Recently, my girlfriend and I have been attending a Buddhist LGBTQ sangha, which holds a meditation once a week, in the Shambhala tradition. It’s 90 minutes long, with a combination of sitting and walking meditation followed by scriptural discussions.
While I am not a Buddhist, I can appreciate a lot of Buddhism — the discipline it cultivates, namely, and the widespread availability of holy texts and commentaries accessible at a variety of levels depending on the practitioner’s knowledge — even if I’ve pretty much chugged the Platonic Kool-Aid at this point. Bodhisattvas’ images line the walls, and the shrine altar at the front is beautiful and resplendent. The scriptures under study are the Lojong slogans/aphorisms, with the commentary by Jamgon Kongtrul (trans. Ken McLeod in The Great Path of Awakening). I decided to read through some of it so I could catch up to where we’re at (saying #11, translated by Pema Chödrön as, “When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi,” and by McLeod as, “When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants, make adversity the path of awakening.”). I’ve legit brought up Plato or a Platonist unintentionally every time we’ve gone, often because there’s some general synergy between the schools before one gets into the weeds of compare/contrast.
This morning, I got #7 and #17 as two of the three Delphic Maxims to follow this week. According to John Opsopaus’ The Oracles of Apollo, the two fit together, and Plato came up — so I took that as an opportunity to glance through highlights I’ve made about Platonic writings and to briefly comment on some things here (just to work them through in my head).
Regarding some of the preliminaries to meditation, Jamgon Kongrul has lain out something that is welcome food for thought. In reincarnation, sentient life is precious, and those of us who have an opportunity and ability to learn should do what we can with what we have been given:
In order to obtain the framework for the practice of dharma, this precious human existence, which, in being free and well-favored, offers excellent opportunities, one must practice excellent virtue, since this is its karmic seed. Since the proportion of sentient beings that do practice virtue thoroughly is very small, the result, a free and well-favored existence, is difficult to obtain. When one considers the numbers of other sentient beings, such as animals, it is evident that human existence is just a remote possibility. Therefore, you should, above all else, work at dharma whole-heartedly so that the human existence now obtained is not wasted.
Furthermore, since life is uncertain, the causes of death are numerous, and one can’t even be sure that death won’t come today, one must exert oneself in the dharma right away. At the time of death, except for virtuous and non-virtuous actions, nothing will follow, not wealth, food, possessions, nor land, body, or status. Since these are not even as helpful as a straw, there is not the slightest need for them. (The Great Path of Awakening, p. 25)
This reminds me, obviously, of what I know so far about virtue, human thriving, and striving towards the Gods.
Chapter 4 of The Unfolding Wings: The Way of Perfection in the Platonic Tradition (Tim Addey) outlines the way up (“unfolding wings” is a reference to the soul’s ascent; see the Phaedrus for details) through the practice of virtue. First, Addey says,
There is a tendency to think of virtue as something which is added to the self and is consequently something other than the self: whereas if we consider virtue as the flowering of the self and its powers we are closer to the original meaning as understood by the ancient Platonists (p. 65).
The soul, when watered by virtue, opens up like a flower to receive divine fire. It’s a process of coming into right relation with itself and the Gods. While admittedly someone has to sacrifice things to become a better person, the hard work of pivoting towards virtue leads to happiness. This is more emphasized in Platonism than in the commentary on the Lojong I quoted, but the Lojong commentary reminded me of it. Addey’s chapter is very valuable, definitely in part due to the tables he adds to explain some of the more intricate things.
In Plato’s First Alcibiades as seen through Proclus’ commentary (which I’ve gushed about on this blog before in the context of discussing what we owe to one another, but let me say what I’ve probably already said again), Proclus discusses how Socrates decides to help Alcibiades even though the education will not be useful in Alcibiades’ current lifetime; he will become a bad person, but Socrates’ guardian spirit is likely thinking about Alcibiades’ entire cycle of lives (page 131 of the ebook trans. O’Neill; I have no idea what the actual pages and lines are). For months after reading it, I thought long and hard about things like privilege, power, and social duty to others who can be harmful people, but relative to whom one is not in the group(s) that will be harmed. I concluded that it is a moral obligation to keep some line of contact open in many cases, and then I thought some more, and that conclusion still stands.
One of the things that strikes me about the practice of meditation recommended in The Great Path of Awakening is that one is meant to begin by contemplating the lineage of teachers one follows. Then comes exercises in extending compassion to others, even bad people, until it is intolerable and one takes in and processes their pain. (This wasn’t the process we were taught at the LGBTQ Dharma; there, it was standard breath practice.) The “take it all in” part was shocking to me because it involves taking in what I would consider miasmic things or worse. I don’t do meditation like that — I follow the breath, or sometimes follow the breath until my mind’s eye bursts into patterns of light. But maybe there’s a lesson in that, too — the practice and my reaction to it. I love Apollôn, and maybe my worries about ensuring a ritually pure state are something I hold onto too much, as Mousêgetês is also the God of plague. Maybe that is one of the God’s mysteries that I have neglected for too long because I focus a lot on poetry and purification.
And so we return to the misfortunes and evils of the world. Iamblichus says that “it is in virtue of constraints consequent on corporeality that there come about evils and causes of destruction for individuals, such as are salutary and good for the whole and for the harmony of the universe, but result in an unavoidable degree of destructiveness for the parts” (trans. Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell, De Mysteriis IV.8). When I read it, I think about things I learned in introductory physics about systems and how changes can happen within the perimeter as long as the total amount of momentum in the system is the same as when it started. I think about how evil comes from externalities, not from the self, and about the things I have not yet read and the whisperings I have heard about them, things that pique my curiosity. Yet I do need to review the books I’ve finished perusing and to move forward with some preliminaries to the fun that 2020 will bring; all of this is a good reminder.
Any amount of striving towards virtue is important in a single lifetime even though most of us will not choose a path that leads upward in the one we are living now. Very few people do.