Monday, 17 November 2014

A Review of Sam Harris’s new book "Waking Up: A guide to spirituality without religion"

A Few Words Upfront: I had Sam’s new book lounging around downlist on my Kindle when I read Chris Dierkes’s strident objection to The Great Sam in his Soul Interpreter blog. The (usually) Great NellaLou, who blogs Smiling Buddha Cabaret, sent a 'shout out' in praise of Dierkes’s rambling 3700+ word post which he titled “Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit.” I read Sam’s book, promptly, and loved it. So, now, like a Canadian Mountie, I come galloping to the rescue. Hang on, Sammy! Here I come!”
For starters, let it be known that Sam Harris, famously one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism who brought non-belief out of the shadow of Satan’s pitchfork and into prominence and respectability this century, is not a Buddhist any more than he is a follower of any other religion.

From use of the X-Ray feature in my Kindle, I find that in his book, Waking Up, Harris uses the word ‘buddhist’ 20 times. Only once does he use the word in reference to himself, which occurs in Chapter 3, thus [emphases, mine]:
If I were a Christian, I would have undoubtedly interpreted [my experience of “losing me” and no longer being a separate self] in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit. If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the Eternal Self, in which the world and all individual minds are thought to be mere modification. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness” in which all apparent things manifest as if in a dream.”

But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being.
Thus, in one fell swoop the twin towers of Chris Dierkes’s argument collapses. Harris is not a Buddhist and this “his Buddhism” being Bullshit thing is all Dierkes’s Bullshit. And, thus, Dierkes’ long argument on matters dogmatic where Dierkes places in combat Dierkes’s narrow view of what Buddhism is against that which he supposes is Harris’ narrow definition of what Buddhism is is, itself, a battle of smoke against mirrors that dissolves into a calamitous pile of stinky shards of nonsense and piffle.

The truth is that Harris’ book isn’t didactic. And, it doesn’t wander into a briar patch of insolence by turning Buddhist sutras into the inerrant words of some damn floats-on-a-cloud Buddha God. Rather, the book is (mostly) a telling of Harris’s experiences with powerful mind-altering drugs and of many many years practicing meditation techniques intently. His life as someone who has had profound experiences – both blissfully good and (with drugs, not meditation) terrifyingly bad – taking his brain to extreme places acts both as a lure and a warning. But Harris doesn’t preach.

Harris doesn’t tell us what to do; he just explains his rich and oft-times wayward history as a seeker. But he does warn us that he may have been very lucky. Some of his uses of potent drugs could possibly have set him down a corridor to insanity. And while he maintained a skeptical sensibility while being an acolyte of important meditation instructors, other more-vulnerable seekers can easily be taken in my charlatans. Pretending to be a great realized master is easy. Actual enlightened masters are a rarity.

In the Soul Interpreter “…Buddhist Bullshit” essay, a seven-minute Big Think video that Harris is in is ostensibly the object of Dierkes’s derision (though, too, praise for Harris). But Dierkes knows about the new book and should know that limiting his assessment of Harris to the spare and edited words from a short video is an injustice.

Anyway. My assessment of Waking Up is that it is in most ways typical Sam Harris: Earnest and brilliant. I love to read Sam’s words (or hear him on television). He has full control over a formidable vocabulary which he uses to craft clear, well-written text.

One thing Sam does, which for me adds to his charm, but, likely, annoys most others is that, sometimes, he veers wildly off topic for what appears (to me) to be for no particular reason (other than, possibly, he’s an Aspergers geek). In a recent three-hour discussion with Cenk Uygur of the MSNBC show “The Young Turks,” Sam and Cenk got off-track when they veered into debating the not-vitally-important issue of whether or not Mormonism is more impossible to be true in its beliefs than mainstream Christianity. Cent insisted that both Mormonism and mainstream Christianity were completely – and thus, equally – impossible. Sam insisted that mathematicians would back him in his claim that the wacky add-ons that come with Mormonism gave it a boost to a yet higher level of impossibility. Yeah. OK.

In Waking Up, Harris veers off into Strange Geekyville when for what seemed for no good reason, to me, he engages in a long analysis of the recent first-person book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, showing how it is neither a proof of anything nor an honest, diligent record of whatever happened to its author, Dr. Eben Alexander.

I highly recommend Waking Up to Sam Harris lovers and anyone interested in having amazing things happen in their experience of consciousness (which would necessarily include all Progressive Buddhism readers).

Tom Armstrong is a long-time blogger on matters Buddhist and Homeless and was the founder of the Blogisattva Awards in 2006.  He lives in Sacramento, California.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Come Full Circle: A philosophical reading of Shobogenzo's first chapter

1811ed of the Shobogenzo's cover page
Dear readers,

This will be the introduction to an essay that I am writing and will be posting on here to read. I will divide it into several post to not overwhelm you or myself with intense editing and scrolling down the page. It will be a chronological reading and major themes will be discussed mostly in the end. Enjoy.


Dogen Zenji was a Japanese Zen (or Soto Zazen to use Dogen’s preference) monk who lived from 1200-1253. To put this into perspective, the first crusades are coming to a close and the next ones are coming about, Mongols are rallying and Genghis Khan will soon be on the map and China’s intense cultural cultivation is taking place as well. Some of the world is extremely dark during this time, as it is today, but Dogen offers a glimpse into a way of practice that is indistinguishable from any other Zen monk, or thought during this age. He is comparable to Nargarguna to who the major developer of Mahayana Buddhism and the idea of negation—Enlightenment too, must be negated—transcended—emptied—understood transparently, and so on.
            He offers criticism to philosophers of the West who wouldn’t be born for centuries. He an entire two paragraphs just insulting a person who believes there’s a separation from “mind” and “body.” His contradictions are not difficult to spot but offer something greater to the whole picture of the Shobogenzo. This, however, is not what I will want to do in this piece. I am going discuss the first chapter of the Shobogenzo under the premise that it was not a direct speech, sermon, or anything written by Dogen. This came later after the first publication of the Shobogenzo and is, as the title “Bendowa” suggests; it is a dialogue on the practice of Zazen (Zenji 3).
            This chapter culminates the rest of the Shobogenzo because it makes clear claims of the supremacy of the practice of Zazen, and as we shall see, it is incredibly broad for being simply a dialogue on practice; it includes commentary on inclusivism of religious communities, distinction between ‘religious experience’ and methodologies offered by religious traditions then claims that Zazen practice is a precise balance of the two; Dogen also introduces the understanding of specific histories. History as a concept and an important piece in understanding this world is generally absent from Buddhist thought. Recently many Buddhist philosophers, specifically from the Kyoto School have begun conversing with Western philosophers on these important topics. We must see whether Dogen offers any potential in his writing to introduce History as an important concept because in my own Western view, it is an important one, it’s complexity cannot be underestimated, it’s transparency revered, its influenced we must tremble from. I will get more into the topic of History as we move along (Zenji 11, 13, 15).
            There is much more that can be met within the pages to discuss so we must begin. We will begin with the next post.

Book used: Numata’s Center BDK English Tripitaka Series Shobogenzo: the True Dharma-eye Treasury Volume I translation by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Buddha-Nature--and Not-Buddha-Nature

Zen, like other Mahayana schools of Buddhism, has at its core Buddha Nature. Tagathagarbha is one word associated with Buddha Nature, as in the womb of the "thus-come." Dharmadhatu sometimes comes into play also, as in the Buddha-realm, the Absolute Reality, the Dharmakaya.

But getting back to Buddha Nature....We often hear phrases such as, "You're already Buddha," or, "You're perfect just as you are" (and Suzuki-Roshi wisely added, 'And you need a little work.')" So, am I perfect just as I am? Am I really already Buddha, or a Buddha, or what? If I'm already Buddha, then you must also be Buddha, and everyone else is, so who are all these Sentient Beings we Bodhisattvas are supposed to be saving anyway?

The good news is, just like Chao-chou's dog, we have Buddha Nature (Mu notwithstanding). But just what exactly is that? I certainly don't feel like Buddha. Not feeling particularly awakened this morning. My thus-come-ness just hasn't come today. (Why is it always late?!?) Innately, yes we are Buddha. We have the potential for awakening, we have the Nature of a Buddha within, just as a seed has the nature of becoming a flower within. But a seed is a seed, and a flower is a flower. You are in the womb of the Buddhas, just waiting to be awaked. We can all become enlightened, of conducting our lives fully in the Dharma Field (not that we aren't already, maybe we just don't realize it).

But if you've read any of the biographies of the Buddha, if you've read any of the old Suttas and legends, it becomes very apparent that even Gautama had a lot of work to do before he woke up as the Buddha. Now granted, he only had unenlightened teachers wandering the forests in his time, so he had to do the work on his own, without the aid of the glut of books we have today with his name, Zen, or mindfulness in their titles. (No wonder it took six years!)

Just because we've heard the term "Buddha Nature," and think it sounds kinda cool--who wouldn't want to be a Buddha--and maybe we think that we're living in reality, already in the Dharmadhatu.The fact that we become puffed-up about being Buddha, or thinking it's cool, maybe that it makes us a little special, at least more special than those poor bastards who've never heard that they're already Buddha--all these things make us "not-the-Buddha," at least for this moment. (That's as impermanent as anything else, give or take 84,000 kalpas or so).

We're already living in the Dharma-field, all dharmas are Buddhadharmas, but that includes the dharmas that we still struggle, we still have greed, and anger, and delusion, and aversions, and while they're all very un-awakened qualities and practices, we do indeed have that germ that may sprout into Buddhahood, that actual point at which we're doing right more than wrong, we're doing more good than not, being helpful more than turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. A teacher of mine once referred to Buddha-Nature as what's there...underneath all the layers of crap (karma) we've gathered onto ourselves.

But Suzuki-Roshi had it right. There is work to be done! Don't think that since we're already Buddha, why bother practicing? Dogen already did that math a lot of centuries ago, and his school (Soto) practices "just sitting." Rigorous sitting at that, in fact. And if, in fact, there is no attainment to be done, and nothing to attain, doesn't mean we've already not-attained not-it. A few lines later in the Heart Sutra we find out that all Buddhas depend on prajnaparamita and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi--Unexcelled Perfect Enlightenement.So get on the cushion, then get off the cushion, and BE Buddha, not just rest on your laurels THINKING you're Buddha and being sloppy about life and practice. Do the work! (Save a sentient being or two while you're at it, even if there are no beings, and no saving to be done, OK?)

Deep bows to you, Buddha.