Monthly Archives: September 2014

Are We Not Who We Are?

I read recently that success in today’s world requires that we all be brands. As in products that are packaged, marketed and sold. The right “personal brand” will help you present yourself and create a good impression, the article said.

If you’ve practiced for awhile, you may already have dug through several layers of conditioning, rationalization and fantasy without striking bottom. More packaging is about the last thing any of us really needs. But here in the U.S. we’re all so saturated in a consumerist culture that it can seem life is one big marketing campaign, and the whole universe is a vast, glitzy shopping mall.

As Madge the Manicurist used to say in those dish soap commercials — you’re soaking in it.

So let us un-package ourselves. What do we find? Who is the “real you”? What is the self?

I may have told this anecdote before, but here it is again — my college sociology professor once challenged the class to define or describe ourselves without reference to a relationship. And none of us could do it. We couldn’t get past “I am … ,” without losing the challenge. We were sons and daughters; we were students of the college; we were employees, parents, members of a church. All of our self-definitions were conditioned and dependent on other things.

Is the body the self? The Buddha said it wasn’t, but let’s look. Scientists say that 90 percent of the cells in “our” bodies are not us. We’re all a walking collection of microbes — some of which we need to survive — and random self-replicating DNA from old viruses. I also remember reading that the cells that do have “our” DNA are constantly dying and being replaced by new cells. The right arm you “have” now is literally not the same one from six months ago.

Let’s look at behavior. What’s nature, and what’s nurture? The last post was about how babies start out being sweet and helpful — aside from teething and colic, I suppose — and then learn to be discriminatory and bound by social norms. Really, the conditioning starts as soon as we’re born, and perhaps the best we can do later is learn to recognize it as such.

So as the layers are excavated, is there a bottom? Or like the famous turtles holding up the world, are we illusion all the way down?

Mahayana Buddhists may point to Buddha Nature as being the “true self,” but I have been taught not to think of Buddha Nature as a “self.” That would make Buddha Nature just like the atman that the Buddha denied. So be careful of that.

My understanding is that not only is there no self beneath the layers, there is no self to peal them away. Through practice they fall away, or at least become more transparent. Needless to say, a “personal brand” won’t help.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[This post originally was published on Buddhism on November 7, 2013.]

Religion and Science: Four Perspectives

The 14th Dalai Lama is said to have said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” I agree with the quote, but I also think it’s not that revolutionary. Buddhism has made a lot of adjustments to science in the past couple of centuries without being traumatized about it.

I very often run into news stories and articles that frame “religion” as a monolithic thing that is intractably opposed to “science,” another monolithic thing. But the truth is that most of religion is not at war with science (which is not so monolithic, but that’s another rant). Consider evolution, which “religion” is said to disbelieve. Catholicism never issued a formal opposition to evolution and declared decades ago that the faithful were free to make up their own minds. Judaism is largely supportive of evolution science. The “old line” Protestant denominations of Christianity mostly either accept evolution or leave it alone.

In America, the fight against evolution is coming mostly from the extreme religious Right. Yes, conservative evangelicals mostly oppose evolution, although there are exceptions to everything. Yes, there are a lot of them, and they make a lot of noise. But they don’t represent all of Christianity, never mind all of “religion.” And outside of Abrahamism I’m not aware that evolution is an issue at all. It certainly isn’t in Buddhism.

Most of Christianity processes science in one of two ways. One is to oppose it, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are unrelated to religious doctrine — think climate change denialism — but are more about loyalty to the Right as a political-religious tribe. I’ve written elsewhere that this group harbors a kind of faithless faith. This faithless faith rests on the proposition that the reality of God depends on a literal interpretation of scripture. If evolution is true, for example, then God is not real. That’s why it’s a faithless faith; it’s a faith with conditions.

The other, and more common, means for the religious to process science is through a kind of compartmentalizing. Because science simply cannot measure God, or heaven, or angels, for example,  it’s not thought to be unscientific to believe in such things. This perspective assumes it is all right to read Bible stories allegorically, which is actually how they were read for most of history. Atheist folklore to the contrary, an insistence on biblical literalism is a relatively recent development.

That works for some people, although it never seems to stop the incessant arguments about whether God exists. No matter how elegantly or logically they are argued, arguments claiming to be “proof” of God always carry a whiff  of unsupported assumption and end up chasing their own tails. They are unpersuasive to anyone not already inclined to believe them, and are therefore a waste of time. Not that anyone listens to me. But if you are a God-believer, please just accept that you believe something that can’t be proved by any known means and try to come to terms with that. Thanks much.

Among Abrahamists there is also a less common way to deal with science, which is to assume that scriptures and doctrines are all imperfect attempts to explain something ineffable, and in truth God is not only beyond the measure of science but also beyond the limited ability of humans to conceptualize and describe him/her/it. This group doesn’t believe in literal angels or unseen spirits and may deny that God is a being at all, anthropomorphic or otherwise, although God still is. This is a perspective championed by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), considered to be one of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century. It’s still a kind of compartmentalization, but a looser one that creates little or no conflict with science.  This group is arguably closer to older concepts of “faith,” in which faith was less about believing things and more about trusting a God that is beyond human understanding. This perspective also is utterly incomprehensible to most activist atheists, who simply can’t get around that word “God” and not think “sky fairy.”

I’ve been speaking about the people engaged in these three ways of understanding religion and science as if they were three distinct groups, but it’s probably more of a continuum of understanding, with the extremely and rigidly literal on one end and the extremely and loosely not-literal on the other. Most American Christians and Jews fall somewhere between those two poles, and the poles will probably continue to shift.

There’s a weird belief among many American atheists that Abrahamic religion has always been rigidly literal, and those who are not are “cherry pickers” or “hypocrites,” but again, the bulk of theological and historical scholarship says literalism crept in with modernity, not the other way around. And, anyway, religion has always been a kind of ongoing, collaborative creative effort, albeit usually a conservative one, that really does change over time. For example, God as described in the older parts of the Old Testament really is a very different guy from the one described in the newer parts. Just over the past couple of centuries there have been a number of new developments in American Christianity, from Unitarianism to fundamentalism. So, in fact, understanding of doctrine is not so rigidly fixed as in a slow state of flux.

Buddhists are in a slightly different, and slightly more interesting, place. Buddhism did go through a period of doctrinal upheaval about three centuries ago, as science made hash of a lot of old assumptions about the cosmos. But for the most part Buddhism was able to reconcile itself to a more allegorical interpretation of many scriptures and doctrines without going to war about it. This is not to say there aren’t teachers out there explaining the Six Realms, for example, as real physical places, but they are a minority.

Buddhists don’t have to spin their wheels over the existence of a creator God. For the most part we don’t need to believe in a bunch of supernatural things to be assured the Buddha’s teachings are true. The Buddha’s teachings are mostly about ourselves and our lives, and we can verify them through our own practice and experience. Believing things is not that important in Buddhism.

On the other hand, some of the metaphysical theories in support of doctrine and practice might someday be revised by science. For example, the Buddha proposed the skandhas as a way to explain the biological organism that experiences itself as “I.” I’d love to see a neuroscientist who practices Buddhism review the skandhas and propose revisions to make them more accessible to modern thinkers. Seems to me it’s not so important to memorize that recognition is samjna and biases are samskara as it is to appreciate how the body, brain and nervous system work together to create the illusory experience of a self.  Reading about neuroscience actually helped me understand Yogacara philosophy, which utterly mystified me for a long time.

This is where I suspect His Holiness the Dalai Lama was going when he said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” He engages in dialog with scientists often, mostly in relation to “mind science” and the nature of consciousness and theoretical physics. He seems keenly interested in reconciling the “support” theories with scientific thought, and he appears to have great faith that science will support the Buddha’s teaching. As  long as science doesn’t discover a soul, it may very well do that.

Read more about religion and science in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World


Sam Harris vs. Islam

Sam Harris is very sure that Islam created ISIS, and he criticized President Obama for saying otherwise:

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

If indeed Islam itself demands that all apostates must die, it’s been weirdly inconsistent about this over the years. Just yesterday I found an article about Muslims who risked — and sometimes lost — their own lives saving Jews from the Holocaust. Harris would probably argue those Muslims were hypocrites (No True Muslim would rescue a Jew?). But I’m sure if we checked we could probably find many examples of amicable meetings between Muslims and non-Muslims that didn’t end in slaughter.

Maybe the relationship between Islam and violence is not what Harris assumes.

In Rethinking Religion I devote a chapter to religious violence and another to the dynamics of mass movements. In the latter chapter I propose that many of the supposed evils of religion — a propensity to violence and dogmatic faithfulness to irrational beliefs — can be found in many kinds of movements, both religious and not religious. And I propose that violent movements of all sorts have two things in common — a “holy” cause combined with a fanatical grievance.

The holy cause does not have to be religious; patriotism will do nicely, too, especially when combined with belief in ethnic or racial superiority or some kind of glorious national destiny. But the fanatical grievance is an essential component, also. I postulate that people who do not feel particularly aggrieved about anything tend to be disinclined to become violent about their holy causes, whether religious or not.

At Alternet, C.J. Werleman addresses atheists’ flawed view of Islamic terrorism. In particular, he addresses Sam Harris’s insistence that terrorism by Muslims is driven entirely by Islam. Werleman documents that a great many factors other than Islam  have been driving terrorism in Muslim countries, and all of this supports my “fanatical grievance” hypothesis. This is not to say that religion is not a factor, but it is not the simple and direct factor that Harris imagines.

At Foreign Policy, anthropologist Scott Atran writes,

… the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Indeed, inclusive concepts such as “humanity” arguably emerged with the rise of universal religions. Sociologist Rodney Stark reveals that early Christianity became the Roman Empire’s majority religion not through conquest, but through a social process grounded in trust. Repeated acts of altruism, such as caring for non-Christians during epidemics, facilitated the expansion of social networks that were invested in the religion. Likewise, studies by behavioral economist Joseph Henrich and colleagues on contemporary foragers, farmers, and herders show that professing a world religion is correlated with greater fairness toward passing strangers. This research helps explain what’s going on in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is spreading rapidly. In Rwanda, for example, people began converting to Islam in droves after Muslims systematically risked their lives to protect Christians and animists from genocide when few others cared.

So, evidence suggests religion can bring out the best in us as well as the worst. I propose that without the “fanatical grievance” factor, religion by itself is unlikely to cause people to go to war. An emotionally healthy and reasonably contended individual does not become a mass murderer because of something he reads in scripture, no matter how devout he is.

Religion does not exist in a vacuum. All religions live and grow within a culture of, well, culture. And politics, and society, and history. These things exist together and condition each other in countless ways. Sometimes culture expresses itself through religion. Sometimes religion expresses itself through culture. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Religious identity often gets mixed into ethnic or national identity, so that “defending the faith” becomes synonymous with “defending my people.”

Very often the factors that push a movement toward violence may have little to do with religion, but at some point in the process religion is trotted out to justify whatever extreme measures are used to achieve ends. More often than not, the truth of this isn’t apparent even to the people fomenting the violence. Religious violence often begins when people become angry or fearful about something, and as a desire to strike the feared or hated thing grows, religion provides a great moral cover for whatever violent impulses want to be expressed. Persuading yourself that you have been anointed to do God’s terrible work makes it much easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

Religion, then, is not the root cause of violence as often as it is an accelerant. Scott Atran writes,

Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes “Holy Land.” Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments.

We can see from our own home-grown fundamentalists that all kinds of unrelated things can become sacralized. Some American conservative Christians have sacralized capitalism, for example, to the point of claiming free-market capitalism is ordained by the Bible.

As Karen Armstrong and other scholars have documented, religious fundamentalism is primarily a backlash against modernity. The original Christian fundamentalist movement arose in the late 19th century United States in reaction to a spectrum of social and cultural challenges, such as the huge influx of immigrants, many of which were barely connected to religion.

In the broader sense of the word, “fundamentalist” religious movements around the world are reactionary. They tend to be obsessed with creating some kind of sacred enclave where they can be in complete control and free of outside influence. Often, as in the case of ISIS, they venerate a highly mythologized version of the past that they say they want to restore. They place great importance on sacred symbols and moral purity, especially the moral purity of women. But they also tend not to follow their own religions in any kind of holistic way. Any parts of their own doctrines or scriptures that do not support their violent path, such as teachings on mercy and compassion, are studiously ignored.

So, whether Sam Harris likes it or not, there is a solid argument to be made that the root cause of ISIS is not Islam, and that instead Islam has been appropriated to serve as packaging for a veritable compost heap of grievances mostly related to politics and oil. That said, the extent to which the ISIS movement can persuade itself its cause is holy will have a lot to do with how long and hard and effectively the group will survive and keep fighting. So Islam cannot be ignored.

At the same time, it can be argued that what’s fueling ISIS is more of an idea of Islam than Islam itself. Rather than a practice of humble submission to the will of God, this idea of Islam exalts and empowers the leaders and followers of ISIS. And while it’s not up to me to judge what is “true” Islam and what isn’t, I respect arguments that the ISIS version aint’ it.

But Sam Harris says he knows better.

Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran.

The Qu’ran is not my area, but I doubt it’s Sam Harris’s area, either. Harris’s words smack more of bigotry than scholarship. Obviously, Harris has a deep ego-investment in the belief that Religion Is Bad, and that good ol’ confirmation bias backs him up every time. I doubt that his mind could be opened to entertain another view. And that’s why he’s mostly clueless.

Making Islam the enemy is the last thing we should be doing now. For another view, see Salam Al Marayati, “The Key to Defeating ISIS Is Islam.”

Religious violence is a complex topic. Sometimes religious institutions have made cold-blooded decisions to betray their own doctrines and engage in violence, and this is usually related to either ensuring the institution’s survival or spreading its influence.  But examples of this kind of violence have become less common in the modern era, and I don’t know if it applies to any violence going on in the world now.

What I do know is that responses to religious violence coming from a place of knee-jerk bigotry and ignorance are not going to help us deal with it.

Read more about religious violence in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

Saying Too Much

In Zen — and I’m sure this is true of other Buddhist traditions as well — students are sternly warned not to talk about a kensho or “enlightenment experience” to everyone and his uncle. It’s fine to discuss these things with a teacher, but not to others. I know of at least three reasons for this.

One reason to keep silent about some things is to avoid jealousy or competitiveness among students. Another is that it creates expectations in less “advanced” students about what such an experience might be like, and expecting an imagined experience can get in the way of the real thing.

And the third reason is that most people will misunderstand everything you say.

In his book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, Brad Warner says that he “stupidly” wrote about a kensho experience in his first book, and he describes how people who have read the first book utterly misinterpret what he wrote. And these are people who found the first book inspirational.

He has a blog post up now recounting a Twitter conversation with another such person. The questioner can’t get past thinking about enlightenment as something separate from the “enlightened being,” something to possess or be touched by or otherwise experienced, and Warner keeps saying no, that’s not it.

And the questioner accuses Warner of being evasive, but I don’t see that he is. He’s said all he can say. He’s said too much,  perhaps.

Let me be clear that Zen is not an esoteric tradition. There are no secret teachings that are given only to high-level initiates. By now just about everything Zen has to say about anything has not only been made public but has been published in multiple languages.

But on an individual level, even genuine insights and experiences can contain dangers. If we blab too much, if we turn a mystical experience into a public narrative, the way we understand the experience can change also. Keeping it bottled up is not good, either, however, because then it becomes something to cling to. So do talk about it, but talk about it to a teacher.

Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World

[This post originally was published on Buddhism on August 12, 2013.]

Names and Labels

Many years ago, I “got into” Zen through Taoism, particularly the collection of verses called the Tao Teh Ching (or Daode Jing). Early Zen appears to have been influenced by Taoism, so it wasn’t much of a leap.

Now I’m reading a new book called Walking the Way: 81 Zen Encounters With the Tao Teh Ching by Robert Rosenbaum, and I’m enjoying it very much. The 81 “encounters” are reflections on the Tao Teh Ching’s verses, and some are quite lovely. Here’s a bit —

“Your name is a summons, not a self. Whatever names have been bestowed on you, whatever names you have created for yourself, are only pointers, motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify an object; you are a way seeking itself. Names can give the illusion of some unchanging essence “underneath” the name, so don’t be deceived; the real you does not stop or start, but swirls and streams.”

Of course, all names of things are motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify. This reminds me of another quote I’ve posted before — Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer wrote,

“In Buddhist thought the concept “emptiness” refers to deconstructed reality. The more closely you look at something the more you see that it is not there in any substantial way, it couldn’t be. In the end everything is just a designation: things have a kind of reality in their being named and conceptualized, but otherwise they actually aren’t present. Not to understand that our designations are designations, that they do not refer to anything in particular, is to mistake emptiness.” [“A Few Words About Emptiness,” PDF]

If designations for tangible things (in a relative sense) such as [your name], computer, chair, cat, friend, whatever, designate things that actually are not present, how much more so is something intangible not present? Ideologies, political theories, belief systems, have no substance whatsoever, for example, yet we argue about them all the time.

Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World

I’m thinking of the endless argument that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. Someone with the least understanding of dharma ought to know that as soon as you say “I am” or “it is” or “they are,” you’re in trouble. Sometimes you have to make those designations to communicate, but ultimately there’s nothing there to argue about.

[This post was originally published on Buddhism on June 4, 2013]

The Christian Conceptual Box

One of the challenges in explaining Buddhism to people amounts to breaking through the Abrahamist — and mostly Christian, in the U.S. —  conceptual box into which people compulsively shove all things “religious.”

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I discussed conceptual boxes in the last post. In brief, our conceptual boxes are the mental filing system our culture and upbringing build for us, and by which we sort and classify all phenomena so that we can recognize it and know it.* This is a mostly workable system for navigating the world and probably has a lot to do with how human brains evolved to secure the survival of our species. However, the filing breaks down when confronted with something that actually doesn’t fit. What usually happens, then, is that instead of adjusting the filing system we distort the new thing so that it fits the existing system. This is one way to understand what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” but what I’m thinking of is actually a bit broader than that.

Western culture in the 21st century has arrived at fairly narrow and rigid conceptual boxes for “religion” and “philosophy,” and for the most part the “religion” box only accommodates Abrahamism.  Anything else you shove into it, whether Buddhism or Vedanta or something else, has to be rather grossly distorted to make it fit. Those who do recognize that Buddhism doesn’t fit into the “religion” box often then decide it must belong in the “philosophy” box, but it actually doesn’t fit that box either, unless you slice big chunks of it off first. Many Buddhist teachers have attempted to get around the conceptual box problem by explaining Buddhism in terms of psychology, but that’s turning into another kind of problem — see the older post “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas.” **

This post was touched off by some propositions written by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who has a very nice blog for those of you who are philosophy nerds. The propositions, which I found on Facebook and may be paraphrased, are how he conceptualizes objections to  religion  —

Consider first the different attitudes an atheist might take to the theoretical side of a religion. There are at least three such attitudes, which, going from the most hostile to the least hostile, could be summarized as follows:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

My primary issue here is that “religion” is defined primarily as “belief,” which is the chief issue with the Abrahamist box. In many other religions, not just Buddhism, doctrines are propositions to be confirmed through mystical or other practices. Merely believing them serves only a provisional purpose. In Zen, it’s best to not believe them at all, but rather let doctrines inhabit one’s body for awhile to see how they work. For that reason, intellectual arguments for or against the propositions are also beside the point, since it is understood that what is to be realized cannot be reached by intellect. So these three propositions are hopelessly stuck in an Abrahamist conceptual box.

This is not to say that Buddhists don’t argue, but the arguments can take very odd forms, from a western perspective. See, for example, and old post on a koan from the Mumonkan, “Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.” See also the story of Miaoxin and the koan about flag, wind, and mind.

A Facebook participant paraphrased  Edward Feser’s propositions this way:

  1. Theism is still intellectually defensible — but not as defensible as non-theism.
  2. Theism has no respectable intellectual content at all and obviously never had any.
  3. Theism’s prior intellectual content has been refuted by science and philosophy.

From my perspective the propositions all have an Abrahamist bias, and it could be argued it’s a modernist Abrahamist bias. I don’t call myself an atheist (although many western Buddhists do), but neither am I a theist or an agnostic. I am a nontheist, by which I mean the existence of a God or gods is irrelevant to my religion.

I wrote a long ‘chapter about the existence of God in Rethinking Religion, which boils down to “The question “Does God exist?” cannot be answered until you (a) define “God”; and (b) define “exist.”‘

Buddhism simply does not deal with a person-God or creator-God or a judge-God. Even if such a being existed, in Buddhism, he/she wouldn’t have anything to do. All of the functions of such a God have been assigned to forces or energies that are something like natural law and are not being operated by a supernatural being or intelligence. However, I can appreciate the standard Abrahamist God-concept as something like an archetype of those natural laws.

On the other hand, if you wander into Paul Tilich’s “God as ground of being” territory we might have some agreement. If we define God as something like the force or essence or ineffable something that pervades everywhere in time and space and makes existence possible, we’re looking at what Mahayana Buddhists would call the dharmakaya or Buddha-nature. That’s also one definition of the word dharma as used in Theravada Buddhism as well as Vedanta.

However, worshiping the dharmakaya is kind of pointless. We’d only be worshiping ourselves. There are also huge issues in Mahayana about making the dharmakaya a bigger deal than conventional reality, or the phenomenal manifestations that we recognize as trees, toasters, and us. One is no less, or more, important or “true” than the other. As the Heart Sutra says, form is exactly emptiness; emptiness is exactly form. There is no separation.

And that takes us into the sticky question, “What is existence?” We speak of existence and “reality” as if we all agree what these things are, and we don’t. Trust me.


*(Buddhists will recognize that this is a function of the third skandha, although our opinions or feelings about what we “know” are a function of the fourth skandha.)

**(A big reason I wrote Rethinking Religion is to redefine religion in a way that actually takes in all of the world’s major religions, not just monotheism, without distortion. This is going to be an uphill slog, but I think all religions will benefit.)

The Limits of Language

I understand psychologists are studying languages to understand how the languages we speak shape our perception of reality. This Psychology Today article provides a basic if probably superficial explanation.

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Having spent the past several years soaking my head in ancient Asian religion, this hypothesis about language makes perfect sense to me. Languages, I realize, are built on culturally based assumptions about how the phenomena of the world are to be classified and thereby understood. Understanding what an ancient text is saying requires having some appreciation of the cultural assumptions of the author. Otherwise, you can miss the point being made by several thousand miles.

The Sanskrit word nirvana is an example of this. Very literally, it means “to extinguish,” in the way one extinguishes a flame. No end of westerners reading that have said, ah HA! Those crazy Buddhists are trying to obliterate themselves!

But, according to Buddhist scholars, the ancient people of the Buddha’s time assumed that the elements — air, fire, water, earth — were present everywhere and only manifested in recognizable form under certain conditions. Fire manifests as flame, they thought, when it is trapped by fuel and becomes hot and agitated. When it is released from fuel it changes into a cool, subtle, and usually undetectable state. Understanding that’s how the people of the Buddha’s time understood things changes the metaphorical meaning of nirvana considerably.

The way we experience the world is based partly on our physiology, especially our senses, and partly on how we interpret and conceptualize things. And that last part is something culture trains us to do. I use the phrase conceptual box quite a bit. It’s possible I coined it; I’m not sure. It refers to how the way we conceptualize things can limit our understanding. If we have a rigidly fixed idea of what a certain thing is — whether, say, religion, music, or chili — and we run into an example of that thing that doesn’t fit our assumptions, most people react in one of two ways. They either deny the new thing really is what it says it is, or else they distort the thing to make it fit into the conceptual box.

There is an obvious third option, of course, which is to change the shape of the box, but few people think to do that.

For example, how many of you are familiar with Cincinnati chili? It’s great stuff; many years ago I lived in Cincinnati and was addicted to it. The basic dish is a plate of spaghetti with a kind of thin sauce that’s closer to Mexican mole sauce than standard chili sauce, topped with shredded cheddar-ish cheese. That’s the three-way. As I remember it (it’s been a few years) if you order a four-way you get chopped raw onions with the cheese, and if you order a five-way you get the onions plus beans. If you want the beans but not the onions, order a “three-way beans.”

So for a while when living in Cincinnati I had a co-worker from somewhere else who could not deal with the chili. It literally messed with her head. If we went out for lunch to a chili parlor she was not only indignant over the assault on her linguistic sensibilities (“this is not chili!“), she would demand the sauce with beans —  but none of the rest of it —  be served to her in a bowl, because that’s what chili was supposed to be. And she would eat this with a puckered frown and wrinkled nose while the rest of us enjoyed our five-ways and hoped the eventual heartburn wouldn’t be too terrible. This is one kind of conceptual box.

Another example, which I discuss in Rethinking Religion, is that in the west we’ve developed fixed conceptual boxes that define religion and philosophy, and these work perfectly well for Christianity and the other monotheisms and for western philosophy. But many Asian religious/philosophical traditions don’t fit into either box. No gods or god worship? It must be a philosophy. Oh, but it’s mystical? Then it’s a religion. But it can’t be a religion, because there are no gods or god worship. Hmmm.

The standard strategy for dealing with Buddhism is to declare it’s a philosophy, not a religion, while slicing off the mystical and religion-y parts so that it fits into the philosophy box. Westerners rationalize this by declaring the religion-y stuff is somehow not original Buddhism, but something added later. Historical evidence doesn’t entirely support that theory, sorry. Certainly Buddhist practices have changed over the years, but it seems there were always religion-y parts to it.

The point is, though, that you can find long and passionate arguments about whether Buddhism is or is not a religion, and the parameters of the arguments are fixed by 21st century western concepts that don’t apply to Buddhism. And most of the time, no matter how patiently one tries to explain this, the arguers cannot see the problem. They’ve been conditioned to interpret and classify reality in a way that conforms to modern English, and that conditioning determines the limits of what they can understand. They literally cannot think “outside the box.”

Language, then, is a reflection of how the people who speak it conceptualize their world, and in turn conceptualization is shaped by language. It’s kind of a self-reinforcing system that’s very hard to break out of.

Buddhism is a process of experiencing and realizing without resorting to concepts. This is an even bigger challenge than breaking out of the linguistic box, and it takes most people years of mental cultivation to “accomplish” this. Note that the word accomplish isn’t exactly right, but it’s as close as I can get. And this highlights the problem of explaining dharma at all — the words don’t fit, because the concepts don’t apply.

So how do you explain it? Most of the time, you can’t. You can take people only up to a point, but they’ve got to go the rest of the way by themselves. You can give people definitions, metaphors, analogies, and hope that some of it strikes a chord, somewhere. But that which is realized through the mental cultivation is genuinely ineffable, because it’s something outside all of our conceptual boxes, and language simply can’t reach it.

This is something the Buddha himself realized. It’s said that after his enlightenment he debated with himself whether to teach at all, because he knew there was no way to explain what he had come to realize. Instead, he devised a means for people to realize it for themselves. That was the best he could do.

And even today, in the Zen tradition (and probably others) , people are warned not to go about blabbing about a kensho or opening experience to the general public. This is for several reasons, but a big reason is that as soon as your words hit their ears they’ll shove everything you say into their standard conceptual boxes, and it will all be misunderstood.  And this has nothing to do with general intelligence. Sometimes very bright people get very huffy when they express some concept about dharma that’s way off the mark, and you say no, that’s not it, and then they feel insulted and demand that you explain it.

But, sometimes, it can’t be explained. As soon as you try to render it into language it gets sorted into subjects and objects and verbs that connote things that have nothing to do with what you’d like to say, but it’s as close as language gets.

So a lot of the process is training the mind to stop clinging to concepts. This is done in various ways. The infamous koans of Rinzai Zen, for example, are intended to break the habit of conceptualization by frustrating our standard linear, logical thought patterns. Students present their understanding of the koan to the teacher in a formal interview that ends as soon as the teacher rings a bell. I’ve been told that if a student ever began a presentation with “I think the koan means … ” the bell rings, because the student is about to launch into an intellectual interpretation. Just concepts.

Of course, my favorite moments are when someone in a discussion forum demands an explanation of some doctrine, and you preface your explanation with “this is very difficult and often takes people years of meditation and study before they appreciate what the doctrine is pointing to, but it’s something like …” but that’s never enough, and they want to be CONVINCED. Right now. In 25 words or less.

It doesn’t work that way.

See also Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.

Have Some Fries With the McJesus

Victoria Osteen, co-pastor with her husband Joel of the massive Lakewood Church of Houston, is catching flack for something she recently said that was posted on YouTube. Here’s the juicy bit:

When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God…we’re doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself because that’s what makes God happy.

And here is the video:

And boy howdy, have we ever come a long way from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Other Christians were shocked at Mrs. Pastor Olsteen’s words. An op-ed in the Christian Post slammed Victoria Osteen and Her Joy-Robbing Brand of Cheap Christianity, for example. And this is from the Houston Chronicle:

At Christian News Network the sermon was labelled indicative of a “me-centered” church.

“She honestly believes that God exists to make us happy rather than holy,” Pastor Steve Camp told the network, “She honestly believes that worship is about our fulfillment rather than His glory. That’s the bottom issue here.”

Note that I do not endorse the positions of the Christian Post or the Christian News Network, either. But American public religiosity has long been a content-free celebration of Me Me Me.

The late Susan Sontag said that religion American style is  “more the idea of religion than religion itself.”

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his “favourite philosopher,” the well-received answer — one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock — was “Jesus Christ.” But, of course, Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus….

… This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism … .   [Susan Sontag’s acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis peace prize, Frankfurt, Germany, October 12, 2003]

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For many, it is enough to declare oneself Christian, and one is Right With God. No sacrifice is required, no personal struggle or self-examination, none of that dark night of the soul stuff. Just say the name Jesus and all the rewards of tribal membership and smug self-righteousness shall be thine.

Of course, through most of the history of Christianity that’s not how it worked. This is one of the reasons I wrote a book about religion.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion that the megachurches appear to have turned Christ into McJesus — God rendered into a consumer product designed to validate, affirm and gratify ME.  This is what they’ve been selling for a long time. Mrs. Pastor Olsteen is just being honest about it.

This column from the Houston Chronicle is a few years old, written by a Unitarian Universalist minister who visited Lakewood Church:

So, imagine 10,000 people (at least) standing for almost an hour dancing and singing, hands in the air, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, with loud pop music playing (including a very strong bass beat that literally shakes your insides). Three big screens project the performers and the lyrics to the songs, which are simple and repetitive. No, this wasn’t the Jimmy Buffett concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last week (I went to that too), but it might as well have been…I’ve never left a church service before with temporary hearing loss…Lakewood was LOUDER than Jimmy Buffett.

Many of my readers know that I was a professor of educational psychology prior to switching careers to ministry. I have a PhD in educational psychology, am a member in good standing of the American Psychological Association, and teach a seminary course on psychology and religion. From a psychological point of view, worship at Lakewood is basically intentional desensitization, stimulating natural endorphins and dopamine in the brain with extended physical activity and emotional stimulation.

I looked up desensitization, and in the psychological sense, when intentional, it is a treatment approach in clinical psychology used to treat trauma, fears and phobias. I’m not sure how this works, but the point is to make the patient less emotionally sensitive to stimuli. But what are the Lakewood congregants being desensitized to? Life? Themselves? Each other?

This desensitizing went on for nearly an hour, followed by the  offering (of course), then prayers, then the sermon. The UU minister, the Rev. Matt Tittle, wondered how long the emotional fix lasted.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion,

Yes, it’s exhilarating to be part of a group having a big, rowdy, cathartic experience, That’s why people like to watch big sporting events like the Super Bowl in groups, because if your team wins — wow. How much fun is that, right? Watching the same game by yourself just isn’t the same experience.

At their peak, such experiences can give you a temporary sense of being liberated from yourself, as some part of your identity forgets itself amid the collective excitement. I’ve been talking about experience or perception beyond the limits of the self, and intense group experiences where everyone gets emotionally high together can give you a fleeting taste of that.

However, a church with rousing services may generate the high every time and attract a huge following, but without also allowing for personal reflection, contemplation and questioning, it’s feeding the congregation spiritual junk food. You might be better off sticking to being a sports fan.

I don’t want to slam the Olsteens too much, though, because at least they don’t seem to have gone the hateful way of Franklin Graham. And does anyone remember Ted Haggard? It could be worse.

Killing the Spiritual but Not Religious Buddha

Sam Harris is coming out with a new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as if the world needs another “spiritual but not religious” book. I did a search in Amazon books for “spiritual but not religious” and easily got more than 2000 results.

As I complained awhile back (“My Heresy on Spiritual but Not Religious“) —

“Spiritual but not religious” has become a new orthodoxy. In some circles one cannot say anything positive about “religion,” even in a generic way, without being informed one is behind the times.  Religion = bad. Spiritual = good.  Religion is divisive and dogmatic and corrupt. It is riddled with sexual predators and scam artists. It is interested only in its own power. Spirituality, on the other hand, is all about free thinking, self-affirmation and happy folks tripping down the path of love and light.

Yeah, whatever. I’m spiritual and religious. Sue me.

Brilliant as ever, in the New York Times, Frank Bruni congratulates Harris for recognizing a growing trend —

Harris’s book, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in early September, caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.

Next up: Bruni discovers Crocs!

I devote most of a chapter in Rethinking Religion to why I think the trend of separating religion and spirituality, while understandable, is a bad idea. Of course, spirituality is ever a vaguely defined thing, and often what is really meant is closer to one definition of mysticism. From Rethinking Religion:

…a mystical experience in this sense is one that is neither sensory nor conceptual. It is not dependent on seeing visions or hearing voices. It is not generated by reason or intellect. Through this experience, one may feel an intimate connection of existence beyond self, or realize something about the nature of reality not perceived before.

The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd calls these spiritual experiences, but it’s the same thing. Prominent atheist Sam Harris (author, neuroscientist, co-founder of Project Reason) has written quite a bit about spiritual experience, such as —

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world.

— although Harris is determined to not connect these experiences to religion in any way, because of the “metaphysical debris.” People might erroneously think they’re having an experience of God or Brahman or some such, which is atheistically incorrect. Of course, God or Brahman can be understood in many different ways, to be discussed in the next chapter.

There is no question that religious doctrines provide a context in which people make sense of mystical experience. A few days ago I wrote a post about disturbing meditation experiences, which often seem to happen when people have intense mystical (as I’m defining it) experiences with no context or guidance.

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It may be that once practice-realization has ripened all the contexts drop away, like dropping the raft once on the other shore. But that has to happen in its own time. If you’re still living in a fog of concepts and projections you need some context.

In some religious traditions mystical experiences are interpreted to support and confirm doctrine. In others, however, doctrine plays a supporting or guiding role for mystical experience.  Sometimes doctrines are not to be “believed in” but are understood to be provisional explanations of the great ineffable thing one may realize directly through mystical experience. And sometimes gods, angels, dharmapalas and bodhisattvas are understood to be metaphors or archetypes rather than sky fairies.

Sam Harris will have none of that metaphysical debris, however. Frank Bruni asked him about this.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week.

In short, Sam Harris demands of the cosmos that it not bother him with anything that rocks his chosen worldview, and that’s his doctrinal context.

Some years ago Harris wrote an essay called “Killing the Buddha” in which he wrote,

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.

One suspects old Lin Chi (Linji Yixuan, d. 866) would have given Harris several smacks in the head for this. In Zen, “killing the Buddha” means to let go of all concepts and preconceived ideas about Buddha — including the idea that Buddha is a separate thing that could be “met” — because such expectations get in the way of realizing Buddha. Harris is not killing the Buddha; he is merely replacing a version of Buddha he doesn’t like with one he does.

I’m sure many would argue that Harris’s self-imposed doctrinal parameters are at least rational, as opposed to belief in imaginary spirits. But in the context of mysticism they are both fabricated interfaces imposed on a reality beyond the limits of concepts and intellect, impediments to the grace of not knowing, and I don’t know that one is any more or less opaque than the other.

Surrender Has No Goal

In the last post I talked about the differences between surrender and submission. I’m basing much of this on a new book by Zen teacher Barry Magid, Nothing Is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans. I want to discuss this just a little more, because it’s something that a lot of us (me too) need to clarify.

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Of course, I’m not using “surrender” in the military sense, but in the sense of liberation from clinging and from our self-imposed limitation of, well, self. This is not something we can will ourselves to do; it happens when conditions are ripe for it to happen.

Submission is something we choose to do, and of course if we’re in anything like a traditional practice we choose to submit to the disciplines of practice. And that’s fine; gotta start somewhere. As we continue, we find that it’s not always fun to practice, and sometimes we get shoved outside our comfort zones a bit. But we choose to continue, usually because we think we will benefit from it somehow. Again, up to a point, that’s perfectly normal.

This practice we choose may enable genuine surrender. But for some people, submission metastasizes into a stubborn pathology, which can take many forms. It can take the form of submission to the will of authority, the teacher; or to a kind of groupthink, or both. When this happens, students are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Even when the student isn’t exploited, sometimes his or her practice turns on gaining acceptance and approval from the teacher. Then practice becomes all about being a model student who will please the teacher. Barry Magid writes that the defining difference between submission or surrender is that submission is “tied to eliciting a response from another person, whether simple approval, love, or just an absence of criticism or abuse. True surrender, on the other hand, has no goal.”

I’ve also heard of people denying themselves physical comforts, like sleeping on a board instead of a mattress. or forcing their legs into full lotus even when it’s bone-crushingly painful. I honestly don’t see the point, except to give oneself something to brag about.

I said earlier that we may choose to continue to practice even when we run into difficulties, because we believe we will benefit from it. That might be a phase most of us go through; I know I went through it. But if this phase drags on for month after month, year after year, and practice is something you are making yourself do because you think you are supposed to do it, then something’s amiss. At some point practice begins to pull you like a current, and then it’s not just a chore, or a duty. That may be the beginning of surrender.

Ultimately, it’s up to us as students to be very honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. After an abusive teacher-student situation is finally made public, I’ve heard members of the sangha, more than once, admit that they were uneasy about the teacher’s behavior, or with relations within the sangha-group, and they ignored their unease.  So, at the very least, try to not do that.

[This post originally was published on Buddhism on October 3, 2013.]