Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Is Buddhism a religion ? II

The subject matter of Buddhism is this entire phenomenon that we call 'our life', 'existence', 'reality' etc. As such, it includes all particular values or beliefs - one god, many gods or no god; good and evil; religion and non-religion; Materialism and Idealism; Dualism and Monism; spiritual and non-spiritual; existence and non-existence; unity and multiplicity; the all and the individual. Nothing is excluded. How can we say it is any particular thing?

Yet when we practice by sitting we are still sitting and when we practice by walking we are still walking. So, when we practice by practicing Buddhism we are still practicing Buddhism and Buddhism is generally regarded as a religion. So, at a conventional level it seems acceptable to refer to Buddhism as a religion of sorts.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Role of the Bodhisattva

Yesterday I received a call from my daughter who explained to me through tears that she was afraid to go home because her dog, which has been a bone of contention between her and her boyfriend, had somehow managed to pull her boyfriend's Playstation cord, earpiece and something that you hold in your hand, into its kennel and chewed it to pieces. My daughter adopted "Lady" a year ago without too much background information on her and was totally in love with the dog. Shortly after the adoption, Lady began to show separation anxiety and on one occasion destroyed all of the curtains, blinds and many of the carpets in the house. After doing some detective work, we found out that Lady is what is called a "lurcher". She is a mix between a greyhound and a coonhound. In the state that we live in there are illegal games that involve groups of people who own "lurchers" and they have them trained to kill raccoons. A raccoon is trapped and released for the dogs to chase and kill. Whoever owns the lurcher that kills the raccoon first wins the pot of money that was placed on the dogs. Lady was picked up from the side of a road after apparently being dumped because these dogs are commonly abandoned when their racing/hunting days are over. We understood that this dog may need special treatment and proceeded from there to try and help her. Private trainers were called and helped with some of the basics. But Lady was hostile to other dogs and would move to go after anything small that moved quickly, including my three year old grandson and my own dog, cats and birds. Still, to adults and especially my daughter she was very lovable. She continued to destroy things when she could and was placed on tranquilizers to help her stay calm. She was not a young dog and recently developed some kidney problems. My daughters boyfriend was not raised with the same attitude as my daughter towards animals, but he tried to tolerate the misbehavior. After the Playstation incident, he blew. After talking for many hours with me and taking into account that the dog had developed an illness, my daughter decided, not without reservation, to put the dog down. That was done this morning. What does this have to do with the role of a bodhisattva? I learned something today. Many times I have read what we called at the temple I used to attend "The Way of the Bodhisattva." In this prayer, one wishes to become whatever is needed to relieve the suffering of the multitudes. Today I understood, very clearly, the role of the bodhisattva and the state of mind of the person who wrote the prayer (attributed to Shantideva, I think). More than anything in the world, I wanted to remove the suffering of my daughter, who cried most of the day. And her boyfriend, who has very little compassion towards animals. And for Lady, who by all accounts had probably one good year in her life. I wished that this had happened to me instead of to her. I know I could have handled it. I wished for Lady to be reborn into a higher realm, even though my ideas about such things are not rock solid. I wished it anyway. I was also filled with gratitude to have been exposed to what I think is the heart of Buddhism, the wish for all beings to be free from suffering. I feel silly in a way to be writing about this, but it struck my heart as a clear message. I am indebted to all those who have gone before me that have opened a way that for me expresses that which is the highest in the human realm, the opening of one heart to another and the wish for liberation for all beings.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Mother's Advice

Jiun, a Shingon master, was a well-known Sanskrit scholar of the Tokugawa era. When he was young he used to deliver lectures to his brother students.

His mother heard about this and wrote him a letter:

"Son, I do not think you became a devotee of the Buddha because you desired to turn into a walking dictionary for others. There is no end to information and commentation, glory and honor. I wish you would stop this lecture business. Shut yourself up in a little temple in a remote part of the mountain. Devote your time to meditation and in this way attain true realization."

#20 of 101 Zen stories transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps

Monday, May 22, 2006

Gudo's replies to comments appeared

I'd like to tell everyone that by accident I found out today that roshi Nishijima actually replied to almost all comments there were at his blog. Most of you guys probably visit his blog and you know that he never replied to comments until he finished his first part about Buddhism and said Now you can ask questions. So today I found that he also replied to almost all comments there were in all his previous posts.
If you don't know this, you can go there and find replies to your own comments.

What happened to Brad's website and blog is a mystery to me but I think it will be explained soon. It is also true that we cannot replace our life with someone's articles but Buddhist teaching, when it is authentic, can inspire our real life. Anyway, just inspire, not replace.

A reply to: 'Buddhist Retreat, Why I gave up on finding my religion', By John Horgan

Original article

This article was first published in 2003. Seemingly it is John Horgan's previous dabbling with Buddhism which qualifies him to criticise what he claims it represents, but Buddhism is very difficult to understand and many spend their lives following or reacting against misunderstandings of it. While I don't claim to fully understand it myself I certainly understand it better than John Horgan, so I'm going to respond to his criticisms.

Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the "G" word.

Something appearing (naively) to be 'functionally theistic' is not the same as it being theistic. Buddhists rely on their own effort for salvation not the mercy of imaginary beings. Anyway, there do appear to be some functional benefits to theism. Why else would it have evolved and become so dominant as a biological tendency and a cultural phenomenon? Those who are engaged in organised religion are happier and healthier than those who are not. Perhaps organised religion is also good for the moral welfare of nations. Buddhism, it would seem, gives the same benefits as theism without having to rely on faith to believe in the literal existence of beings which are really (at best) unknowable.

Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.

Buddhism teaches rebirth rather than reincarnation and the difference is not just in name. In Hinduist reincarnation, a permanent self ('Atman') is incarnated in body after body like someone changing their clothes. Buddha denied that such a permanent self exists. With Buddhist rebirth there is no entity to be reborn, just effects following on from causes just as in ordinary existence. Some actions lead to bad consequences and some lead to good consequences. There is no need for judgement. Admittedly traditional Buddhism does not necessarily have the same notions of what actions lead to bad conseqences as modern westerners, but that is really just a difference of detail. If someone kills an insect I don't believe that that will lead to bad consequences - except in so far as cruelty may be cause of unhappiness or unless the insect is a killer bee. Nevertheless it is true that some actions are in the interests of my future happiness and some are against the interests of my future happiness.

The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.

If the aim of meditation in Buddhism was relaxation, then Horgan might have a point. However, the aim of meditation is the elimination of suffering and there is good evidence that meditators are happier. And what worthwhile activity is free from challenges and difficulties?

The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does.

Anatta is not the principle that there is no self at all. Anatta is the principle that there is no unchanging, permanent self. And this is indeed borne out by neuroscience which reveals a mind that is a series of massively parallel and constantly changing processes. There is not even a single central 'place' where all our perceptions and experiences meet.

Even if you achieve a blissful acceptance of the illusory nature of your self, this perspective may not transform you into a saintly bodhisattva, brimming with love and compassion for all other creatures. Far from it—and this is where the distance between certain humanistic values and Buddhism becomes most apparent. To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints. Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous.

It seems presumptious to suggest that not absolutely accepting the relatively new (by the standards of Buddhism) ethical philosophy of Humanism is unacceptable. Nevertheless, I agree with Horgan in so much as that being a senior member of the Buddhist clergy is no guarantee of compassionate behaviour. As for whether Buddhism leads to compassion on the whole, I simply don't know. But again, the final aim of Buddhism is not compassion but elimination of suffering.

What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes, "when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its [transcendent] experiences." Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom.

I agree that some such abuses have happened. People who act like this I would suggest have an incomplete understanding of Buddhism as amoral. It is foolish to excuse such behaviour on the grounds that being 'beyond good and evil' makes you immune to moral culpability. Many sociopaths could be described as internally 'beyond good and evil' in a similar way.

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.

Lots of Zen Buddhists are agnostic. It doesn't matter what you believe in Zen with regards to metaphysical notions. I would say that when you are agnostic about your agnosticism - when you don't even believe your own thoughts, whether they be beliefs or doubts - then you are enlightened.

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Science has never shown that we are accidental in the way described. The chance of this universe having properties suitable for the formation of complex matter, let alone life, let alone intelligent life by chance alone is so small that it is barely worth considering. The only known explanations for this are the various sorts of Anthropic Principle or various sorts of creation myths. All of these explanations require that in some sense conscious beings are a necessary part of the universe.

The Buddhist view in my mind is quite close to the Anthropic Principle not in the sense that the universe was created for the benefit of mankind or with the purpose of creating mankind, but that what we think of a 'the universe' cannot really be separated from what we think of as 'ourselves'. Any belief in a fundamental separation would be very difficult to defend scientifically and would be correctly understood to be a metaphysical belief.

Friday, May 19, 2006

shake, rattle & roll?

In a recent post on his blog, Brad wrote: "This is why I think Buddhism in America desperately needs to be shaken up and radically changed." Huh? I'm not at all sure that's a desperate need at all. Maybe I'm selfish or myopic, but having just recently found a group of Zen practitioners to sit with, it appears to me that the state of Zen Buddhism is fine and dandy.

Brad's assertion, which sorta just hangs there, is one of those enigmatic statements that begs to be explained, and I hope he will, if not on his blog, then in his next book. Buddhism itself has been around long enough that for one person to assert that it needs to be "shaken up and radically changed" seems a bit harsh. I'd love to hear the reasons.

I might agree that there are systems of thought that need to be shaken up, but I'd hope that that shake-up would lead to a serious consideration of Zen Buddhism, as it is, rather than a shake-up of Zen itself.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is Buddhism a Religion?

One from the crypt...

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my answer to this question is both 'no' and 'yes'.

From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary:

religion • noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

The enlightenment of Gautama Buddha was not a religious revelation. The order of monks that he established was not established to worship gods or even to achieve mystical union with them. The teachings of course included references to accepted religious and philosophical ideas - gods, rebirth and karma. But Buddha encouraged self-reliance over worship of the gods; he argued that all beings were subject to causal laws; he insisted that his path was for those who had such beliefs and for those who didn't. Buddhism is not a belief in a supernatural power. Buddhism is not about having beliefs - rather it is supposed to be a freedom from all views and a middle path between extreme views. The core of Buddhism is an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, rather than any particular view on the afterlife or existence of divine beings.

However, Buddhism is of course classified as one of the major world religions and witnessing a Buddhist ceremony you would be likely to find many parallels and similarities with Christianity or Judaism. Millions of Buddhists around the world leave offerings for gods and spirits and dead saints. They have a belief in an afterlife which is supported by ancient dogma and many Buddhists, including Western converts argue for a need for faith and conformity to the Buddha Dharma. So, to some it might seem difficult to argue that Buddhism is not a religion like all the others.

It seems that the tendency to form religious belief systems is inherent in human nature. And to a fair extent this is what seems to have happened to Buddhism. Beliefs in spirits, gods,karma and rebirth/reincarnation were the cultural context that Buddhism arose in, and belief in these often constitutes what passes for Buddhism. Buddhism originated in a culture in which reincarnation, karma and the existence of gods were the standard explanations of the world we see. Even though Buddha often spoke in terms of such metaphysical explanations, Buddha's core insights (Dependent Origination, Anatta, Four Noble Truths) were not dependent on them.

Faith is important in Buddhism, but only in the sense that it is necessary to have confidence in the teachings, confidence built on personal experience and insight, like a climber's faith in his ropes and in the force of gravity. It's not the same as the blind faith in supernatural forces that characterises much Abrahamic religion and which they turn into a virtue. There are faith-based disciples and truth-based disciples of the Buddha and there are teachings appropriate for 'Eternalists' (those who believe in an eternal self) and for 'Annihilationists' (those who believe that the self is annihilated at death).

The reverence of Boddhisatvas seems to be a characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism which was not in the original Theravada practice.

What we know mainly by the name of 'Zen' in the West was far more minimalistic than previous forms of Buddhism, being much more focussed on the practice of meditation. Perhaps its development was a response to a Buddhism which consisted largely of giving offerings and prayers to gods and Boddhisatvas for good karma, chanting, memorisation of sutras.

There is a famous story of when Bodhidharma arrived in China after having sat in meditation in a cave for nine years.

Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Di, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Bodhidharma (in 520 A.D.). During their initial meeting, Wu Di asked Bodhidharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds for building numerous temples and endowing monasteries throughout his empowered territory. Bodhidharma replied, "None at all." Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?" "Vast emptiness," was the bewildering reply. "Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?" "I have no idea," Bodhidharma replied. With this, Bodhidharma was banished from the Court.

An idea that Richard Dawkins proposes in his books is that of memes as a basis for cultural evolution in analogy with genes and this idea is further developed by thinkers such as Susan Blackmore and others. I think its a compelling argument, but exactly what the physical basis is of a meme is, is more ambiguous than the parallel case of genetic evolution. Dawkins proposes that many cultural entities can be seen as widespread simply because they are 'memeplexes'/meme-complexes, which are good at reproducing. He describes religions in this way, describing them as a 'virus of the mind'. They are not necessarily 'true' and not necessarily serving the best interests of the 'host', just prevalent because they are good at spreading. I recommend reading Dawkins' books to fully understand the argument, but this article is a good introduction.

I find this argument an interesting way to explain some of the features of religion eg. the raising of blind faith over evidence to a virtue, but needless to say I can only see it as part of the truth.

These arguments are further developed by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. Interestingly Blackmore is a long-time practitioner of Zen. And she presents Zen with its detachment from belief and thought, its iconoclasm and 'kill the Buddha!' proclamations is really a memetic 'antiseptic' rather than a meme. I was persuaded that this was not just a matter of personal bias on her part although I'd suggest (and did by email) that Zen could be seen as an antidote to memes which is itself wrapped in a memeplex of its own. The 'raft' of the dharma is the memeplex, but Buddhism (correctly understood) aknowledges the provisional nature of this cultural vehical.

As you can see I tend to regard the religious aspects of contemporary Buddhism as rather dogmatic and unhealthy. While declining slightly in many parts of Asia, Buddhism is on the rise in the West - in some regions eg. Australia, Scotland and South-West England census data suggests that it is the fastest growing religion ('Jedi' doesn't count as an officially recognised religion, sorry :)). The two most popular sects are Tibetan and Zen. I'd suggest that many people drawn to Buddhism are are attracted by its anti-dogmatic traits compared with Christianity which has been on a slow decline in these areas for many years. Buddhism is in a process of adaptation for the west and I'd suggest that this is a good opportunity to cast off some of the dogmatic and religious baggage it has aquired on its travels.

I'm not the first westerner to suggest this of course - here are some links to individuals who are cutting away the cultural trappings in one way or another to reach through to the essenceless essence of Buddhism:

Brad Warner
Stephen Batchelor
Christopher Calder

Weirdo British Zen Masters

It seems that Brad Warner has a small problem. He is trying to figure out how to continue putting out his good words for the nice people who truly appreciate them, without having to deal with the undesirables that might not. (He has just posted a new item on his Hardcore Zen Blog). Brad likes having his posts read. What Brad apparently doesn't like is having people comment on the content of his writing. He has mentioned more than once what a big hassle that was. He believes his responders were mistaken in their belief that they were giving him feedback. He thinks they were merely using his blog of deep thoughts as a gathering place to chat! Commenting on his words was nothing but silly idle talk. He has said he doesn't want to have to chaperone that kind of scene anymore. It was difficult for him to keep things properly respectful when he was in a serious teaching mood. He has also mentioned more than once that if someone wants to set up a blog which is about his "Hardcore Zen" site, they would have his blessing. Hint, hint.. He said he might even link to it. That way his writing could be read and discussed without him having to suffer the indignity of interacting with oddballs. We would be on our own to figure it all out. So don’t expect him to even read what others are saying about his writing. “I won't read it or monitor it or delete spam and comments from weirdo British Zen Masters with axes to grind. Sorry.” Nothing ruins a good blog more than rampant weirdo British Zen Masters. Brad’s teacher Gudo Nishijima has resumed posting to his own blog. He has kept his comments section open. He has figured out the perfect method of dealing with weird comments. He ignores them and trusts others to do the same.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Power of Magical Thinking

No, that's not a Zen altar; it's a Nichiren altar, and I'll come back to it in a minute.

Every time I go to Atlanta for a sesshin, I come back with something from the discussions that stays with me. Last month it had to do with vegetarianism, and I'll get around to writing that one eventually (the insight was not about what we eat, but about how we live). Last weekend, it came in the form of a question or response during the hosshin or mondo session; it was pointed out by the abbot that Zen expressly disclaims that we can influence the "outside" world by our zazen. Obviously on some level the distinction between the outside world and ourselves breaks down, according to one's understanding, but all verbal statements must be taken in context. The point is, from within the duality, our goal in meditation is not to improve the circumstances of our lives, but to improve our ability to cope with them (insofar as the goal of zazen has any external referent at all, but bear with me).

In other words, if my car breaks down, no amount of zazen will get me a new car or get my old one fixed. And although the goal of zazen is not to improve my ability to cope with the situation, that is often the effect. Back in my days with the Nichiren Shoshu of what is now the Soka Gakkai in the 1980's, the opposite attitude was encouraged. If you don't remember, the Nichiren people chant Nam-myo-renge-kyo (which is pretty much, devotion to the title of the Lotus Sutra), believing that they can reach enlightenment thereby. But not just enlightenment; newcomers are encouraged to chant for whatever it is they want, be it a new wife, a new job, etc. Believers are taught that by changing the karma from this life and past lives, by chanting the mantra, they can actually change the instant material conditions of their present.

I don't think I ever believed this, but I stayed with the practice for a couple of years because I did in fact receive benefits from the practice in terms of the effect it had on my lifestyle and on my insight. Part of this I'm still pretty sure came from the practice; even at my most cynical about the Nichirens, I would still say that any form of meditation practice is better than none. Part of it I'm also sure came from the fact that I was leading meetings and had to explain this stuff again and again, and I found a way to rationalize it all. In a way, the belief that one can dissolve the effects of one's karma instantaneously is akin to the concept of beginner's mind: I can start from scratch right here, right now, in this one timeless moment. It can be a useful concept (bad word) to get rid of mental baggage and be in the moment.

I won't go into all the rationalizations here, but some of them led to more useful (for me) concepts during the couple of good years I had after I quit the Nichirens, when a lot of the concepts which I thought were mine alone but I found again when I returned to Zen in 2004, were formed. What's pertinent was the thought that one could change one's world by religious practice, which is pretty much what's referred to in modern psychology and anthropology as "magical thinking." The best definition I could find without extensive effort on the internet (and I don't have a source to cite for it, so, sorry...) is:

1. The conviction of the individual that his or her thoughts, words, and actions, may in some manner cause or prevent outcomes in a way that defies the normal laws of cause and effect.
2. A conviction that thinking equates with doing. Occurs in dreams in children, in primitive peoples, and in patients under a variety of conditions. Characterized by lack of realistic relationship between cause and effect.

As if anyone actually knew what all the laws of cause and effect are! But it gets the point across. Most religions and a lot of other belief systems have this kind of thinking as part of their premise -- think Voodoo. It's also a very normal part of the individual development of a child's thinking. Avoidance of magical thinking is ultimately why I had to come back to Zen as part of my need to return to ritual (which I contend is necessary for mental health) without having to believe that gods are being invoked, etc.; it's ultimately why my brief flirtation with Tibetan Buddhism didn't last long. It's associated with the openness of Zen to open-minded modern science, which is pretty much unique, the attempt of the Dalai Lama to wrangle neuroscience into Buddhism notwithstanding.

Anyway, back to Nichiren Shoshu. After chanting for a while, it was my perception that while external circumstances did sometimes oddly seem to change when a person started chanting (and yes, there are lots of real-world explanations for that one), more often the person started to conform to the world. In other words, my observation that was that after a period of practice, the goals one was chanting for seemed themselves to change. If a person started out chanting for a new car, whether or not he got the car, if he was still chanting a year later, mostly likely he was now chanting for understanding, or some other attainable goal which did not require magical thinking.

I still maintain that the chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was a beneficial practice for me; it changed my life in a very positive way, and it was the bullshit associated with the rest of the practiced and the organization of the Soka Gakkai that drove me out. But after a couple of years, and explaining the practice to myself and to others (in a very unorthodox way, I may add), the context in which I was doing the chanting was a lot different than where I started, and very different from where the beginners were told to start. And in fact, the organization itself, once you got to a certain level in the heirarchy or in experience, would admit that all the promises about material benefits made to beginners were just the lure; that the practice itself was bound to change the person and deepen his understanding. And from my experience, those whose understanding didn't grow weren't around long.

I'm a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, and I love well-written stuff about magic. I just don't believe in it in real life. Or I try not to, but it's a real danger I have to avoid every day. But consider: in a deeper sense, you and the universe are the same, so does not the change in yourself change the universe? Undeniably, it does. No matter how deep our understanding becomes, when we return to the realm of discourse and rational thought, we cannot explain nor conceptualize the real working of cause and effect. Now, I think that there is a definite line of definition between magical thinking, or just plain wishful thinking, and where we can realistically expect the benefits of our practice, be it Zen or anything else, to take us. But sitting here at this keyboard, just how to define that line eludes me, as perhaps it should.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Just finished reading... Nagarjuna

I've just finished reading Jay L Garfield's
The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way : Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, which seems to be the best rated commentary on Nagarjuna's most important work. It's quite dense reading but very rewarding - Garfield's insight is penetrating and Nagarjuna's philosphy is powerful, rigorous and sublime.

Nagarjuna is probably the most influential Buddhist philosopher after Gautama Buddha himself and the chief proponent of the early Mahayana Madhyamaka philosophy, which emphasises the 'Middle Way' between philosophical extremes particularly Eternalism and Nihilism. Nagarjuna is also the developer of Gautama Buddha's concept of sunya ('void') into the concept of Sunyata ('emptiness of self-nature'). This logical approach to Buddhist philosphy, although very powerful was often misunderstood as a form of Nihilism and probably for this reason was generally supplanted with more poetic, metaphorical approaches.

Much like Wittgenstein, Nagarjuna is logically rigorous yet manages to indicate a 'sublime' reality which transcends logic and language. He even refutes the views of philosophers without proposing or holding any view whatsoever - successfully as far as I can tell.

He covers pretty much every aspect of philosphy and metaphysics - reducing beliefs and problems (again like Wittgenstein) to errors of thought and language - and reading him clarifies a great many confusing aspects of Buddhist philosophy such as the nature of the self, which are glossed over by so many others.

One of the concepts I really wanted to get to grips with when I started this was the idea that not only are entities 'empty' but that 'emptiness itself is empty' (and so on). And this book certainly helped me to understand this. Emptiness is not to be mistaken as an essential characteristic of entities or reality - it is not itself the self-existent nature of things - it is only a reference to the lack of self-existence in things. That lack is not a property just as nothing is not a thing.

Here are a few choice extracts.

He opens with this little corker:

Neither from itself nor from another,
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause,
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

Although this sounds Nihilistic, it is not, but this can only be properly understood in the context of the rest of the work. And refuting the view of emptiness as a an inherent property or a view to be clung to is perhaps the core and final message of the text.

On emptiness he says:

Whatever is the essence of the Tathagata [Buddha],
That is the essence of the world.
The Tathagata has no essence.
The world is without essence.

Everything is real and is not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor notreal.
This is Lord Buddha's teaching.

Many problems in Western philosphy as well as Buddhism can be seen in terms of a confusion between conventional and 'ultimate' categories of truth.

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.

Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha's profound truth.

Without a foundation in the conventional truth,
The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.

The human tendency to reify - to treat abstract concepts as inherent entities or properties - is difficult to escape. Even emptiness becomes something that Buddhist's cling to and regard as some sort of inherent or transcendent reality or a nihilistic view of the universe as non-existent.

By a misperception of emptiness
A person of little intelligence is destroyed.
Like a snake incorrectly seized
Or like a spell incorrectly cast.

For that reason - that the Dharma is
Deep and difficult to understand and to learn -
The Buddha's mind dispaired of being able to teach it.

You have presented fallacious refutations
That are not relevant to emptiness.
Your confusion about emptiness
Does not belong to me.

"Empty" should not be asserted.
"Nonempty" should not be asserted.
Neither both nor neither should be asserted.
They are only used nominally.

What is dependently co-arisen
That is to be explained to be emtiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

The victorious ones [ie. Buddhas] have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

For those, like myself who desire logical thoroughness, Nagarjuna is ideal, yet he leaves us with a vision of the world in which logic and language are peripheral and provisional and in which 'absolute truth' is absent - a view of reality in which everything is just as it is. I'll finish with this excerpt from Wittgenstein which resonates extremely well with Nagarjuna.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

What can be said can be said clearly
What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.

Given that Nagarjuna has only become visible to western philosophers in the last two or three decades, it seems, I imagine that Wittgenstein was entirely unaware of Nagarjuna.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Zen Belly

Does anyone else have a Zen Belly? By this I mean a bulging belly. Ever since I started doing Zazen and doing lower abdominal breathing, my belly is like a balloon. I read something a while back about it and it seemed quite common in those that do Zazen. I know a lot of the masters had big bellies.
Sorry, not the most enlightening question!

Friday, May 05, 2006

A post by Edalleyn

Apologies for this being 'off-topic', but I don't think I'm registered yet to post a new topic...

I've got a question about meditation. To put it simply, I've got quite an active imagination. I dwell a hell of a lot on 'existential' issues. I've been meditating every day for about five months, and it seems to be affecting my life quite a lot, but not always in a good way. I find myself able to concentrate on things more, and, as I work in the media, a lot of the ideas I'm coming up with are pretty awesome. My writing is more flowing. Now I'm certainly not saying that I meditate in order to get some effect - although I might do this subconsciously - but, with my mind slowly clearing of 'banalities' such as what I'm going to eat tonight, why did I do that thing yesterday, I find myself focussing more on these kind of 'existential' issues. Being so focussed on them, and not distracted as much as I might used to have been, very often contributes to making me quite depressed. After meditating I may feel quite calm, but later in the day, my mind is racing. I focus a lot on buddhist philosophy - Dogen talked about flowers and weeds, and life and death, and how, although we are 'against' death, and kind of take sides, there is nothing we can do to 'overcome' death. But I was alerted a while ago to some scientists talking about stopping the ageing process completely - and thus giving humans an immortal existence. Even this idea makes me incredibly 'jittery', and sets my mind racing. But I want to understand why the idea frightens me so much. Is it because I can no longer attach myself to the 'ideas' of 'life' and 'death' as constituent elements of my existence? I know its to do with ideas, basically, but without the 'idea' of an end to my life, I feel like I would be holding my breath, attaching myself to my own life, and therefore losing the very meaning of 'life'. But it makes me think whether, at the moment, I keep the 'idea' of death in my mind, and 'attach' myself to that idea.

So, I wonder if, either way, both imagining myself ageing, and myself dying, as well as myself never ageing and never dying, are all ideas. Golly, it all swells my head a bit. I'm not sure if I can 'blame' meditation. Maybe meditation just forces me to cope with these thoughts. I know that, one take on this whole thing might be just to say - 'these are all thoughts. In meditation we let go of thoughts.' But I dispute this. Philosophy is part of Buddhism. It is not the heart of Buddhism, but it is a part. Any thoughts would be really appreciated, even if it is 'off topic'.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

No Ready Made Solution

I hope people don't mind if I recycle an old weblog post, but things are kind of quiet around here. Kind of makes me nervous. Here's something I recently wrote on mahamudra. Close enough to Zen that I thought people wouldn't mind it here.

Buddhism is not going to hand you a solution. Yes, the solution is written down in the sutras, but reading them is cheating, sort of like looking up the answers to problems in the back of the book. What Buddhism gives you is a method for finding the truth. Whether you believe in selflessness or not is not the point. The point is to see it, because only seeing it has a transformative power. Yes, there are intellectual arguments and understanding them is a good starting point. But then you sit down and look at your mind. First you practice in order to calm and focus the mind. Then you look for the self. Is it consciousness or is it what beholds consciousness? In either case, what are its characteristics? The mind is constantly changing and what changes can't be the self, which must endure through the changes. If you cannot identify any enduring characteristics of the self, how can you say you perceive it? And who is it who doubts or believes they perceive the self? Is it a second self that is looking for the self? Searching in this way, sooner or later the truth becomes glaringly obvious. But don't believe me, do the practice for yourself.