Monthly Archives: August 2014

Stuck in the Void

[This post originally appeared on Buddhism on September 30, 2013. It sort of goes with the last post, on “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas.”]

Available at Amazon!

I’ve written a review of  Nothing Is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans, a new book by Zen teacher Barry Magid. I recommend this book highly to anyone already engaged in Zen practice, Soto or Rinzai. But I think a lot of what it says applies to other schools of Buddhism as well.

Part of the book looks at the question of “how good teachers do bad things,” or how teachers recognized for their insight can turn around and exploit students. This isn’t a problem limited to Zen, of course.

However, speaking specifically of Zen, it’s possible for a student to take a slam-bang nose dive straight into sunyata that leaves his inner demons/neuroses/issues unexamined and untouched. This is certainly not inevitable, and  teachers I have known have all explicitly warned us students not to let this happen. But I know it does happen.

This is explained as being stuck in emptiness. The student experiences the ephemeral nature of self and the inter-existence of beings, but the heart of compassion does not open. Of course, the way it’s supposed to work is that realization of sunyata, the perfection of wisdom, naturally gives rise to compassion. I still trust that it does. But maybe there are realizations off-center from perfect that don’t quite do the job. Magid writes,

“Not only did realization fail to heal the deep divisions in our character, more and more it looked as if for many people, and in particular for many Zen teachers, practice opened up bigger and bigger splits between an idealized compassionate self and a shadow self, where split off and denied sexual, competitive, and narcissistic fantasies held sway.”

I should mention that Barry Magid is an honest-to-gosh psychoanalyst as well as a dharma heir of the late Charlotte Joko Beck. Normally articles and books blending Buddhism and psychology strike me as glib and superficial, but here is an author who understands both disciplines deeply. A lot of what he says rings true for me. Comments?

Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas

Westerners have been playing with eastern mysticism, and now some of them have had “bad trips” being called “dark nights of the soul.” There’s an article on The Atlantic website by Tomas Rocha, titled “The Dark Knight of the Soul,” about a psychology professor investigating the dark side of meditation. The professor, Dr. Willoughby Britton, is working to “document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices,” the article says.

Available at Amazon!

However, there’s nothing discussed in the article that would be particularly surprising to any long-time practitioner of Zen, Vipassana or other traditional Buddhist meditation practice. It’s pretty much a catalog of the stuff teachers warn us about, actually. And it’s all been documented and analyzed in commentaries going back more than a couple of millennia now, albeit in language a western psychologist might not understand.

Here’s the trajectory, as I see it: First, people don’t take bhavana seriously. And then they say, hey, there’s something to this; and they rip it out of its religious context and turn it into a self-improvement project. And then it gets popular, which means somebody can make money from it, so people with only a half-assed idea what they are doing set themselves up as experts and instructors and open spiritual retreat centers. And then when people who are not being properly guided start to wash up on the crazy shore, some other westerner assumes nobody has noticed this before and investigates it. Brilliant.

Off the top of my head I can think of a couple of Zen dharma heirs with Ph.D.s in psychology and one, Barry Magid, who has an  M.D. in psychiatry, all of whom speak English and even live in the U.S. So it’s not like people with deep understanding of both the practice tradition and psychology can’t be consulted on this. Oh, well.

Most of the negative experiences seem to be related to people doing intensive meditation retreats being led by people not grounded in a Buddhist tradition, or in which participants receive little or no individual guidance and are being pushed into satori before they are ready.

For example, one of the people interviewed in the Atlantic article appears to have had a strong experience of self falling away on his first retreat — and it doesn’t say what sort of retreat this was — but he was unable to integrate the experience with his day-to-day life, and it tore him apart. This sort of integration is a lot of what traditional monastic life, with its quietness and many forms and rituals, is about. To experience something that intensive and then be dumped back into “normal world” with no follow-up guidance is asking for disaster, yes. This is not news.

This guy did more meditation retreats but apparently did not seek out a dharma teacher for personal, one-on-one guidance about what he was going through, at least for several years. And it’s not clear to me that the people he finally did consult were dharma teachers, either, but whatever. In a monastic setting, his issues would have been recognized and a teacher who knew him personally would have guided him through it.

This is exactly the reason Brad Warner has called out Dennis Merzel on his “big mind” retreats, btw. And I acknowledge it doesn’t help when someone like Merzel, who really was given dharma transmission awhile back, ditches the tradition and sells easy enlightenment to the masses for his own profit. Merzel is making a good living marketing satori-palooza blow-your-mind enlightenment but gives no individual guidance, except maybe to those willing to fork out enough money for it. One poor guy who wrote to Warner about Merzel had been pushed into talking about his spiritual and sexual issues in front of the entire assembly of 250 or so retreat participants instead of privately in dokusan, which is not how it’s supposed to be done.

Another person interviewed in the Atlantic article had hallucinations. This is common, especially on long retreats. Usually this doesn’t mean anything; it’s just your nervous system mis-firing. In a Zen setting if a student begins to hallucinate during meditation and tells the teacher about it, the teacher will most likely show the student how to adjust his practice so that the hallucinations stop. But the guy in the article got no help and just freaked out.

The traditional Buddhist meditation practices are not to be messed around with by amateurs. They are powerful means intended to, among other things, deconstruct the way we are conditioned to perceive and understand ourselves and reality. They are not primarily intended to help one de-stress or relax; releasing stress is more of a side effect. In a traditional setting, a student works with a teacher who knows him personally, and the teacher will prescribe to the student what he is to do in his meditation, based on that student’s individual development. Even within the same monastery or dharma center, students in different stages of their spiritual development usually will not all be meditating in the same way, although of course you wouldn’t know that by looking at them.

Yes, meditation can occasionally be blissful, and it can occasionally be disturbing, but one is not “good” and the other “bad.” They are what they are; it’s what you do (or don’t do) with those experiences that matters, and that’s where working personally with a skilled teacher is essential.

The traditional meditation practices have a way of reaching into your psyche to find ugly and deeply buried stuff you didn’t know were there. This is a feature, not a bug; dealing with your personal negative baggage is part of the “process,” so to speak. I mention “dukkha nanas” in the title of the post. “Dukkha nana” roughly means “insight into what makes you miserable.” In advanced Vipassana, I am told, a student looks deeply into his own misery in order to gain insight, and this is not for the faint of heart. But a student would not do this without first building a strong foundation of practice and spiritual maturity.

Just taking something like mindfulness out of its context as part of the Eightfold Path is a bit problematic. I don’t doubt mindfulness by itself has therapeutic value, and I’m happy if mindfulness therapy helps people. But mindfulness without context, or with a self-centered context, could just as easily reinforce negative qualities as positive ones. It should be applied with some caution, and it isn’t always.

See also “Buddhist Meditation and the Dark Night” at Buddhism.

What We Don’t See

Of all the conceits common to humankind possibly the most insidious is that any of us are entirely rational. And often the most irrational people are those who brag about how rational they are.

Available at Amazon!

Even if a person’s basic reasoning skills are sound, the outcome of his reasoning nearly always will be imperfect. That’s because nearly all of us “live” within limited conceptual frameworks that filter and sort information in artificial ways. The way we conceptually interface with reality is based partly on our own experience and partly on how we are culturally conditioned to understand things. And most of us are blind to this, because if we and everyone we know is artificially filtering and sorting information in pretty much the same way, we assume our understanding of reality is the only possible one.

(I wrote quite a lot about this in my book, by the way, explaining the way our limited conceptual frameworks have impacted religion and have largely rendered it ridiculous, but it doesn’t have to be that way.)

Breaking out of the conceptual box we live in usually takes some extraordinary experience — and often a shocking one — to see that we’re living in an artificial world and that the “real” one outside the limits of our awareness is largely alien to us. And most of us amble through life without ever having that experience.

Even though few of us ever perceive that we’re living inside a conceptual box, if we run into people whose conceptual boxes are very different from ours we think those people just don’t understand the real world (meaning our “real world”). I could define maturity, even wisdom, as the ability to appreciate and respect that other people’s “worlds” are just as valid as ours even if they are wildly different. I wrote a few years ago,

My view is that everything we think comes from a complex of psychological discriminations and impulses, little of which have anything to do with “logic.” The way we understand ourselves and the world begins to be shaped from the moment we’re born and continues to be shaped by the culture we grow up and live in. In other words, all of our understandings are biased. This is pervasive and inescapable. Often the difference between “logical” and “empathic” people is that an “empathic” person has at least a dim appreciation of his own biases, whereas a “logical” person is utterly oblivious to them. …

… Our conscious, cognitive understandings of things are based on internalized models of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.” We may be able to articulate our ideas and perceptions in a coolly logical way, but the process by which we arrive at our ideas and perception is “complex, unconscious and emotional.” This is always true, whether we want to admit it or not. …

… Generally being “fair” is not losing one’s biases, but perceiving one’s biases as biases. If you recognize your biases as biases, you are in a position to overrule them as the facts dictate. But if you are so unconscious of yourself that you don’t recognize your biases as biases, then your “thinking” generally amounts to casting around for support for your biases. Then you put the biases and the cobbled-together “support” together and call it “reason.”

And this takes me to what we don’t see. I’ve written before about the “default norm” syndrome, also called the invisible baseline fallacy, which in our culture means white maledom is the default norm, and perspectives and experiences that deviate from those common to white men are not respected as legitimate. If you are a woman or racial minority in this country you have bumped into this iron wall of assumption many times, but the iron wall is invisible to a lot of white men. Not all, thank goodness.

This is basically the same thing that people are calling “male privilege” or “white privilege,” although I don’t like those terms. The degree to which one’s assumptions, biases and experiences are “privileged” depends on a complex of factors that include health or physical condition, class, and wealth. A white male lower-income paraplegic is considerably less “privileged” than the Koch brothers, for example. As wealth inequality becomes more extreme a whole lot of white people are being left behind to a degree I believe is unprecedented in American history, and I assure you most of these people don’t feel all that “privileged.”

Money is privilege. People who have always been financially comfortable have no idea how much lack of money can be an obstacle to basic functionality in our society. The poor are taxed in myriad ways, from paying higher bank account fees on their meager balances — causing the very poor to not use banks at all, but then one must use check cashing services that also take a bite. Without a car you take public transportation, which eats a lot more time out of your day. And if you don’t have money for a bus you simply don’t go anywhere out of walking distance, which puts a huge limit on your job opportunities. Those left out of Medicaid expansion still have limited access to health care, and chronic, debilitating conditions often go untreated. Poor parents often are caught in the day care trap — they aren’t paid enough to afford reliable day care, but without that it’s hard to hold a job at all. So one is perpetually making seat-of-the-pants arrangements with people to watch the children, and then worrying if the kids are safe. Etc. etc. Many conveniences people with money take for granted are not available to the poor, and the inconveniences pile up and make day-to-day life an exhausting exercise in barely coping.

And then it is assumed the poor can’t get ahead because they are lazy. And it is just about impossible to explain the problem to someone who has been cocooned from it. It’s not part of his, or her, experience; therefore, it isn’t “real.”

As a woman I am sometimes surprised at how much even liberal men are oblivious to the extreme misogyny that still lingers in our culture. I wrote earlier this year,

Even those of us who have never experienced physical assault have experienced sexual intimidation, belittling and humiliation, aimed at us only because of our gender. And most of the time we put up with it, because what else can we do? Confronting some sexist bozo could turn an unpleasant situation into something genuinely dangerous. So how has the political Right responded to #YesAllWomen? Mostly with more belittling. Charles Cooke at NRO, for example, dismisses the social media phenomenon as “groupthink.” We women can’t possibly know our own experiences, apparently, and simply imagine misogyny because we’ve read about it.

Especially to conservatives, problems that middle- and upper-income white men rarely if ever encounter are not “real” issues worthy of being addressed by society or government, but are exceptions that the individuals affected must take care of on their own. The fact that these issues may impact all of us, directly or indirectly, and that the cause may be widespread cultural and institutional bias that upper-income whites feed on a daily basis, is invisible to them. And you can’t explain it to them. No amount of real-world data or well-constructed logic makes dent in the iron wall. If it doesn’t conform to the conceptual box they live in, it can’t be true.

This is why it is good to have diversity of experience represented in decision-making bodies such as governments, for example. White men like to tell themselves they can make decisions that affect everybody else just fine because they will apply reason. But their reason is based on biased perspectives that fail to take many things into account. Publius provides a good example here — many rape laws used to require a woman to show she had resisted an assault to prove she had not consented. But this is a male-centric view. A woman understands that if she is being assaulted by a violent man much stronger than she is, her only hope of surviving may be in not resisting. (I remember a bitter joke from many years ago that the only woman almost certain to win a rape case is a dead nun.)

And don’t get me started on reproductive issues. Just a few days ago I was told I was too emotional because I passionately disagreed that abortion must be criminalized. Naturally it was a man, who will never be pregnant, who said this. Yes it’s easier to be emotionally detached from a issue when it’s not personal, and when the real-world experiences and consequences of that issue are merely hypothetical. It’s easier to be emotionally detached when you’re behind the iron wall.

Michael Brown is being buried today. If his killing, and what we’ve learned about Ferguson, hasn’t given us a clear picture of the evils and pervasiveness of institutional racism I don’t know what else will. Yet just last week I encountered a forum populated largely by white men who couldn’t understand why people are always going on about race. Why is race such a big deal? Isn’t it all about making white men feel guilty?

But I certainly don’t give a rodent’s posterior whether anybody feels guilty. Guilt doesn’t so much as butter toast. Our country is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, in part because our institutions, especially government, increasingly reflect the views of only the most sheltered and privileged among us. And it is increasingly unresponsive to everyone else. And, weirdly, a big chunk of the population being left behind still clings to the cognitive biases that support policies that are hurting them. Their collective conceptual frameworks are not adjusting; they still can’t see past the iron wall.

See also: Andrew O’Hehir, “White Privilege: An Insidious Virus That’s Eating America from Within.”

[First posted on The Mahablog, August 25, 2014]

Don’t Settle for Explanations

I’ve written before about emptying your cup. This is harder than you might realize. By the time we reach adulthood we are so full of, um, stuff that we don’t even notice it’s there. We might consider ourselves to be open minded, but in fact everything we learn is filtered through many assumptions and then classified to fit into the knowledge we already possess.

Read More

The Buddha taught that conceptual thinking is a function of the Third Skandha. This skandha is called Samjna in Sanskrit, which means “knowledge that links together.” Unconsciously, we “learn” something new by first linking it to something we already know. Most of the time, this is useful; it helps us navigate through the phenomenal world.

But sometimes this system fails. What if the new thing is utterly unrelated to anything you already know? What usually happens is misunderstanding. We see this when westerners, including scholars, try to understand Buddhism by stuffing it into some western conceptual box. That creates a lot of conceptual distortion; people end up with a version of Buddhism in their heads that is unrecognizable to most Buddhists. And the whole is Buddhism philosophy or religion? argument is being perpetrated by people who can’t think outside the box.

To one extent or another most of us go about demanding that reality conform to our ideas, rather than the other way around. Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to stop doing that, or at least learn to recognize that’s what we’re doing, which is a start.

But then there are ideologues and dogmatists. I’ve come to see ideology of any sort as a kind of interface to reality that provides a pre-formed explanation for why things are as they are. People with faith in ideology may find these explanations very satisfying, and sometimes they might even be relatively true. Unfortunately, a true ideologue rarely recognizes a situation in which his beloved assumptions to not apply, which can lead him into colossal blunders.

But there is no cup so full as that of the religious dogmatist. I read this at Brad Warner’s place, about a woman friend to interviewed a young Hare Krishna devotee.

“Turns out her Hare Krishna friend told her that women are naturally submissive and their position on earth is to serve men. When Darrah tried to counter this assertion by citing her own real-life experience, her buddy literally went “Blah-blah-blah” and proceeded to talk over her. When Darrah finally managed to ask how he knew all this, the Hare Krishna pointed to a bookshelf and said, ‘I have five thousand years of yogic literature that proves it’s true.'”

This young man is now dead to reality, or reality about women, at least.

And the moral is, don’t settle for explanations. This is not to say that all explanations are wrong, but until the explanation has been tested by experience, then accept it only provisionally.

[An earlier version of this post was published at Buddhism  on August 13, 2012.]

Why China Rewrites History

The so-called Xinjiang autonomous region of China is home to an indigenous population of Uighur Muslims. There has been friction and sometimes violence between the Uighurs and Han Chinese. Over the past year over 200 people have died in ethnic violence in Xinjiang.

Read More About the Roots of Religious Violence

But Beijing has a nifty way to plaster over such problems, or at least soothe the consciences of the Han Chinese. They generate phony happy history! False narratives about China’s past, repeated even in textbooks and scholarly histories, reinforce the belief among Chinese that the minorities among them, including the Uighurs and Tibetans, are members of an extended family of Chinese nationhood with roots going back centuries.

However, the roots are not real, and the only people who don’t realize this are the Chinese. Andrew Jacobs writes for the New York Times:

When it comes to China’s ethnic minorities, the party-run history machine is especially single-minded in its effort to promote story lines that portray Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans and other groups as contented members of an extended family whose traditional homelands have long been part of the Chinese nation.

Busloads of Chinese tourists are rolling into Xinjiang to visit a particular Islamic shrine, where an Uighur woman named Iparhan is said to be buried. The Chinese are being told that Iparhan, or Xiangfei in Chinese, was the great love of the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799). He was so intoxicated with her that after she came to live in his palace, he built a replica of her village outside her window to please her. When she died, 120 men escorted her body over 2,700 miles so she could be buried in her homeland.

That’s the Chinese version, anyway. The Uighur version is that Iparhan was a sex slave who was murdered by the emperor’s mother for being insufficiently obedient. And her body was not returned. Archeologists believe she is buried near Beijing.

Which version is true? The New York Times article says the “Disney” version became popular in the early 20th century, but Chinese Communist Party historians have improved on it since. And scholarly historians who say otherwise risk having their careers destroyed. However, the Chinese story of Xiangfei is now a popular topic for plays and television dramas, and commercial enterprises from a chain of roast chicken restaurants to a line of perfume are named in her honor.

What is all this happy talk about? According to this BBC report, Han Chinese moving into Xinjiang are snapping up the best jobs. Further,

Activists say Uighur religious, commercial and cultural activities have been gradually curtailed by the Chinese state. There are complaints that the Uighurs experience severe restrictions in the practice of their Muslim faith, with fewer mosques and strict control over religious schools.

Rights group Amnesty International, in a report published in 2013, said authorities criminalised “what they labelled ‘illegal religious’ and ‘separatist’ activities” and clamped down on “peaceful expressions of cultural identity”.

Last month some Uighur in civil service jobs were banned from fasting during Ramadan, the BBC says.

Be clear that the happy talk is not intended to placate the Uighurs. Instead it is entirely aimed at Han Chinese, who are persuaded that the benevolent rule of China is a great blessing to their more backward minorities. It also is intended to absolve Chinese policy when violence breaks out. Chinese citizens are persuaded that the violence is the result of crazed separatists who are too unreasonable or ignorant to appreciate what China is doing for them.

Disneyfied versions of Tibetan history are used to the same effect. China must maintain the fiction that Tibet has been part of China for centuries in order to persuade the Chinese that the takeover in the 1950s was not just the bare-assed invasion that it was. The New York Times story mentions Princess Wengchen, a daughter of a Chinese emperor given in marriage to the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo (d. ca. 650). Historians say there was no such princess or marriage, but her story fuels a folk belief in an ancient alliance between China and Tibet.

Beijing has gone so far as to build a Tibetan “Disneyland” in Chengde, which is in Heibei Province northeast of Beijing. Chengde was the site of the summer residence of the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722), and it is a popular tourist destination for the Chinese today. Many of the exhibits and spectacles at the park portray a visit to the Kangxi emperor by the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682). During this visit, the exhibits say, the two rulers agreed that  Tibet was a province of China. Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Review of Books,

Kangxi’s achievement is celebrated in Chengde in an ultra-high-tech theatrical extravaganza called the Kangxi Ceremony that plays nightly in a vast open-air amphitheater about ten miles outside the city. The show begins with several dozen uniformed horsemen galloping across the turf in front of the audience and taking up positions in the suddenly illuminated hills that surround a large circular stage. Amplified drums and a throaty male chorus fill up the night air as an actor playing Kangxi, dressed in lustrous robes of yellow brocade, gallops onto the scene, his horse rearing, cheered on by dozens of surrounding horsemen.

The tourists eat this up. However, the event being so spectacularly portrayed could not possibly have happened. The 5th Dalai Lama did make a well-documented state visit  to Beijing, not Chengde, probably arriving in January 1654. But this was a few months before the Kangxi Emperor was born.  It is documented that during this visit His Holiness was treated as a visiting head of state, not a vassal. And the Great Fifth never went back to China.

See also The Disneyfication of Tibet.

Ryutan Blows Out the Candle

(Note: This is a continuation of the last post, “The Mystic Eye,” and you may need to read that post to make sense of this one.)

Buy the Book at Amazon

“Ryutan Blows Out the Candle” is a classic Zen story from Tang Dynasty China and also a koan, Case 28 of the Mumonkan. It is sometimes also called “Ryutan Renowned Far and Wide,” or variations of that title. The full story has several components, but I’m going to simplify it a bit. I’m also going to use the more familiar Japanese forms of the names of the main characters.

Tokusan (Te-shan Hsüan-chien, 782-865) was a famous scholar, praised especially for his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra. He was invited to lecture far and wide, and as he traveled he carried the scrolls containing his notes and commentaries with him. One day he heard about some teachings of the Zen school on the Diamond Sutra that clearly were wrong, he thought, so he traveled to the monastery of Zen Master Ryutan (Lung-t’an Ch’ung-hsin or Longtan Chongxin) to set the master straight.

The two men met and discussed the Diamond Sutra far into the night. Finally Tokusan prepared to leave, but it was very dark out. Ryutan lit a candle and gave it to Tokusan, but as Tokusan reached for the candle Ryutan blew it out. At that moment, Tokusan experienced deep realization.

The next day, according to the Mumonkan, Tokusan brought his notes on the Diamond Sutra to the front of main assembly hall, pointed to them with a torch, and said,

“Even though you have exhausted the abtruse doctrines, it is like placing a hair in a vast space. Even though you have learned all the secrets of the world, it is like a drop of water dripped on the great ocean.”

And then he burned his scrolls and departed. He eventually became Ryutan’s student and dharma heir.

(Notice: I should put a disclaimer on this post that says “This blogger is not a Zen teacher.” I’m not going to pretend I see everything the koan is presenting. I have a couple of commentaries by Zen teachers at hand, one by the late Robert Aitken and one by my teacher, Susan Postal, and I’m leaning very heavily on what the teachers say. However, whatever I misrepresent is my fault entirely, not the teachers’.)

At the beginning of the story, we have the great scholar Tokusan, who is the Expert. Everyone says so. He says so. And the Diamond Sutra is his baby. For those of you unfamiliar with the sutra, it’s part of the larger Prajnaparamita Sutra, from which also comes the Heart Sutra. The Diamond seems to present one paradox after another, making it especially difficult to “grasp” intellectually, but Tokusan seems to have grasped it that way.

As Aitken wrote,

“If your defenses are impervious, no one can get in–and you can’t get out. There is no fissure through which your vine of life can find its way to the sunshine.”

But on his way to the monastery, Tokusan met a woman in a tea shop who asked him a question about the sutra he couldn’t answer. From the Mumonkan:

When he reached the road to Reishû, he asked an old woman to let him have lunch to “refresh the mind.”

“Your worship, what sort of literature do you carry in your pack?” the old woman asked.

“Commentaries on the Diamond Sutra,” replied Tokusan.

The old woman said, “I hear it is said in that sutra, ‘The past mind cannot be held, the present mind cannot be held, the future mind cannot be held.’ Now, I would like to ask you, what mind are you going to have refreshed?”

Tokusan was dumbfounded by the question. He felt a flicker of doubt. A crack appears! And then he encountered Ryutan, whose insight into the sutra opened the crack further. And after his realization Tokusan burned his scrolls.

Mumon says in his capping verse, “Alas! He lost his eyes!” Aitken says, “He became altogether blind at last!” Here is some classic Zenspeak. In the English language, blindness is often used as a metaphor for ignorance. But it’s not unheard of in Zen Lit to use blindness as a metaphor for wisdom, because one who is blind is not fooled by appearances.

I recently came across a fascinating academic paper on this koan, titled “Approaching the Language of Zen: Clarke, Heidegger, and the Meaning of Articulation in Zen Koans” by Professor Anton Sevilla of the the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Academic papers on Zen tend to be dreadful, but this one makes some good points I’d like to share. The professor writes,

The light of Ryutan’s candle is likened to words, and in this case, could be likened to the words of the Diamond Sutra and other notes and commentaries. Through this light, Tokusan was able to grasp things, to see them, to navigate about them and so forth. His philosophical purview into the sutras allowed him a mode of articulating reality and grasping it in an intelligible fashion.

However, is this space that is navigable by words and intellect all there is to reality? Candlelight illuminates some things, but leaves other things in the dark.

Here I’m going to go back to the way our brains create reality, discussed in the last post. Very briefly, the way we experience “reality” depends a great deal on the way our brains interpret and organize sensory input. We depend especially on the left temporal lobe, which creates the way we experience time and position, and which also is the part of the brain that generates language, logic, and categories. This includes the categories “me” versus “everything else.”

Our brains evolved in a way to allow us to navigate through space and matter to find food and shelter and each other, and eventually to create civilization, the arts, science, and many wonderful things. For humans, intellect is one of our primary “interfaces” with the world. But it’s also a kind of trap, because we assume there is no other way to know or experience. Yet it’s really more like a candle, illuminating some things but leaving other things dark.

Professor Sevilla speaks of “The tension between the abundance of the coming to light of reality and the finitude of man’s grasp and articulation,” and within that tension is the realm of mystical practice. The mystic seeks to push beyond the boundaries of the left temporal lobe, and to illuminate the places intellect doesn’t reach.

They don’t always succeed, of course, and the word “mysticism” is used to cover everything from Zen practice to fortune telling. But it’s striking to me how the great mystics of the many religions so often seem to agree with each other more than they do with the dogmatists of their own religious traditions.

The story of Tokusan and Ryutan is the story of a man who experienced realization when his intellect dropped away. Intellect isn’t bad, of course. You have to have some cognitive skills to be functional. I sincerely believe more critical thinking would make the world a better place. Yet it can also be a trap, keeping us from seeing the whole thing, so to speak.

Language also is generated by the left temporal lobe, and the languages of humankind are designed to work within the reality created by the left temporal lobe. When you leave that reality, left-temporal-lobe language doesn’t function. Mystics often fall back on poetry, or something like it, to explain what they’ve realized. People tightly locked in linear logical left-temporal-lobe mode usually dismiss such expression outright. Or, they’ll attempt to make sense of it logically, find it riddled with what they think are inconsistencies and paradoxes, and then dismiss it.

And many generations of Zen teachers have told us, don’t get stuck in words. Zen’s definition of itself:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;

No dependence on words and letters;

Direct pointing to the human mind;

Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

Much of Professor Sevilla’s paper compares Heidegger’s notion of language with the way Zen uses language, and some of you might enjoy reading this. Very briefly, he argues much of Zen language is an “unsaying,” a deconstruction of conventional cognitive frameworks. “In language as ‘unsaying,’ articulations attempt to release human beings from their attachments to particular ways of seeing reality,” he writes.

When the Buddha realized enlightenment, he said,

Oh housebuilder! You have now been caught!

You shall not build a house again.

Deconstruct! Unsay! Blow out the candle! This is not normally how we learn things, but this is what the dharma requires.

Even if you have only a basic knowledge of the Buddha’s story of enlightenment, it ought to be obvious that what he realized was not cognitive knowledge. Yet time and time again, I find very bright, very intellectual people trying to understand Buddhism who can’t “get” that. If you explain to them that an intellectual approach won’t work, they smile indulgently at you, as if you were a small child talking about Santa Clause, and go back to labeling, categorizing, and constructing. It’s quite astonishing.

As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan,

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illumined the other side is dark.

[This post originally appeared on Buddhism on October 6, 2010]

The Mystic Eye

The late John Daido Loori, Roshi, was a man of keen intellect. He had a seemingly bottomless depth of knowledge about many things — science, arts, literature, psychology, history, you name it. And, of course, there was that Zen thing as well.

And yet one of Daido’s frequent themes was the trap of intellect. This is from one of Daido Roshi’s dharma talks:

The eye that grasps the universe is beyond both being and non-being, beyond self and no-self. And it is not dependent upon intellectual comprehension. It is here that most of us run into trouble. Whenever we encounter anything, our intellect, the linear rational faculty, shifts into high gear. And it immediately dulls the possibilities of discovery because we’re busy naming, categorizing, analyzing, judging, and processing. The mystic eye sees beyond all that.

Our conventional perception is is grounded in a dualistic and materialist view. We assume there is an external world that is independent from the consciousness that perceives and experiences it.  We relate to the world by labeling, analyzing and manipulating it.  This is the chief cause of our difficulties.

No one is saying there is nothing “out there.” Rather, as I understand it, the appearance of things depends partly on their physical qualities and partly on how our senses and nervous systems “display” them in our brains. For example, a particular configuration of molecules is a “bowl” because that’s how I recognize and affirm it. Put another way, “bowl” exists as “bowl” in my perceptions; but in and of itself, there is just energy, molecules, space. Form is emptiness.

Buy the Book at Amazon

And, you know, there is nothing “supernatural” about this. If you’ve never seen this astonishing lecture by the neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor on how she experienced a brain hemorrhage, please make the time (less than 19 minutes) to watch the video. It perfectly illustrates this very point.

Dr. Taylor’s hemorrhage impacted her left temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain that judges, categorizes, and creates context. It’s also where the ego hangs out, she says. As brain functions shut down, she realized how much of the “external world” is actually created in the left temporal lobe. She felt like a genie liberated from a bottle, she said, experiencing herself as everything, without boundaries.

Of course, the left temporal lobe is essential to our survival. Without it, tasks such as finding food and avoiding large predators would be impossible. And I’m not going to rest my head on the bowl and pour soup into a pillow. Emptiness is form.

Daido spoke of the “mystic eye.” “Mysticism” is a word people use a lot without appreciating what it actually means, and it can mean several things. There’s a nice online article about the many types of mysticism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and in this article one definition of mysticism is an “experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.”

In other words, it’s an experience or perception of reality that is different from the way our senses and intellects normally perceive reality. Religious people often call this a “direct experience of the divine,” but of course for at least some Buddhists the word “divine” is a bit problematic.

Scrolling down the article a bit, we see that one of the common attributes of mystical experience is “ineffability” or “indescribability.” Language is very much a creation of that left temporal lobe, you know. People who have strokes on the left sides of their brains often lose the ability to speak, even though they are just as aware and intelligent in other ways as they ever were.

But it’s important to understand that languages also are calibrated to describe the world created by the left temporal lobe. This is a world that exists in a context of time and place, and which is filled with myriad distinct phenomena. Bypassing that left temporal lobe provides a perspective of reality that is nearly impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t “been there.” Usually, the listener assumes the speaker is either crazy or stupid.

Now, sometimes the speaker is dressed up in a robe or otherwise invested with some kind of authority, so that some listeners may choose to assume he knows something and take him seriously. But when the speaker’s words hit their brains, the first thing they do is put those left temporal lobes to work judging, categorizing, sorting, tagging, contextualizing, etc. etc., based on what they already know and what they’ve personally experienced.

In other words, they try to fit this ineffable thing into a left-temporal-lobe context. If they succeed at all, what they end up with usually is very different from what the guy in the robe was trying to tell them. If Left Temporal Lobe World is all they know of reality, any other way to perceive reality is unimaginable and nonsensical.

This takes us to the Primordial Problem of the Dharma — the “realization” or “enlightenment” of which we speak requires seeing the truth about Left Temporal Lobe World — that, in a way, it’s just a light show, neither real nor not-real. Us included

And this takes us to Buddhist practice and the trap of intellect. We are so accustomed to “knowing” things through our intellects that we assume that’s the only way to “know.” But that brings us to practice. So much of practice is getting the left temporal lobe to shut up, even for a little while. One way to understand practice is that it enables another way of knowing beside an intellectual one.

I was once told that in deep meditation, in the dhyanas, some brain functions are suppressed. I don’t know if science has found this to be true, but it makes sense to me. Further, so many of our practices are more physical than intellectual; bowing, chanting, to be done with whole-body-and-mind attention, as zennies say. These things make no sense, meaning they have no apparent function in left-temporal-lobe reality. Yet, somehow, they work.

The Primordial Problem means that you have to practice Buddhism for at least a little while to begin to appreciate even what it is, never mind realizing the Great Ineffable Whatever. I despair sometimes at the many online articles I stumble into that look at Buddhism as a purely intellectual exercise. And, of course, the authors of these articles are dismissive of everything about Buddhism that doesn’t make sense. Just get rid of that stuff, they say, and it would be so much better.

At this point, those of us who have been in practice for awhile hear alarm bells, and we dash about babbling about babies and bathwater.

But this is an old problem. It is said that the first person the historical Buddha met after his enlightenment asked him what he had realized. And when the Buddha tried to explain, the man laughed at him and walked away.

So, instead of only preaching doctrines about what he had realized, the Buddha taught people to realize for themselves. This makes Buddhism different from most other religions, in which people are presented with doctrines to be accepted on faith. We have doctrines, also, but for us they are more like maps, guiding us to realization. Merely believing in them is pointless. Believing in some doctrine of enlightenment is not enlightenment.

I’ve gone on a bit long, so I will continue this discussion in the next post.

[An earlier version of this post was originally published on Buddhism on October 3, 2010.]

Is a Kinship of Faith Possible?

[An earlier version of this post was originally published as “The Dalai Lama vs. Stephen Prothero”  on Buddhism, June 17, 2010.]

I’ve written a few times about Stephen Prothero, the professor at Boston University who writes provocative books on religion. He has demonstrated pretty good understanding of Buddhism. But lately Professor Prothero has been going around claiming that His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches all religions are alike. And Professor Prothero disagrees with this.

Professor Prothero has a new book out titled God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter. I have not read this book yet, but my understanding is that Prothero argues against the common popular notion that all religions amount to different paths up the same mountain. This is a terrible distortion, Prothero says, because in fact each of the world’s religions looks is viewing a different “problem” and coming up with a different “solution.” Put another way, they really are different paths up different mountains, and to ignore the distinctions is both disrespectful and dangerous.

Buy the Book at Amazon

Meanwhile, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a new book out called Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together that I am reading, although I’m only part way through it. In this book, His Holiness speaks warmly of his encounters with people of other religions, such as Thomas Merton. He emphasizes the values, in particular compassion, found in the teachings of all religions. The main point is that there is no need for all the world’s religions to have a competitive and adversarial relationship with each other.

Rod Meade Sperry writes about this disagreement at Shambhala Sunspace. Rod quotes Timothy J. McNeill, president of Wisdom Publications, who says that Prothero is misrepresenting His Holiness.

In numerous times and places including the The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom Publications 1996) the Dalai Lama demonstrates respect, and calls for harmony among religions but in no way glosses over the “top of the mountain” differences. He repeatedly emphasizes that “in order to develop a genuine spirit of harmony from a sound foundation of knowledge, I believe it is very important to know the fundamental differences between religious traditions.” He specifically refutes and dismisses any notion of universal unity of religions.

This is what His Holiness says in the new book, also. He is not suggesting that it’s perfectly OK to abandon all religious distinctions and boil all the world’s religions into one big pot of mush. It clearly is very important to him to maintain the integrity of Tibetan Buddhism as it has been practiced for many generations. However, even though each of the world’s religions may maintain distinctive practices, perspectives and doctrines, they can still co-exist harmoniously.

However, I also appreciate much of what Professor Prothero says about the “many paths up the same mountain” metaphor. Although on one hand I can sorta kinda see truth in it, on the other hand there is a growing attitude in some quarters that paths don’t matter. As long as you’re wandering around in the general vicinity of the mountain you’re bound to stumble onto the peak eventually.

I sense also a growing popularity in what I call “reverse fundamentalism.” That is, if you insist that a specific religion (say, Buddhism) teaches X (say, Dependent Origination) instead of Y (a creator God) that makes you some kind of fundamentalist. And this would be true even if you aren’t pushing the teaching as the One Holy Truth, but just marking the parameters of what the particular religion teaches.

To a reverse fundamentalist, no amount of “I respect your belief in X, but Buddhism teaches not-X” will shake them from the notion they can believe whatever they want and call it “Buddhism.” And if you say that they can believe whatever they like but that what they believe isn’t Buddhism, you are a closed-minded dogmatist.

I think this is an extreme version of the “I’m spiritual but not religious” school, which says that “spirituality” (whatever that is) is good, but “religion” (usually, specific religious traditions and the institutions that maintain them) is evil, so if you are trying to maintain the integrity of a particular religious tradition, you are some kind of intolerant fundamentalist. When I read Propthero, I appreciate that part of his shtick is arguing against the belief that all religions should be melted down and distilled into the pure ur-religion that must have existed before mankind invented churches.

I agree with what His Holiness says, also, that there is no reason the many religious traditions of the world have to be adversarial. Can’t we all just get along?

The problem here is that, from a Buddhist perspective, there really is no reason to be anxious because other people believe in, for example, a creator God. We can appreciate the teachings of other religions when they resonate with our understanding and also when they challenge our understanding.

Unfortunately, the perspectives of some other religions don’t allow practitioners to be complacent about the beliefs of others. So until people get over the idea that everyone has to be browbeaten into believing as they do, there will be religious conflict, unfortunately.

Trust and the Kalama Sutta

The Kalama Sutta may be the most quoted Buddhist scripture in the West. Even people who don’t know the Perfections from potatoes can quote the Kalama Sutta to support whatever they want to believe about Buddhism.

If the title Kalama Sutta isn’t ringing a bell for you, you might recognize this quote of the Buddha —

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts.”

This is the Buddha speaking to a clan of people called the Kalamas. People cite the Kalama Sutta to argue that the Buddha advocated logical reasoning to arrive at the truth, or that people should decide for themselves what is true, and of course the all-time favorite — Buddhism is not a religion.

I bring this up because I have found an essay on the Kalama Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu that I hope everyone reads. Let’s take a look —

The Bhikkhu writes that the many variations of the quote above that are plastered all over the Internet (and possibly also T-shirts and coffee mugs) seem to cancel out everything else the Buddha taught.

“Taken together, these quotes justify our tendency to pick what we like from the old texts and throw the rest away. No need to understand the larger context of the dhamma they teach, the Buddha seems to be saying. You’re better off rolling your own.”

The Bikkhu provides his own translation of the text, bolding some words —

“So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical deduction, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.'”

Buy the Book at Amazon

There are several different translations of the Sutta sluicing about the Web, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a respected scholar and teacher of Theravada Buddhism, and I trust that he’s positioning the English as close to the original Pali as it can be positioned. And here, the Buddha plainly is warning us to put blind faith in neither external nor internal authority.

In other words, do not put blind faith in teachers or texts; and do not put blind faith in logic, or the odds, or “figuring it out.” The Bikkhu continues,

“When the Buddha says that you can’t go by logical deduction, inference, or analogies, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your sense of reason. When he says that you can’t go by agreement through pondering views (i.e., what seems to fit in with what you already believe) or by probability, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your common sense. And of course, you can’t always trust teachers, scriptures, or traditions. So where can you place your trust?”

“Where Can You Place Your Trust?” is a great dharma question. The Bikkhu answers his own question in his essay, but it’s such a good question I want to come back to it later this week. Please feel free to add your own thoughts.

[This post originally appeared on Buddhism on September 3, 2012]