Monday, March 27, 2006

The Buddha Dogma

Here's another one from the archives. I hope you guys like it.

Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many.
Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it.
Gautama Buddha, Kalama Sutta

My aim is always to practice zen with my eyes and mind open as it were, since there seems to be a human tendency towards religiosity, ideology and dogma - a tendency to become partial and to develop rigid ideas, to conform and engage in 'group-think'. Why shouldn't that apply to Zen? The last thing I want to do is become another religious nut. Sometimes I think I see Zen practitioners seemingly getting very attached to the trappings of Zen and I wonder if that's helpful. I try to just be my ordinary self and to assume as little as possible about Zen. I don't assume that Soto Zen is always the best way. For example, sitting in the lotus position works well for me, although I do get 'pins and needles' in one foot after a while and if I'm sitting for a long time I get tense, painful shoulders. Perhaps I'm doing it wrong. Perhaps there are better ways of doing zazen. There's no reason to imagine that there's anything magical about the posture - anything that allows us to remain motionless, alert and quiet for a long time without too much tension or pain fits the bill. For all I know Mike Cross and Pierre Turlur might be right - maybe the Alexander Technique is better. I don't know, I've never tried it.

One criticism that gets levelled at Zen quite a bit is that it does not emphasise direct cultivation of compassion. The justification I've heard for this is that trying to act compassionate or cultivate compassion when it isn't sincere is artificial and hence a distortion of our true selves. We cannot force ourselves to act and feel compassionate. I think there is some truth in this. I have met Buddhists that have the same sort of forced over-sincerity and over-niceness that many Christians seem to have. To try to do this seems to be a recipe for repression and self-deception and that can't be healthy. This is borne out by my own earliest experiences with Buddhism.

I originally came across Mahayana Buddhism some years ago as an undergraduate. I was very intrigued by the philosophy and seemed to get some benefit from meditation practice, but I had reservations about it: I found nothing to make me accept the notion that we will be reborn when we die, it all seemed like wishful thinking and not very well thought out and I wasn't keen on all that devotion to Boddhisatvas and so on. I'm a healthily sceptical and logical person, and I'd spent far too long debating with Christian apologists to accept such ideas on faith.

Some of the practice seemed insincere - I felt I was trying to make myself be nice and compassionate and serene, when in fact deep down I usually felt quite different. Was it because I was a beginner? Was I being badly taught? Or was it inherent in the teaching? It was as if I was meant to sprinkle sugar on top of all the 'negative' but real feelings I had and as such seemed to be encouraging me to regard my true feelings as unacceptable and thus repress them and replace them with something more 'wholesome' but less sincere.

The Zen approach is careful self-observation through the practice of Zazen so that the attachments of the 'personal self' are eroded away leaving a nature which is selfless and naturally compassionate.

It's an interesting theory, and it certainly seems likely to avoid artifice, but I don't know to what extent it would cultivate compassion. Without a personal self is our nature really more compassionate? There are enough stories of abuse by American 'Zen Masters', support for Japanese pre-war imperialism by Japanese roshi and use of Zen by samurai as a tool of violence to give me some doubts about that. It's for this reason that I supplement my Zazen with Metta Bhavana meditation. In the context of self-awareness and an attitude of acceptance I really think it is possible to cultivate compassion without the problems I described above.

The reason that I practice Soto Zen is mainly because it is light on metaphysical, philosophical and supernatural speculation. There are no Boddhisatvas to pray to or magical sutras to chant for good karma. For obvious reasons you do need to have confidence in the practice, but that's about it. The practice is very down-to-earth, 'stripped down' and simple. Its not about believing or disbelieving, it's about paying attention to the actuual reality of here and now. Being a natural sceptic, that suits me fine. Of course, to practice Soto Zen formally you have to do it in a certain way. You have to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and try your best to live according to the Buddhist precepts. Practice involves certain rituals, if you are ordained you should wear a rakusu, a kesa etc when you're at the zendo. Beyond that it doesn't really matter what you think (if anything) about the afterlife or karma etc.

Another thing I try to remain agnostic about is the nature of Enlightenment. I think its important not to idealise it or pin hopes on it. To me, 'Enlightenment' is just being fully present without many of the illusions and delusions that cause us suffering, such as a sense of a separate self.

Now, these provisional personal views are all part of a process of personal investigation, not dissimilar to scientific investigation, although exploring subjective areas which are difficult for science to access. Nevertheless, there are a number of scientific studies which provide compelling evidence for many claims made about Buddhist practice.

This empirical approach is also encouraged in the Kalama Sutta (quoted above), not that I needed Buddha to give me permission not to take him as an absolute authority, but it's just as well that this sutta exists since the tendency to religiosity an to represent Buddha as an omniscient god-like figure is strong in Buddhism. Those words at least give independent-mindedness a fighting chance.

Some Buddhists use the Right View/Right Understanding principle of the Eightfold Path as a club to hit free-thinkers over the head with. I don't have beliefs in rebirth after death or karma (as traditionally described) and am accused sometimes of not being a 'real Buddhist'. Apart from the fact that I don't care whether these people consider me a real Buddhist or not (in a sense its a relief if they don't) as far as I'm concerned rebirth and karma are merely the philosophical backdrop against which Buddha had his realisations. He did not originate these concepts - they were standard Vedic beliefs, which most people in India at that time accepted without much questioning. All Buddha did was modify the concept of reincarnation to rebirth to attempt accomodate his principle of anatta - the absence of inherent self. He also did not refute the existence of gods, although he described them as limited beings, subject to birth and death like everyone else and discouraged reliance upon them.

To suppose that Buddha was omniscient is an extraordinary claim for which there is no evidence. It's not even something that he claimed about himself. How could he possibly have known what happens before and after people die. Modern, well-educated, rational people who are scientifically literate may realise that visions or apparent memories about such matters do not constitute good evidence any more than they provide good evidence of Satanic child abuse or the existence of spirits or elves or extraterrestrials. Buddha did not have the benefits of a 21st century education. And for me at least, the notion of rebirth after death is rendered redundant by moment-to-moment rebirth ie. a realisation of no inherent self.

As far as I'm concerned, Buddha's key and original insights were interdependence/emptiness and causes of suffering and the method of liberation from it. It is an understanding of these principles which constitutes Right Understanding.

And what, monks, is right understanding? Knowledge with regard to sadness, knowledge with regard to the origination of sadness, knowledge with regard to the stopping of sadness, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the stopping of sadness: This, monks, is called right understanding.
Magga-vibhanga Sutta, An Analysis of the Path

An author I can really recommend on the topic of agnostic Buddhism is Stephen Batchelor especially his book Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Now, before anyone misunderstands me, I'm not suggesting that Buddhism is whatever you want it to be. It has a good breadth of interpretation, from the most rational and science-friendly to the most religious. There are sects which insist on belief in karma and rebirth and sects for which such metaphysical speculation is redundant. But there comes a point where it will stop being Buddhism and start being something else.

Buddhism can become just another 'virus of the mind', but used well it can be the remedy.

There are two systems I know of that are capable of dismantling meme-complexes (though I am sure there are others). Of course these systems are memes themselves but they are, if you like, meme-disinfectants, meme-eating memes, or "meme-complex destroying meme-complexes". These two are science and Zen.
Susan Blackmore

You can read more about the Kalama Sutra here:

Apologies to Brad Warner and to Trey Parker and Matt Stone for blatant theft of their artistic ideas.


At March 27, 2006, Blogger gniz said...

I found this commentary to be refreshing and well-written.
It is nice to read thought out, clear and concise reasoning for why someone practices what they practice.
All too often people are simply regurgitating the theories of their teachers, passages of books, etc, without any real knowledge.
And on top of that, many times they have poor reasoning skills.
I firmly believe that Buddhism and Yoga as well as Mormonism and Born Agains can all be lumped in together when it comes to the kind of phony baloney, pie in the sky, smiling like you are recieving a constant injection of pure heroin nonsense that goes on.
Enough with all the bullshit smiling, laughing like children, etc etc.
God damn, tell me something helpful. We live in the real world. Make some sense. Speak from experience, be honest.
This post did all of that, and of course, was a rare find because of these qualities.


At March 27, 2006, Blogger karen said...

Thank you Justin for this post. What you describe is exactly why I took to Buddhism. I also couldn't agree more with gniz.

At March 27, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Good post.

On compassion I think it is better that it is NOT practiced. Compassion arises naturally as Me-You duality fades and the ego shrinks.

I have seen in both Buddhist and Christian circles people who practice being "compassionate" and the results can be cringingly bad.

I think there is a very simple reason for this. True compassion arises only out of the moment and it does not have an agenda and it does not recognise itself as compassion. Instead it is just one person responding naturally to the suffering of another person.

In contrast "being compassionate" is a somewhat contrived thing which is you responding to what you think is the suffering of another because you think that you should. It often arises when you think you can understand and relate to the suffering of another.

The key difference between these two is that one is egoless and one is ego driven.

Sometimes the compassionate thing may be to do nothing and say nothing. This is not territory that the ego will like.

At March 27, 2006, Blogger me said...

So what about those precepts? It seems to me they're a sticking point for many western, skeptical, scientific, anti-dogma buddhists...

I've thought that they are more like a list of ways that Buddhists behave, once they've really gotten into the whole 'be here and now' thing. I mean, if you are really aware, how can you eat an animal without some grief?

Or, if you are really aware, how can you willingly screw up that awareness with intoxicants?

But putting them out there, like a list of commandments, really seems to be a stumbling block. Naturally there will be all sorts of Buddhists following those precepts who don't really want to follow them. They're just acting that way because they want to be good Buddhists, or whatever... they're pretending to be Buddhists.

Makes me doubt the wisdom of those 'masters' who fail to make this distinction.

At March 27, 2006, Blogger gniz said...

I get the idea (i think) behind the precepts. The more calm my life is, the less strife and drama, the easier to pay attention and the more calm my mind.
So, if the precepts aid me in attaining a calmer mind than perhaps they help me to pay more attention.
I personally dont follow the precepts. I try in my own way to see what is creating drama and to stop doing those things. I think just paying attention will bring the clarity that is needed.
But precepts could be of help i guess...if used in the right way.

At March 27, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Thanks for the positive feedback folks.

Cultivating and practicing compassion is an important part of Buddhism IMO - an enlightenment of the heart rather than just enlightenment of the head. (But what do I know?) It is possible to cultivate compassion without faking it, but it's tricky - like walking a tightrope.

I don't have a problem with the principle of the precepts. And I try to stick to them although in most cases I would live that way anyway.

They are guidelines for ethical living - principles for a life conducive to effective practice for enlightenment. Once we have cultivated enough wisdom (and compassion!) then we should act wisely and compassionately without them.

Without precepts I think the Buddhist communities would have been screwed up by a few students behaving just as they wanted. Its human nature.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger RepeatDose said...

'For all I know Mike Cross and Pierre Turlur might be right - maybe the Alexander Technique is better. I don't know, I've never tried it.'

You misrepresent Cross and Turlur. Cross, as I understand it, does not say that AT is 'better' than zazen, only that through the practice of AT he was able to come closer to the truth of zazen.

Beneath all the name-calling on Cross' blog, there was a genuine critique of dogen sangha buddhism which, I feel made some valid points e.g. Cross' criticism of the reductivist conception of samadhi as described as the 'balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.'

Buddhism is a practice with a sense of criticism at its core. The Buddha exorted his followers to look at his teachings critically. More recently Brad Warner's book Hardcore Zen urged readers to 'question reality.'Cross has said a lot of things, but he has never asserted the superiority of AT over zazen. Moreover, he makes serious criticisms of Dogen Sangha Buddhism, criticisms which are by no means going against the spirit of the practice.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

If I misrepresented Cross' POV it was purely due to my misunderstanding of it. His comments about AT liberating him from the rigidness of traditional zazen posture (or at least as taught by Gudo Nishijima) gave me the impression that he regarded AT to be superior, in terms of posture.

As I've been taught, the ideal zazen posture isn't rigid, but upright and relaxed.

I had an email exchange with Gudo Nishijima about three years ago which was very helpful, although I too found his theory about balanced nervous system to be unconvincing and perhaps missing the bigger point. I'm also not convinced by the accuracy of his idiosyncratic 'S.O.A.R' interpretation of the Shobogenzo. But this would take deserve a couple of new threads (at least) to discuss and I'm not sure what it would achieve.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger Brad said...

I always find it interesting when people get upset about Nishijima's supposed "reductionist" ideas about Samadhi. It's tremendously disappointing to have our fantasies about Great Awakening questioned like that. That's certainly the way I felt about it when I first heard it. It's certainly far more comforting to say that guys like Nishijima are charlatans and the Masters who promise us bigger things must be the real deal.

But think about this. What is the nervous system anyway? Seriously. You think you know what the nervous system is. It's part of the body. Fibers, tissues, vessels. Boring stuff. You know all about the body. You want the promise of something bigger, better, more mystical, more far out. Not the boring old body. You want something you can dream about, aspire to, hope for in the future. Something to reach for. Something to gain.

But what is the nervous system? Isn't the nervous system actually something very mystical, ineffible? What is your body? What is your mind? I mean right now. This mind. Not some future mind in the Enlightened State. Not some far away Samadhi. Not the deep insights of the Ancient Sages. What is this, right here?

This is what's real brothers and sisters. Miss out on this and you have, quite literally, missed out on everything.

What a shame.

But if you'd rather chase after the Big Samadhi in the Sky, go ahead. Be my guest.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger nobody said...

The only thing I sometimes find missing from the Zen approach to meditation / zazen (I personally use the terms interchangeably, though some, I think Brad being one of them, distinguish the former as referring to a different class of practices) is any addressing of meditative bliss.

I understand why in Zen, chasing after any particular state is discouraged. If Zen meditation (zazen) focused on cultivating bliss, then it would be useless in cultivating anything that could be "carried over" into regular, daily activity. I think zazen as it is traditionally taught does indeed stand as the most important spiritual practice we could do: learning how to settle in and receive with full attention and a loving heart what is here.

But while I deeply appreciate zazen for what it is, I find that sometimes, on the occasional day of having a very calm mind to begin with while going into zazen, bliss states start to arise naturally. And being fortunate enough to have read about the different meditative absorptions as taught by the O. B. (Original Buddha) and Theravadin tradition, I know how to encourage such states to deepen if they are arising naturally.

This is a very rare thing, and I'm glad of it for many of the reasons I state above: if my time on the cushion was all about feeling formless bliss, then it would be pretty worthless for anything other than being another source of pleasureable stimulation. But I also think it's a really nice thing to cultivate and experience every once in a while. Not only is it nice to experience a pleasure deeper than any other I've experienced (such as the enjoyment of a good meal or good sex), but it has the practical function as well of reducing craving for other forms of pleasureable stimulation. It also opens up deeper levels of calm that allow for meditative insight.

This meditative bliss is simply a result of concentration, and a lot of traditions have addressed it. But it seems like it's almost a taboo in Zen--that there's this wariness of anything pleasureable, that zazen is supposed to be difficult, stoic. I deeply appreciate how I've learned to welcome and be present with my own pain, physical or emotional, through zazen, and think that is more valuable than bliss--but I don't think this means that bliss or pleasureable states need to be ignored or put down.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger Justin said...


Who got upset? (not a koan)

I appreciate and agree with your down-to-earth emphasis on the here-and-now rather than a glorious imagined future enlightenment. And I think it's a good thing that Gudo Nishijima is interested in the scientific aspects of Zen. I'm just not convinced by this explanation, which is not to say that I don't think that Zen has a biological 'basis'.

Being a Zen master doesn't make Gudo Nishijima an expert on neurobiology, so I'm curious as to why you're prepared to take him at his word.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

nobody: There is nothing wrong with bliss. It sometimes happens as a result of meditation.

What I have seen happen is that some people get hooked on this bliss. Even more worryingly(!) some people believe that continual bliss in enlightenment is possible (I have grave doubts on this).

From my limited knowledge of neurophysiology I am willing to bet that Bliss is experienced when Serotonin levels in the body are higher than normal. This can be achieved either by increase in the rate of serotonin production or by a temporary increased sensitivity to serotonin that is already there. Either way, neither is physically sustainable AFAIC for too long before the body goes back to 'normal'. Desensitisation sets in and/or Serotonin production falls.

FWIW I think 'normal' is somewhere around 'mellow'. Stimulants and depressants - coffee, tobacco, alcohol etc can all have a big effect here.

As for Gudo Nishijima and the theories of the ANS. I have my own views on it, but that they too are worthless.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

I don't see anyone getting particularily upset.

I personally don't have any problem with a reductionist approach. For Awakening to be real it has to have an answer that could be found in either psychology and/or physiology.
Nagarjuna, Huang Po and others all suggest psychology to me.

As for Gudo Nishijima's views on the ANS, those are just views. I do not know if they are his own speculations or if he has some deeper personal knowledge of them.

It might be fair to say that the ANS returning to balance (I prefer Harmony BTW) is a natural consequence of prolonged relaxation (eg Zazen) and also a natural consequence of Awakening. Note I would suggest consequence rather than cause. Although in biological terms consequence and cause could easily be reversed.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

On honesty I think it is better that it is NOT practiced. Honesty arises naturally as Me-You duality fades and the ego shrinks.

At March 28, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

In my opinion, the problem with the "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude to Zen is that it devolves into a refined form of egotism. One is practicing to become a better person -- not much better than hitting the gym every day. In Tibetan Buddhism they say practice starts with a genuine renunciation of the aims of this life. But how do you do that if you think that this life is all there is?

At March 28, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Did anyone express an opinion about whether 'this life is all there is'? A 'believe it when you see it' attitude was to a large extent encouraged by Buddha.

Are the aims of Buddhism 'better' (more holy, more glorious, more important) than 'hitting the gym every day'? Can that ever be more than a value judgement? And is that really the point?

At March 29, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

"I'll believe it when I see it" is accepting thing as they *really* are rather than as you would like to believe them to be - and where there is uncertainty, accept the uncertainty. There is no need for belief at all except of a provisional kind. This is the foundation of science and Zen alike.

At March 29, 2006, Blogger RepeatDose said...

As many have pointed out Brad, no one is upset about Nishijima's views on samadhi, they are merely questioning them.

Every definition is a circumscription: if samadhi is this, it is not that. Nishijima's theory is a biological one; there is no room for the 'mystical' or the 'ineffable' in science.

Do we need to define samadhi at all? Why attempt to render the ineffable effable? The definition, once hatched, becomes just another view which we must relinquish.

At March 29, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

"As many have pointed out Brad, no one is upset about Nishijima's views on samadhi"

well actually mike cross seems pretty angry about it


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