Category Archives: Mysticism

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.]

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.)

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“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.

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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.]