Saturday, February 11, 2012

Being/Having vs. Being/Doing

I'm reading Stephen Batchelor's first book, Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism. I was curious to see if the book he wrote on the subject was as good as the book I have not written on the subject. I would say the approach is different, and his book is a lot less boring than the book I would write.

Being vs. Having
The first distinction Batchelor draws for understanding Buddhism from a contemporary perspective is that between having and being. All phenomena can be looked at from either perspective. For example, I am drinking a cup of tea right now. The cup and the tea belong to me, i.e., I have them. The cup is blue (it has blueness as a property). It has tea in it. I have a mental representation of the cup, and that representation belongs to my mind (my mind has it).

More broadly I might say that I have a life, I have a job, I have an apartment, I have a car and other possessions, I have goals, and I have a purpose.

But all these things can also be looked at from the perspective of being. There is a cup. There is tea. There is thirst. There is drinking. And all these things can be examined in terms of the way they are (their types of beingness). The tea and the cup are physical objects, but they also exist relative to human activities. So a cup exists (not just as a collection of atoms but) in order to be drunk out of, and tea exists (not just as a plant but) as something to be drunk. The beingness of things turns up as a set of possible actions one can perform with those things. Indeed, our word "pragmatic" comes from the ancient Greek word for things, "pragmata".

But then the bigger things, such as life or human being, can also be understood this way. And according to Batchelor, the Buddha's renunciation of palace life in favor of the life of a religious mendicant typifies this shift from having to being. Suddenly one is no longer concerned with particular things but rather with the characteristics belonging to anything, regardless of what it is. One is no longer concerned with prosaic aims like getting a bigger house or getting a promotion but rather with the aim and purpose of life itself. And from the ethical point of view, there's a shift from having relationships with people to a stance of unconditional love with no particular object.

I have not had a chance to fully evaluate this distinction, and I don't think I know enough about Buddhism to say whether or not Batchelor is entitled to understand it in terms of this distinction.

Being vs. Doing
Nonetheless, I'm struck by how different this distinction is from the distinctions used when I was taught meditation. I was taught that the main distinction is between being and doing, not being and having. Don't try to do anything, just be there, just let what will happen happen. Relinquish all goals and aims. Don't look at it as self-improvement. Don't worry about doing anything right or wrong. Just be there.

This is not a terrible way to teach someone meditation. I remember one person in my class saying what a relief it was for him to do something and not have to worry that he was doing it wrong. (Indeed, if you're not doing anything, you can't be doing something right or wrong.) As a culture, we're uncomfortable with doing nothing and just being. There's always a sense that something has to be done, it has to be done right away, and it has to be done the right way—OR ELSE! That OR ELSE is where our ultimate values lie, and they go unexamined in this perpetual striving. And this striving is usually a striving to have one thing or another, so it's easy to see how the being/doing dichotomy is a close neighbor to the being/having dichotomy.

Still, it concerns me how easily the being/doing distinction maps on to the capitalist distinction between leisure and work. There's no doubt that with their relatively few, infrequently taken vacation days that Americans need a break from their lifestyles. But the fact that leisure or just-being is seen as the alternative to capitalism is a symptom of the fact that we've lost sense of any real alternative to capitalism itself. The alternative to economic exploitation of labor, destruction of the environment, abrogation of our civil liberties, and numerous other injustices is not to change them but to "just let them be". It's never suggested that we might radically alter or replace the system we have, thereby giving ourselves a permanent "vacation" from it all.

So I suspect that the emphasis on this particular dichotomy, at least in North American Buddhism, is a symptom of the fact that our society is so goal-oriented and focused on action and results. There's a solid tradition of progress-oriented Buddhism in southeast Asia. It's not appealing to most North American Buddhists, probably because of the shadow issues we've developed here with regard to the mode of production.

The Seinsfrage
It may also be inadequate from an ontological perspective. Is doing really the opposite of being? The temptation is to reify being, to treat it as an object. Thus we think of the Highest Being, the Ground of Being, a sense of Being Itself, or any number of things that often have a religious connotation.

But in ordinary language, the word "being" is a gerund. It's a verb which has been turned into a noun by tacking "-ing" to the end. In this way it's similar to words like "swimming" or "singing", as in "I hate swimming", and "Singing is fun!" The words refer to activities, not objects. This is the case even if we replace the gerunds with their infinitives and say "I don't like to swim" and "I like to sing."

So the ontological question is not, "What is being?" It can't be. Because even if we answered the question with "Being is _______________," we wouldn't really have succeeded in answering the question. We don't need to clarify the subject of that sentence ("Being"); we need to clarify its verb, "is".

Heidegger's breakthrough was to phrase the question differently. Instead of asking "What is being?" he asks, "What does it mean to be?" We're no longer thinking about a thing now. We're thinking about a process. That process is the arising and passing of phenomena themselves, their shining forth into unconcealedness and their return back into obscurity after a time. This is not some far-off entity whose existence we can infer or infer things about, nor is it anything abstract. This is a process everyone is already aware of just by being alive. We experience it every waking moment of every day. We just need to clarify its meaning by means of the proper investigation.

But if this is true—that being is a process and not a thing or even a state of mind—then the opposition between being and doing can't be right. Being itself is already some kind of activity. And passivity or "just sitting" is some kind of activity, too. We can't escape it.

Then the question becomes: What's the right sort of activity that lets this luminous, moving process of birth and dying shine forth as it really is? For Heidegger, it's a kind of thinking: existential phenomenology. For the Buddha, it is insight meditation.

Questions I have:
  • What is the relationship between "thinking" (as Heidegger understands it) and meditation?
  • The experience of Nirvana is ineffable. So, too, is the experience of being, at least to some degree, since throughout all his writing Heidegger never states, "Okay, this is what it means 'to be'." Do Buddha and Heidegger perceive the same phenomenon?
  • It seems we can't understand being without opposition, and yet every opposition to being is absurd, since everything real or unreal participates in the process of being. We do gain some clarification of being by using these oppositions, but once we've ascended that ladder, we pull it up behind us, so to speak. So what's the status of the having/being opposition? Is it really more helpful than the having/doing opposition?


Keith said...

a good read! Always having things and always doing things are probably both obstacles but having is probably a bigger obstacle in this time and place as private property makes us generally stupid.

I wonder about existentialism here too. It is some way in the air we breathe but that may be a problem. If we simplify existentialism to the way Sartre put it "existence proceeds essence" we make not only dialectical thinking that discovers essences unfolding impossible but the precedence of existence and the denial of essences (or natures) makes notions of enlightenment problematic too (at least to my limited understanding).

der Augenblick said...

Hey Keith. Throughout history people have understood being by opposing it to different things. Being vs. becoming, being vs. appearance, being vs. thinking, and being vs. ought are a few Heidegger mentions. I think being vs. having reflects the concerns of consumerist society. Being vs. doing reflects the habits of workaholic society. Zizek gets pissed about Buddhism, mostly because I think he perceives in it the being vs. doing dichotomy. I suspect being vs. doing and being vs. having are both inadequate, but I dislike being vs. having less, because it leaves agency intact.

As for existentialism, my Sartre-fu is not what it could be. I understand it mostly from the way Heidegger read Husserl, which is the shift from transcendental phenomenology to existential phenomenology. In any kind of phenomenology, you still have essences, but they have to be understood from the point of view of experience. We "see" essences - this is the idea behind categorial intuition. The shift from transcendental to existential is a matter of emphasis. I don't think they exclude each other, since they're both cognitive, scientific enterprises. Existential phenomenology is the phenomenological investigation of existentials. Existentials are like categories, except they apply to Dasein instead of things. While categories spell out what kind of being an object has, existentials spell out what kind of being Dasein has. The main one is "being-in-the-world" - which is basically just transcendence - and then being-in-the-world breaks down into a bunch of other existentials like care and facticity.

The big debate about Heidegger is whether he's still doing transcendental philosophy. This speaks to your Enlightenment question. There's a component to being-in-the-world - namely, facticity - which, by definition, cannot really be cognized using concepts. It shows up as a phenomenon in the experience of Angst, but it just appears as this giant question mark or feeling of mystery or uneasiness. (I'm of the opinion that this matches the category of "dukkha" in Buddhism.) If there's something absolutely ineffable at the bottom of our experience, then we can never have full self-knowledge. That's the argument, at least. People say Heidegger broke completely with Husserl and transcendental philosophy and embraced a philosophy of the irrational. I don't think that's true, but the reasons are complex. There's a guy at Rice, Steven Crowell, who has done really good work in this area.