Monday, June 30, 2014

Don't Know Mind? I Don't Know....

First off, I hope the respective titles of last week's post (Beginner's Mind? I Don't Think So...) at my other blog, and this week's give some clue to what I'm doing here...  Some may criticize me for "quibbling over semantics," but I could never understand this somewhat facile dismissal of a branch of linguistics and logic that is concerned with MEANING, for goodness sake! Semantics focuses on the relation between signifiers, like wordsphrasessigns, and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotation. And consider me pedantic if you wish, but I think it relatively important to get as clear and precise as we can about what we are really saying when we say something and try to work toward having a clear relationship between the signifier and the signified.


According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest person in Athens. When Athenians asked Socrates why the Oracle declared him to be so, Socrates set out to see for himself by engaging with others, questioning and investigating myriad life issues. What he discovered, he said, was that he must be the wisest man in Athens because he knew he did not know, while others all presumed to know about things they did not actually know.

Almost a thousand years later, in China, when Bodhidharma was asked by Emperor Wu, “Who are you who stands before me?” Bodhidharma famously answered, “I don’t know.”

When zen master Poep An (Fa-yen; Hogen) was an itinerant monk, he arrived one day at Ti Tsang Monastery and met with the abbot there, who asked Poep An, “What is the meaning of your traveling?” Poep An replied, “I don’t know.” The abbot then said, “Don’t know is closest to it. Not knowing is most intimate.”

A monk asked zen master Yun-men, “What is the straight way to Yun-men Mountain?” Yun-men responded immediately, “Intimacy” (in Chinese, chin). This tells us that intimacy is the straight way; it is the path and the fruition of the path. In light of the exchange between Poep An and the abbot of Ti Tsang monastery, we see that don’t know mind is the mind of intimacy. Or as my teacher, Samu Sunim would often say, “don’t know mind is most intimate.” Whenever I was struggling with anything, especially a major life decision, he would encourage me to “go to don’t know mind.”

In Case 44 of The Blue Cliff Record, we see a monk ask Ho-shan:
“What is true passing?”
Ho-shan says, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”
Again the monk asks, “And what is real truth?”
And Ho-shan replied, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”
The monk persists, “’Mind is buddha,’ I’m not asking about this. What is no mind, no buddha?”
Ho-shan says, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”
Once more, the monk asks, “And when a fully realized person comes, how do you receive her?”
Ho-shan answers, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”

Ho-shan replies with what is often called “flavorless speech” in that he is not offering anything deeply philosophical or esoteric. It is just Ho-shan, revealing himself intimately, “knowing how to hit the drum.” We might ask, “Why does he keep repeating himself?” But if we think this, perhaps it’s because we’ve failed to see that he’s actually not repeating himself at all. Isn’t it true, after all, that the last “knowing how to hit the drum” is not the same as the one before that, nor is that the same as the one before that and so on. And this is just as true for anything. The downward-facing dog we do this morning is not the same we did yesterday. Who we are today has yet to do downward dog. Our sitting meditation today is not the same as our sitting practice yesterday, nor is it the same as the day before that, nor is it the same as our sitting practice we did last week or last year. And yet, everyday we take the “same” asana, sitting on our cushion, crossing our legs just so, placing our hands just so, our tongue just so, and our eyes and mind just so. We do this practice the same way everyday and yet it is not the same. We don’t know what it is. And that is intimacy.

I believe that much of what is signified by the term “beginner’s mind” is pointing to this “don’t know mind.” Yet, as I argued in my previous post, beginners rarely come to practice – or any endeavor – with a blank slate, but rather they generally hold a mind full of expectations and pre-conceptions. Rather than seeing many possibilities, they often grasp after one simple understanding, and it is those with expertise, holding a deeper understanding, that can often see possible causal chains that would escape any beginner.

However, what the most successful experts maintain – if they don’t fall into hubris and arrogance – is the knowledge that they “don’t know.” For instance, the great physicist, Richard Fynman, in response to an interviewer said, "I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar."

This is what Bodhidharma was pointing to when he said, “I don’t know” when asked who he was. When we begin dating someone, we hang on every word they say. We know we don’t know, so we remain close, intimately engaged. Live with that person for five years, and we may find ourselves deaf to his or her voice, taking their presence for granted, thinking we know them. And the truth is, we’ve gathered a lot of knowledge about them, about their habits, their proclivities, preferences and foibles. And yet, we can never fully, “really” know them. And if we remember that, and keep “don’t know mind,” we’ll avoid taking them for granted and thus remain truly intimate with them.

Bodhidharma's "I don't know" reminds us that what is true in terms of our lover, is also true of "ourselves." As we are constantly changing, as it is not quite the same person who sits in meditation today that sat yesterday, if we remember that we don't know who or what we are, we will stay intimate, engaged, awake to what reveals itself now... and now.... and now...

Beginner’s mind implies a mind wide open, not caught in already held knowledge, and that would be fine if real people who were actually beginners (including beginners in meditation or zen practice) truly had such a mind. But rarely, if ever, is this so. For instance, one reason Robert Buswell wrote “The Zen Monastic Experience” was because of the rampant misconceptions people have about zen practice.

Someone with experience and knowledge may fall into arrogantly thinking they know everything, but if one has truly been paying attention along the way to gaining experience, and if they remain honest, and maintain integrity, they, like Socrates and Richard Feynman and Bodhidharma, will also know they don’t know. That is the wisdom of intimacy; the intimacy of wisdom.

Now, I’ve often heard over the 40 years that I've been practicing, that buddhism encourages questioning, but I’ve seen repeatedly that large areas of practice, teaching and culture are off-limits to any real questioning. Stephen Batchelor reports the same experience with his Tibetan Buddhist teachers, where the debate training was clearly designed to lead to pre-ordained authorized results; the debate was “rigged” in a sense and any authentic questioning was disallowed.

In a forum published in Shambhala Sun back in Janurary, 2008 on the theme of atheism, Ajahn Amaro showed either a perplexing confusion or down-right ignorance about science, by saying that  "what makes scientific materialism, which would aptly describe the atheist view, unrealistic and therefore unappealing is the incredible conceit that sooner or later we'll have the whole thing figured out." I find such a statement by a Theravadin monk quite ironic! I have found many Buddhists who feel that the Buddha “figured it all out” long ago, and though we are told to “see for ourself,” there's always the caveat behind the invitation that if what we find doesn’t jibe with a particular teacher or sect's doctrine then we’re just wrong! Elsewhere in the same article, Ajahn Amaro says that the Buddha encourages inquiry, and that we don’t need to figure it all out, yet the unspoken assumption continues to be that the buddha did it for us! The Ajahn's assertion that "Scientific materialists are often frightened of uncertainty and not knowing" is absurd. In fact, as the quote above from Richard Feynman shows, scientists work happily with the understanding that all claims to any validity for both data and theory are provisional. I would like to see more of this attitude among buddhist practitioners.

Ann Druyan speaking of Carl Sagan wrote: "Sciences's permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe it revealed. The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good sceptic."

I think it’s a sad commentary on our culture that this noble word, “sceptic,” has become something of a pejorative. It simply means "thoughtful" from the Greek skepscepticus and its Latin derivative, scepticus means "inquiring" and "reflective."

Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures, published (in a nod to William James), as Varieties of Scientific Experience, states the position of naturalism: "I think this search does not lead to complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."

This is the kind of dharma to which I can go for refuge.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Living Buddha Zen or What I Hate About Zen, Part Two

Lex Hixon (1941–1995) (born Alexander Paul Hixon Junior, also known as Nur al-Anwar al-Jerrahi in the Sufi community) was an American Sufi author, poet, and spiritual teacher and a true believer in the so-called “Perennial Philosophy,” practicing and holding membership in several of the world's major great religious traditions. His faith what that all the world’s “great religions” are true, and like many such believers, completely ignored the sometimes radical differences. While it would be extremely suspect if the various religious traditions didn’t have much in common (we’re all human beings, sharing one evolutionary heritage), I have long believed it a form of dishonesty to discount the dissimilarities in the world’s religions.

Living Buddha Zen is Lex Hixon’s commentary in zen master Keizan’s Denkoroku: The Record of Transmitting the Light which had been translated by Francis Cook and published by the Los Angeles Zen Center’s Center Publications in 1991. You know you’re in for some blatant zen obfuscation, mystical mumbo-jumbo and just plain bullshit when you read in the “Foreward,” “The modern, secular, skeptical, scientific view has not been casually jettisoned by Hixon, but shed slowly, through trial and error, personal inquiry, reliable spiritual guidance, and fearless commitment to a naked vision.” Such reasoned, empirical, skeptical thinking is anathema in zen and I've criticized it before. It's truly what I hate about zen.

The Denkoroku traces a mostly fabricated tale of the “transmission of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment down fifty-two generations,” beginning with the mythological transmission to Kashyapa in a story so made up to give “legitimacy” to an up-start new school of buddhism in China. Zen has used this story and the narrative of these alleged “transmissions” as its major sectarian polemic.

On every single page of this 253 page screed you will come across statements like: “Without verifiable transmission, there can be no fully manifest jewel of Sangha… Without this outward demonstration of transmission, there cannot be the authentic leadership that makes the Sangha an accessible place and principle of refuge.” I wonder what “the buddha” who is said to have said the following would say to Lex regarding such “transmission” and “authentic leadership?”

Ananda said, “Lord, I still had some little comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions respecting the community of bhikkhus."
Thus spoke the Venerable Ananda, but the Blessed One answered him, saying: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?

What you’ll find on every page is the reified capitalized “Wonderful Mind,” “Unborn Nature,” “Total Awakeness,” “Mind of Luminosity,” “Great Way” etc. ad nauseam. Talk of “destined successors” and “the wisdom spring” that can “gush forth only from the lineage holder.” What such zen teachers seem to not understand is that all talk of “essential mind simply abiding by itself” may be good Vedanta, but it’s not a buddhist teaching. The essentialism of zen, along with the transcendentalism and monism are as far as one can get from anatta, the core teaching of the buddha. Such teachers and teachings flinch in the face of the radical nature of this understanding of not-self. “I am essence, not name,” is a turning away from the shattering realization of the buddha, not it’s fulfillment.

That Hixon can speak for zen and be taken seriously when he writes “Sutras basically teach non-self. Clear, brilliant, ever-present awareness, or Original Self, bears no resemblance at all to the imaginal self-entity clearly refuted by the Sutras. The Sutra teaching of non-self is therefore extraneous to that Original Self. Non-self is the teaching, whereas Original Self is the reality behind the teaching” is enough for me to reject such distortion. Zennists will say I don’t understand. As Ernest Becker wrote, “No purposeful argument can be held with the mystic because in ultimate defense against a logically untenable premise, he invokes the bankruptcy of thought process to arrive at what he "really means." In other words, as Richard Payne writes: “there is no way that reasoned, reflective thought can be applied to the claims made on the basis of ‘religious experience.’” This is the true refuge of the mystic scoundrel.

Finally, I find it ironically amusing that the full moon is an image repeated incessantly representing full awakening. Hixon writes: “Can the moon’s reflection in the lake shine light on the great mountain? All Zen phrases and Zen gestures are merely reflected moons. We must encounter their true source. Only self-luminous awareness – the moon which remains always full – constitutes transmission.”

Pre-scientific people may have thought of the moon as “self-luminous,” but perhaps those of us who understand the moon is an arid rock in space whose light is but a reflection of the sun might rather – as Stephen Batchelor writes – think in terms of a solar buddhism. These zen teachings Hixon calls a mere reflection of the moon are actually reflections of a reflection – and one severely distorted at that!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Motivated Reasoning: Implications For Contemporary Buddhists

Tartullian, the Christian apologist, in the year 208, could actually write: “the Son of God died; precisely because it is absurd, it is to be believed. And that he was buried and rose again, it is certain because it is impossible.” Nowadays, post-scientific revolution, we tend not to hear people making such claims. Today, even the wildest woo-miesters, as well as conventional religious believers, attempt to apply at least a veneer of rational justification and what they believe to be evidential support. Even Mormons and Scientologists! And even those who adhere to the myriad versions of quantum-woo. As Ian Hayward Robinson writes in “Exploring the Limits of Christian Rationality” (Free Inquiry; Feb/Mar 2014): “We can’t believe in just anything that takes our fancy if we are to demand intellectual respectability.”

Robinson bases his assertion on the very interesting and provocative research of Ziva Kunda, whose seminal 1990 paper, “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” established that “People do not seem to be at liberty to conclude whatever they want to conclude merely because they want to. Rather…people motivated to arrive at a particular conclusion attempt to be rational and to construct a justification of their desired conclusion that would persuade a dispassionate observer. They draw the desired conclusion only if they can muster up the evidence necessary to support it. In other words, they maintain an ‘illusion of objectivity.’”

The main point of Kunda’s paper is that there are two distinct orientations that people can take toward examining and analyzing evidence that depend upon one’s motivation. If your motivation is to be accurate, you will be more likely to use analytical cognitive tools (critical thinking) that are most appropriate to the context, regardless of the possible outcome. It requires not a commitment to a particular outcome, but rather a commitment to the process of determining the most accurate outcome regardless of any preferences one may hold. It is, as Gil Grissom often reminds his C.S.I. team, the commitment to “follow the evidence” and to not let personal beliefs waylay you.

Studies have shown that those who are motivated by “accuracy-driven reasoning” expend more cognitive effort on issue-related reasoning, attend to the relevant information more closely, and engage in deeper processing of the information, often using more complex rules. As may be evident by now, this is the orientation of science.

The research suggests that, on the other hand, if your motivation is to arrive at a particular, preferred conclusion, you will be prone to account only for those beliefs, and to follow those investigative strategies that you may consider most likely to yield the pre-determined conclusion. People so committed will mold the path to the desired conclusion through the way they frame the question they are “investigating;” in the type of evidence they take into account and find acceptable; and in the amount of evidence they settle for.

Obviously, religious adherents, especially theologians and apologists, are by definition engaged in a process of arriving at a particular set of conclusions determined by their particular religious dogma. Such an orientation begins with how the investigation is framed: they do not start the investigation and reasoning in order to see if their religious dogma is true, but to demonstrate that it is! The important point to consider here is that they do this not necessarily motivated by any desire to convince unbelievers, but to prove to themselves that their beliefs can be intellectually accepted. When I was studying the philosophy of religion in college, this was made vividly clear in Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways” to establish the existence of god. He wasn’t out to convince anyone that god existed; he was writing to reassure his followers that their belief was not irrational and that it could find intellectual justification.

Of course, we see the same dynamic at work with committed buddhist and yoga true-believers, as well as those in the new-age movement, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and those who rile against science-based medicine and technology – even while, ironically, posting their diatribes on the internet that is made possible by science and technology.

Stephen Batchelor writes about his experience as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and the “debates” he was taught to engage in. He notes that it soon became evident that the debates were actually training grounds for cleverly coming up with ways to come to the pre-ordained conclusion the particular school of Tibetan Buddhism held as true. Genuine doubt and questioning was not encouraged, nor welcome. I too experienced a similar dynamic, though my teacher was more open to my critiques then Batchelor’s Tibetan lamas. In zen, we are often told to keep questioning: “Great doubt, great enlightenment.” And yet, as my training progressed, I began to see that there were some areas where questioning was not actually appreciated by the tradition, and that if you came to any conclusion not in line with doctrine, your position was marginalized and rejected out-of-hand as simply “wrong.” It was suggested that you had not practiced deeply enough or correctly, that your understanding was still unripe, or otherwise you would surely have come to the same conclusion held by the zen schools.

One issue where this comes up again and again is that of karma and rebirth. Those who believe in rebirth set out to find ways to rationally justify their belief. Those who have rejected rebirth, most often come to that conclusion – often reluctantly – because they have engaged in accuracy-motivated reasoning. Over the nearly 40-years I have been practicing, I have had to let go of quite a few beliefs I’d have preferred to hold as true and accurate, but I cannot honestly do so without jettisoning my commitment to “follow the evidence” regardless of where it may lead. I am quick to add that because I've had to change my beliefs several times over the years, I am under no illusion that my understanding is fully formed and settled. If anything, I know I can expect further study, practice and investigation to force me to reconsider my beliefs and I find great value in this.

Glenn Wallis details categories of buddhist believers: the following are examples of those who often use reason to justify their faith commitments, but are not really engaged with a no-holds-barred investigation. What they have in common is the tendency to flinch in the face of the truly radical implications of the buddha “event”:

                Apologists. For whatever reasons, these figures seek to have x-buddhist teachings, theories, practices, etc., come out on top—always. Thus, they act in defense of x-buddhism. Quite often, they must resort to logical contortions and, more seriously, omission of contrary evidence. But not always, of course; sometimes they do indeed correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
                Conservatives. They are disposed toward the status quo—of whatever school/text/practice/community/ institution/teacher, etc., they hold sacred.  And they do tend to hold it all sacred. Everything in the universe changes except, of course, whatever the conservative x-buddhist holds dear.
                Fundamentalists. They are the gardes suisses at x-buddhism’s holy vallation. Their reasoning for, say, the truth of rebirth, is hyper-precise. They are master exemplifiers. Scripture, after all, is always on their side, even when it isn’t. And how they know their scripture! Thumpers here to put Stomp! to shame. Sutta-thumpers, sutra-thumpers, Shobogenzo-thumpers, Lotus-sutra-thumpers–thumpin’ their way to certainty—messy reality be damned!
                Interpreters. They explain, clarify, expound on the teachings of the literary conceit known as “the Buddha.” They make it all make sense, even when it doesn’t. They tend to be benign. They value description over analysis, since the latter, done well, veers toward the dark depths of critique.
                Post-traditionalists. Like traditionalists, they uphold the values gleaned from the Asian dispensation of x-buddhism. However, they seek a renovation of the archaisms and (certain) superstitions favored by their Asian patriarchs. They do not want a new house, only a freshly painted one with, perhaps, a modern kitchen.
                Secularists. They claim the values of modern scientific methodology, such as evidence-based claims, critical thinking, rigorous debate, and the light of reason. But they hesitate to test their cherished beliefs against these values. They do do so; but not too robustly, lest the house collapse. While respecting tradition, they seek a contemporary application. Yet, what they have produced is just the same old thing. Nothing new here.
                Traditionalists. They are committed to the forms—doctrines, practices, beliefs, etc.— that are preserved in Asian institutional structures. Some of these structures are of ancient or medieval origin, some are modern. They espouse pre-scientific worldviews. They axiomatically adhere to archaic cosmologies. They often believe in a world animated by spirits and hidden forces. They know no other possibility.
                True Believers. They raise the (western) x-buddhist banner. They heart Buddhism, though “Buddhism” is always proscribed by their particular school. Some true believers, of course, literally love all things Buddhists. This person, I think, is a peculiarly recent, North American type. They subscribe to some version of “One Dharma,” and are desirous of finding unity in diversity.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Contemplating Impermanence

There are many passages where “the buddha” encourages the contemplation of the inexorable reality of change: impermanence. One such practice is the contemplation on the decomposition of a corpse while reflecting on the fact that this too will be the fate of your body. Another is called “the five remembrances.” The first three, briefly, are that you, I, and all beings are of the nature to age, experience illness, and die and that there is no way to avoid these realities. The fourth reminds us that everything we treasure and all whom we love are of the nature to change and there is no way to avoid being separated from them. And the fifth states that we are the heirs of our actions and there is no way to avoid the consequences of our actions.

One practice that the Tibetan tradition offers, "the four reminders," also called "the four reversals" as in the four thoughts that turn the mind, are often presented in such a way that the world-denying and escapist metaphysical tenets of some Tibetan Buddhisms become clear. As Andrew Holecek writes in his article on the four reminders in the Winter, 2013 Tricycle: “These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out the their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification – which can only be found within.”

Among other things, this notion that awareness might “prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects” posits awareness as yet another subtle atman despite the rejection of atman by “the buddha.” Awareness arises in relation to some phenomena; positing an awareness independent of all causes and conditions is no different than positing a soul/self/atman! I find it striking that so many contemporary buddhists have such a difficult time seeing this! Also, common to some forms of Tibetan Buddhism is an idealism that can become a form of solipsism that seems to be rearing it’s ugly face here in the disparagement of “outwardly appearing objects.” Research on happiness seems to suggest that happiness comes from both within and without and that learning the proper balanced ratio is what is necessary; not to discount one or the other.

That this life only has value in terms of the “afterlife” is made overtly clear when he adds: “Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room; what’s the point?” This emphasis on “reincarnation” which is only seen in Tibetan Buddhism (yes other forms of buddhism teach rebirth, not the same thing and equally wrong when taken as the rebirth of some atomistic entity, one even as nebulous as a specific ‘stream of consciousness’) is another aspect of this life-denying tendency and is very selfish. Taken literally, this statement equating life to time spent in a hotel, and thus there being no point in redecorating it, could lead one to wonder why we should bother to confront structural forms of oppression, catastrophic climate change, or systemic economic inequities; if this life is no more than a hotel, what’s the point? 

Holecek quotes B. Alan Wallace: “In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires are for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

Now, I practice the five remembrances regularly, and emphasize to my students that we should never forget impermanence. The “gatha of encouragement,” which begins our daily practice, reminds us: “Great is the matter of birth and death. Impermanence permeates us. Be awake each moment. Do not squander your life.” But as a naturalist, this isn’t a practice designed to create revulsion for this life, it isn’t a mere “investment in future lives” (other than the metaphorical “lives” we live throughout this one life that we know exists and the equally important lives of those who will come after, as our actions now will definitely impact them) but it’s a practice to awaken us from our complacency; indeed it can be seen as a fierce compassionate shattering of the placid denial we too easily fall prey to, taking this life for granted. And no mistake, that can be a brutal awakening!

To me, though I agree desire for "wealth, luxury and praise" hold little value and may derail our attention from what is of real value, it’s sad that Wallace feels affection and the human need for relationship is “ultimately worthless,” literally “worth nothing” just because we all die! It is the fact that we will die, that we will be separated from all we love that makes my time with my loved ones so very precious; so precious that I don’t want to take one moment with them for granted. Ideally. And through this contemplation, who "loved ones" are becomes vast and ever more inclusive. And that’s why constant contemplation and remembrance of impermanence is important and can be so thoroughly a “turning of the mind,” because the default seems to lull me – us – into a kind of somnolent, zombie-like walking through life. Beyond this, I think it’s intellectually and morally dishonest because I somewhat doubt Wallace, and those who teach this life-denying perspective actually live with the full implications of what they are saying.

So yes, contemplate the fact of impermanence in order to live life fully, intimately, to come to see its absolute value in its ephemeral nature. Practice in order to avoid living this precious human life grasping at impermanent objects or experiences, and not ignoring them either, but savoring the good, and working to change what you can that is harmful to yourself and other real living beings who are also precious because also mortal. Don’t waste this life as if it were some dress rehearsal for future lives or some transcendent state of being. Immerse yourself in the world because you really are of it!

Here’s something I've written about the five remembrances if you’re interested…

Ignorance, or avidya, is a root cause of suffering, according to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra (II.5). But the ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge than an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today we call it denial. For instance, we may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth; a denial that leads to anxiety, fear, and confusion.
At a past lecture, I led a group of interfaith seminarians in the contemplation of the five remembrances, "the buddha's" teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change, and death. Afterward, one of the students asked, "Isn't this just negative thinking?" On the contrary, I would argue that the five remembrances is what "the buddha" offers to awaken you from denial, to cultivate an appreciation for living, and to teach you about nonattachment and equanimity.
If you think of it this way, the meditation is not a bleak, depressing list of things you'll lose, but a reminder of the existential situation of the human. When you accept impermanence as more than merely a philosophical concept, you can see the truth of it as it manifests itself in your mind, your body, your environment, and your relationships, and you no longer take anything for granted.
Once you accept the reality of impermanence, you begin to realize that grasping and clinging are suffering, as well as the causes of suffering, and with that realization you can relax and celebrate life. The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don't.
To work with the five remembrances below, it helps to memorize and repeat them daily. Say them slowly and let the words seep in, without immediately analyzing or interpreting them or your experience; that can and should come later. Just notice your reactions. Let them rest until they shift and pass away—as all things do, being impermanent. Stay with your breath and observe the sensations under all your thinking. You may experience dread at the thought of any or all of these realities.  You may experience huge relief as the energy you've spent denying and hiding from the truth is liberated to move freely through your body. Who knows what you'll experience until you try it?
Some remembrances are easier to accept than others. For me, it was easier to consider that I'm aging and will die, than it was that I have the potential for ill health. I have a strong constitution and am rarely ill; I had believed that if my practice were "good" enough, I wouldn't get sick. So, on those rare days when I was ill, I often reproached myself for being sick and was a pretty cranky person to be around. But with the help of the second remembrance, I've grown more accepting of illness and can now feel a profound sense of ease even while ill so that I don’t needlessly suffer my illness. What this has shown me is that there is indeed a difference between disease and dis-ease.
Another way of practicing the five remembrances in relationship is through  hugging meditation. When your partner or children leave for work or school, hug each other for three full breaths, and remind yourself of the fourth remembrance: "All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them." If you're having a disagreement with someone, remind yourself, before getting swept away by heated emotions, of the fifth remembrance: "I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions." None of this means you should be passive or reluctant to advocate your views. Instead the meditation helps you respond more skillfully with awareness rather than simply from conditioned reactivity.
You can also get used to the concept of impermanence by listing things that have changed in your life over the past month or two. Perhaps a difficult posture has become easier, or an easy posture has become challenging. Perhaps a problem with a family member has resolved or grown more complicated. You'll be hard-pressed to find something that hasn't changed! As I post this today, I look back over the month and review my mom’s illness and death; a teaching engagement that took me to Los Angeles; and a political fight to influence Arizona’s governor to veto an immoral, discriminatory bill that the state legislature had passed!
Again, facing the truth of impermanence shouldn't depress you; it should free you to be fully present. It should help you realize that the peace and ease you seek are available in the midst of changing circumstances. When you really see that all things change, your grasping and clinging fade under the bright light of awareness, like the stains in a white cloth bleached by the sun.

If nonattachment sounds cold and unappealing, you may be mistaking it for indifference. It's the experience of attachment, based on the denial of ceaseless change, that is lifeless. Life without change is a contradiction in terms. When you're attached to something, you want it to stay the same forever. This attempt to "freeze-dry" elements of your life squeezes the vitality out of life. The practice of nonattachment allows you to enjoy life wholeheartedly in its very passing.

Through your attachments you create mental manacles that bind you to the limited view that life is your life, your body, your lover, your family, your possessions. As your insight into impermanence deepens you start to see the truth of "not-self." When you can extend beyond the limits you've created you see that your life is not really "yours" but ultimately simply one manifestation of life.

As “the buddha” tells us: "When one perceives impermanence, the perception of not-self is established. With the perception of not-self, the conceit of 'I' is eliminated, and this is nirvana here and now."

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to age. There is no way to escape aging.

I am of the nature to experience illness. There is no way to escape illness.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Monday, January 6, 2014

There Is No Brad Warner and He Writes A Lot Of Books

Brad Warner’s new book has the clever and catchy title, There Is No God and He Is Always With You. And with this book as well as in a recent essay for Tricycle, titled “How To Practice With God” he shows himself to be the traditionalist, conservative, safe zen practitioner and teacher that he actually is: “hard-core” be damned.

In a blog posting earlier this year, Warner wrote:

“God does not exist, says Eriugena, because he is beyond existence. To say that he exists is to place him in contradistinction with that which does not exist. But if God is really God, then he cannot be bound by such categories as existence and nonexistence.

"This is a nice piece of logic, and I happen to like it quite a bit. But in the end that’s all it is. Because in order to agree with the logic, you have to first accept that there is something called God who is infinite and omniscient and transcendent and so on. But what if you don’t believe in that in the first place? What if you’re coming to this discussion from the standpoint that all matter is essentially dead and that consciousness is just an accident arising from the movement of electricity in the cerebral cells of animals who think far too highly of their own random brain farts?

"Pseudo Dionysus has an answer: “Find out for yourself.” You cannot answer the question of God’s existence or lack thereof through reasoned analysis. So rather than just stopping at a logical explanation of God he goes further. He says, ‘In the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge.’ These instructions sound very much like the ones the Japanese monk Dogen gave seven hundred years later and five thousand miles away for sitting zazen meditation. Dogen said, ‘Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections.’"

The problem is, as neural beings, we cannot “leave behind the senses” and to posit something, or some realm, that “transcends all being and knowledge” already assumes that which you are trying to prove. As a naturalist, I argue that such a transcendent realm doesn’t even exist, but if it did, by definition we could not know it (or ‘un-know’ it) because we are thoroughly natural animals. And, by the way, Warner and all zennies spout on endlessly about nonduality but seem to be confused about the idea because positing some transcendent realm beyond all being (or non-being) is exactly what dualism posits!

In his Tricycle essay, Warner writes: “I think the ultimate object of inquiry in Buddhist practice can be called God if we choose to call it God. Dogen Zenji, the founder of the order of Buddhism that I belong to, preferred not to name it at all. He just called it “it.” He said this “it” was infinite and intelligent, that “it” sees and knows all, that “it” is the source of compassion and truth, and that we are intimately connected to “it.” Medieval Japan had no other name for “it.” But we do. And that name is God.”

Whew! This may be what Dogen and Soto Zen believe, but it has little to do with what the buddha seems to have taught! This is more in line with Vedanta and Daoism. Repeatedly throughout his work, Warner shows he is in line with standard zen doctrine (deeply influenced by monistic Daoism) that reifies mind (as Mind) and speaks of “the Way” and now “it” as a substratum – a “source” of compassion and truth. The problem is, the buddha rejected any such substratum. Warner's description of the attributes of his "it" are no different from those posited by Vedantins about brahman, which the buddha criticized.

What zen has done – as well as many other forms of mahayana buddhism – is to reify the description of phenomena as being empty of any unchanging, independent and persistent essence into “emptiness,” described as essence, a “source” of phenomena! When adjectives such as shunya (empty) are made into nouns such as shunyata (emptiness) this is the kind of lax thinking we find.

But of course, thinking itself is seen as an obstacle to some “ineffable” understanding or “vision of reality” (more often written as “Reality” – and note the reifying symbolized by capitalizing such words as truth, reality and mind that is quite common among contemporary buddhists). This anti-thinking stance pervades much of contemporary buddhism, but it can be found in much traditional east Asian buddhism, despite the rich and varied intellectual tradition of early Indian buddhism.

Witness the following random quotes collected by Glen Wallis at his blog:

Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know. (Hsin Hsin Ming)
No thinking, no mind. No mind, no problem.  (Seung Sahn)
Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don’t know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you.  (Seung Sahn)
Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis. [Sutras are] mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more. (D.T. Suzuki)
Mindfulness is not thinking. This is one of the reasons it is so powerful. (Trevor Leggett)
It’s like this. If you start really paying attention to your own thought process, you’ll notice that the thoughts themselves don’t go on continuously. . . . Most of us habitually fill these spaces with more thoughts as fast as we can. . . . Try to look at the natural spaces between your thoughts. Learn what it feels like to stop generating more and more stuff for your brain to chew on. Now see if you can do that for longer and longer periods. A couple of seconds is fine. VoilĂ ! (Brad Warner)
And of course, that quote from Dogen that Warner shares! “Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections.”

In other words, become a vegetable (though recent research seems to point to the ability for plants to form memories!).
As such commonly repeated statements demonstrate, a particularly despicable aspect of much buddhist propaganda is a disdain of thinking. Yet despite these common pronouncements, the early buddhist understanding rejects such monist notions as promulgated by Seung Sahn above (it’s not merely that we are not in fact all one substance, there is no substance – and here, make no mistake, the word “substance” is a stand-in for “essence”). And Warner’s latching on to the “space between thoughts” as something more real (more essential) like “pure awareness” or “pure consciousness” (terms often bandied about by contemporary buddhist teachers) simply reifies awareness into a stand-in for atman.
This kind of thinking about the need to stop thinking (kind of ironic, ain't it?) or somehow “go beyond thinking” is currently favored in the mainstream mindfulness movement as well. Mindfulness is often described as “bare attention” which entails cultivating and maintaining a “non-discursive, non-judgmental, non-reactive attending to the present moment” and is, in fact, a relatively recent understanding, dating from the early 20th century. Historically, buddhist philosophical thought more generally rejected the idea of an awareness outside of all cultural and cognitive conditions. Indeed, many schools of buddhist thought would understand such bare awareness to be impossible, just as contemporary neural science shows.
Cognitive science shows us how awareness is constructed at every level. Since we are neural beings, our experience is categorized (constructed or conceptualized) from the cellular level. Categories are part of our experience from the first stage of contact, “the simultaneous coming together of a sense organ, a sense object, and a moment of consciousness that cognizes one by means of the other,” as the buddha is reported to have taught. The assertion that basic awareness carries no content or qualities of its own goes a bit further than the evidence provides and is more a Vedantin idea than anything the buddha seems to have said. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, a book I believe every practitioner should read – if for no reason other then to be challenged to look deeper into their own concepts – “Categorization is not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond” our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.”
This is important to bring to attention because there are definite effects of placing one’s faith in the possibility of such awareness. As Tom Pepper writes: “Certainly, as a social practice, convincing oneself that one has reached a state of “non-conceptual consciousness” can function as a kind of support for the ego, cathecting mental energy and helping to reify and naturalize one’s socially constructed construal of the world.  In a word, so long as one is convinced of the dual ancient and scientific power of this practice, and participates in the social institution of mindfulness, it is possible that it can serve to more fully interpellate the individual into the dominant ideology, of which empiricism and belief in a transcendent soul are powerful components…”
Read those quotes above again and you can see how such thinking has led to a generally quietistic, accommodation to oppressive social structures thoughout buddhism’s history in Asia and in many contemporary sanghas where dharma and political and social action are seen as separate realms. Even in most so-called “engaged buddhist” sanghas, the engagement is rarely of a radical critique of institutionalized structures of oppression, but more often 'band-aid' types of activity that, while perhaps helpful in the short-term, with the lack of deeper critical activity, simply serves to prop up the very structures at the root of social inequities.
Pepper continues:
“Simply put, to be able to achieve “bare awareness” assumes that there is some kind of mind or consciousness that is uncreated by, not dependent upon, the phenomenal world, and which can therefore become aware of this world “as it really is,” separate from this radically dualistic mind that does not affect and is not affected by it.  On this understanding, all of our cognitions are part of this phenomenal world, but our “pure consciousness” is not.  (Sharf refers to this as the “filter theory,” in which language and cultural conditioning “filter” or obscure the eternal mind’s direct access to the reality separate from it.)  Locke seems to have believed in such a pure consciousness (he suggests that the soul “thinks” outside of language, for instance), but it is antithetical to much of Buddhist thought, which assumes that consciousness and object arise dependent upon one another (as well as upon other conditions)."
It is a deeper engagement with, and understanding of, dependent origination, and the support and encouragement of critical thinking (thinking better), not some escape into non-thinking, non-conceptual, blissful, “pure awareness” (a pipe dream in any case) that is needed in contemporary buddhist practice if we have any hope for deconstructing the structures and ideology that are at the root of oppression and the creation of new ideologies and structures supporting greater liberation and equality for all.

Glenn Wallis' list can be found somewhere on this interesting and entertaining blog:

Tom Pepper's writing can be found both at the Speculative Non-Buddhism blog and here.

I've written more about the distorted contemporary view of mindfulness here.

And this talk by Robert Sharf is an even better critique of the contemporary view of mindfulness.