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Having Your Cake and Eating It

January 5th, 2008

One of the greatest problems we face today is of fanaticism and extremism. Take one idea, one religious practice, one opinion and then focus on it, insist it is ‘The Only Way’ and you have the mess we’re in today.

The Buddhist idea of ‘The Middle Way’ is attractive because it suggests steering a course through life that avoids extremes and seeks balance.

But there is another way that might be worth exploring which involves embracing extreme and apparently contradictory positions at the same time. I suspect this is a dangerous path of the kind employed only by left-hand tantrics, but I am working on a method that can easily be carried out in the safety of your own home – or even in public, as I did this morning.

I sat in Nero’s with a coffee and cake and read about Jain asceticism, which I find fascinating. Behind the various ascetic practices that range from living naked (hurrah!) to eating standing up (oh!) the Jain doctrine of manypointedness stands as a powerful antidote to fanaticism, and is the religion’s main claim to fame among Indian philosophical systems. In a nutshell this doctrine calls for a consideration of a variety of approaches to an issue. This  ‘synthesises and integrates a variety of contradictory viewpoints, as opposed to a dogmatic insistence on a mode of analysis based on a single perspective only, [and] is the sole means of gaining some kind of understanding of the complexity of reality.’ (The Jains, Paul Dundas).

If only this doctrine was more widely practiced!

7 Responses to “Having Your Cake and Eating It”

  1. Should I consider reality as unlimited except for my own prejudices; the universe as full off emptiness; living as just another kind of death?

  2. I suspect so, according to this idea, Hennie, although it might be better to say ‘death as another kind of living’! But in reality to appreciate the Jain doctrine of manypointedness one needs to study it in some detail.

  3. This must be linked in some way to the Indian fable about the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man had one “viewpoint” about the elephant, that bit of it with which he made initial contact – so the elephant is like a rope, no it’s like a snake, no it’s like a tree trunk, no it’s like a wall, no it’s like a banana leaf. You might say that fanaticism and dogma lead to a certain blindness with regards to the true nature of things.

  4. I think Aleister Crowley had a similar exercise where one vigerously defended a viewpoint for a day and then does the same to the opposite view the next day. I haven’t actually tried this but it seems a good way of freeing up the mind and also reminds me of the Buddhist concept of Maya – all is basically illusion. Possibly too much nihilism could be a tad counter-productive though!

  5. What an excellent idea Louise! I’d imagine you have to be careful where you do this. And yes Paul I remember that story. When I studied with my old Druid teacher Nuinn years ago, he talked enthusiastically about the Jains, and I’ve finally got round to studying them. The V&A museum in London has a good collection of Jain art and an excellent web section on them with videos etc., and I’m reading Paul Dundas’ book ‘The Jains’ which I can’t put down!

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