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.