Thursday, 19 November 2009

Saving the world by sitting on our butts

My wife (who has a sensitive and anxious disposition) desperately wants her first child. She is in her mid-30s now. In the course of the last year she has miscarried three times and three times I have seen her heart break. There is no instruction manual given out for how best to support someone going through something like that and it has been a real learning curve for me. Even her normally-very-supportive best friend told her she could no longer support her and they are no longer firends. I know that I'm far from perfect but also know that I've been invaluable to someone who was dependent on me and whom I was in a position to genuinely support. I also know that my Buddhist and mindfulness practice has helped a great deal - allowing me to be calmer, more patient, more empathetic, less interfering and to have a better view of my own 'stuff' than I might otherwide have had.

Zen teachers I know have stated (quoting Dogen as saying that a person who does zazen unconsciously and automatically benefits all beings) that the best way to help others is not by supporting them or engaging with them in any way, but by practicing zazen. One explanation given was that without wisdom our attempts are useless or even harmful (which by itself I have some agreement with). And that zazen by itself (perhaps via the dedication ceremony) benefits all beings through some mysterious karmic processes.

This doesn't accord with my experience. My experience is that to influence the world we need to engage with it. I certainly have no experience of this mysterious process and would have to believe in it through blind faith. I remember hearing about the belief among transcendental meditators that simply by doing TM they could influence social harmony in a positive way (by emanating harmony in some mysterious way). But, as I recall, the supposed evidence for this didn't withstand much scrutiny.

One of these teachers (not knowing the full background) suggested that I should not have cut short a week-long retreat to support my wife. This seems like a rather escapist view of life.

I have also heard of a monk in the same lineage declining to visit his own father on his deathbed in order to attend an extended retreat.

Buddhist ethics are indeed focussed on the intentionality behind our actions, but if my intention is sincerely to benefit all rather than just myself then my intention will be to actually act rather than merely to have 'good intentions'. My understanding of our dedication ceremonies and vows had always been that they are expressions of selflessness, ways to let go of selfish attachments, rather than seen as acts which by themselves help others and absolve us of any further responsibility to them. Is it really more selfless to dwell in private feelings of harmony than to actually help others? For me, to help others we have to actually engage with them. Meditation and self-awareness may help us in our relationships a great deal. Letting go of trying to change others may help a great deal, but we still have to engage, to be there, to care, and to act with wisdom and compassion. We need to 'return to the world' or 'return to the marketplace' rather than simply look after and dwell in our own feelings of cosmic harmony.

Friday, 13 November 2009

We've Come a Long Way: 30 years of American Buddhism

Charles Prebish has a great commentary in the latest issue of BuddhaDharma, discussing his observations of American Buddhism over the past 30 years. The main theme of the commentary is that we've come a long way since the late '70s and things are generally looking very good.

He speaks about our growing connections here in the U.S., not only through greater numbers and more centers, but the internet and great books. One of the things that caught my eye was his statement that American Buddhism:
... has developed, I think, in large part because of the ecumenical cooperation between practitioners and scholars. In a culture that fosters a mostly lay membership, the scholar practitioners have come to fulfill the role of the scholar monks of Asia, generating a Buddhist literacy among current practitioners that is unrivalled anywhere.
This was a point related to my recent presentation at the American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal. There, I spoke about the convergences of the Theravadin Buddhist practice of Metta-bhavana, or "Cultivation of Loving-Kindness" and the Jesuit "Spiritual Exercises."

An excellent question was raised afterward about our ability, as scholars, to put into words what practitioners are actually experiencing. Our presider, John Keenan of Middlebury College, called this the "Elephant in the Room" in contemporary Buddhist Studies. Sure we, as scholars, can argue about the dates of texts or the influences of scholars or events on the development of Buddhism, but can we really get inside the heads of practitioners? I think so.

For one thing, many, such as myself, are scholar-practitioners. So I can speak not only about the use of reflexive pronouns in the Pali texts, but from my own experiences, from those of my teachers and now, as I teach meditation, I can speak about what my own students tell me. If that puts me in the company of greats such as Charles Prebish, Richard Gombrich, and Rupert Gethin, (as well as the bright "young thinkers" mentioned by Prebish: Shannon Wakoh Hickey and Jeff Wilson) then I'm quite happy to be there.

The scholar-practitioner issue was discussed over at Kyle's blog a while back and came up again in comments by the Zennist at the tricycle blog more recently where he wrote, "the wheels of academia move oh so slow where dogma is often prized more than innovation." My own humble experience has been quite the opposite, with academics pushing countless innovations, forcing people to rethink old dogmas again and again.

As the Buddha's own teachings were richly contextual, we need people who study the context of his teachings as well as people who study the context of today to know how and when they should be applied. We should be cautious of believing everything stated by someone just because they hold a Ph.D. (or traditional credentials, for that matter), but it's wise and a sign of healthy humility to grant respect to those who have spent the time to study or practice enough to earn those credentials. Question, but listen first.

Correction (11/13/09, 7:50pm): I had originally stated that John Bullitt was the "respondent" for the panel. It was in fact John Keenan and he was the presider.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Self, No-self, Psychology and Buddhism

Ha! Thanks for that last post Shonin Justin. I just came across the same over at the Tricycle blog. I posted some comments there and then over at my blog, but figured it's good grist for the Progressive Buddhism mill as well.

In the interview, Epstein says, roughly, that the self is real, it's just not really real. Tricycle editors picked up on that in their title:

The self exists, it’s just not as real as you think.

My response(s) follow, slightly edited.
Hmmm… Is that like saying a creator God exists, it’s just not as real as you think? Sounds fishy. Perhaps skillful, but fishy nonetheless.

Sabbe dhamma anatta, all phenomena are not-self. Even nibbana is anatta. And all of samsara is associated with the 5 khandhas, which are the basis for all other dhammas. Where then, lies the self in Buddhism? (hint, next to unicorns and the creator God).

On second thought, yes, the Buddha does make wide use of the term atta as a reflexive pronoun: “nowhere is found one who is dearer than [one]self; in this way for others too the self is dear. Thus one should not harm others who loves [him/her]self.” (Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci; Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ, Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmo’’ti.) fom the Mallika sutta in SN I,3 (#8). But this should be read as making an ethical point rather than a metaphysical one: you [think] you have a self, and it is dear to you; this is also true of others, so develop metta/lovingkindness for all (as you do yourself).

In this way the Buddha uses the term in a practical or conventional manner. When speaking of the true nature of things, though, the above quoted sabbe dhamma anatta, along with anatta as one of the “Marks of Existence” should suggest clearly his teaching of no-self. This is as much of a categorical denial as I can think of. He doesn’t deny the existence of the self to the wanderer Vacchagotta precisely because FOR HIM (this confused Brahmin) it would lead to a belief in annihilationism. So in that instance we have the Buddha’s silence. (SN 44:10)

As for the necessary fiction of self; yes it probably is needed at some level, but at the point of awakening we are said to finally(!) let go of the “asmi mana” the conceit or mania of I AM. I suppose as long as we have the conceit of self, it’s useful to act accordingly :)

I'm curious about the apparent streak of neo-Puggalavadins or Attavadins (those who teach that there is a person, or there is a self) in contemporary Buddhist circles. I suppose it has to do with our cultural fascination with the self: liberating it, actualizing it, helping it. If you're trying to gain self-liberation, self-actualization, or self-help you're probably off on a wild-goose chase. Much like trying to have a conversation with an omniscient, benevolent, creator God.

Check out the Sabbasava sutta. There the Buddha lists 16 unwise reflections:
1. What am I?
2. How am I?
3. Am I?
4. Am I not?
5. Did I exist in the past?
6. Did I not exist in the past?
7. What was I in the past?
8. How was I in the past?
9. Having been what, did I become what in the past?
10. Shall I exist in future?
11. Shall I not exist in future?
12. What shall I be in future?
13. How shall I be in future?
14. Having been what, shall I become what in future?
15. Whence came this person?
16. Whither will he go?
Now, as I mentioned in my first response above, any questioning into the self is thus pretty fishy. BUT, it could perhaps be skillful for some people. Just as in the Tevijja Sutta, where the Buddha tells young Brahmins that he'll teach them "the way to union with Brahma" and in fact teaches them ethics and meditation toward awakening, we perhaps could tell people we'll help them "discover their true self" only to lead them, through ethics and meditation, to the understanding of no-self. I'll leave you with one last snippit from the Pali sources (many thanks to Thanisarro Bhikkhu for compiling some Pali sources on Anatta):
“Monks, where there is a self, would there be (the thought), ‘belonging to
my self’?”
“Yes, lord.”
“Or, monks, where there is what belongs to self, would there be (the thought),
‘my self’?”
“Yes, lord.”
“Monks, where a self or what belongs to self are not pinned down as a truth
or reality, then the view-position—‘This cosmos is the self. After death this I will
be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for
an eternity’—Isn’t it utterly & completely a fool’s teaching?” — MN 22
To say that this is a denial of only a certain kind of self seems to me to miss the point. It's like, to reiterate the above, saying that the Buddha only denied a certain kind of creator God, and thus perhaps there is one after all for Buddhists. Any view of self, it seems, is going to spiral into wasted time and effort trying to understand, fix, help, whatever, it (unless, again, guided by a wise teacher toward the understanding that there is no self). Similarly, views of God can be played with (as in the Tevijja sutta) by the wise, in order to bring others to an understanding of ethics, meditation, and wisdom (aka the Buddha's 3-fold path).

But in the hands of the unwise, people like me, speculation on the self or God is just likely to waste time.. how many gods can dance on the head of a pin? Oh, I'm sorry, that was angels. I'll have to speculate on that in a future post.

Can Buddhism and Psychology Co-Exist?

"Meet a doctor who thinks you can better understand the self by destroying it"

After the confusion about 'annihilating the self' is cleared up this is a very interesting story.

Can Buddhism and Psychology Co-Exist?