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The renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh has gained fame lately on the Internet. Now in his late eighties, he has been a well-known figure since the 1960s. He met Martin Luther King, Jr. on a trip to the United States in 1966; in a recent interview, he told Oprah Winfrey that when he heard of King's assassination, he lamented: "When I first heard of his assassination, I could not believe it. I thought that the American people have produced King, but are not capable of preserving him." On the basis of that collective lapse, the great African-American leader passed from our world. And we may well ask why this was so. How do societies become obsessed with death and power? What values might undo that obsession?
completely different vision of time from tech-driven Millennial urgency. The latter gobbles up time, keeps people in a constant state of near-hysterical desperation and stress, with endless demands from mechanized standards of productivity and a corresponding devaluation of life and accomplishment.
The conviction that we have little time before we permanently expire creates ambition, economic growth and expansion, as well as the extreme stresses in western thought and culture. As a book on the same subject, Towards Non-Being (2005) suggests, this highly-strung attitude toward time pre-dates the Technological and Communications Revolutions:
Towards Non-Being presents an account of the semantics of intentional verbs such as ‘believes’, ‘fears’, ‘seeks’, and ‘imagines’. It tackles problems concerning intentional states which are often brushed under the carpet, such as their failure to be closed under deducibility. Drawing on the noneist work of the late Richard Routley (Sylvan), the book proceeds in terms of objects that may be existent or non-existent, at worlds that may either be possible or impossible. Since Russell, non-existent objects have had a bad press in Western philosophy. Th[is] book mounts a full-scale defence, and in the process, offers an account of both fictional and mathematical objects as non-existent.
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For example, the works of the English bard, William Shakespeare, focus on the problem of fleeting time before inevitable death and obliteration from this existence (see my post on this here, and a great reading from The Tempest, here). Take the speech from Macbeth, which indicates a pit of western nihilism and despair beneath this central problem:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
Important modern texts in this tradition include Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time) and Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Être et le néant : Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique (1943; Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology). There have been other attitudes toward time, being and consciousness in the west which were more forgiving and humane. But even the central value of western creativity, expressed directly below, still rests on an inflexible idea that time is carved into two worlds of being and non-being.
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For the famous Vietnamese monk, existence and non-existence are false categories. Birth and death are a game of hide and seek. And to consider a non-being object as non-existent is "unjust." Thích speaks of a flame of non-being which manifests, then no longer manifests, according to worldly conditions, but never actually ceases to be; he gently dismisses Shakespeare's obsession with life and death:
When conditions are sufficient, I manifest. You cannot qualify me as a non-being before the manifestation and you cannot qualify me as a being after the manifestation. ... [Of a dead loved one:] Darling, I have gone nowhere. Because conditions are not sufficient, I have simply stopped my manifestation. ... There is no coming, no going. It means the notion of being and non-being cannot be applied to reality. ... To be or not to be - that is not the question. ... [There is] no birth no death. [And when the flame reappears:] I am not the same flame as the one you saw last time, but I am not a totally different flame, either.