Life is basically impossible

One day Suzuki Roshi said, “Life is basically impossible.” Then he got up and left the zendo. The next day a student asked, “Suzuki Roshi, yesterday you said that life is basically impossible. What are we going to do?”

“You do it,” he replied, “every day.”

Edward Espe Brown

Image and Meaning

The Guardian reports on an attack on Andres Serrano’s controversial image “Immersion (Piss Christ)” at the weekend in Paris. Since its creation in 1987 the image has attracted the ire of Christians around the world who see it as a piece of risible blasphemy, and its appearance in Paris has continued this, with protests, death threats and an eventual physical attack on the piece itself.

The photograph is of a crucifix floating in a jar of the artists urine.

The artists says it is a:

criticism of the “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry” and a “condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends”

Which is a noble cause, but those who object to it presumably don’t see it as such a critique but as an attack on their God.

It occurred to me however that what these people are actually angry about is not the image itself, but the idea of the image. Imagine the photograph was called “Immersion (Christ)” and the artist never revealed how he had created it. Would it get near as much attention? I think its a beautiful image, and I wonder if people never knew anything about it, would they too see the beauty? I’m not offended by it, but I can see why people are offended by it, but are they offended by the image or how the image was created?

In the classic “Ways of Seeing” John Berger commented

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. […] The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe

Berger pointed towards Magritte’s The Key of Dreams to highlight this “always-present gap between words and seeing”

Later on in the same essay Berger presents us with “Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh”

And then presents it again with text below.

This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself

And states:

It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence.

Any initial attraction or appeal Piss Christ might have for those who are offended by it is evaporated once they know about what it is. The image now illustrates the event.

It reminded me of the furore over the Muhammed cartoons controversy. What if those images had been printed with no captions? Do they become offensive at the point you know they were meant to be something? Is the now famous image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban only offensive because the author said it was Muhammed. What if they had never said that? The image loses all power.


Magritte famously painted a picture of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)

The point being that it is not a pipe, it is a picture of a pipe. Often we mistake the word or the sign for the thing itself. We then become obsessed with the sign and not the real thing. As Alan Watts said:

You don’t eat the menu


But this is kind of digressing. Of course as people we see the world then immediately label it. Most of us never see the world clearly as it is without filtering it through the prism of our egos, which is influenced by culture, upbringing, language etc. But this is brought into sharp focus by something like Piss Christ. So much of our relationship to it comes from what we know and think about it, not what we see.

Finally, on the point of attacking the image, which is now “beyond repair”, surely in the modern world of mass production and Warholian art we can simply reproduce it? Run off another one? And again, by destroying the image they are not destroying what is actually offensive which is the idea. And once the idea is out there, how can you destroy that?

In and Out

Fellow Dundalk man Dougie has a great blog at Brand New Retro where he is scanning and posting some old school fan-zines. So far we have been treated to such delights as “Too Late” and its follow up, the one-issue wonder “Jump“, which among its content was this amazing “In and Out” list (click for larger).

What a wonderful portal into the mind set of the 1984 Dundalk youths mind. This was a time when Channel 4 was ‘in’ and not the cesspit of property porn and human freak shows it is now. Amazingly, “video jukeboxes” were OUT in 1984 (This torpedoes my long held belief that I invented them one summer before I saw them appear in pubs and clubs around the town) I’m glad to see that getting into Oriel Park for free at half-time was out then, as it is now, but I have to question the claim that saying “Any crack” is out. That’ll never go out. Unless, and this was Dundalk in the 80s we should remember, it was referring to literally enquiring about the availability of crack cocaine.

I really look forward to the other gems Dougie can unearth.

Sunny Sunday Swag

Today was an exceptionally nice day in Ireland, so I strolled around Dublin City centre soaking it in. On my travels I picked up a random assortment of swag: a bag of white tea from the impossibly nice man who sells tea in George’s Street Arcade, a second-hand copy of Alan Watts’ “The Supreme Identity” from the Secret Book and Record Store on Wicklow Street and a little origami crane from some nice people who were collecting donations for Japan.

All in all, a successful trip.

Me, Myself and I

Julian Baggini has a new book out called “The Ego Trip” which looks very interesting. In it he attempts to find out what it means “to be you”, is there a self? What composes “a person”?

This kind of thing fascinates me.

He offers a preview of the book and it’s contents over at this week’s Guardian Science Podcast. In it he notes that the prevailing thought amongst most people seems to be that inside all of us is some kind of ‘constant’. This ‘thing’ remains with us our whole life and is responsible for making decisions. The “Master Control”. This is also known as ‘the ego’.

The philosopher Alan Watts had plenty to say on this matter. Indeed, the nature of ‘self’ and what is ‘I’ could be said to represent the very core of all his work. His take on what most of us consider the self – the ego – and a quick refutation of it, can be found in this bytesize animation:

Baggini contrasts this idea of a central, permanent self – a ‘pearl’ – with the ‘bundle’ concept – that what we ‘are’ is really a temporal collection of atoms, molecules, thoughts, memories and ideas. From a physical sense this is true. The majority of the atoms in our body are constantly being replaced. As Steve Grand puts it (a quote Richard Dawkins quotes from time to time)

“Consider yourself. I want you to imagine a scene from your childhood. Pick something evocative… Something you can remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you WEREN’T there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Every bit of you has been replaced many times over… The point is that you are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, whilse simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.”

This revelation opens up a whole can of worms. You, as you are now, were not physically there at your 5th birthday. Yet something inside you insists you were. You remember being there. You can access memories of being there. Physically nothing constant has remained. So, can we say that the ‘self’ does not physically reside, anywhere?

The ‘bundle’ concept states that we are a temporal collection of different ideas, emotions, memories, opinions, all buzzing in the brain. These will come and go, but you get the sense that you are a constant. You were alive yesterday, you are alive today, and with luck, you will be alive tomorrow. But where is the ‘self’ in all this? If this is true, how can we find and define a ‘self’?

The Scottish philsopher David Hume took on this subject in his “A Treatise on Human Nature” and he opined:

I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.

In Buddhist philosophy there is no self. This is one of their core beliefs – the concept of Anatta or “not self” – that there is no persistent entity that we would recognize as a ‘self’. It does not deny that there is an empirical entity that is a person – but that there is no persistent thing that ‘experiences’ thoughts, emotions, etc. What we take to be the self is an illusion. Buddhism also alludes to “bundles” with the “skandhas” – that all reality consists of the temporary collection of various things. There are a lot of echoes here with both the physical nature of our bodies, and the idea that our ‘personality’ is a temporary arrangement of constantly changing elements in flux.

The Buddha however didn’t just stop at pronouncing this lack of a self, he claimed that this illusion was the chief cause of most of our problems as human beings. By clinging to a self that is not there we create a world of problems for ourselves – and if we could see this illusion for ourself we would be free.

(Watts did a great talk on this very topic – of the illusion of the self, its tensions, and how we may see its illusiory nature – called “Not What Should Be, But What Is”, reprinted in a book called “Myth and Religion”. It can be found in multiple parts here on YouTube. I recommend it for anyone interested in this idea)

In the Guardian podcast, Baggini also considers how we frame the question ‘what is the self?’. Do you mean our conscious awareness of now? The fact that we are aware of what we are doing here and now? Or do you mean the persisting ‘personality’ we feel we are from when we were born to now and beyond? Or is it a mix of both?

I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Most of my reading into this kind of thing to date has come from Eastern Philosophy books, so I’m intrigued to see similar ideas (such as ‘bundles’) coming out of modern scientific and Western philosophical fields. Hopefully I can revisit this in a more structured (read: less all over the place) way.

“Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.”

Over on The Interdependence Project, Ethan Nichtern noted the fact that today is the anniversary of the death of both Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche and Dr. Martin Luther King. Chogyam Trungpa was a Tibetan Buddhist who started the Shambhala movement to teach and promote meditation. I don’t think Dr. King needs an introduction.

To mark the occasion, Ethan published a quote by both men. What leapt out at me was the quote from Dr. King, that I would otherwise expect to come from the Buddhist, with its emphasis on interdependence.

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality