Tag Archives: spirituality

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 About.com Buddhism on October 3, 2010.]

Religion Doesn’t Need Miracles

I recently read an online discussion of the intersection of science and religion. The discussion very quickly turned to talk of miracles and proposed that religion and science would be reconciled when science either acknowledges miracles or somehow verifies the connection between miracles and some divine agent.

In which case, science and religion will never be reconciled. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the things that I’ve realized through Zen is that our conceptual division of  “natural” and “supernatural” is based largely on a failure to appreciate the truth of the “natural.” We take the natural world for granted and call it mundane, and we look for shiny, sparkly whoo-dee-doo out-of-this-mundane-world stuff to confirm our hope that the ordinary, common world isn’t all there is.

But some parts of science are telling us the world we see around us isn’t all there is, and indeed, the world we see around us isn’t even around us. It’s a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. What’s really “around us,” or the stuff from which this temporary confluence of mind-and-matter fabricates the world, is to us a mystery. And the temporary confluence of mind-and-matter we call “I” also is a mystery. We assume we know what it is, but we don’t.

Science, particularly in such areas as theoretical physics and neuroscience, is gradually putting together a picture of reality that tells us everything we think we know about it is wrong. The Buddha said the same thing.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.” People interpret that to mean something like “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses,” but that’s not what I see. When you begin to appreciate the truth of reality and the truth of our existence, you see he means that literally.

This so-called “mundane” world is a bleeping five-alarm wonder. Looking for miracles “out there” is like sitting at a table at Maxim’s with a plate of gourmet food in front of us, wishing we had something to eat. And appreciating the wondrous nature of our existence does not require the mundane world to behave in ways that are scientifically inexplicable.

Soyen Shaku Roshi, who as far as I know what the first Zen teacher to set foot in North America, carried on a productive correspondence with some Christian critics of Buddhism. This is from a latter he wrote to Dr. John Barrows in 1896:

I have not as yet been able to see that mankind can be benefited by believing that Jesus Christ performed miracles. I do not deny the miracles nor do I believe them; I only claim that they are irrelevant. The beauty and the truth of many of Christ’s sayings fascinate me, but truth does not become clearer by being pronounced by a man who works miracles.

This is a very Zen perspective. As a Zen student I don’t interpret was the Roshi said to mean that what Jesus said was just philosophy, or just intellectual or conceptual. He’s saying that the truth of reality — the amazing, brain-bending truth — is not proved or disproved or otherwise revealed by what we call miracles. Miracles are, literally, irrelevant, whether they happen or not.

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It’s certainly true that early Buddhists enshrined the Buddha’s memory in stories of his supernatural exploits, but that was a common thing to do in the ancient world. No powerful person did anything important without tales of the event being embroidered with miraculous signs and wonders. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, in ancient times “truth” was about meaning, not facts. Accounts of important people and events often were dressed up with fantastical details that expressed how people felt about, or understood the significance of, this important thing. Equating truth with what is factual is something that happened gradually, beginning about the 15th century or so in western culture.

And now much of religion is stuck in conceptual cul-de-sac that mixes up mythos and logos and demands literal signs and wonders that science can measure. This is ass-backward, people. I sincerely believe that even the monotheistic religions don’t need miracles to be valid.

This is not to say that Buddhism and science don’t butt heads over some things, especially in the area of materialism. But I don’t necessarily think science and religion have to see things the same way, especially since the two disciplines are operating within different parameters. There are places Buddhism goes that science does not, and vice versa. In all these years as a Zen student, however, I’ve never been asked to believe anything I knew contradicted science, and I honestly don’t see why that would ever happen. It just isn’t necessary.

Taking the Path of Woo: Jesus in Tibet?

Recently an intelligent and thoughtful person of my acquaintance posted on Facebook about some new and exciting connection between science and spirituality. I followed the link to this wondrous new thing, and it took me to a page about … Edgar Cayce?

You young folks may not have heard of him, but many people — usually the same people who took chain letters seriously —  still believed in Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) when I was a young ‘un. Cayce was, basically, an upscale circus sideshow act. His shtick was to go into trances where he issued predictions for the future . Be advised that someday the earth’s poles will shift to somewhere along the equator. And 1933 will be a great year for the economy! Oh, wait …

I take it Cayce is making something of a comeback in New Age circles. Or perhaps he never really left. So much of what he went on about, such as the healing properties of crystals, out-of-body experiences, channeling knowledge from the dead and legends about the Lost Continent of Atlantis was the stuff 1960s and 1970s-era New Age was made of.

It can be argued that maybe crystals do have healing properties, and maybe someday we’ll find the remains of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. OK. But what would that have to do with spirituality? A grab bag of random beliefs is not a path, or a process, no matter how much those beliefs tickle our imagination.

Beliefs about mysterious happenings, ancient and recent, are shiny, sparkly things that are hard to ignore. I don’t know why that’s true. In Rethinking Religion I wrote a chapter called “True Believers and Mass Movements” that discusses why people cling so tightly to beliefs, including ridiculous ones, and can’t be talked out of them.

Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

But why some fantastical stories are more shiny and sparkly than others, I can’t say.

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One of the most persistent shiny, sparkly stories that people take seriously is that Jesus studied Buddhism in Tibet, or maybe China, or maybe India, during the years of his youth that were not recorded in the Bible. Possible?

James Ford discusses the origins of the Jesus-in-Tibet story on his blog, Monkey Mind. In the late 19th century a book titled The Life of Saint Issa was claimed to have been found in a monastery in Tibet. The book was about the life of Jesus — Saint Issa — and claimed that from the ages of 13 to 29 Jesus had gone off to India to study religions. He studied with the Jains and with the Hindus, but apparently he wasn’t satisfied until he found the Buddhists, and he spent his last six years before returning home learning the Pali Canon. And for many reasons that James Ford presents on his blog, the book clearly is a work of fiction.

Over the years I’ve run into a lot of people who fervently believe that Jesus studied Buddhism. The standard arguments for this claim are (a) Jesus taught things he could only have learned from Buddhism; and (b) some variation of the Life of Saint Issa story — somebody found a book or a scroll or an engraving in some temple or monastery, usually in Tibet or India, that proved Jesus had been there. A third argument that pops up occasionally is that some of Jesus’ parables were taken from older Buddhist sutras.

None of these claims holds water. In order:

First, if we assume Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels accurately reflect what he taught — and if they don’t, I don’t know what else might — there’s nothing in there that he only could have gotten from Buddhism. As James Ford (Unitarian Universalist minister, Zen priest and lineage holder, MA in religion) says,

While it would be an absolute delight for me to learn that Jesus studied Buddhism, the fact remains there was nothing in his teachings, as best a cool read of the normative texts give us, that wasn’t already contained within the Judaism of his day. Well, okay, that very late text John does offer a non-traditionally Jewish Jesus, but even that Jesus is easily contained with a rather more boring and obviously already there gnostic influence or reaction.

Indeed, the one incontrovertible thing you can say about Jesus is that he was a monotheist, through and through. Even a little Buddhist influence would have muted that, I think.

Second, the rumored archeological evidence of Jesus’ travels in the Much Further East can never be traced back to anything real. And as far as Tibet is concerned, Buddhism didn’t reach Tibet until the 7th century CE. Jesus would have had to wait.

One of the most inventive variations on the Jesus-in-Tibet story I ever heard was that the Three Wise Men were Tibetan monks who declared that Jesus was a reborn high lama. Not only were there no Tibetan Buddhists in Jesus’ day; the tradition of identifying the rebirths of high lamas didn’t begin until the 12th century.

Third, there are a few places in Buddhist scripture and commentary that seem to resemble something in the Gospels (such as the prodigal son story from the Lotus Sutra), but in every example I know of the Buddhist text was written at least a century or two after the life of Christ (including the Lotus Sutra).

There may have been some scriptural cross-pollination going on, but remember, the Silk Road was wide open. Merchants were traveling from the Far East to the Roman Empire all the time, and some of those routes went through places where early Christians lived.

For that matter, if Jesus had been so all-fired eager to study Buddhism, he only had to go as far as present-day Afghanistan. That was a Buddhist kingdom in his day.  But I see no reason to think he did.

Postscript: Someone once asked Edgar Cayce, who was in a trance, if a reincarnation of Jesus was influential in the development of Buddhism and other religions. The answer, which you can read yourself, was word salad.

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.

I’m also an old lady who has been around the block a few times. And I have seen many things. I agree that affiliation with an established “church” is no guarantee of quality or even decency. But neither is non affiliation. Religious history is full of charismatic freelance “gurus” who turned out to be sexual predators and scam artists.

I’m thinking of people like James Arthur Ray, who charged up to $10,000 to attend his “spiritual warrior” retreats, and who was convicted of negligent homicide after three attendees died in one of his sweat lodges. Native Americans criticized Ray because he’d had no training or experience whatsoever in sweat lodge traditions and didn’t know what he was doing. Did I mention he charged up to $10,000 per person?

So there are no guarantees. Religion, organized or not,  is a wide-open field for many kinds of predators and scam artists, because unlike with other kinds of scams there is rarely objective proof that the product doesn’t work; that the medicine in the bottle is snake oil.  With charm and the right sales pitch you can string your marks along indefinitely, assuming you don’t get them killed.

That said, I partly agree with “retreat leader” Bruce Davis, who says,

It is the human need for meaning, intimacy, joy that is driving many to leave institutions with too much theology and too little care and devotion. When religion is more about correct thinking and less about love and understanding, people feel something missing. When religion is more about judging others and less about humility and the path of looking inward, it loses the spirit of what church is suppose to be about.

Yes. However, then Davis gushes on about the bliss of “spirituality,” and please forgive me if I’m not sold on that, either. I’ve been closely observing unaffiliated countercultural “spirituality” since the 1960s. Whether you call it New Age or Body-Mind-Spirit or something else, it seems to always devolve into one of three things.

One, what I call “spiritual tourism,” or the practice of treating religion as a tasting bar. Spiritual tourists dabble in many traditions and enjoy a variety of spiritual adventures, but they never stick to one tradition long enough to get more than a superficial impression or experience anything genuinely transformative. But at least spiritual tourism usually is harmless, if you can afford it.

Second is the DIY Mystic, who doesn’t need a teacher and doesn’t need a congregation; he can find the Great Ineffable Whatever all by himself, thank you. “Enlightenment” then becomes just a projection of his own ego, or his own craziness, or probably both.

And finally you’ve got the sort of person who would actually spend as much as $10,000 to spend time with a freelance guru whose only discernible talent is self-promotion. The delusion that there must be someone out there who could sell you the magic bean that will give you whatever you imagine you are missing is very common, and it’s also the reason why “religion” and “scam” so often travel in the same circles. But in that regard “spirituality” really isn’t any better.

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I argue in Rethinking Religion that religion and spirituality need each other.  Religion stripped of all mysticism and spiritus is empty. It becomes a stupid, supernatural ideology perpetuated more out of tribal loyalty than devotion, and religious institution become exercises in maintaining authority for authority’s sake. But DIY spirituality/mysticism seems to nearly always devolve, at best, into an ego-driven but directionless quest to feel better about oneself. Too often it’s more palliative than curative. 

Spirituality and religion need each other. It’s the spiritual element that liberates us from the conventional and makes possible some sense of union with the Great Ineffable Whatever. Religious tradition challenges the supremacy of the ego, gives the quest some direction and puts traffic cones around the potholes.

However,  I do think it’s mostly up to religious institutions to make themselves alive and relevant and return to their mystical roots. Otherwise people will continue to float away in pursuit of something else.