Introduction

In this first part of lesson 5, Stephen reflects on the topic of [#add text].

Talk ‘Good Snowflakes’ [Download this audio file here]  
 
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Discussion Question
Reflect on your own experiences of the sublime; how do you distinguish between these and those of beauty?

 

Q&A / discussion [Download this audio file here]

 
 
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Stephen's notes

Chapter 9. “Good Snowflakes”

I want to explore today the aesthetic dimension of the practice of the four tasks. I consider there to be three broad dimensions to the experience of dharma practice: cognitive understanding (with thought and intellect), affective understanding (through embodied empathy) and aesthetic understanding (through intuition). Of these, aesthetic understanding receives the least attention in traditional Buddhism — Zen perhaps being an exception.

In his Critique of Judgement [Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790)]. Immanuel Kant considers three kinds of aesthetic experience: what he calls the "agreeable," "the beautiful" and the "sublime."

The "agreeable" for Kant simply refers to what we feel to be pleasant, which triggers desires that serve our short-term self-interest.  An example would be our liking for a particular food or drink.

This experience of something agreeable, which prompts self-interested desires, is what Gotama described as the experience of a pleasant feeling-tone (vedanā) that triggers a self-interested craving (tanhā) to possess or enjoy the object or person with which the feeling is associated. This can lead us into cycles of reactivity, in which we seek to hold on to this experience in order to endlessly repeat it. In the end, when the object no longer stimulates us and we become sated and bored, then we move on to something else, thereby restarting the whole samsaric process.

The experience of the beautiful is also based on feeling, but for Kant it differs from our experience of the agreeable/disagreeable in two ways:

  • it is "disinterested," that is, it not something that prompts a self-interested desire, and
  • we regard it as something that everyone, in principle, ought to be able to enjoy and appreciate. Examples would be a rose or a sunset, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci or a sonata of Beethoven.

This would suggest that those who cultivate mindfulness of pleasant (and unpleasant) feeling-tones but do not get swept away by self-interested desires would therefore be opening themselves to the possibility of experiencing the beautiful.  Indeed, it is frequently reported by meditators how when the mind becomes quiet, attentive and still, the world - particularly the natural world - is revealed as radiant and beautiful.

It also suggests that as long as we are caught up on reactive craving for self-interested pleasure, we are cut off from the possibility of the beautiful. This implies that reactivity is an an-aesthetic; it dulls and blocks not only the capacity to wise and caring responsiveness but also to the experience of beauty. (Kant acknowledges that the “agreeable” is not a true aesthetic experience.)

Yet, along with Edmund Burke and others, Kant recognises that in addition to the agreeable and the beautiful, there is something more to aesthetic experience, which is called the sublime.

[In the Western tradition, the sublime is often associated with God and the transcendental, as in Rudolf Otto’s famous study: Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy). I have heard more than once the criticism that a secular approach to the dharma removes this transcendent dimension from the practice.]

The sublime concerns experiences that are (1) overwhelming and exceed our capacity for representation and (2) evoke both fascination and terror - whether it be images of exploding supernova from the Hubble telescope, witnessing a violent storm at sea, or the crashing of planes into the twin towers on 9/11.

This, I feel, is where dharma practice finds both its origin and its culmination. The dharma transcends both the pleasant and the beautiful and opens us to the sublime.

The origin of the Buddhist sublime lies not in the overwhelming experience of the natural world but in the tragic excess of human life. On leaving the palace of his childhood, the legend of Gotama recounts how he encounters a sick person, an ageing person and a corpse. On each occasion he is overwhelmed by what he sees: fascinated and terrified. In glimpsing the destiny of all that is born, his narrow self-preoccupation is suspended and finds himself exposed to what the Chinese call “the great matter of birth and death.”

The culmination of dharma practice is often spoken of in terms of emptiness or nirvana, which we could also understand as “exceeding our capacity for representation” since we need to “let go” of fixed ideas and opinions in order to experience them directly. Today, however, I find the experience of the sublime conveyed most powerfully through the natural sciences. It is Nature rather than God that moves me in this way.

When I read popular books, listen to a radio program or watch documentaries about the discoveries of the natural sciences, it often evokes in me feelings that might best be described as ‘religious.’ I find the sheer scale and vastness of space and time overwhelming. And I become acutely aware of the poignancy, the utter contingency of existence. Meditation, for me, has a great deal to do with quietening and attuning my mind to be open to this dimension of experience.

Such notions of contingency are very close, I feel, to what Gotama meant by paṭiccasamuppāda: ’conditioned arising.’  Remember, in the early suttas the Buddha says that the person who sees such ‘conditioned arising’ sees the dharma, and the person who sees the dharma sees ‘conditioned arising.’

One of my favourite Zen koans is attributed to the Chinese teacher Layman Pang, who said: ’Good snowflakes – they don’t fall anywhere else’.

This, perhaps, is how the Chinese imagination understands the teaching of contingency. This very concrete, vivid image from the natural world, taking place at a specific moment in time, shows us contingency – far more potently than the rather abstract descriptions that we find in traditional Buddhist commentaries, which tell us what paṭiccasamuppāda means. This conceptual understanding always remains, I feel, two or three steps removed from the actuality of any given moment of life itself.

When I said: ‘Good snowflakes – they don’t fall anywhere else’ you might have found yourself recalling an experience of standing in a white, wintry landscape with snowflakes floating down, in that curious way they have of lazily drifting before eventually coming to settle somewhere. And something that Layman Pang would not have known, but we do know, is that no two snowflakes are ever the same. There’s something unique and utterly specific in each of these ephemeral crystallisations of water, contingent on certain temperatures and weather conditions, that fall from the sky, come to rest, and finally dissolve back into water and disappear.

This kind of experience is what I think of as "the everyday sublime.” It does not have to do with supernovas or God, but emerges from the way we pay attention to the ordinary things of everyday life, which we often tend to find disinteresting and boring.

To experience the everyday sublime requires that one dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing oneself and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid and mine.  It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing.  This takes time.  It is a lifelong practice.

The everyday sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task.  This entails (1) an openhearted embrace of the totality of one's existential situation, (2) a letting go of the habitual reactive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation, (3) a coming to dwell in the still, open, empty, non-reactive space of nirvana, and (4) a commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation at hand.

In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the on-going cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience as an example of the everyday sublime.