thoughts no longer automatically lead to other thoughts, and feelings no longer automatically lead to actions. Mindfulness is an adjective that describes this tendency to be able to step back from what one is feeling, thinking, and doing, in order to see it for what it is, with no attached judgement. With practice, negative behavior patterns become apparent, and with some action, eventually break down. Self-limiting beliefs become apparent, and break down. Lingering anxieties fade away. This process of expanding awareness is not always peaceful - it can be emotionally taxing to realize one's self-deceptions - but it is healthy.

Jon Kabat-Zinn must have realized that the health benefits of meditation could be repackaged and sold without any of that pesky philosophy or moralizing, so that's what he did. I personally don't blame him, though I know many Zen masters are skeptical. A lay practitioner at the San Francisco Zen Center put it to me this way: "Hitler could have been mindful. Without a base of morals, it doesn't mean that you're doing any good." I'm personally of two minds: widespread meditation practice would be an excellent boon to mental health everywhere, though I don't think training people to be more comfortable sitting in cubicles all day is what's good for society. Though I do think mindfulness is more apt to help somebody realize that their lifestyle is making them miserable, whatever it is.

If you're interested in learning how to meditate, I submit that there is little practical difference between following this instruction guide on mindful.org and taking an introductory course at your local Zen center. The Buddhists would probably give me flak for saying that, but if your primary interest is meditation, and you're just starting out, I think either one is fine. The Zen people are more likely to give it to you straight, as they won't patronize you with hype, but that's my personal bias. I understand that when people ask me how to get into meditation, they aren't necessarily interested in Buddhism. I'll have more to say about that later, but just know that the Zen people don't ask you to believe in anything and that there is no dogma involved. Even if you're not interested in sticking around, there's no reason not to learn the basics from them, in a group setting where you can ask questions.

To relate this all to Stoicism: I don't think modern Stoicism can really be effective unless somebody is training themselves to be mindful. And I think somebody who has had Mindfulness training would find a lot to like in Stoicism. I may write about that next.

Read the last post in this series: The Cessation of Suffering

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zen Stoicism: The Cessation of Suffering

INTRO

Zen Buddhism and Stoic Philosophy are two excellent life practices that have a lot in common. It's interesting that they should have so much in common, coming from different cultures as they do. Stoicism is foundational for much of western culture and ideology, from Greek times though the Christian middle ages, into the Renaissance and even now. On the other hand, Zen Buddhism is an east-Asian practice, informed by millennia of eastern spiritual tradition and not operating according to the discursive, dualistic mode of western philosophy.

Despite originating in different parts of the world and evolving separately over millennia, these two schools of thought and practice have an incredible amount in common. Maybe most relevant is that both are concerned with the nature and cessation of human suffering. The methodology for understanding and ceasing that suffering involves "end-user" psychological terms - vocabularies for the mind that involve the mechanics of thought, which include anxiety, desire, virtue, and one's identity and values. These terms and ideas are intimate, experiential, and essentially practical, as opposed to modern medicine's descriptive, clinical terminology, meant to shuttle you to whatever prescription drug.

Among the more particular similarities between Zen and Stoicism are understandings that:
  • Thoughts are insubstantial and not representative of reality itself
  • Suffering arises from passions resulting from attachment or "false judgement"
  • The ideal mental state is one of equanimity, free from strong likes and dislikes
  • One's life is best lived in accordance with nature (though what each school means by "nature" is dramatically different).
There are more than that, but that's the list I have going right now. This is an area of interest to me, as there haven't been many lengthy comparisons between the two schools of thought as far as I know. Personally, I've been a Zen practitioner since about 2010, and I've been interested in Stoicism for the last couple years or so. While I love Zen for its simplicity and all of the positive changes it has made in my life, I do find that it doesn't leave me much in terms of having a workable identity for dealing with the real world.

While Zen is NOT AT ALL a "spiritual practice" that encourages asceticism and a rejection of the material world, with consistent practice one does tend to see through a lot of bullshit that's present in the mind and in the world. I've heard a couple Zen teachers describe this phenomenon as unintentionally "dissolving one's personality." It's a scary thought, right? Again, Zen isn't concerned with "destroying the ego" like so many new-age spiritual practices are, but merely by sitting and watching how one's mind works, the "ego" tends to deflate on its own.

Zen is not where you go when you're looking for the meaning of life. If you sit Zazen, Zen might tap you on the shoulder and say "hey, who told you there was a meaning?" That's not nihilism - it's just clarity. And clarity is fine, but Zen doesn't offer much of an answer to "how should I be spending my time on this Earth?"

Stoicism, on the other hand, is quite concerned with living in the world and the right way to do it. The Stoics were obsessed with living virtuously, in service to others and "in accordance with nature" (the Stoic conception of nature being a Whole Thing To Go Into). Stoicism was not just a philosophy meant to answer interesting questions, it was a way of life, practiced by slaves and emperors alike (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius respectively).

I've found a lot of useful ideas within Stoicism. I'm not the only one, as this school of philosophy has been enjoying a minor resurgence as of late. Google "Stoicism" and you'll find headlines like "why stoicism is one of the best life-hacks ever devised" and "what is stoicism and how can it turn your life to solid gold?" In fact, Stoicism has informed a modern, effective therapeutic practice called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Coincidentally, there exists an offshoot of CBT called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is influenced by Zen.

As much as Stoicism has to offer, it's unlike Buddhism in that there has been no consistent school of Stoicism in the last couple millennia. It has had numerous revivals and has left a long cultural shadow on the West, but there's no contemporary, cohesive school of thought that one can point to and say "that's Stoicism." The current revival is digging through the remains of the past and trying to fill in the gaps where possible. There are definitely gaps, as well as philosophical anachronisms - their conception of metaphysics is not especially useful today, even to the philosopher.

All of this to say: there is some interesting overlap between Zen Buddhism and Stoic Philosophy, both of which are useful, and both of which have their shortcomings. As they both play a role in my life, I'll continue to compare and contrast them. It's now an intellectual curiosity for me, and I need those in my life or I begin to feel like a mental potato putting out just the barest wattage. 

THAT BEING SAID, let's dive into it. I want to start with SUFFERING.

CONTEXT

Both Zen Buddhism (and Buddhism in general) and Stoicism are concerned with the cessation of suffering. In fact, the cessation of suffering is Buddhism's #1 chief concern. Without going too much into it, the basic premise of Buddhism, known as the Four Noble Truths, goes roughly like this:

1. There is suffering
2. Attachment is the cause of suffering
3. There is an end to suffering
4. The Buddha's path (The Noble Eightfold Path) leads to the end of suffering.

"Suffering" in this context needs to be explained a bit. Some people like to interpret Buddhism as saying "all life is suffering," which is a pretty bummer attitude. But the word being translated as "suffering" is Dukkha. Dukkha is a kind of existential suffering, that goes beyond mere transitory unease. It goes beyond even the lowest, life-is-absurd-and-everything-is-pain "existential" suffering. One Zen teacher at the Austin Zen Center taught that it was "our alienation from ourselves" (which can be a bit confusing given the whole no-self doctrine, but let's not make this more complicated than it already is). Think of this as the BIG suffering for which mundane suffering is merely a symptom. Buddhism claims to be, first and foremost, the cure for that.

As the end of suffering is the object of Buddhism, the object of Stoicism is an ideal called Eudaimonia, meaning "human flourishing," often over-simply translated as "happiness." The Stoic view on the cessation of suffering is grounded in their system of ethics, which states that all that is necessary for eudaimonia is for one to maintain one's virtue. In their view, the best way to maintain one's virtue is to strive for a state of mind called Apatheia. Apatheia does not mean "apathy," but rather "equanimity." The sage, the ideal stoic, does not not experience emotions, but instead merely experiences them, not seeing them as bad or good, as the only true good is virtue, and the only true bad is straying from virtue.

The therapeutic aspect of Stoicism - the part concerned with the relief of suffering - can be found in their understanding of what is in our control and what isn't. To quote Epictetus:
There is only one path to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our power of will. - Discourses, 4.4.39
This idea is a very powerful one, and is among the greatest contributions Stoicism has made to Western society. It has survived through the ages in different forms and contexts, and today is most commonly known in the form of the "Serenity Prayer":
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
The Stoics, while having a sophisticated conception of God (knowing it as the Logos, the animating force in nature), did not conceive of it as a supreme deity that one could appeal to for worldly assistance. Instead, they created a life philosophy by which one can learn for themselves how to accept things one cannot change. The Stoic way to cease suffering involves constant exercise of one's rationality in order to make correct moral judgements, which allows one to be virtuous, which is, they say, all one needs to be happy.

On the other hand, the Buddhist way to cease suffering involves following the Noble Eightfold Path, which is a list of eight precepts that include Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (which basically means meditation). Each school of Buddhism has its own take on each of these precepts, but the overall goal is to avoid and free one's self from attachment, which is the root cause of suffering.

I want to explore what both of these methods have in common. When reading into this stuff, it's hard not to think that these very different schools of thought were, and maybe still are, approaching some of the same ideas with different language. For example, I think the Stoic idea of the passions is very, very similar to the Buddhist idea of attachment. However, at this point I've already written too much, and I haven't even bothered to talk about Zen and why its take on Buddhism is different. So I'll publish this, then start working on that.

Sources:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/buddha/
http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/stoa/seddon2.htm
Discourses, by Epictetus