Shining Buddha problems

This is a group of related metaphysical problems I’ve been chewing on recently. I think of them under the heading “Shining Buddha,” after the incident that first drew them to my attention.

1. Problems

1.1. The Shining Buddha

A person of my acquaintance (who shall be called “Pat” in this post), despite not actually being a Buddhist, has a portrait of the Buddha hanging up in his living room because he finds it aesthetically appealing. Pat tends to be under a lot of stress, and perhaps he thought that perfectly impassive face might be a calming influence.

Anyway, one night after a long and exceptionally stressful day at work, Pat fell asleep on the sofa. His sleep was troubled by work-related anxiety dreams, and sometime in the wee hours he woke up to see old Shakyamuni gazing down on him benevolently — and, unaccountably, glowing. There was a faint but unmistakable nimbus of soft light all around the Buddha’s face, as if emanating from it. Pat felt his worries melt away, and it was to a much deeper, more restful sleep that he returned.

When Pat told me about this strange experience, neither of us was sure what to make of it. He was sure that no external source of light could account for what he saw; the curtains had been closed, the TV and everything turned off. He had been in his own dark living room countless items before, of course, and was quite certain that the Buddha had never glowed before. He conceded that he might have been dreaming or hallucinating, but it had all seemed so real. We tentatively concluded that it must indeed have been some sort of spiritual manifestation, a message of comfort sent to him by God, or perhaps even by old Shakyamuni himself, in his hour of need.

I was still troubled by the lack of a “proper” explanation, though, and finally I asked Pat if I could come over one night and investigate. We turned off all the lights in the living room, and lo and behold, the Buddha was glowing again, and I could see his halo just as well as Pat could. Oddly, this confirmation had the effect of making the whole thing less impressive. Since it was now apparent that it was not a “vision” or hallucination, it could only be real — merely real, “thing-ish,” part of ordinary reality.

Sure enough, a little investigation turned up the source of the halo. One of the appliances in the living room had a tiny blue LED light on it, and when I covered that with my thumb, the pure light of Nirvana abruptly ceased to shine. (I still find this a bit surprising, optically. The light was tiny, and quite some distance from the Buddha.) I asked Pat, and he confirmed that, yes, the appliance in question had been on the fritz for years and had been repaired just a few days before the Shining Buddha incident — resulting, apparently, in the little blue light coming back on after years of absence.

So, problem solved. Debunked — leaving Pat and me somehow relieved and disappointed at the same time.

Later, though, I began to be troubled by the underlying assumption revealed by the whole debunking procedure — namely, that, if something has a physical cause, it has no meaning. We were willing to consider the incident meaningful only in case it had been either a hallucination or an actual miracle in violation of the laws of nature. But if it were just a case of matter behaving in precisely the way that it inevitably does behave — well, how could that have any meaning?

But this assumption has far-reaching implications. It implies either (a) that much that we consider meaningful is in fact utterly meaningless or (b) that the “laws of nature” explain much less of what we observe than we tend to assume — that, in other words, the miraculous is commonplace. Or the assumption is wrong, though it’s hard to see how it could be.

1.2. The rainbow connection

A while back I spent several months brooding over the song “Rainbow Connection,” as sung by Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie (1979). I guess just about everybody knows this song, but in case you’re not everybody, here’s how it begins.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told, and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

As a child, I always found this song positively annoying — annoying in the same way as adults who self-consciously professed to believe in fairies and the like, and expected us kids to be suitably impressed by their deadpan silliness as if by some mark of rare virtue. It just seemed so transparently insincere and unserious. Everyone with half a brain and a modicum of scientific literacy knows that rainbows are precisely what the song concedes them to be, illusory visions that have nothing to hide, and that there simply is no “rainbow connection” to be found. To know this, and still come out with this “I know they’re wrong, wait and see” rannygazoo isn’t deep or romantic or soulful or anything like that; it’s just insufferably precious and stupid.

For the longest time, I never noticed that this principled refusal to countenance any nonsense about rainbows clashed rather with my own reactions to rainbows when I actually saw them. Science or no science, the natural reaction to a rainbow is that of Turnus in the Aeneid: “Iris, glory of the sky! Who brought you down to me, cloudborne to earth?” A rainbow always feels significant, always feels like a happy omen, a glimpse of a higher reality — and I have always reacted to them as such, “officially” believing all the while that the idea of Iris as the messenger of the gods is pure ignorance, and that a rainbow is really nothing but a straightforward optical phenomenon with no possible human meaning whatsoever. But despite my “official” beliefs, I always took it for granted that my aesthetic reaction to rainbows was right, and that there must surely be something defective in someone in whom they evoked no wonder.

It took me a long time to realize that perhaps I — not the lovers, the dreamers, and Kermit the Frog — was the one who was being inconsistent, insincere, and unserious. That a particular phenomenon is completely meaningless, and yet that to react to it as if meaningful is good and proper and in fact indicative of spiritual refinement — well, does that sound like a serious, well-thought-out position?

In another verse, Kermit asks, “What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing? / And what do we think we might see?” Of course, we can “see” quite a lot through the scientific observation of the heavens, but that’s not what he’s talking about. He’s talking about the sort of stargazing I myself am addicted to: the picking out of constellations (arbitrarily designated, meaningless sets of stars) and the making of such observations as “How bright the planets are tonight, and how close Jupiter is to the Moon!” He’s talking, God help us, about wishing on the morning star (sic — as everyone knows, it is the evening star — star light, star bright, first star I see tonight — on which people supposedly wish; another source of annoyance to me as a child). Well, what is so amazing that keeps us stargazing in that sense? No answer. And yet I’ve always thought of my love of the night sky as something that does me credit, and felt smugly superior to anyone so soulless as to refer to the stars as “bright stupid confetti.”

1.3. One of God’s good ones

Some years ago I saw an otherwise unmemorable film with a scene in which two old men admire a sunset. One says something like, “That’s one of God’s good ones,” the other responds by questioning the first’s belief in God, and a brief discussion of faith ensues. But what I thought, and still think, is that even the theist is kidding himself when he calls a particular sunset “one of God’s good ones.” Did God in any meaningful sense create that particular sunset? No, at best he created and set in motion a system that would occasionally happen to produce beautiful sunsets, each of which would be no less a product of happenstance than those in the materialist’s world. It’s as if I were to create a computer program that generates pseudo-random strings of letters. From time to time it would happen to spell out an apparently meaningful message, but it wouldn’t really be meaningful at all, nor could it justifiably be called a message from me, the programmer.

Now we might imagine that God does from time to time intervene to turn what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill sunset into a spectacular one, or to cause other good things to happen. But, so long as such interventions are not obviously miraculous in character, how would we be able to identify them — to know, for example, whether a particular sunset is “one of God’s good ones” or just a meaningless natural phenomenon?

The approach of the faithful is, universally, to take it for granted that everything is God’s doing, and that every single good thing that happens, without exception, is something that we can and ought to thank God for. Think for a moment how bizarre that is.

Of course there is an obvious sense in which God, qua Creator, is the ultimate cause of everything that happens, but this is inadequate to justify thanking him for every specific good thing that occurs. When I thank God for the nice weather, for example, I’m not simply acknowledging that he created the Earth, its atmosphere, the Sun, and so on, without which it would be impossible to have any sort of weather at all; nor am I thanking him for designing the atmosphere and the human body in such a way that the conditions of the former are sometimes pleasing to the latter. I’m expressing gratitude that I personally experienced pleasant rather than unpleasant atmospheric conditions today, and in so doing am implying that God specially caused that to happen — despite the fact that I know the weather appears to be a result of the mechanical unfolding of fixed natural laws.

Thanking God for specific things that happen simply on the grounds that he is the Creator is no more reasonable than a winning basketball teams’ crediting their victory to James Naismith, the inventor of the game. Obviously without Naismith, they couldn’t have won a basketball game because there wouldn’t be any such thing as basketball, but that’s beside the point. They’re not thinking “It’s a good thing we won this game, rather than there not being any such thing as basketball”; they’re thinking “It’s a good thing we won this game rather than losing it” — and Naismith had nothing to do with that.

Again, we might suppose that God very often intervenes to cause good things to happen, exercising a direct influence over and above his general role as Creator, but this is still not enough to justify the attitude of the faithful. Suppose I had a very powerful friend who wished me well and frequently intervened behind the scenes to make good things happen in my life. And suppose that I were having financial problems and one day received an excellent job offer out of the blue. I would naturally think that my powerful friend may have had something to do with that, but not necessarily. It could just as well have been a bit of ordinary good luck that didn’t involve him at all. Without confirmation from my friend, all I could reasonably say would be, “I’m not sure if you had anything to do with that job offer I received, but if so, I really appreciate it.”

But no one prays that way. No one thanks God for something provisionally, adding “if that was you, I mean.” The faithful aren’t thanking God for everything just in case, because there’s no telling which of the good things in their lives might be his handiwork. Rather, they have full confidence that everything that happens — or everything good, anyway — is God’s handiwork — including even those things that appear to be the result of the blind operations of nature, or of the free choices of agents other than God. That’s what makes this a “Shining Buddha” type problem: How can things be so confidently ascribed to God when they appear to be fully explicable without reference to him (except in his generic role as Creator)?

1.4. Synchronicity

Synchronicity is perhaps the Shining Buddha problem par excellence, in its purest and simplest form. A synchronicity can be succinctly defined as a “meaningful coincidence,” immediately raising the question of how on earth a coincidence — which almost by definition occurs for no particular reason — can legitimately be considered meaningful.

I pay attention to unusual coincidences as if I considered them to be meaningful, and I keep a log of them. As an example, a few days ago I was reading an article about Lord Byron which mentioned, as such articles will, his club foot. I was already quite familiar with that fact about Byron, but for some reason this time around it struck me that I didn’t really know much about that particular deformity or have a very clear idea of what it looked like. I spent the next several minutes reading about club feet online and looking at photos of them. Some hours later, having just finished a book I had been reading, I was browsing through my Kindle library to see what I should read next, and I decided on Bill Johnson’s Releasing the Spirit of Prophecy, which I had downloaded about a month earlier when it was recommended by the Junior Ganymede. (The recommendation was later withdrawn, but I never let that sort of thing deter me.) I was surprised to find that the book opens by telling the story of a series of people whose club feet were miraculously healed. Shortly after these stories, as a sort of meta-synchronistic comment on the synchronicity, the author states that “unusual coincidences are often the language of the Spirit.”

Some people are in the habit of “explaining” seemingly meaningful coincidences by saying, “You see, I think it might be a synchronicity. Jung wrote about them.” But synchronicity is not a theory or an explanation; it’s just a label for an unsolved problem — a problem that belongs in the same family as the others discussed in this post.

2. Possible approaches to the problems

2.1. The underlying antinomy

All the problems discussed in this post have the same logical form, which is why I think of them as a group.

  1. There is a phenomenon (P) which we should treat as meaningful (or as being the work of God, etc.)
  2. We should treat something as meaningful only if it is in fact meaningful.
  3. P is fully explicable in terms of mechanical causation and/or random chance.
  4. Nothing that is wholly the result of mechanical causation or random chance can be meaningful.

The antinomy can, in principle, be resolved by rejecting any one of these four points.

2.2. The hardheaded approach

This approach rejects the first point. The Shining Buddha was meaningless, rainbows are meaningless, all coincidences are meaningless, and God deserves no credit for most of the specific events in our lives. Our natural inclination to treat all these things as meaningful is nothing more than a human weakness which we should strive to overcome.

This approach, rigorously pursued, tends to lead to the conclusion that everything, including itself, is meaningless.

2.3. The superstitious approach

This approach, which has been my own more often than not, rejects the second point — conceding that the various phenomena described in this post are completely meaningless, but blithely proceeding to treat them as if they were meaningful anyway. I call it the “superstitious approach” because to call oneself superstitious is, in effect, to say “I know it’s all nonsense, of course, but I don’t care.”

“Believing what you know ain’t so” — that was Mark Twain’s definition of faith, not superstition, and perhaps it is not necessarily as unserious as it sounds. Perhaps it is often something more along the lines of Kermit’s “I know they’re wrong, wait and see” — an inchoate sense that the phenomenon in question must be meaningful, and an unwillingness to ignore that sense just because you can’t see how it could possibly be right.

This is perhaps the sort of folly in which, if the fool would persist, he would become wise. But as such it is not really a solution to the problem, but rather a provisional attitude to adopt until a solution is found.

2.4. The paranoid approach

This approach rejects the third point, maintaining that nothing, or virtually nothing, just happens naturally or for no particular reason, and that everything is secretly orchestrated behind the scenes by some invisible agency.  In this way it resembles the attitude of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia — but of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. As Joseph Heller or Kurt Cobain or someone like that said, “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”

The “paranoid” label is a bit misleading, since the hidden agency need not be malevolent. Rather than something along the lines of the Worldwide Mad Deadly Communist Gangster Computer God (the sort of thing we associate with “paranoia”), it could be just plain God. Probably quite a lot of religious people adopt something like the paranoid approach. Instead of calling a coincidence meaningful, these people insist that there are no coincidences.

I find myself resisting this approach, and in fact find it almost as objectionable as hardheaded nihilism. Rainbows and such just have to be natural; a rainbow suspected of being artificial immediately loses its charm. A world in which nothing at all is natural, in which every little thing is secretly being micromanaged — never mind by however benevolent a micromanager — is just insufferable.

2.5. The literary approach

So what’s left? To reject the fourth point is to insist on the definition of synchronicity given earlier: a meaningful coincidence — really meaningful, and really a coincidence — and to insist that this is not a contradiction in terms, that it is (somehow!) possible for something to be both.

In trying to come up with some way of conceptualizing such an idea, I keep coming back to the metaphor of a book, which is why I’ve dubbed this the “literary approach.” Everything that happens in a work of narrative fiction can be explained on two different levels. Assuming the story makes sense, every event therein will have a cause within the world of the story and can be fully explained on that level without reference to the author — but from a “higher” point of view, that of the larger world within which the story-world is contained, every detail of the story is without exception the work of the author.

Take, for example, the storm on the heath in the third act of King Lear — a perfect example of a meaningful coincidence. Viewed from within the story, the raging storm is a natural meteorological event caused by the mechanical unfolding of the mindless laws of physics, and the fact that it coincides so nicely with Lear’s psychological rage, and with the impending descent of Britain into political chaos, is just that: a coincidence. There is no within-story causal connection between the storm and what it mirrors — and if there were — if, say, Shakespeare had portrayed the gods specially arranging the storm for the purpose of providing a meteorological counterpoint to Lear’s psychological state — that would be aesthetically objectionable in the same way as the “paranoid approach” discussed above. But from a point of view that transcends the story itself, we can see that Shakespeare clearly arranged the coincidence on purpose and that we are therefore justified in considering it meaningful.

But this is just an analogy, and it’s not clear how to unpack it into something that could be considered literally true. (The last time I tried to work with the God-as-author metaphor, it didn’t go so well.) All the same, it seems at present to be the most promising starting point, and I shall probably be revisiting the idea in future posts.

Dismembering the world

To acquire indifference to pretty singing, to dancing, to the martial arts: Analyze the melody into the notes that form it, and as you hear each one, ask yourself whether you’re powerless against that. That should be enough to deter you.

The same with dancing: individual movements and tableaux. And the same with the martial arts.

And with everything — except virtue and what springs from it. Look at the individual parts and move from analysis to indifference.

Apply this to life as a whole.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.2

What can we call this process of disassembling a melody into individual notes? Decomposition, of course! And if you wanted a picture to illustrate this philosophy of life, you couldn’t do much better than this:


(What a perfect image! Even the green grass has been “analysed” into its constituent primaries.)

Marcus’s obsession with atoms. “Or perhaps it’s all just atoms” — meaning, to him, meaningless. If a thing has parts, the parts are real and the whole is not.

And how arbitrary is that “except virtue and what springs from it”?

Could you love a severed hand or head or foot or bone? “Apply this to life as a whole.”

But I don’t find the first word of Marcus’s argument convincing. Nor the second, nor the third . . . and you can see where that gets us.