Category Archives: Uncategorized

Attachment to Buddhism, and Why It’s a Problem

Occasionally when Buddhist talk about the problem of attachment, someone will raise a hand and say, “Is it bad to be attached to Buddhism?” Yes, it is unskillful, in fact.

Then, often, the next comment is, “Well, then, I’ll stay away from dharma centers and not get attached!” Um, “staying away” also is attachment, sorry.

Reviewing “attachment” — It’s understood in Buddhism that in order for there to be attachment, you need two things — someone to attach and an object to attach to.

When a thing becomes something you have to have, or something essential to your self-identity — whether it’s religion or political opinions or avoiding authority figures or having to have a chocolate chip cookie right now — this is attachment.

In short, attachment is you relating to an object in a needy way. And this is a problem because it reinforces the sense of “I,” or the ego. which the Buddha said is the primordial ignorance that leads us to suffering (see Four Noble Truths).  Continue reading

Review: The Making of Buddhist Modernism

Anyone trying to make sense of contemporary western Buddhism would do well to read The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan (Oxford University Press, 2008). McMahan, associate professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, provides a clear and readable story about how “modern” Buddhism came to be the way it is.

I very much appreciate that McMahan has tossed out the common conceit that “modernity” is exclusively the creation of the West, and that Buddhism will be “modernized” by making it more palatable to cultural westerners.

McMahan illustrates that in Buddhism, traditionalism/modernism, and Asian/Western, do not neatly fit into simple dichotomies or fall along a clearly defined continuum. There are several “modernisms” emerging in Buddhism, he says. And while this is a global phenomenon, Asian teachers have been the principal “modernizers.”

Continue reading

Review: A Death on Diamond Mountain

There are few things I enjoy more than an engrossing book, and I want to thank Scott Carney for writing this one. A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness and the Path to Enlightenment kept me thoroughly engaged from beginning to end.

Carney has written an in-depth account of the 2012 death of Ian Thorson after he and his wife, Christie McNally, were expelled from an ostensibly Buddhist retreat.

Carney provides background on Thorson and McNally and also on Michael Roach, a former Gelugpa monk and their spiritual leader. (Mr. Roach does not consider himself to be a “former” monk, but he can no longer claim a tie to Galugpa. More on that in a bit.)

Michael Roach is the primary subject of A Death on Diamond Mountain, and the picture that emerges of his spiritual journey and teachings is a disturbing one. Scott Carney’s account shows Roach falling into every known pothole on the spiritual path and eventually plunging down a rabbit hole into a steaming pile of New Age, um, mush, taking McNally and Thorson and a lot of other people with him. Continue reading

Perfection of Knowledge

We don’t talk about knowledge all that much in Buddhism. The emphasis is on wisdom, which is something else. But in the Mahayana Ten Perfections, the Perfection of Knowledge — Jnana Paramita — is number ten.

Before we plunge into a discussion of jnana, let’s clarify the difference between wisdom and knowledge. In his book What the Buddha Taught, the Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula wrote,

“According to Buddhism there are two sorts of understanding: What we generally call understanding is knowledge, an accumulated memory, an intellectual grasping of a subject according to certain given data. This is called ‘knowing accordingly’ (anubodhd). It is not very keep. Real deep understanding is called ‘penetration’ (pativedha), seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label. This penetration is possible only when the mind is free from all impurities and is fully developed through meditation.”

Read More: The Perfection of Discerning Wisdom.”

In the more commonly known Mahayana Six Perfections, the sixth and last item is Prajna Paramita, or the Perfection of Wisdom. In Mahayana Buddhism this is equated with realization of the truth of sunyata, or emptiness. It’s understood that sunyata is not something that can be completely understood intellectually.

Later, Mahayana Buddhists would add four more perfections to the original six. These are skillful means (upaya); aspiration or vow, especially bodhisattva vowsspiritual power; and knowledge — to make a list of ten.

Knowledge does  have a place, then, in Buddhist practice. So let’s look at what that place is.

What Do We Mean by Knowledge?

In his book Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression (Wisdom Publications, 2012), Soto Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton wrote,

“Knowledge (jnana in Sanskrit, etymologically related to the Greek gnosis) is contrasted with wisdom, as this knowledge refers to practical understanding of the workings of phenomena in the conventional world — not useless knowledge just learned for knowledge’s sake, memorizing facts and information by rote as is done for regurgitation on tests in some unimaginative educational systems. As the flip side of wisdom, the perfection of knowledge can be seen as the function or implementation of wisdom — but fully informed by wisdom’s insight into the essential. This knowledge, also referred to as the perfection of truth, is at the service of wisdom, putting wisdom to work in the world.”

An example of jnana in this sense would be knowledge of medicine, to heal people. As the last of the Ten Mahayana Perfections, knowledge ties together the rest of the perfections — generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, wisdom, skillful means, vow, and powers — to help relieve suffering in the phenomenal world.

Knowledge of the Teachings

This may not be a traditional understanding of Jnana Paramita, but I’d like to add that it doesn’t hurt to study what the Buddha and other great Buddhist teachers have taught. As interest in Buddhism has grown in the West, much of the focus has been on meditation and mindfulness. And that’s fine. But there’s more to Buddhism than meditation and mindfulness.

It’s sometimes the case that we don’t appreciate doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths right away. But if you’re reading this I assume you have some interest, so don’t hold back. Knowledge of doctrine by itself isn’t the Buddhist path, but the doctrines act as markers on the path. They can sometimes lead you and sometimes show you you’ve gone off into a cul-de-sac.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of However, since has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Dayi Daoxin: Fourth Patriarch of Zen

The Six Zen Patriarchs are the first six masters of Zen Buddhism. Every Zen teacher alive today counts them as her or his dharma ancestors. Dayi Daoxin (or Tao-hsin; 580-651 CE) is recognized in all schools of Zen as the Fourth Patriarch.

Daoxin’s life as a master teacher of Zen came at the very beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), a high point of Chinese civilization and a golden age for Zen. He established the first permanent monastery dedicated entirely to Zen. And he is credited with establishing the unique style of Zen monastic life, in which practice continues through everyday activities.

So, Daoxin is a very important person in Zen history. Even so, his life story comes with a big asterisk.

The wisdom of Zen is said to be directly transmitted face to face, from teacher to student. It is nothing like reading a book to get a conceptual understanding of something. Teacher and student achieve an intuitive bond, and in time the teacher recognizes that the student has realized the enlightenment of the dharma.

Zen history says the chain of teachers transmitting to the next generation of teachers has been unbroken since the time of the Buddha, and even to Buddhas before Buddha. In this way, it is said, the mind of the Buddha is kept alive through the generations.

But Daoxin’s time in Zen history was not well recorded. There is no contemporary record telling us how Daoxin received transmission from the Third Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengcan. Sengcan himself appears to have been inserted into the record as a kind of patch.

What we know about Daoxin appears to be part history and part myth, and it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Here is the story from the classic Zen chronicles.

Daoxin’s Story

Daoxin was born in present day Anhui Province, China, and he began his Buddhist studies at the age of seven. According to Transmission of Light (Denkoroku; compiled in Japan by Keizan Jokin, 1300), Daoxin’s encounter with Sengcan went like this:

Daoxin: “I beg your compassion. Please give me a way of liberation.”

Sengcan: “Who is hindering you?”

Daoxin: “No one is hindering me.”

Sengcan: “Then why do you seek liberation?”

At these words, the Denkoruku says, Daoxin became greatly enlightened.

However he realized enlightenment, Daoxin had the good fortune to live at the dawn of the Tang Dynasty. The Emperor Taizong, who reigned from 626 to 649, was one of China’s greatest emperors. The political upheavals that had challenged Sengcan and the Second Patriarch, Huike, were coming to an end. Daoxin’s predecessors had spent much of their lives wandering or hiding in the mountains, but Daoxin was able to establish a permanent home for Zen.

He established East Mountain Temple / Monastery on Mount Shuangfeng, near modern-day Huangmei in Hubei Province, China. Certainly Zen teachers had taught in monasteries before; Bodhidharma, for example, established Zen in Shaolin Monastery, but even Bodhidharma was something of a visiting teacher at Shaolin. East Mountain was the first thoroughly Zen monastic community.

For thirty years, Daoxin presided over a community of 500 monks. Because alms alone could not support such a large group, East Mountain became a kind of commune, and the monks grew most of their own food. Zen practice was no longer something done in a meditation hall; gardening, cooking, administrating, cleaning, and other chores also were practice. East Mountain became a template that Zen communities have followed ever since.

Even so, for Daoxin, meditation was the most essential practice. “Sit earnestly in meditation!” he is said to have said. “The sitting in meditation is basic to all else.”

A Legend

Of the many legends about Daoxin, the most famous begins with Daoxin refusing to comply with an imperial decree. The master teacher was summoned to the court of Emperor Taizong, but Daoxin would not go. After a second summons also was refused, the Emperor told his messenger to bring back either an unharmed Daoxin or his head.

But when the messenger read the decree regarding his head, Daoxin bent down and presented his neck. “Cut it off, then!” he told the messenger. The astonished messenger left with neither Daoxin nor his head. When the Emperor heard this story, he honored Daoxin as a great Buddhist teacher.

Daoxin’s Zen

It is recorded that Daoxin taught the Prajnaparamita sutras as well as the Lankavatara, the primary sutra of early Zen. There is also a text attributed to him called the Five Gates of Daoxin:

Let it be known: Buddha is the mind.  Outside of the mind there is no Buddha.  In short, this includes the following five things:

First: The ground of the mind is essentially one with the Buddha.

Second: The movement of the mind brings forth the treasure of the Dharma.  The mind moves yet is ever quiet; it becomes turbid and yet remains such as it is.

Third: The mind is awake and never ceasing; the awakened mind is always present; the Dharma of awakened mind is without specific form.

Fourth: The body is always empty and quiet; both within and without, it is one and the same; the body is  located in the Dharma world, yet is unfettered.

Fifth: Maintaining unity without going astray — dwelling at once in movement and rest, one can see the Buddha nature clearly and enter the gate of samadhi.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of However, since has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Faithless Faith

The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference in Washington DC ended a few days ago. An annual event, this year’s shindig turned into a contest over which potential 2016 Republican presidential nominee could blow the loudest dog whistles.

The biggest headlines from the event so far told us that some genius put Obama bobblehead dolls in the men’s urinals. And the speeches seemed to be on about the same intellectual level. One speaker after another declared unquestioning loyalty to the Coalition’s dogmas: abortion must be criminalized, same-sex marriage must be stopped, Barack Obama is evil incarnate, and Christians must be restored to their rightful place as the dominant tribe of the U.S.

There were reports a few meek voices spoke up to suggest the attendees ought to recognize America’s religious diversity, but it seems they were mostly shouted down.

Groupthink just doesn’t look like “freedom” to me, no matter how many “don’t tread on me” T-shirts one may spot in the herd. It also seems to me that the attendees espouse a peculiarly 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. It’s a faith with conditions.

And for all their expressed devotion to the Bible, their “God” seems more to be based largely on their own projections. He all-too-perfectly reflects and confirms their fears, biases, resentments and various social and psychological pathologies.

I wonder what they’d do if Jesus himself materialized at the conference and said, you know, you’ve got God all wrong, and you’ve entirely missed the point of everything I taught. I bet some of them would boo their Lord and Redeemer off the stage.

Their real faith isn’t in God, or even the Bible. It’s in their fears, biases, resentments and various social and psychological pathologies, which they cling to the way someone cast into an ocean might cling to anything that floats.

It’s through those fears, etc., that they define themselves and make sense of the world. It’s the conceptual box they live in. Whatever is outside the box terrifies them, because if the box is destroyed the “me” they’ve always believed in and the world they’ve constructed in their heads would disappear.

This isn’t freedom, and it isn’t faith, either. As I wrote in my book, Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World ,

The notion that Christianity is mostly about arranging one’s mental furniture in accord with a belief system would have been alien to most of the great Christian theologians of history. “Faith” to early Christian theologians — and many recent ones, for that matter — was not at all a synonym for belief. It was more about love of or trust in a God whose nature and opinions were beyond human understanding. To declare you know what God thinks about anything, including which politicians he supports, would have been blasphemy to them.

It’s possible to have great religious faith with no God-object at all (see, for example, Buddhism). Genuine faith does not demand the world conform to one’s belief system; just the opposite. According to many great theologians, genuine faith requires trust, compassion for others, and sometimes self-sacrifice. Not a lot of that on display at the “Faith and Freedom” conference.