Tourism, Narcissism, and Buddhist "Nihilism"
This post seems too long and rambling and a little disjointed to me, but the longer I wait to post it the less chance there is that anyone will believe me when I say I wrote it before reading N.'s posts, and the comment thread on this topic, at the Glinting Web. Maybe I'll edit it later.
I have been irked a couple times lately by Buddhists taking the spiritual affliction that we Buddhists call "Nihilism" to map nicely to the psychological affliction we Westerners call "Depression." It does not. The things can overlap easily enough, but they are not the same thing. If Buddhist Nihilism maps to any Western psychological category, it is to "Narcissism."
Buddhist "Nihilism" (which, by the way, has very little in common with Western philosophical "Nihilism") is an affliction of the spirit, which is held to be caused by a precocious realization of emptiness. The Nihilist understands (conceptually, anyway) just how much of his perceived world is projection. He understands that the ordinary distinction between subject and object is a false one. So he no longer takes the world at face value; he no longer views it as "real" in quite the same way as people ordinarily do. He tends to think of it as a hall of mirrors, or a theater, and to treat the people in it as characters. He takes no responsibility for his actions. Why should he? He's not real, either. He is indifferent to the suffering of others, except as it may impinge upon him; after all, it is illusory.
Buddhist teachers generally refer to Nihilism as a pit -- something that is easily blundered into, but not easily climbed out of. They tend -- it seems to me -- to avoid the subject, as if even talking about it were dangerous. As far as I understand -- which I readily confess may not be very far -- Nihilism is not actually wrong. That is, it's not a doctrinal mistake, not a mistake about the nature of reality. But it is a terrible practice mistake, and one that's difficult to recover from, because it prematurely cuts away many of the (in some senses illusory) motivations for practice.
We are already enlightened. There is nothing to be done. Samsara doesn't need fixing, and it can't be fixed. All of Mahayana practice takes place in the context of this paradox: we are working very hard to do something that needn't be done, in order to cure ourselves of afflictions that aren't there.
-- supply your own transition here --
There are two antidotes, they say, to Nihilism. One is the compassion practices, and the other is the contemplation of karma. "The contemplation of karma?" I thought, in disbelief, when I first heard it. "How does that help?" I have never gotten a satisfactory answer, and I wonder if the contemplation of karma is only a valuable antidote to Nihilism if one comes from a culture that already believes in it. Maybe it's as simple -- if you already believe implicitly in karma -- as recalling that actually everybody's suffering impinges upon you, and that all the suffering you cause is going to come home to roost.
Or maybe it is just something I have yet to learn. But the compassion practices are another matter. Nihilism is a precocious realization of emptiness, I said. Precocious, because it has outstripped the realization of compassion. Without an ingrained habit of compassion -- of taking on other people's suffering and delighting in other people's joy -- the conceptual understanding of emptiness can be toxic.
I'm not sure why this is so. I'm also not entirely sure that there may not be some kind of difficult back-alley route out of Nihilism; it's hard for me to see how a really complete realization of emptiness wouldn't eventually undo it (and all other afflictions). But of course, it's possible to sail from New Zealand to Australia by going east, too; It just takes a bit longer.
In any case, much of my own escape from Nihilism was accomplished before I met the Dharma. It was dumb luck, by any rational reckoning. I met Martha.
I have never known anyone whose compassion is as deep and wide and concrete as Martha's. I have never forgotten, 25 years ago, arriving in London with Martha at dawn, American tourists who had almost never been abroad before and knew nothing of London, or indeed of big cities. We walked along gaping at this and that, greatly amused by the pictures of pushme-pullyus on the streets which warned us to look both ways (since Englanders drive on the wrong side of the road, they helpfully warn strangers this way.) We saw an old bag-lady sitting exhausted on the sidewalk. "Oh, look," I was thinking. "They do have street people in London."
But Martha was having an entirely different response. She walked over, sat down next to the woman, and put her hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Now, Martha is not a convenient person to live with. To live with Martha is to find oneself building a handicapped-crow access to one's apple tree, so that the broken-winged crow can hop up to a safe perch. It means spending serious money repairing a stray cat who's lost a quarrel with a racoon. It means intervening in a "domestic" three houses down the street at 3:00 a.m. It means taking a bag of groceries to the family living in their car down the street. It means that visiting my mother at the convalescent home also involves visiting with a number of other ill and aged people who happen to be in the same wing, who have no one else to visit them (because, in some cases, they are extremely unpleasant.) It means that spotting a dog trotting uncertainly down a city street almost always means trying to capture the dog and look for its owner.
But if you are someone who needs to learn compassion, you've found the right person to live with. Because it also means you get to see an old London woman light up, with an incredibly beautiful and unexpected smile, and say "I'm just a little tired, dearie, thank you so much!" It means that you live in a world in which no living creature is just scenery. It's a smelly, awkward, inconvenient world, but it's not a theater, not a hall of mirrors.
Before I met Martha I was not just a tourist in London. I was a tourist everywhere, a tourist even in my hometown, in my own family. But Martha has never been a tourist anywhere. She is incapable of watching people as quaint picturesque figures on a screen. They're all always people to her. She's never just visiting. When a narcissist's attention is on you, it's fixed with intensity, but when that attention shifts, it's as if you were never there; you simply disappear. My whole family of origin operated that way. It took me a long time to understand, when we first got together, why Martha generally wanted to know where I was, and when I'd be back. Eventually I learned it was the way normal couples and families operated. They didn't simply wink out of existence for each other when they went away. They were still connected.
When I came to the practice of tong len, "taking and sending" -- maybe the foremost of the compassion practices -- I could almost have laughed. I recognized it at once: I'd been training in it for years, under a master.