Robin Williams, suicide, and Buddhism

Girasole 2014 by Marla Robb.

Girasole 2014 by Marla Robb.

Robin Williams’ ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay two days ago, and it’s been a week since he committed suicide, so, as a blogger, I guess I am behind the curve. Still, there are a couple of things I would like to say.

First and most obvious—Williams’ death made me very sad, since it means there won’t be any more wonderful movies with him. I also felt sad for him as a person—which lead me to muse right away about what a fascinating, profound, and somewhat paradoxical fact it is about artists and celebrities—there is often an illusion (although it is always all it is?) of closeness that leads us to identify with their fortunes much closer than with those of a guy or a gal two doors down the street (or two or three or three hundred or a thousand people somewhere on the other side of the globe—or just a few streets over).

The artists’ and celebrities’ status also make it inevitable that people will use their lives—and deaths—as sounding boards for their own concerns and opinions, sources of speculations, and pretexts for all kinds of discourses. It is par for the course and when celebrities or those around them complain too loud about it happening, it is usually a little disingenuous, and not infrequently—at least in part—a way to attract the very attention that is being denounced. I won’t pursue this endless spiral here, suffice it to say that I believe there is always a middle way, an invisible line beyond which legitimate public gaze becomes that of an intrusive peeping tom, and legitimate use of celebrities’ lives as sources of subjects for conversation slides into insensitive speculations.

Obviously, there can be no clear formula for distinguishing the two, and well-meaning people will always be likely to disagree in any particular case.

With this important caveat in mind, I would like to respectfully disagree with the posts by Brad Warner and Peter Coyote about what lessons a Buddhist might draw from Robin Williams’ demise.

(By the way and for the record—this is not how I wanted to introduce Brad Warner of the Hardcore Zen in this blog, by polemicizing him! I consider Brad a significant voice on the modern American Zen scene and I will talk about him and his books soon in this space).

As far as I am concerned, a Buddhist qua Buddhist can learn from Williams’ suicide exactly…nothing. And, barring a deep personal acquaintance with Williams—or maybe even then—can postulate anything about Williams’ actions…not at all. Zilch. Nada. Not a thing.

Allow me to explain.

Everybody’s life is infinitely complex and involves myriads of closely interwoven chains of causation. Nobody knows them all. Nobody ever can know them all. By definition.

This leads to an apparent paradox. Obviously, we can talk about suicide in general. Based on the statistical analysis of the available data, we can draw up lists of likely causes and conditions and even propose various preventive measures—keep the weapons away, make suicide hotlines readily available, train people to identify warning signs and provider immediate bystander intervention, etc.

We are also, all of us, free to hold various opinions on suicide as such—and those opinions are going to be informed by, and tied in, and expressed in the language of, our overall outlook on life (how consistent and logical those ties are going to be is a different matter).

“Your life is not your own; you have a responsibility to yourself, your loved ones, and the universe as a whole not to [end your own life]; there is no oblivion into which I [and, by extension, anyone] can escape”—all these statements from Brad Warner’s post are not particularly new or original, but that doesn’t make them trite or untrue. In addition, coming from him, they are obviously deeply personally felt and thought out, and nobody can quarrel with that.

Equally unobjectionable is Peter Coyote’s exhortation to balance one’s life and mental faculties.

What rubbed me the wrong way in both authors—strong enough that I am writing about it now—is the implication that all of these things could have had a bearing on Robin Williams’ fate, could have changed the reality as it transpired.

Perhaps they could. Perhaps they couldn’t. Assenting to the proposition “your life is not your own” is, in a way, trivial. I think there is a good chance Williams would have agreed with every one of Warner’s statements. And I am sure he was not purposefully and consciously neglecting balance or just being lazy and not working hard enough on reigning in “the horse of his imagination.”

But, to think about it, I can’t even be sure about that either. And if he was willfully neglectful, there was a reason for that in his mind—and there is no way to know what if any amount of meditation or meds or anything else could have changed that.

Overriding such a fundamental instinct as that of self-preservation, shutting the door on the only life we can feel and know right here, at this moment, in this body (whatever our believes or intuitions or convictions about what lies beyond) is an essentially incomprehensible, incommunicable, and non-reproducible event.

Both Warner and Coyote—completely unintentionally, I would like to think—let the cold draft of judgment sneak in under the door.

Williams was too clever. He didn’t handle his gift as he should have (strictly speaking, if we try to stay within the Buddhist metaphysics, should we even speak of gifts? Or should we perhaps speak of simple conditioned reality that might, under different light and at different time, look like anything—a gift, a curse, or just something that is. And perhaps the presence of that reality, that talent, created some conditions that ultimately made the person’s suicide more likely. Or maybe without that talent he would have been another unknown dead by his own hand before the age of thirty). He allowed himself to forget that, in Coyote’s words, “there is always something we can do.”

Is there?

Always?

For sure?

Apparently, this time there wasn’t. And, as far as I am concerned, that is all we can be certain of.

Two more things.

One: Brad Warner criticizes official psychiatry and especially the way it handles depression. He contra-proposes his personal experience, indicating that for him, Buddhist practice has been the way out of depressed states. Again, this is wonderful and unfalsifiable—for Brad Warner. But it doesn’t warrant the generalization “just about anything a drug can do to us, we can also do for ourselves.”

It doesn’t follow that modern psychiatry has all the answers or that it is never a seething pit of big pharma’s greed, rusted bureaucracy, and every possible failure of human ethics and judgment. Sometimes it most certainly is.

But not every time.

And for someone, somewhere today a right pill—or a right word by a professional psychiatrist—offered at the right moment, will save his or her life.

Specifically from the Buddhist point of view, I feel, it is justifiable to venture one kind of generalization: “we are overrelying on chemicals in modern life,” but not the other: “everything a pill can do, a meditation can do better.” The first one is a reasonable statistical observation, buttressed by the fact that, from the point of view of Buddhist teaching, if you don’t work consciously with your mind at least to some degree, you are missing the biggest opportunity being human affords you. The second one is hubris. (Sorry, Brad!)

Two: Peter Coyote concludes his post with these words: “Our great-hearted friend will be back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven, as the wind.” This is beautiful and poetic and I don’t want to look picky, but this is no kind of Buddhism I know. This is New Age (I plan to make the complex relationships between the two the subject of some of my future posts).

In my understanding of Buddhism, we are not “back” as anything. There is no “back.” There is no “forward.”  There is no essence changing forms in time. Form, essence, and time are indivisible.

Ironically, Coyote’s next sentence rings true to me: “He, you and I have never for one moment not been a part of all it.”

But right now, right here, the human being called Robin Williams is dead. He killed himself. We have his movies. We have our memories of him.

We cannot learn anything from his death. But we can be jolted by it to contemplate such things as life and death, the nature of talent, the problem of suicide, and many other things.

And we can put on “What Dreams May Come” and let Williams enact and thus, through the magic of art, make real, immediate, and close for us the abstract concepts of love, forgiveness, courage, and sacrifice.

What we do with all that stuff once the movie is over, will be up to us.

Words, words, words—what are they good for?

Blind-drawn Faces, by Marla Robb, 2013.

Blind-drawn Faces, by Marla Robb, 2013.

Not all that much, it seems—in practically all the versions of Buddhism, but especially in Zen. It is an extremely common and well-worn admonition, to be found in a great number of Buddhism-for-beginners books (is it me or is there a paradox here already?): do not imagine that reading about and studying Buddhism is the practice of Buddhism.

At best, or so it goes, reading and thinking are stepping stones on the way to real practice—meditation, or chanting, or, if you are a layman in the Theravada tradition, faithful attendance at the temple, participation in proper rituals, and, most importantly, physical and financial support of the monastic community. (The last situation has changed quite a bit even in South-East Asia, as far as I know, since the promulgation of the vipassana meditation for laity by the XIXth century Burmese monks and it certainly doesn’t hold in today’s Western Theravada communities, but it is by no means an extinct attitude.)

Zen, the school for which I feel the most affinity, can be particularly, even vehemently insistent on the ultimate uselessness and distorting nature of words, and the paramount importance of zazen.

It makes perfect sense.

After all, Buddhism is not a religion in which acceptance of certain dogmas and a correct worship of a particular deity will earn you that deity’s protection, blessing, and, ultimately, some kind of eternal blissful posthumous existence. (Oh, wait a minute—have I just described the Pure Land school? Hmmmm…As far as internal reality for many of Pure Land adherents—probably. But, as I understand it, Amitabha’s Pure Land is not the same kind of final abode as the Christian or Muslim paradise, but simply an environment most conducive to meditative efforts—the true liberation must still be worked out by every person for oneself, in accordance with Buddha’s last words. But I digress).

The surface paradox here is that Buddhism is an extremely rich textual and literary tradition. Looking at Zen, only Dogen’s Shonogenzo, to take but one example, is well more than 1,000 pages (at least in all the English translations). Theravadans’ Pali Canon is several times the size of the Bible.

It is a surface paradox, of course, because it is fairly easy to justify the study of foundational texts or the writings of accomplished masters such as Dogen as valuable auxiliary practices that enhance, deepen, and augment one’s meditation efforts.

But what about those—particularly modern Westerners—who consider themselves Buddhists, but whose Buddhism-related activities are largely or entirely limited to reading of popular Buddhist books by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Chögyam Trungpa, the Dalai Lama, etc., etc., etc.?

Or perusal of koan collections, torn from their original cultural contexts, reduced, one could successfully argue, to nonsensical, surreal brain teasers?

Or devotion to Buddhist poetry: Ikkyu, Ryokan, Han Shan, Wang Wei?

Or, perhaps weirdest of all, in a way—reading of modern Western secular scholarship on Buddhism, the kind of “objective” outsider analysis that is concerned with apologetics not at all, but, to the contrary, has as one of its main goals to demystify, to explain, to debunk, to through doubt on, to question sacred narrative?

I think it won’t come as a big surprise when I admit that all of the above have been, at one point or another and sometimes for lengthy periods of time, my primary or only connection to Buddhism—my main practice.

Well, with one little caveat. As I mentioned in my first post, all my ups and downs in Buddhism—including “reading only” periods—were happening against the background of the basic intellectual conviction and the trust in the idea that the Four Noble Truths were the most accurate summation of the reality, the Eightfold Path were the best guidelines on how to live in that reality (seasoned by the Sixth Patriarch’s enlightenment verse), and the sincere attempts to measure my everyday actions by those guidelines. My actions mostly failed miserably and OK, you caught me—the Eightfold Path includes such steps as Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, which are understood to refer to meditation practice—I said that I trusted the idea, not that I was successful in realizing it.

So, what’s the point here? Is what we have simply a bunch of excuses and self-justification by someone who was too lazy to sit regularly?

In part and on some subconscious level—possibly, although, dear reader, I don’t see why I need to justify myself to anyone.

What I want to suggest is that our monkey brain—or call it Mara, if you will—is capable of fetishizing and turning into a finger first pointing to and before long obscuring the moon anything, even the moon itself—the practice of zazen, the meditation.

When someone says that he or she has been meditating without fail for n hours a day for n number of years, I admire their commitment and self-discipline and I do accept their accomplishment as an important part of their Buddhist credentials. But only a part.

Buddhist practice is not just meditation.

Buddhist practice is doing the right thing.

Zazen properly done is extremely powerful. It sharpens one’s immediate discernment of what the right thing to do at any given moment is and makes it likelier that one would choose that action.

But people differ. Our circumstances differ—drastically.

Ironically, now that I myself have been again meditating very regularly for almost a year, I would be far less inclined to dismiss out of hand someone who is currently approaching Buddhism by grabbing at the rafts of words amid the sea of those habitual concepts pushed on us by culture and upbringing that don’t seem to work anymore.

What I came to believe is that if, for whatever reason, regular meditation practice doesn’t happen (yet!), words can be the next best thing. They can provide a connection—tenuous, fragile, incomplete—yet a real connection to dharma, an aid to one’s right understanding, and an inspiration when a Buddhist teacher or a community are not an option.

So, if you have it in you, close your browser now and go sit, if you can.

Please, don’t use the foregoing as an excuse if the only thing standing between you and your meditation cushion is lack of self-discipline!

But, if you really can’t—pick up, if you feel like it, whichever Buddhist primer you ordered from Amazon last and go ahead and read it. Or savor a Ryokan verse. Or bend your brains a little with a koan you have no hope of understanding. Or learn, if you must, from an academic article how some aspect of Tibetan Buddhist was originally a fascinating amalgam of older Tibetan shamanic practices with the new teaching.

At this moment, perhaps, this is your version of sitting.

Ah, but how do you know if you are being lax with yourself or making the best of the given situation?!

Well—how?!…

Who I am, why this blog, and all that introduction stuff…

First of all, I hope I am not disappointing anyone (well, actually, I do, if someone landed on this page with some particular expectations), but there won’t be any militaristic rhetoric in Buddhist clothing on this blog, or Buddhist justifications of violence, or anything of the sort.

On the other hand, the reason I have chosen this title—(Un)peaceful Buddhist—is that peacefulness, as an attribute and goal of Buddhist life and practice, gets way too much mileage, in my humble opinion, in the popular Buddhist literature—often tied to a fairly simplistic level of understanding of that word and at the expense of much more important concepts, such as, for example, insight.

Two prominent consequences of this are: reduction of Buddhism to a therapeutic technique and a misperception of the Buddhist ideal as being in some kind of permanent blissed-out state, where “everything is awesome!” and everyone is basically good, and all is forgiven, and the best solution to any conflict is to instruct both sides, in an avuncular and non-judgmental fashion, that they should be nice to each other.

No dice.

True peace, whether between countries, or in a person’s household, or within oneself (this is the root, the foundation of the others) is, of course, supremely important and valuable—not only in Buddhism, but in and of itself.

But it doesn’t come as simply as that—and, who knows whether it comes at all or whether we would know this is what it was if it did show up.

What I am quite certain of is that approaching Buddhism as a tool to “become more peaceful,” chasing after a preconceived mental construct of peacefulness, is a waste both of one’s time and the potential of Buddhist practice to truly transform one’s life.

But on what authority do I speak?

Purely on that of my personal experience. Sometimes I get a boost from encountering passages in various authors that seem to resonate with my understanding.

I guess, a couple of words about myself are in order at this point.

I have considered myself a Buddhist for almost thirty years. About twenty years ago I took formal layman vows in a Chinese Zen/Ch’an temple. My main practice during all this time has been simple sitting meditation (Zen’s shikantaza). My path as a Buddhist practitioner has not been straight and simple. There were many detours, months and years with hardly any meditation at all, and forays into different religions (well, only one really serious one, but that one was quite serious).

Yet two things have remained constant: my intellectual interest in Buddhism and a deep-seated feeling that the general Buddhist narrative as encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Treasures, the later Zen insights, and the practice of shikantaza (“just sitting”) was the best way to make sense of and find my way in this world.

Recently my practice has been much more constant and consistent—and that particular picture of a Buddhist practitioner I mentioned at the beginning, as someone with a beatific semi-smile at all times and “peace in his heart” more and more dubious. So, I have decided to venture into the wild wide virtual world with, to paraphrase my tag line, musing, thoughts, reviews, opinions, and questions on Buddhist themes—or any themes, for that matter, approached from the Buddhist perspective—in the hopes of giving some semblance of order to my thoughts and sharing them with someone who might find in them, perhaps, an echo of their own.

I want to make it absolutely clear that, aside from my formal vows, taken many years ago, I am not affiliated with any Buddhist school or organization. I do not represent anyone but myself.

I am planning to post at least once a week.

To anyone who has read this far: thank you, welcome, I hope you will stop by again!

Until the next time,

Yours,

(Un)peaceful Buddhist.