Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Teeter Totter

A Guest Post by Kenneth Folk

I love you./I hate you.

You make me smile./You make me sick.

I’ve never met anyone like you./You aren’t the person I thought you were.

Question: What is the difference between the first and second statement in each set above?

Answer: A couple of years, give or take.

By now, you recognize the theme. We’re talking about relationships and how they can flip-flop from love to hate. The pattern is best-known in primary relationships like love affairs. But it doesn’t stop there. You can find the same pattern in all kinds of relationships—parent/child, friend/friend, student/teacher, peer/peer. It happens the way it does because of something that is built into the emotions themselves, a kind of bipolarity that is inherent in emotion.

Think of a teeter totter. You can make one out of a long plank balanced on a big rock. You sit on one end of the plank, your playmate sits on the other, and you can seesaw up and down. But both ends of the seesaw can’t be up at the same time or down at the same time; being on a teeter totter is a bipolar situation. Emotions are like that. You can be happy or sad, angry or loving, anxious or calm. This bipolarity is inherent, both to teeter totters and to emotions. If there is stability to be found, it must lie beyond the extremes.

Now look at the rock that serves as the fulcrum for the seesaw. It’s just sitting there peacefully, holding up the whole affair without having a stake in it one way or another. Your mind has a place like that too, a place that is calm, complete, accepting, and stable. If there is peace to be found in your life (and there is) it will be found not at the edges, but at the heart.

Feel your body now, all at once. Notice that you can feel anxiety or calm, fear or safety, irritation or acceptance, impatience or patience, agitation or tranquility, boredom or interest, aversion or desire. Notice that these mind states, each of which can be paired with its opposite, has a signature constellation of body sensations. In fact, that is how you can tell them apart; fear hurts the body in a particular way, while safety feels like a soothing balm. You could never mistake one for the other, because they are so firmly rooted in body sensations.

You can also look at what underlies the fear or safety. Look at the rock that holds it all up. There is a part of the mind that is not afraid and therefore does not require safety. It doesn’t get bored, so it doesn’t rely on interest. Whether the body is reacting with irritation or acceptance, this deeper place in the mind has no problems; it’s just OK. This is equanimity.

Equanimity is not an emotion as we usually think of emotions. It has no opposite. Emotions are bipolar, always coming in pairs, but equanimity is just OK. Notice that when you are in touch with this deeper, more fundamental aspect of yourself that is just OK with things as they are, you can accept yourself and others. This is lovingkindness. When you are not distracted by your need for things to be other than they are, you can truly see another person; you can feel what it might be like to be them. This is compassion. And when you are tuned in to another person, you can share in his or her triumphs. This is sympathetic joy for the good fortune of another.

The four Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes of Buddhism are all aspects of the same, simple, subjectless emotion: the sense of well-being. The bipolar emotions that see-saw back and forth over the rock of contentment will never be at rest and will never bring peace. That’s okay, because all the while they are riding on this great unshakeable mountain of equanimity.

By the way, why are you able to see your loved ones through the constantly flip-flopping lenses of love and hate? Because in either case, you are not looking at them at all. You are looking at your projection, a composite of sensations and mental impressions in your body and mind. You have invented your loved ones just as you have invented yourself. If you want to see your loved ones clearly, you must see yourself clearly...in which case you will find no one at all.

When you look at yourself and find no one, when you look at your mind and find only contentment, you are enlightened, which is another way of saying that you have found the happiness that does not depend on conditions. In order to find enlightenment, you must make your mind and body transparent in realtime. To make your mind and body transparent in realtime, you must feel your body and watch your mind.

Start with your body. Start now. Feel your body, all at once. Notice the way it is constantly contracting and releasing, holding you up, holding you steady. Notice all the little sensations that let you know you are anxious or afraid or hopeful or excited. You don’t have to fix any of this; this is your body and it knows better than you. Feel it as it is. Now see that underlying all of this is a part of the mind that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. You don’t have to choose; it’s all here at once, the teeter totter of emotions, the body sensations, the ideas, and the equanimity. None of this is up to you. Let it be as it is.

It’s not bad that you see-saw between love and hate, happiness and unhappiness, anger and good will; it’s built into the system. You didn’t create the system and you don’t have to fix it. But you can see through it. To see through it is to be free. Feel your body now, all at once. Let it be as it is.

Explore more of Kenneth Folk's work at his web site.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Noble Ninefold Path? The Complex Ethics of Right Consumption

Cross-posted yesterday at The Interdependence Project.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century thinker most closely associated with the moral philosophy called Utilitarianism, wrote: "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."

Roughly two-and-a-half millennia before Mill, Shakyamuni Buddha said more or less the same thing. The system of ethics taught by the Buddha, one of the pillars of Buddhist spiritual practice, is based not upon a rigid moral code handed down by a god or authority figure, but upon the principle that actions that bring about a positive effect and result in well-being are inherently virtuous and worthy of being cultivated, and actions that bring about a negative result and lead to suffering or harm are inherently unvirtuous and worthy of being abandoned.

The noble eightfold path, part of the Buddha's earliest teachings, is a step-by-step plan for bringing all aspects of one's life into alignment with the ethical goal of harmlessness -- living in a way that doesn't create harm in the world, but only brings benefit. Living in this way creates the conditions and the good karma that will not only make oneself and others happy, but will support one's path to liberation.

The Buddha's prescription for an ethical life did not shy away from the nitty-gritty: for example, right livelihood, one of the eight parts of the noble eightfold path, includes specific suggestions on which careers it would be best to avoid due to the amount of harm they typically involve. Many butchers and prostitutes are really very decent people, but the Buddha taught that being a butcher or a prostitute probably isn't the best career choice for someone who wants to follow the spiritual path as he taught it.

In the time of the Buddha, people's lives were harder in some ways, but also much simpler. The brutal facts of life and death were on display in a more harsh light -- but by the same token, the choices one could make on a day-to-day basis were also more straightforward. As our lives have become more comfortable and secure, they have also become more complicated. Ours is a highly globalized and interdependent world where the simple choices we make in the supermarket or on the street or in our homes have ethical implications that stretch thousands of miles and impact thousands of lives.

Peel a banana and eat it, and you create ripples that go outward and circle the planet. You cannot divorce the enjoyment of that banana from the realities of economic oppression in the banana republics of Latin America, or the environmental costs of industrial-scale monocropping and toxic pesticides and preservatives and petroleum-based transport. Through something as seemingly simple and even innocent as growing, selling, buying and eating bananas, we are all complicit together in a system of production and consumption whose ethical implications boggle the mind.

And this is not to single out bananas for journalistic abuse. Pretty much anything and everything we enjoy is steeped in the suffering of other beings. Patrul Rinpoche, in "Words of My Perfect Teacher," wrote at length about the unfathomable amount of suffering that goes into producing a simple cup of tea. Want something more complex to chew on? Pick up your iPhone, if you have one, and contemplate the recent string of suicides among iPhone factory workers in China (or AT&T's massive contributions to Tea Party candidates in the recent midterm elections).

If the Buddha were living in today's era of global commerce, I suspect we would have a noble ninefold path, and the ninth aspect of the path would be Right Consumption. Surely how and where you spend your money is just as important as how and where you make it. If you're contributing your dollars or euros or yen to a product or a system or a company that does more harm in the world than good, that's something the Buddha would probably advise you to look at.

Yet, making the right choices in today's world is not always an easy or straightforward proposition. When there are conflicting interests, how do you judge whether the harm outweighs the good or vice versa? Much of the time, it's difficult for us to even know what impact our consumer choices might have. The facts are not always available to us -- and even when they are, many consumers prefer not to know the facts.

The ethics of consumption in today's world is not something on which I pretend to be any kind of an expert at all. I find it incredibly difficult, and I think the Buddha would find it difficult too, if he were living today. Even by withdrawing to a monastery and living in relative seclusion from the world, you can no longer extract yourself from the global matrix of consumption. (You can trust me on this one, as I'm currently living in a very remote monastery, miles and miles away from anything.) Your carpets are still made of petroleum products, your tea and coffee and bananas still come from impoverished countries on other continents, your stove still runs on natural gas, even your Internet service uses the same orbiting satellites as people all over North America. The days when you could get most of what you needed from your neighbors, or you could build it or grow it with your own hands, are gone. Some people are trying to get those days back, or at least minimize the damage, but it's not a simple proposition to put the genie of global commerce and industrialization back in the bottle when we are all enjoying the genie's magic conjuring tricks.

We sentient beings were never truly independent of one another, or of our global environment. The Buddha knew that almost 2,600 years ago. But the real fact of our interdependence is now more plain to see for anyone who cares to look. And when we see the extent of our interdependence, we realize that the ethical repercussions of even simple, everyday actions and choices stretch further in space and time than we could have previously imagined. Edward Hubbell Chapin said, "Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity."

When we begin to realize how much harm is created through everyday consumer choices we ordinarily take for granted, we might feel a sense of paralysis. How can we do anything or consume anything without creating harm? On the other hand, we might become very self-righteous and think that we've got the correct moral choices figured out, and everyone else should just get with our program and the world would be a better place. Both of those extremes are crazy-making. We either become despondent about our ability to bring about any positive outcome and therefore give up caring , or we go to war to save the world, determined to convert everyone to our way of thinking and our particular ideas about right consumption.

The Buddha, as always, would probably advise us to follow a middle way, avoiding both extremes.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Every Day Is Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, I enjoyed seeing how many of my friends and family posted a statement of gratitude on Facebook or Twitter, mentioning the things for which they are thankful -- or simply acknowledging that they are thankful. It seems we now post on social networks the things people used to say at the dinner table with their hands joined in prayer. Praying around the dinner table is so last-century, but at least public displays of gratitude are still in.

Wouldn't it be nice if every day was like Thanksgiving? Imagine how different our world would look if we spent every day being thankful for what we have, rather than complaining about what we don't have, worrying about losing what we do have, feeling jealous and bitter about what other people have, or scheming to get something else.

If you're like me, you grew up with the folk wisdom that advised you to "count your blessings" and "be thankful for what you've got." If you didn't like your food, you were encouraged to think of the orphans who must eat gruel, or the poor children in Africa who don't have any food at all. If you didn't like to exercise, you were encouraged to think about the paraplegics or the people who must live through tubes and machines.

But now that you're all grown up, answer this question: If you put on one side of a scale all the time that you, as an adult, spend feeling content and grateful for what you have, and on the other side you put all the time you spend feeling restless and discontent and complaining irritably about what's wrong or scheming to make things better, to which side would the scale tip? Be honest.

The Buddha taught that the restless mind of discontent and craving for something better is the very cause of our suffering. He called it tanha, which means thirst or craving. When we are caught in the grip of our own thirst for something better, then it is impossible to feel contentment and gratitude for what we have. Unable to experience the basic okayness of contentment and gratitude, we constantly search for something outside ourselves to make things okay. We feel we have to get something, ingest something, go somewhere, do something, get involved with someone, have some kind of experience, become something -- always, always looking for something other and something better than what we have and what we are right now. This is the wellspring of what the Buddha called dukkha, which is usually translated as suffering but is more accurately described as a kind of persistent, aching feeling that life is out of balance and something is missing. Our craving is like a hole inside us that needs to be filled, but nothing we put into it seems to fill the hole in a reliable or lasting way.

The Buddha also taught that underlying our craving or thirst is another, deeper problem: avidya, or ignorance, which is the cause of craving in the first place. We misunderstand the nature of our own being and the nature of the world in which we live, and this misunderstanding traps us in the endless cycle of thirst and aching. We believe we truly are this separate, pathetic little self, and so we are always looking outside our selves for something to prop up the fiction of the person we imagine ourselves to be. But since nothing can really prop up a fiction, we are on a fool's quest.

Here is a truth that ought to be self-evident by now: No amount of material wealth or political power or emotional abundance or pleasurable experiences or even spiritual richness obtained from the outside can bring us contentment if, on the inside, we are determined to be discontent. If you haven't seen sufficient proof of this, you either haven't lived long enough, or you haven't been paying close enough attention.

Isn't it futile to hope for world peace when nearly everyone's mind is locked in habitual patterns of discontentment and unrest, and everyone is hoping for a change in the outer circumstances to secure their happiness? Now bring it closer to home: how could you hope to be at peace with your own life, and to find peace in your marriage or other relationships, if your own mind is habituated to focusing on what's wrong and what needs to change in order for you to feel okay?

The Tree of Contentment

Question: How could you escape from the sound of footsteps chasing you when the sound is really coming from your own running feet? How could you escape the spectre chasing you when it's really just your own shadow?

Answer: Stop running, and sit down in the shade of a tree. Both footsteps and shadow instantly disappear.

The tree, in this case, is the tree of contentment, and the cooling shade it provides is called gratitude. Take a moment today, if you haven't already, to stop and sit beneath it. The good news is that this tree is always somewhere in our vicinity; it may sometimes look far away on the horizon, and we may have to walk towards it, but we always have the opportunity to sit down beneath it if we choose. The bad news is simply how well-programmed we are to keep running, and to ignore this tree -- except, maybe, once a year on Thanksgiving.

And the ironic news is that there is really nowhere we can run to, no matter how fast or long we may run. We are always strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage, and mistaking it for real life. We are consummate method actors who seem to have forgotten that we are playing a role at all. This is why we are so often shocked and appalled when the curtain falls unexpectedly.

This much is certain: the curtain will fall, and unless we grab the curtain and bring it down ourselves, it will fall in a way for which we didn't plan -- and probably too soon. "Life," said Suzuki Roshi, "is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink." Every boat -- that is to say, every sentient being -- that ever has been or ever can be built will sink. No one gets out of here alive. If life were a casino, every table would be rigged against us from the very start. We might win a hand here and there, but if we think we're going to beat the house consistently or permanently, we are leading ourselves down a road to emotional ruin. When we get lost in the cycle of discontentment and ingratitude, we are just hoping for better cards.

Trees and boats and runners and actors and casinos: by now, this is an awful mess of mixed metaphors, but you get the point. Most of us are, as the old country song goes, "Lookin' for love in all the wrong places." We are searching for contentment everywhere except the only place it really awaits us, which is in the mysterious and uncharted depths of our own being.

None of this is to say that we should always just accept the status quo and be grateful. There is nothing wrong with trying to make the best of our situation or bringing improvement where it is needed. But we play the cards we are dealt by life, and much of our neurosis comes from wishing our cards were different.

Some cards are easier to play than others, of course. The hardest thing of all is to rest in the shade of gratitude and contentment when the casino deals us a particularly shitty hand. Our bodies break down and get sick, or our sanity comes into question, or the market collapses, or the lover who we thought was so reliable and who was going to make us and keep us happy suddenly leaves. The royal flush becomes a toilet flush.

I remember being with my friend Charlie in the hospital several years ago, as he was battling lymphoma. During one of my visits, the nurse came into the room with a bag of chemotherapy chemicals for Charlie. She wore safety gear that resembled a hazmat suit just to handle the bag; the bag itself was marked with large biohazard symbols to indicate its extreme toxicity to humans and other living things. With horror and fear and the most awful hope, Charlie watched the nurse connect the bag to his IV line. He stared at the industrial markings on the bag and at the dark-yellow liquid inside, and he began to cry. Putting the nightmare inside that bag into his body was the only hope he had for fighting the nightmare that was already inside him. In the end, it didn't work -- the lymphoma was too aggressive, and Charlie lost the fight within a few months of his first diagnosis.

A few weeks ago I was in the only supermarket in the small town of a few hundred people near the Abbey where I'm living. A man and a woman who knew each other from the town stopped in the aisle near me to exchange greetings. "How are you?" the cheerful woman asked.

"I just had my right lung taken out," the man replied.

My eyes bugged out as I passed by, and I couldn't stop myself from shooting a curious glance at the man. He caught my eye and looked back at me matter-of-factly. There was no tone of complaint or self-pity in his statement, and his look was not a plea for sympathy. It was simply the blunt truth. "How are you?" "I just had my right lung taken out."

There is nothing that I could possibly have taught Charlie, or the man with one lung in the grocery store, about gratitude or contentment. Anything I could say about the subject would sound glib -- or, worse, condescending, like a slap in the face. Rather, they were the ones who ended up teaching me about it, although neither of them was trying to teach me anything. I walked away from both of them feeling a little bit more grateful for the cards I have been dealt so far, and a little bit wiser to the fact that -- good cards or bad cards -- it's all quite temporary.

Gratitude is the key that unlocks the treasure chest of contentment within our own hearts. And what lies within that chest is really the only thing that can make us feel rich -- or even okay. The sooner we learn to stop looking outside ourselves for the love and the wisdom and the richness that we already carry within us, the sooner we'll be able to get on with the business of living properly and peacefully as human beings. For a limited time only.

"If you say only one prayer today," said Rumi, "make it: Thank you."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Be Here Now

Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.

Be here now. Those three simple words are the title of a classic 1971 spiritual book by Ram Dass -- which, for some reason, has haunted my mind for about 25 years. I haven't looked at a copy of Dass's book since I was a teenager -- but it made a strong enough impression on my mind at that tender age that I still clearly remember the design of the book's cover.

It's not so much the content of Ram Dass's book that has haunted my mind all these years, but its title. And lately that title has been haunting me more than ever. I've been thinking a lot about those three simple words, and how they capture the entire practice of meditation. This line, in my opinion, would be a top contender for the prize of "greatest meditation instruction of all time" -- if there were prizes for such things.

After all, isn't that what meditation comes down to -- the practice of just being here now? Reduced to those three naked words, it sounds so incredibly simple -- and it is -- and yet there is so much depth hidden within that simplicity, waiting to be unpacked and explored.

Meditation is about coming back to basic being. Ordinarily we are caught up in the compulsion to do. We are always doing something -- or several somethings at once -- whether it's with our bodies or our speech or our minds. The way kids study these days is a good example: they'll have a textbook open in front of them, but they'll also have a reality show playing on TV, and a favorite album playing on the iPod, and several chats going with friends on the computer. Sometimes our compulsion to do takes the form of constant mental chatter, a rushing current of thoughts and commentary that sweeps us along and keeps our minds churning and busy. But what is it like to just be in this present moment, without doing anything extra? What's actually happening? We are just sitting here, being alive, breathing, just existing. Why do we think something else needs to be added to this? Can't we just be? In those moments when we allow ourselves to just be, we feel like we've come home after a long day at work. In reality, we are always being, but when we are just being, we discover a deep and abiding sense of peace and contentment that forever eludes us when we are caught up in grasping and doing.

Being here means, first of all, being here as opposed to somewhere else. Much of the time, in our minds, we are off in the jungles of the Amazon, or walking the streets of the East Village, or on a ship at sea in a storm -- in short, anywhere but here. The fantasies that take us elsewhere can be much more interesting than the seemingly dull reality of just being here, sitting on a chair in a room, staring at the wall or the floor or the back of the person sitting in front of us. The boredom of just being here can drive us to imagine ourselves in a million other places, doing a million other things. But not one of those million other places is where we actually are right now. In reality, we are always here, but when we are just here -- when we stop struggling to pretend we are somewhere else -- we step into a more open and trusting relationship with our world. We awaken to the vividness of our sense perceptions, and we realize that until now we were sleep-walking through life, only half-aware of the world that was always right in front of our faces.

Being here also means more fully inhabiting the body, the locus of our being here. The body is dense with layers of felt experience that are always happening right here, within our very being -- yet most of the time we are barely aware of a fraction of what is happening in the body at any given moment. Training in mindfulness means coming back, again and again, to the lived experience that is always unfolding here, right here, in our very own flesh and blood.

Being here now means staying present with what is happening in this moment -- neither reviewing the past nor speculating on the future, but simply staying here in the now. Now is a razor-thin moment of being that is always cleaving time into past and future. Training in mindfulness is learning to ride that razor, to stay upright on its edge without falling off to either side. But how much of the time do we normally spend riding the blade of the present moment? Ordinarily, we spend much of our time replaying old conversations, imagining new outcomes if we had said something different; or anticipating what we'll be eating for dinner or what we'll say when we see that person again -- planning out the coming weeks or years and dancing in hope and fear about things that have not yet happened, future moments that don't yet exist. In reality, it is always now -- past and future are merely memories and dreams, and the razor-thin edge of the present moment is all we ever have. Even when we are lost in memories and dreams, our memories and dreams are still happening now. But when we learn to recognize how our minds stray from the present, and we practice being here just now, we discover the magic of authentic presence and the richness of being alive now.

"Be" is the element of relaxation, letting go of everything except that which already is -- and then letting that go, too, realizing that what is is always turning into what was. "Now" is the element of precision and alertness, staying connected to that which is constantly changing, constantly unfolding in the present moment. "Here" is the experience that connects the two.

"Be here now" is the guru's whispered instruction, a key that unlocks the door of experience and realization on the spiritual path. Let go of the compulsion to do something, realize that nothing need be added to or taken away from this moment, and simply be; come back to your lived experience here, in this body, in this room, in this environment, and remember that life is not happening somewhere else; abandon your nostalgia and regrets about the past and your hope and fear about the future, and just be here, now, surfing the always-cresting wave of the present moment. Later, if you wish, you can plan and scheme and dream, and build and destroy, do other things and go other places. But for this moment, there is nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Just be here now. Life is an exclusive offer, non-transferrable, available for a limited time only, and valid only at this location. Use it or lose it.

The paradox is that whatever we do, we're always being; wherever we go in body or mind, we're always here (as the old saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are"); and whether we're tuned in to the present moment or lost in memories and dreams, it's always now. So why do we find it so challenging to just be here now? Isn't it really the simplest thing in the world?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Concepts about Enlightenment Are Like Books about Dancing

There is a certain stereotype about Western students of Buddhism, which holds at least a kernel of truth: we tend to be really strong in the area of study and acquiring textbook knowledge about the Buddhist teachings, but not always as strong in the area of practice and realizing the meaning of those teachings in our own experience.

It's possible there is something in our culture that tilts us in this direction. Comparative studies in cognitive psychology have shown that Westerners do tend to have a more analytical mind than more holistically-minded East Asians. Although all stereotypes are suspect, the image of a Westerner whose primary relationship to the Dharma is through reading (or writing) books about it is not without some basis in reality.

Or maybe it's not really a Western thing -- just a human thing. Every religion has its adherents who have studied the founder's teachings in great depth but still seem to be clueless about their basic meaning. Fundamentalist Christians can quote the Bible chapter and verse while holding signs saying "God Hates Fags," but they seem to forget that Jesus primarily taught tolerance, understanding, forgiveness and love of one's neighbor. Jihadists can memorize the whole Koran, but use its words of wisdom to rationalize mass murder. And Buddhist scholars can debate absolute and relative truth and quote Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti and the Buddha on the subtle meaning of emptiness, but their personal lives might remain a mess and their relationships can be as devoid of compassion as any drunk on the street.

Of course, studying the Dharma and developing conceptual knowledge of it is an essential element of the path. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is often depicted as one of the three wheels: study, meditation, and action. Yet it seems that study is frequently overemphasized at the expense of the other two wheels. When we fall into this trap, we might develop a lot of very refined concepts about enlightenment, yet we may not understand what it means to actually live in an enlightened way. Scholars of Buddhism can, and often do, have an intimidating level of erudite and sophisticated knowledge about the Dharma, and yet they can, in some cases, remain apparently clueless about what it means to actually live the Dharma.

Recently I said to a friend: "Concepts about enlightenment are like books about dancing." (I was paraphrasing this line from a Buddhist teaching I saw somewhere, but I can no longer recall where.) No matter how well-written or well-researched a book about dancing might be -- even if it is written by the most accomplished dancer -- by itself it can never convey or bring about the actual experience of dancing. For a professional dancer, there is a certain value in studying the history and theory of dance, but no amount of theory alone can actually make one a good dancer. Only practice and action can do that.

Naropa, one of the Indian mahasiddhas revered by Vajrayana Buddhists, was a great, accomplished scholar at Nalanda University in ancient India. One day as he was poring over one of his texts in the library, a shadow fell over the page. He looked up to see an old hag standing next to him. In her croaking voice, she asked him, "What are you reading, Naropa? Do you understand the words or the meaning?"

Naropa replied, "I understand the words I am reading." At this, the old hag became gleeful, and danced around laughing. Naropa wasn't sure why his response had made her so happy, and so he added, "I understand the meaning too." At this, the hag stopped dancing and grew morose, and began to cry. Confused by this schizoid behavior, Naropa asked, "Why are you crying? And why were you so happy when I said I understood the words?"

"When you said you understood the words, you were telling the truth," said the old hag, "and that made me very happy. But when you said you understood the meaning, you were lying. You and I both know you don't understand the meaning. And that made me very sad." With this, the hag vanished, but this encounter was said to be the spark that led Naropa to seek out his guru Tilopa and attain genuine realization of the teachings rather than mere intellectual understanding of them.

Like most stories about the mahasiddhas and saints, the story of Naropa and the hag is perhaps best regarded not as a historical account but as hagiography (pun intended) -- a teaching tool in symbolic or narrative form that contains a valuable lesson for each of us. The story of Naropa and the hag is a cautionary tale, a reminder that academic study of the Dharma, like books about dancing, is useful up to a certain point, but useless beyond that point. There comes a time in the life of every spiritual aspirant when you simply need to set the books aside and step out on the dance floor, and live the Dharma. That is the only way to realize the meaning of what you're studying.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Cloud of Unknowing

Cross-posted earlier this week at The Interdependence Project.

I have only read, so far, bits of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's book, The Power of an Open Question -- but I've been thinking a lot lately about its title, and about the power of questions. I've been thinking, especially, about the power of sitting with difficult, open questions, rather than clutching at easy answers.

Pablo Picasso once said, "Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." That is, perhaps, as good a way as any other of explaining the gulf that still exists between computers and human beings. The most advanced artificial intelligence projects have, so far, been able to produce computers that can provide very sophisticated answers, but they have not been able to produce a computer that will, of its own free will and out of sheer curiosity, and with self-awareness, ask a real question. The moment when a computer finally asks its first unprompted question -- especially if it's one of the Big Questions, like "Who am I?" or "Why do I exist?" -- will probably be the moment that AI is truly born.

If questions are what separate us from computers, which increasingly are created in our own image, they are also what separate us from our fellow creatures in the animal realm. Without a doubt, animals have varying degrees of intelligence that can sometimes be quite sharp and sophisticated. But it's difficult to imagine that animals really concern themselves very much with questions like "how?" or "why?" As long as the given conditions meet their basic needs, or can be manipulated to do so, most animals appear to be pretty content. They see no need, and perhaps lack the intellectual capacity, to ask questions about meaning.

Human beings, on the other hand, seem born to ask questions -- as every parent of a three-year-old child knows. We are the species that continually asks "What is this?" and "Why?"

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche has said that religion often begins with answers, whereas genuine spirituality begins with questions. I suspect that Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, focusing as she does on the power of open questions, might agree with that. The key to following a genuine spiritual path is the capacity to rest in the fertile space of a question -- the space of not-knowing, not closing the question, not grasping at the illusion of certainty but growing (as Pema Chodron says) "comfortable with uncertainty."

At some point, I think, most people stop asking meaningful questions. Some stop asking because they settle for easy answers -- which might come from traditional religion or, just as often these days, from scientific materialism (which is in some ways the new religion). Others stop asking because they conclude that there are no answers possible to such open-ended questions, and so they give up caring -- settling into a life of just getting by, just trying to be as secure and happy as possible on a material and social level. And some people go to war because they believe the answers they have found are better than the answers others have found. One way or another, most people find some means to short-circuit the spiritual process of questioning, and to wrap themselves up in a cozy blanket of certainty. The space of uncertainty is not an inherently comfortable place to be, and people have all kinds of tricks for getting themselves out of it.

In his classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi famously wrote: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." The crucial Zen idea of "beginner's mind," according to Wikipedia, means holding "an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions" -- even when studying at a so-called advanced level. "Only don't know," the Zen master Seung Sahn used to tell his students, "only don't know." Without the attitude of openness, the basic mind of not-knowing, we cannot be receptive to new possibilities: no new information can get through the filter of our preconceptions. This is not to say that we cannot learn things and develop confidence and faith on the spiritual path. But anytime we begin to think of ourselves as experts, or to think that we hold the definitive answers that are going to apply in every situation, we are in trouble.

The 14th-century Christian mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, perhaps says it best. The anonymous author of that book wrote that God cannot be approached through intellectual knowledge or seeking answers, but only through open, heartfelt devotion and love:

Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love [...] and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God.

Change the word "God" to "Dharmakaya" or "Ultimate Reality" or "Buddha Nature," and you've got the Buddhist view there, too. None of our concepts or ideas or artifacts of knowledge, rooted as they are in the illusory duality of one who knows and something separate that is known, can ever truly touch the unconditioned, unfabricated nature of reality as it truly is, the naked truth of suchness. For suchness is not something that can ever be "known" in a conceptual way -- only experienced.

At least, that's what they say. But how would I know?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Difficult Pill: New Article at Buddhist Geeks

Yesterday Buddhist Geeks published my article, "A Difficult Pill: The Problem with Stephen Batchelor and Buddhism's New Rationalists." Within minutes, the heated comments started flying. Here's a short excerpt from the article:

There is admittedly, in what Batchelor is doing, something noble and admirable. He is providing a valuable service to the Buddhist community by asking us to set aside centuries of enshrined orthodoxy and cultural bias and our own unquestioned assumptions and beliefs and wishful thinking, and to look at what we are doing on the Buddhist spiritual path with fresh, more practical eyes. To this end, his stance echoes the Buddha’s instruction in the Kalama Sutta (which Batchelor uses as a colophon in the first part of Buddhism without Beliefs): do not accept any idea or belief simply because it is commonly accepted or handed down in the tradition, or because it’s written in holy texts, or because someone you venerate stated it to be so. Instead, the Buddha advised followers to use their own prajna or discriminating wisdom to see what really makes sense and accords with reason and leads to happiness, and only then to accept it.

From a certain point of view, Batchelor’s teachings are a skillful means to address a particular psychographic segment of Buddhist practitioners: those grounded in Western, rationalist philosophy and empirical science, whose natural inclination is towards a materialist explanation of phenomena. Students belonging to this psychographic are riding high on the hog these days, with advances in neuroscience now providing a material basis for studying the effects of meditation and other “spiritual” practices in a laboratory setting. To such ears, Batchelor’s spirited war cry against the foul and outdated superstition of rebirth must come as a clarion call.

And yet….

There is also, in what Batchelor is doing, a seeming fixity of opinion that weakens his arguments. He seems bizarrely convinced that two-and-a-half millennia of realized Buddhist practitioners have been deceiving and distracting themselves with the red herring of rebirth, and that anyone who has recourse to logic and reason in these matters must draw the same skeptical conclusions as he does. In a scathing review of Batchelor’s work in Mandala magazine, B. Alan Wallace wrote: “Although Batchelor declared himself to be an agnostic, [his] proclamations about the true teachings of the Buddha and about the nature of the human mind, the universe, and ultimate reality all suggest that he has assumed for himself the role of a gnostic of the highest order. Rather than presenting Buddhism without beliefs, his version is saturated with his own beliefs, many of them based upon nothing more than his own imagination.”

Many of the comments posted in response to the article muddied the waters by mixing up the terms "reincarnation" and "rebirth," prompting me to post the following clarification:

I want to point out that I never used the word "reincarnation," which is getting thrown around a lot in these comments -- I used the word "rebirth" (which, by the way, Batchelor also predominantly uses). To my mind, they are philosophically distinct notions. Reincarnation, as I understand the term, has come to signify -- in many people's minds, anyway -- what Julian characterizes as the transmigration of a truly existing soul from one body to another -- a very un-Buddhist idea, indeed.

Rebirth, on the other hand (as I see it) encompasses a process of becoming and rebecoming that is far more subtle and difficult to understand or express in a conceptual way. It is interdependent with the essential Buddhist view of anatta or no-self (which is also subtle and difficult to understand) and teachings on the nature of mind (which, guess what, is also subtle and difficult to understand -- in fact, "it" can't be "understood" at all conceptually -- it can only be experienced).

If there is not a truly existing, separate, independent self to begin with, then how could it jump from one body to another? Yet the non-existence of a little homunculus who travels from body to body does not imply that no aspect of mind continues. For those who want to seriously study Buddhist views on rebirth, this is an important distinction to make, and it opens into a much deeper level of inquiry.

Another thing I find odd about Batchelor's objections to rebirth is that he characterizes it as "offering consoling assurances of a better afterlife" (Buddhism without Beliefs, page 114). To the contrary, it seems to me that if you truly grasp the meaning of interdependence, karma, and no-self, then the prospect of rebirth (as I have characterized it above) offers very little in the way of ego-consolation indeed. The aspect of mind that continues might be very subtle and impersonal, and have little or nothing to do with what we ordinarily think of, in our deluded ways, as the "self." So, whoever might be reborn, it wouldn't be "me" -- it would, in every practical sense, be someone else. Frankly, I don't see much consolation for my ego in that.

Check out the whole article and the intense discussion in the comments it prompted.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Buddhism's Love Affair with Science

Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.

Buddhism and Western science are happy in bed together these days. From the Dalai Lama's high-profile Mind & Life Institute dialogues with Western scientists to the many neuroscience research projects studying the effects of Buddhist meditation techniques on the brain, Buddhism and science are in the throes of an extended love affair. But will it last? Will Buddhism and science break up when they realize that, despite their common interests, maybe they don't actually share the same fundamental values and goals in life? Are they perhaps less compatible than they originally thought?

Many Buddhist teachers in the West are fond of saying that Buddhism is not a religion, but a "science of the mind," a set of tools and methods for conducting research and making profound discoveries in the laboratory of your own mind and experience. This positioning appeals to Western rationalists who like to bring a scientific approach to spiritual practice, and it neatly does away with the mystique of "religion" that clings to Buddhism. "Religion" has become something of a dirty word. The "spiritual but not religious" crowd – and roughly one-in-five Americans wears that description – eagerly embrace Buddhism as a "science of the mind."

Often, though, the "spiritual but not religious" folks grow uncomfortable once they get deeper into Buddhist studies and find out – surprise! – that they're being asked to entertain ideas that many Western, rationalistic people find utterly repugnant: things like life after death, rebirth, hidden realms of existence, gods and spirit beings, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, psychic healing, prayer, and much more. Some Buddhist traditions talk about such things more openly than others, but there is nowhere that you can entirely escape mention of them: they appear, in various ways, in many Buddhist scriptures and canonical texts. You can turn a blind eye to the metaphysical elephant in the room, but you can't really be unaware that it's there.

The general sense of discomfort with these things among Western, scientifically-minded Buddhists has lately reached such a crescendo that some (Stephen Batchelor, for example, who is leading the charge of "atheist Buddhists") are now calling for a complete reboot of the system: a return to what they perceive as more fundamental, no-frills aspects of the Buddhist teachings. For these folks, Buddhism as existential psychology and as therapeutic praxis is fine for the rational, scientific mind – but Buddhism as metaphysics or "religion" has got to go.

Not many figures in the scientific community acknowledge the possible limitations of the materialistic view of consciousness, including its apparent inability to explain many common aspects of human experience. "We seem to be realizing," the scholar of religion Huston Smith once wrote, "that materialism, secularism, reductionism, and consumerism are inadequate premises on which to lead our lives – that they drain the wonder and the mystery out of life and experience and are dead ends." James Le Fanu, in a recent article in Prospect magazine titled Science's Dead End, lamented that despite ever-increasing amounts of funding and ever-more voluminous research being produced, modern genetics and neuroscience – two hard sciences whose view of human consciousness and experience is by nature deeply materialistic – have actually told us precious little about the real life of human beings:

The implications are obvious enough. While it might be possible to know everything about the physical materiality of the brain down to the last atom, its “product,” the five cardinal mysteries of the non-material mind, are still unaccounted for: subjective awareness; free will; how memories are stored and retrieved; the “higher” faculties of reason and imagination; and that unique sense of personal identity that changes and matures over time but remains the same.


The further reason why the recent findings of genetics and neuroscience should have proved so perplexing is the assumption that the phenomena of life and the mind are ultimately explicable in the materialist terms of respectively the workings of the genes and the brain that give rise to them. This is a reasonable supposition, for the whole scientific enterprise for the past 150 years is itself predicated on there being nothing in principle that cannot ultimately be explained in materialist terms. But it remains an assumption, and the distinctive feature of both the form and “organisation” of life (as opposed to its materiality) and the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of the mind is that they are unequivocally non-material in that they cannot be quantified, weighed or measured. And thus, strictly speaking, they fall outside the domain of the methods of science to investigate and explain.

This then is the paradox of the best and worst of times. Science, the dominant way of knowing of our age, now finds itself caught between the rock of the supreme intellectual achievement of delineating the history of the universe and the (very) hard place of the apparent inscrutability to its investigations of the phenomena of life and the mind.

In his 2009 book The End of Materialism, Dr. Charles Tart went further. Tart alleged that much of what passes for genuine inquiry in mainstream Western science is actually "scientism," a closed belief system founded on the unproven assumption that mind and life are entirely reducible to material phenomena. In order to maintain this belief system, Tart argued, scientism must willfully close its eyes and ignore a great deal of empirical data demonstrating the existence of non-material aspects of mind and experiences that cannot be explained in conventional scientific terms.

Tart, who for five decades has been conducting serious scientific research into a variety of 'paranormal' phenomena, is quite familiar with the closed-minded, dismissive view towards such research held by true believers of the prevailing scientistic paradigm. Tart alleges that such dogmatic scientists consistently ignore actual data that challenge their assumptions, breaking one of the cardinal rules of scientific inquiry: the data always come first. No assumption or point of view is to be held sacred if the data contradict it. The common reaction among materialists to the parapsychological research of someone like Tart is to assume that, if he is not a complete wacko to begin with, there must be something wrong with his experimental set-up or his analysis of the data, because we "know" that the things his research has demonstrated couldn't possibly be true. But a kneejerk reaction by any other name is still a kneejerk reaction, and it warrants serious investigation.

So where does this leave Buddhism and science? Clearly, a great deal of mutual benefit has come from their recent co-mingling. Science has advanced its understanding of how meditation affects the brain and nervous system, and meditation has thereby been legitimized as something even rational people can practice. It is no longer seen (entirely) as a delusional religious vocation for people who are probably borderline schizophrenics – which is, in itself, a huge step forward for scientific understanding. Buddhism, for its part, has gained insights into the physical correlates of mind states it has been exploring for two-and-a-half millennia. But as Buddhist meditation masters and scientists study one another in the laboratory and the lecture hall, are they being completely honest about what they want from each other? And how meaningful, really, is the common ground they are finding? For Buddhist practitioners, many of the recent, dramatic "discoveries" of neuroscience in regards to the effects of meditation and the brain provoke a general reaction of: "Well, that's nice. Meditation changes your brain? Tell us something we didn't know 2,500 years ago."

Maybe, at the end of the day, Western materialist science is from Mars, and Buddhism is from Venus. Despite the search for common ground, they are still looking at the mind – and the mind's possibilities – in radically different ways. It is doubtful that most Buddhists (with the possible exception of hardcore “atheist Buddhists”) will ever be able to accept the completely materialistic philosophy of mind espoused by mainstream Western science. And it remains equally doubtful that Western science – or 'scientism,' to use Tart's name for it – is really all that keen about having its sacred cow of materialism fundamentally questioned. It's not hard to imagine that as Buddhism and science grow more intimate, the tension between these different points of view will become more obvious.

Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that Buddhism's encounter with the West "may well prove to be the most important event of the 20th century." Here we are now in the 21st century, and that defining event is still unfolding. Among its most important dimensions is this newfound love affair between Buddhism and the Western scientific enterprise. It's still too early for these lovers to move in together. They are in the dating stage, when you're just learning your lover's ways and everything she does is fascinating. But there are already signs of trouble ahead. If one partner expects the other to change and accommodate his views, but is unwilling to have his own assumptions challenged in return, that could signal the start of an abusive relationship.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spiritual But Not Religious

I was on silent retreat last week, and staying out of the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the Facebook realm. But while I was on retreat, my article “Spiritual But Not Religious” was published in two parts on the Rebel Buddha site.

Part One: The Spiritual Lone Ranger looks at the love/hate relationship many people in our culture have with religion. Does being religious mean you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid? Can you be religious and keep your autonomy? Is there anything wrong with walking the spiritual path alone?

Part Two: The True Heart of Religion goes further into some of the same questions. Is it possible to find meaning through religion and still harbor questions? How can we follow a spiritual path without blindly accepting someone else's answers?

Check out these posts and join the discussion if you have comments to share.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

East Mind / West Mind

Today was a rare double-post day. My weekly 21st-Century Buddhism feature at the ID Project went up this morning with "The F-Word: Forgiveness." Check it out to learn why I think forgiveness is one of the most essential, and often overlooked, qualities on the spiritual path. In this article, I look at the 12-step model of spiritual practice, which places a strong emphasis on recognizing our crippling (and sometimes hidden) resentments and cultivating forgiveness. Have you had an experience of forgiveness that changed you? Post a comment to the article and share your insights.

Also, "East Mind/West Mind" appeared today at Buddhist Geeks. In this article, I look at the cognitive and psychological differences between "Asians" and "Westerners," and how these differences might shape our experience of Buddhism and spirituality.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

The very labels “Western” and “Asian” are fuzzy, finger-painting language—maddeningly imprecise in what and who they refer to—and they fall apart on closer inspection. How similar, really, are all the distinct cultural and linguistic groups that get lumped under those two umbrellas? Are we to assume that Swedes and Americans and Brazilians and Croatians all think the same way because they live in the same “Western” hemisphere? What about people from China, India, and Indonesia? Labels such as “Western” and “Asian” are generalities, and when speaking in generalities it’s probably inevitable that someone will feel excluded or misrepresented. So the conservative approach would be to avoid discussing these things at all.

Still, in spite of that, here we are, with what we all acknowledge is the more or less “Asian” spiritual tradition of Buddhism being transplanted into a more or less “Western” cultural matrix. While those labels raise a number of questions, they seem to retain some usefulness for describing the situation we are in today.

In the past decade a number of studies have demonstrated significant differences in how East Asians and Westerners perceive, cognize and think. One such study conducted by Richard Nisbett and colleagues at the University of Michigan used computerized eye-tracking technology to measure the ways European-American and Chinese subjects related to simple pictures of animals or other focal objects set against a complex background — such as a picture of a fish in an aquarium. Almost invariably, the Americans’ eyes zeroed in on the fish first, perceiving it as the most important object, and only then did their eyes take in the rest of the aquarium as the context in which the fish appears. The Chinese participants, on the other hand, generally perceived the context — the aquarium — first, and only then did they zero in on the fish and locate it within that context. Similar studies have suggested that such differences translate into unique ways of processing and committing information to memory, as well as different ways of making sense of what is perceived.


If something as seemingly innocuous as the way East Asians and Westerners receive and prioritize visual information in a picture is measurably different in the laboratory, could there be other significant differences in our ways of perceiving and knowing? If, as Nisbett suggests, East Asians have a more “holistic” way of looking at phenomena and interpreting their experience, and Westerners have a more linear, object-oriented, “analytic” mind, could this help to explain other more commonly observed cultural differences? Why, for example, has Western medicine excelled at treating specific, isolated problems with very direct remedies, whereas Chinese and Tibetan medicine take a more holistic view of mind and body and focus on treating imbalances within an interdependent network of systems?

And how do such different cognitive styles — which go largely unnoticed much of the time because they are so deeply embedded in our individual and collective psychology — impact the way we relate to something like spirituality or religion?

In looking at these differences, I reference not only Nisbett's studies in cognitive psychology but also some very interesting recent work in linguistics. Check out the full article at Buddhist Geeks and share your thoughts.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Five Western Buddhist Teachers to Watch

Western Buddhism is at a turning point in its history. I recently heard one teacher compare where we are at now to the stage of adolescence: the rebellious years, when kids are not kids anymore but they're not yet full-grown adults either. It's a time of bold questioning, even rowdiness, and of rapid and sometimes disorienting growth and change. And it is the time when children begin to assert their own identity and their own understanding of the world. They begin to demand -- to require -- space to explore things for themselves, to find the answers that make sense to them. Certainly, if you look around at the Buddhist scene these days, you see the signs of this adolescence unfolding all around us.

A number of significant Buddhist teachers are leading this adolescent rebellion, and helping to forge the identity that Western Buddhism will carry into adulthood. Here are my picks for the five Western Buddhist teachers to watch. These teachers may not be widely known yet, but I suspect that will change. Each of them is doing something unique and compelling that will shape the way we study and practice Buddhism in years to come. Observing these five will give you a sense of what Western Buddhism's emerging identity may look like.

Ethan Nichtern
Usually when someone is called a "charismatic" teacher, as I saw Ethan Nichtern called in print recently, it's a euphemism that secretly means he's good-looking. Ethan is that too, but he's also charismatic in the old sense of the word -- which used to refer to a certain breed of Protestant preachers who had a power to captivate audiences with impassioned sermons. Founder of the Interdependence Project and author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence, Ethan is a second-generation American Buddhist (his father is the Shambhala Buddhist teacher and Huffington Post columnist, David Nichtern).

With the ID Project, Ethan is building a new kind of Dharma community: one modeled primarily around the interests and perspectives of young people. The group includes students of all ages, but most of all it embraces the 20-something and 30-something demographics, who often feel disempowered and under-recognized in more long-established Buddhist institutions. Under Ethan's guidance, members of the ID Project are shaking things up and manifesting a new vision of socially and politically engaged Buddhism. At the recent demonstrations for and against the Islamic center near Ground Zero, ID Project members sat in silent meditation, "bearing witness" and conveying a startling message of peace while angry mobs on opposing sides shouted insults at each other. Last year, the group staged Sit Down Rise Up, a 24-hour meditation marathon in the windows of Manhattan's trendy ABC Carpet store. Instead of mannequins or displays of merchandise, the store's windows featured, for one full day, live human beings meditating.

The other compelling thing about the ID Project is its non-sectarian approach. The group's lineage mentors include Zen Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Shambhala Acharya Eric Spiegel, and Insight teacher Sharon Salzberg -- representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Ethan, who was recently named a Shastri (senior teacher) within the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, has skillfully brought together these diverse streams of Buddhist study and practice into a single, harmonious sangha that represents a new model for Dharma communities in the West.

On November 14th, Ethan will join Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Mitra Mark Power and Gina Sharpe at NYC's Great Hall at Cooper Union for a "a multimedia day of discovery around key questions of spiritual life, religion and culture — what Western Buddhism is and what it can be." Ethan's voice in this conversation will be one to listen to.

The Interdependence Project
Rebel Buddha NYC event on Nov 14
Ethan Nichtern on Twitter

Hokai Sobol
I first encountered Hokai Sobol when listening to a Buddhist Geeks podcast called Vajrayana in Plain English. At first I was struck by his deep voice and his Eastern European accent, but as I listened I was struck more and more deeply by what he had to say. Since then, I've listened to that podcast about 10 more times, and I continue to be inspired by it.

Hokai is a scholar and teacher in the Shingon tradition, Japan's little-known tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Most of the Japanese Buddhism we see in the West is Zen; some people don't realize that Japan also has a Vajrayana lineage. So far, the Shingon tradition has been largely invisible in Western circles, but Hokai just might change that. Hokai is also Croatian. The seeming oddity of a Croatian teaching in English about a Japanese form of Vajrayana Buddhism says something promising about the emerging global and pluralistic nature of Buddhism in the 21st century.

Hokai's depth of knowledge about a variety of Buddhist traditions and practices, and his respect for those traditions, is matched by his commitment to innovation and to finding authentic (sometimes dramatically new) ways to express the meaning of the Dharma in a Western cultural context. His recent, four-part series of interviews at Buddhist Geeks (Episodes 180-183) addresses "the invisible, and rarely discussed, forces that shape Western Buddhism. In particular what we call "culture" shapes our institutions and communities in ways that we rarely see with clarity." Hokai is another teacher who contributes an important voice to the current discussion of Buddhism in the West.

Hokai Sobol's Website
BG Episode 180: The Invisible Forces that Shape Western Buddhism
BG Episode 112: Vajrayana in Plain English
Hokai Sobol on Twitter

Khenpo Karl Brunnhoelzl
Dr. Karl Brunnhoelzl is infamous for two things: having a name that most Americans can't pronounce or spell properly, and writing intimidatingly long and in-depth commentaries on Buddhist philosophy. He is also, in my experience, one of the most lucid, direct and humorous teachers you'll find anywhere in the Tibetan tradition.

Karl is a Buddhist scholar of the first magnitude, and translator of some of the most profound treatises in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. His book Center of the Sunlit Sky laid out the Kagyu view of Madhyamaka philosophy, while other books dive deep into the topic of Buddha Nature. Karl's authoritative scholarship was recently recognized when he received the title of "Khenpo," a Tibetan designation for a master scholar that is roughly equivalent to a doctorate degree in Buddhist philosophy. As one of very few Westerners who hold the title of Khenpo, Karl represents an emerging class of Western Buddhist teachers whose depth of understanding of the Dharma is being recognized by Tibetan masters. Karl is also a Mitra (senior teacher) in Nalandabodhi, the lineage of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and one of the main teachers at Nitartha Institute.

Despite all that, Karl is also incredibly humble and down-to-earth, and totally funny. At the most recent Nalandabodhi Sangha Retreat where he gave a series of teachings on Buddha Nature, Karl showed up one night and delivered his entire talk wearing a Spider-Man costume (it was an inside joke that would require too much explanation). Like Hokai Sobol, Karl's depth of scholarship gives him the authority to legitimately question and play with tradition, parsing out the genuine Dharma from its cultural container -- and he does it without taking himself too seriously or losing his sense of humor.

Karl's books at Snow Lion Publications
Heretic Buddhists: Karl's article on Rebel Buddha

Kenneth Folk
Kenneth Folk is part of what some people have called the "hardcore Dharma" movement, but which Kenneth and others are now calling the "pragmatic Dharma" movement. The movement, and its most visible teachers such as Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram, are controversial and outspoken; I wrote about the movement here recently. What makes the movement controversial is the fact that Folk, Ingram and others are breaking with tradition and speaking openly about their levels of realization. Some, such as Ingram, are even publicly calling themselves "arahants," or "enlightened." Whatever you think of that, it is difficult to deny (unless you are totally cynical) that many students who are studying with Folk and others in this movement are making progress in their practice that they were never able to attain with other teachers.

Folk comes largely from a background of practice in the Vipassana tradition. The stages of practice and fruition he describes are those of the Theravada path, and they differ in some important ways from the stages and paths of the Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles that I'm more familiar with. Folk, however, excels at finding ways to show that the realization attained in all three traditions is really not as different as it might appear. His own vision of enlightenment and the nature of mind has been influenced by threads from the Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions, making him another Western teacher who is breaking down traditional sectarian walls between Buddhist schools. He also has a knack for using simple metaphors and jargon-free language to explain the mechanics of awakening. He most often describes the stages of practice using the image of a 3-speed transmission, showing students how they can shift through progressively higher or more refined gears of consciousness. Kenneth Folk's frank and direct voice, which comes not from theory but from experience, will be increasingly important in American Buddhism in the coming years.

Kenneth Folk's Website
Coming Out of the Closet About Enlightenment: A look at the hardcore Dharma movement
Kenneth Folk on Twitter

Clark Strand
I first came across Clark Strand when Tricycle magazine published a cover story on "Green Meditation." Strand's article talked about his years-long struggle with insomniac episodes of awakening in the middle of the night, and his eventual epiphany when he began to realize that these episodes might actually be not the dysfunction that he had always believed them to be, but part of a human being's natural rhythm. Strand's research into this phenomenon suggested that this rhythm of "divided sleep" was recognized and utilized by many spiritual traditions for thousands of years -- until the industrial age and the invention of light bulbs. At that point, our natural rhythms were disturbed and we lost touch with the fertility of darkness and twilight states of consciousness; we developed the expectation that we are supposed to sleep through the night without awakening. As someone who has struggled against divided sleep and insomnia, I found Strand's hypothesis compelling.

Strand is also one of the few Buddhist teachers who is openly exploring the territory where Buddhism overlaps with the Abrahamic religions -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In my article "Christian Buddhism?" published on Buddhist Geeks last month, I profiled Strand's work in this area, which included founding the Woodstock Buddhist Bible Study and the Green Meditation Society where he teaches frequently on "Biblical koans." Given the depth at which our Judaeo-Christian roots are planted in our collective and individual psyches in the West, it makes tremendous sense to search for ways to tap into the wisdom of those roots in conjunction with our study and practice of the Buddhadharma -- rather than trying to dig up and replace our familiar roots with something culturally exotic and foreign. As Buddhism unfolds in the West, this kind of interfaith inquiry will be increasingly important and essential to the tradition's survival here. Strand stands out among Buddhist teachers as someone who has not only the inspiration to pursue such an inquiry, but the breadth of knowledge of multiple traditions to pursue it effectively. Strand's book, How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, his columns on religion and spirituality for the Washington Post, and his ongoing "Green Koans" column for Tricyle testify to this breadth.

Strand is also in the process of articulating his vision of a "Green" spirituality that returns to a pre-industrial sense of humanity's benevolent interdependence with the planet, the seasons, the elements, and the cosmos. A Dharma that does not include such a vision for our future, and practical steps towards implementing that vision, is no Dharma at all. At this pivotal time when we see so much man-made environmental catastrophe unfolding before our eyes (with warnings of greater catastrophes in the making), there could be no more important message for us to hear than this one.

Clark Strand's Facebook Page
Christian Buddhism? An article that profiles Clark Strand
Clark Strand on Twitter

Friday, September 17, 2010

Rebel Buddha: Don't Meditate

My post "Don't Meditate" now appears on RebelBuddha.com, a cool new site developed in conjunction with the launch of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche's forthcoming book, "Rebel Buddha." The site is turning into a lively forum for exploring Buddhism and spirituality in the West today. Check it out and add your point of view to the conversation.

Another post of mine, "Cultural Theism," also appears in the blog section of the site. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nattering Nabobs of Negativity

Having spent the last year-and-a-half living in a monastery in a very remote corner of Canada, I often feel somewhat isolated and removed from events unfolding in the world outside. I'm online a lot more than you might think a monk would be, but most days, I don't look at the news. And each time I do, I'm reminded of why. What passes for "the news" in most media today is an endless wave of fear- and worry-inducing reports of tragedy, scandal, warfare, catastrophe, threats, discord, disease, terror, death, ruin, and danger.

I can't escape the feeling of guilt that comes from being largely disengaged from the news -- as if I'm willfully turning a blind eye to something that needs to be looked at, scoffing my responsibility. And yet I also cannot deny the reality that largely avoiding the news has made me a happier person.

When I do look at the news these days, I get the feeling that I picked a very interesting time to go spend two years living in a monastery in Canada. Things back home in America aren't looking so good. From oil rigs exploding and poisoning the seas to Sarah Palin's Tea Party exploding and poisoning the political seas, it looks more and more like the world I once knew is going to hell in a handbasket.

Perhaps this only proves the old saying that "Ignorance is bliss," but I think it proves something more than that. I'm not completely ignorant about what's going on in the world outside -- I pick up enough of it by osmosis, without seeking it out. I followed the Gulf oil spill story like a hawk. Within two hours, I (and everyone else in the monastery, and probably on the planet) was aware that Michael Jackson had died. And yet by turning down the volume on my media exposure, I have largely silenced the chorus of what Spiro Agnew called the "nattering nabobs of negativity." This has given me more breathing space in my own mind, and more ability to see how easily hooked and hypnotized I am by the trance of negativity and pessimism that dominates mainstream media today.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is the world really going to hell in a handbasket, or is that just the way the media makes it look? Surely everyone realizes that newspapers and TV news programs and other media boost their ratings (and their advertising revenues) by painting a dire picture and dramatizing the news to lure more eyeballs. People want to know what they should be afraid of. This fits with what neuropsychologists refer to as the human brain's built-in "negativity bias." We have evolved to pay much more attention to danger and discomfort than to more positive circumstances (because it's more important, for survival purposes, to dodge a stick than it is to find a carrot). That's part of the reason why we dominate life on earth. As a species, we excel at manipulating our environment, and ourselves, to eliminate unpleasant circumstances and maximize our own comfort. In fact, we are so hell-bent on ensuring our own comfort that we are in the process of not only dominating but also destroying much of life on earth. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

On a more personal level, too, the past year-and-a-half has brought what seems like an unusual degree of tragedy and suffering. Just in my own circle of friends and acquaintances back in the outside world, it is heart-breaking to stand back and look at what has been going on. Three friends have died of drug overdoses, one of them probably a suicide and another under extremely ignominious circumstances that made his death into tabloid news. Another very sweet friend died with his throat slashed by his boyfriend. One friend went in for surgery and received irreversible brain damage from the anaesthesia. Another recently began to suffer psychotic episodes and has been in and out of institutions. In the most high-profile episode, one of my acquaintances went berserk in his role as a flight attendant and cursed out the passengers over the intercom before grabbing two beers and fleeing the plane via the inflatable emergency slide. (In true Andy Warhol fashion, he immediately became world-famous and acquired 200,000 fans on Facebook, and is now in discussions for his own talk show and perhaps a Hollywood movie.)

It's hard to take these things in without getting the sense that there is a wildfire raging through people's lives, and the fire has come a little bit closer to me now. Or has this fire always been raging close by, and I just never noticed? Did I have to come up here to this isolated, little monastery at the end of the continent to wake up and realize how much suffering is going on in people's lives back home?

These personal tragedies pull at my heart more acutely than what I see in the news, because they hit closer to home. But my circumstances require me to relate to both of them in pretty much the same way. There's not much I can do to make the Tea Party disappear, or to dispel the horror of BP's Gulf oil spill. And there's not much I can do for my friends, from up here, other than send them an email to say I'm thinking of them -- and to keep practicing so that, hopefully, when I return to their world I'll be better equipped to help.

It is an interesting practice, and a fine line to walk: taking in the suffering of others, and the relentless negativity and fear-mongering of the media, and extending a heart of compassion -- without getting totally swept away. Maybe this curious situation of being physically removed from it all -- relating to the dramas and the tragedies in a somewhat calmer way, from a distance -- is exactly how I need to train right now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What Is Enlightenment?

Cross-posted yesterday at The Interdependence Project.

Recently I was having lunch with an 86-year-old Buddhist nun, and we were talking about enlightenment. (If that sounds like the opening of a stand-up comedy routine, it's not. I live in a monastery, and this is an everyday occurrence.)

"You see, the problem," she said, "is that we don't really know what enlightenment is."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," I replied. "It seems like everyone is always flapping their gums about enlightenment this, enlightenment that, but what is it? Nobody seems to know."

"Or everybody thinks they know but they all have a different idea."

"And often we make it into this big, mystical production, like a number from a Bollywood musical. You know, like when you attain enlightenment the earth trembles and the animals all bow down and the choirs of heavenly beings sing your praises and do line dancing. All that hyperbolic stuff in the books."

We both laughed. "Maybe enlightenment," she said, "is actually something very simple."

"And we're looking for something complicated. I can't remember the name of that Tibetan teacher who said, about the nature of mind, 'Because it is so close, no one sees it. Because it is so simple, no one trusts it.' Maybe enlightenment is like that."

"Yes. If we're looking for an enlightenment that's far away, some big thing in the future, we're never going to find it," she said, placing her palm against the tip of her nose, "because it's always right here."

"Ponlop Rinpoche has talked about that too. I remember once at a talk he gave, he was remarking about how we always like to be perceived as sophisticated people. If someone calls us sophisticated, we take that as a wonderful compliment -- but if they call us simple, well, that's a huge insult. I guess that's sort of how we build up our expectations about enlightenment, too."

We both nodded, and went back to chewing our lettuce.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Continuing Saga of Christian Buddhism

Reader comments on my recent articles "Christian Buddhism?" and "The Koan of Christian Buddhism" continue to be posted. Check them out for a very interesting, often deep, and sometimes heated discussion.

Here's a fresh assault from a disturbed reader identified as Asa, posted early this morning in response to the first article:

A deeply disturbing post.. the blind leading the blind..
Someone who has REALIZATION in Buddhism and Christianity, actual deep, permanent spiritual development, would have the ability to synthesize the two.. Though I cant conceive why he/she would.
But for just intellectualization, smug philosophizing.. it is truly dangerous.
Not knowing what you dont know, but plunging ahead anyway, is truly the Western scientific reductionist materialistic approach.. even to religion. To say "it doesnt matter an iota" who one prays to, is the cry of a lost soul.. staying in his comfort zone with clever sophistry. Seek a teacher, one far superior to you in understanding, and follow his/her lead. Then learn what you dont know. Then there might be a chance...

My response:

Well, Asa....I guess now I will have to tell Clark Strand that his years of training as a Buddhist monk and senior student of Eido Roshi, and the years he spent as senior editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, were all in vain -- he needs to go back to school, and stop all this nonsense about combining different traditions. Come to think of it, I should also write to Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and explain to him how misguided he was for writing the book Living Buddha, Living Christ and for drawing parallels between the teachings of Buddha and Jesus. Same goes for the Dalai Lama, and Rev. John Lundin, and everyone engaging in Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogue -- misguided! And Bernadette Roberts? I'll tell her that from now on, despite her realization, she can no longer write about the Christian mystical experience of "no-self," because Buddhists have an exclusive copyright on that idea. And Father Thomas Keating? A heretic! Burn all his books. ;-)

What I and others have described in these articles and the comments on them is not smug philosophizing or intellectualization, but a deeply informed and very personal spiritual inquiry that is unfolding right now in many individuals' lives and practice. You can agree with it or not, but the fact is that there is a growing number of people out there exploring some version of a combined Christian/Buddhist practice and faith. People are finding many ways of approaching that -- but, clearly, none of those ways involve staying in one's comfort zone. If people really wanted to stay comfortable and follow the status quo, I doubt that they would bother with such a deep and iconoclastic form of inquiry.

Asa, as I like to imagine my teacher might say (I've heard him say it in response to many other things): if you're feeling disturbed, "that's good!" It means your ego is being challenged. Look directly at that. Investigate it. Be curious about it. Find out what is beneath the surface. The greater the disturbance, the more there is for you to look at. Whether you will see what is there or not, and how you will respond to it if you do, is up to you. But -- although I don't claim to have any particular "realization" -- I can assure you that projecting your judgments onto other people's spiritual experience isn't going to lead you towards the realization you seek. That leads in the completely opposite direction.

If you missed "Christian Buddhism?" or "The Koan of Christian Buddhism," find out why they polarized readers so strongly.

Meanwhile, a 70-year-old woman with whom I've been in email correspondence about these articles said this:

What I realized in reading your articles is that I have struggled through my life with a sense that mystical awareness although possible is elusive: it keeps falling apart in my hands.... The Cherokee rose story in the first article is very helpful in giving me an insight into how to proceed. It turns out that the 'program' that I first experimented with to do my meditations, is the most useful after all: first, meditation to approach calmness, second, reading in Buddhist texts and reflecting on them, and third, my Christian prayers and readings. During the day, I try to identify and work through my 'kleshas' and also to keep my focus. This gives priority to Buddhist teachings, and that is just how I need to work it at the moment.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Love or Wisdom?

(Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.)

If you had to choose, would you rather be loved or respected?

So goes an old parlor game question. It's something of a trick question, for hidden within it there is another question: Are you the type of person who thinks the best feature of human beings is the head, or the heart? In other words, do you think intellect is the most important thing, or emotion? Wisdom or love?

In "The World's Religions," Huston Smith -- in his chapter on Buddhism -- wrote that this question, along with a couple of others, has divided people into two camps since time immemorial. He even implied that division over this question is one of the reasons why Buddhism, early in its development, split roughly into two major schools. Theravada, according to Smith, largely emphasized wisdom and insight into selflessness (anatta) as the means to personal liberation, while Mahayana emphasized love and compassion as the means to collective liberation.

Those are gross over-simplifications of both schools' views and practices. Theravada practitioners spend lots of time developing love and compassion, and Mahayana practitioners spend lots of time developing wisdom and insight into emptiness and the nature of mind. But Huston Smith argued that in terms of how the two schools differentiated themselves and what they considered to be the most important aspect to emphasize on the spiritual path, that is roughly how the chips fell.

The validity of Huston Smith's theory about Buddhism's split into two major schools is doubtful, but contemplating it does raise another interesting point. Within both schools today you can see plenty of examples of both types of people: those who consider love to be the most important thing, and those who consider wisdom to be the most important thing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this distinction can often be seen to fall along gender lines. A quick glance around the Buddhist scene these days reveals a lot of female teachers who heavily emphasize loving-kindness and compassion and other emotional qualities of the awakened heart, and a lot of male teachers who heavily emphasize non-dual wisdom and realization of emptiness and other cognitive qualities of the awakened mind.

That is, of course, another stereotype -- for which you can find plenty of exceptions. Some female Buddhist teachers talk quite a lot about wisdom and emptiness, and some male Buddhist teachers talk quite a lot about love and compassion. Maybe a few Buddhist teachers, of either gender, even talk about both in equal measure. But stereotypes exist for a reason, and the exceptions don't necessarily disprove the rule of thumb.

Here is an experiment that would be interesting to conduct, to test whether the gender-difference theory holds water: Pick a certain number of high-profile Western Buddhist teachers from each gender -- let's say, for example, Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, and Sharon Salzberg, versus Stephen Batchelor, Robert Thurman, and B. Alan Wallace. Listen to a range of their Dharma talks and evaluate their books, scoring each one on a 10-point left/right "flavor" scale (all the way to the left being a predominantly "heart" flavor and all the way to the right being a predominantly "intellect" flavor). The scoring would naturally be subjective, but if you got enough people to participate, and factored out gender bias in the scorers by having a balance of men and women participating, I would expect that the data would reliably demonstrate a flavor difference along gender lines. (Maybe this would only prove that we perceive the teachings according to gender expectations, but that would also be an interesting finding, and worth contemplating.)

I wonder to what degree this is a Western phenomenon. In English and most Western languages, we make a very clear linguistic separation between "heart" and "mind" (and by "mind" we usually mean "head"). The Sanskrit word "citta," on the other hand, covers both aspects: "bodhicitta" is translated into English as either "awakened heart" or "awakened mind." (And which of those translations you adopt already says something about your inclinations.) That a single word could represent both of those human dimensions may seem odd to us, for we are accustomed to thinking of heart and mind as being quite distinct.

But the cultural differences don't stop there. Tibetans, when indicating the "mind," touch the chest, but touch the forehead to indicate "body." English speakers, by contrast, touch the chest to indicate "heart" (or sometimes "body") but touch the forehead (or the cranial cavity in general) to indicate "mind." Thus, the fact that English speakers see "mind" as being so distinct from "heart" arises partly from the fact that we think of "heart" (the emotional dimension of human experience) as being down in the chest but "mind" (the intellectual, cognitive dimension of human experience) as being up in the brain.

Maybe that helps to explain why we see a lot of Buddhist teachers in the West specializing primarily in one dimension or the other. Depending on which side of human nature they identify with most strongly -- the heart or the head -- they naturally emphasize those aspects of the Buddhist teachings that resonate with that dimension. That this split so often falls along gender lines, with a lot of seemingly "emotional" female teachers and a lot of seemingly "intellectual" male teachers, seems like a stereotype, but it often operates according to expectation.

There is evidence to suggest that these tendencies are hard-wired into our biology. A significant body of research has examined the differences between "male brains" and "female brains." Most men tend to have a very male brain and most women tend to have a very female brain, but everyone falls somewhere along a spectrum of brain gender. A few men tend to have a more female brain, and a few women tend to have a more male brain -- but those are the exceptions to the norm. "Aside from external anatomical and primary and secondary sexual differences," says Renato Sabbatini, "scientists know also that there are many other subtle differences in the way the brains from men and women process language, information, emotion, cognition, etc."

The male brain, it turns out, is very good at doing certain things that the female brain isn't -- and vice versa. People with very male brains excel at tasks involving a high degree of spatial awareness, motor activity, hand-eye coordination, and so on, while people with very female brains perform, by comparison, rather poorly on those tasks: thus, for instance, you almost never see any female crane operators or airline pilots. People with very female brains, on the other hand, excel at tasks involving a high degree of empathy, communication and language skills. The female brain processes information using more parts of the brain, while male brain activity tends to be more concentrated.

Thus, neuroscience suggests there are biological reasons why men tend to be more analytical and single-minded and women tend to be more emotional and communicative and oriented towards multi-tasking. It should therefore come as no surprise if a lot of male Buddhists are attracted to teachings that have a sharp, analytical flavor, and a lot of female Buddhists are drawn to teachings that have an open, emotional flavor. (I recently heard one prominent, male Buddhist teacher say that all those teachings about love and compassion are nice, and they're good to practice so that we can all get along better, but they have nothing to do with enlightenment. This struck me as a very male way of looking at it.)

As Buddhists, though, we aren't usually satisfied with just accepting what is dictated by biology and social convention. The Buddhist vision of enlightenment is often depicted as the union of masculine and feminine principles, the inseparability of wisdom and compassion or love. (Side note: oddly enough, in Tantric Buddhist iconography, the compassion aspect is represented by the male figure, while the wisdom aspect is represented by the female figure -- the reverse of what we might expect to see.) At the end of the day, we are left with the sense that this habitual separation between "head" and "heart," "intellect" and "emotion," "wisdom" and "love," is a false dichotomy. It seems to operate on the relative level, but ultimately it has no true existence. Wisdom is the space of love and compassion, and compassion and love are the expression of wisdom.

Enlightenment, in other words, involves recognizing and fully embracing within ourselves both aspects of our being: heart and mind, compassion and wisdom, masculine and feminine. We may have been born within a body -- a prepackaged biological and cultural and karmic situation -- that leads us to emphasize one over the other, but we intuitively know that our truest nature lies beyond the limitations of body and biology and culture and karma. At the level of our deepest nature, we sense that we are not only capable of fully manifesting both dimensions of experience -- we must manifest both, because we are both.

Too much emphasis on cognitive wisdom, realizing emptiness, and non-duality, without love and compassion, makes the mind too hard; our approach to enlightenment becomes overly intellectual, dry and cracked. And too much emphasis on love and compassion, without the wisdom of emptiness, makes the mind too soft; our approach to enlightenment becomes overly emotional, moldy and sticky. Just as in the classic children's story about Goldilocks, we need a path to enlightenment that is not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

But here we've run up against that old "middle way" thing once again. You just can't get away from it in Buddhism. Any time you stray to one extreme or the other, you will be called back to the middle.