Authenticity and Zen


I just finished reading Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s excellent Two Shores of Zen, a searingly honest personal narrative comparing his experiences in American and Japanese Zen practice settings.  Rather than review the book (which I highly recommend) I want to explore its chief theme, the search for Buddhist “authenticity:” What is real Zen?  Above all else, we want our Zen to be “authentic,” and we want to practice “authentically,” whether these two are the same thing or not — the first having to do with whether our Zen is really the Zen of our ancestors, the second with whether we can wholeheartedly practice without some inner division, false consciousness, or “as if” quality.

The first question — “Is this the Buddhism/Zen of our ancestors?” — seems to be a perennial question which some of my earlier posts (Tokugawa Zen; Greek Buddha; Everything Changes, Buddhism too; Buddhism Learns to Stand on Its Head) have touched upon in piecemeal fashion.  Every Buddhist school makes its own claim to authenticity and plays fast and loose with history in service of this goal, but every successful Buddhist movement to restore an idealized past inevitably ends by re-creating a new Buddhism for its own historical era. These Buddhisms can’t help but reflect the consciousness of their time. If, by some miracle, they could somehow resist infection with the Zeitgeist (even while, at the same time, heroically opposing it), they’d be of no real value to their practitioners who, prisoners of their own place and time, would be incapable of genuinely inhabiting the consciousness of a previous era. This relates to the issue of the second type of “authenticity”—one’s ability to fully inhabit and embody a practice.

Dogen’s thirteenth century journey to China to find the “real” Zen is but one example of the process of recreation through “looking backwards,” as is Menzan Zuiho’s eighteenth century rediscovery of Dogen’s Zen.  In addition, innovations in Buddhism have historically tried to justify their “authenticity” by invoking mythological pasts. Zen “lineage charts,” Nagarjuna’s “recovery” of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, and Tibetan “revelations” of esoterically hidden termas are all examples of this tendency, and Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha suggests a similar process may underly Theravada claims to having “preserved” the Buddha’s “original” teachings. Buddhism has always looked forwards by looking backwards. It’s always decaying, dying, dead and gone and then—presto-chango!— reborn again, the same but different. This, perversely, is one way the doctrine of rebirth turns out to be literally true.

As the narrative of Two Shores of Zen begins, Rutschman-Byler, a resident practitioner at California’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, finds himself increasingly repelled by certain features of American Zen. He is an exceedingly — one might almost say “painfully” — earnest practitioner who finds himself questioning the authenticity of what he sees as a vitiated American Zen with its diminished promise of genuine awakening.  He is scornful of non-celibate monastics, the democratic weakening of monastic hierarchy, comfortable monasteries with heated rooms and gourmet meals, and Zen teachers who act as spiritual friends and who encourage one to find one’s own answers rather than inspiring wholehearted devotion as enlightened beings.

He goes to Japan searching for a purer, more authentic Zen practice, but what he finds are the twin aspects of a declining Japanese Zen: on the one hand, a nearly moribund family-temple “funeral” Buddhism, and on the other hand, an austere, demanding practice with an “enlightened” master who — while possessing all the hallmarks of “authenticity” — is aging and infirm and has left no Dharma heirs; whatever tradition he represents is dying with him.  His temple is populated by Japanese students who, failing to duplicate the master’s enlightenment, sneak off in the night, and Westerners attempting to devote themselves to an ascetic ideal that’s no longer possible for postmodern Westerners and which is complicated by the fact that they’re practicing within an alien culture that stubbornly resists understanding.

Rutschman-Byler struggles with the austerities and politics that characterize monastic life along with the unruly resistance of his own human nature—cravings for sex, romance, carbohydrates, and protection from the bitter winter cold—trying to sincerely apply himself to a practice that eventually threatens to undermine his sanity and harden his heart. He returns home at the end, as all journeyers must, more or less reconciled to an imperfect American Zen, concluding:

“Whichever path is better, or more traditional, or more conducive to real spiritual understanding and compassion, the basic fact that I’m left with is that simply I am a Western Buddhist, and that try as I might, my… Western Buddhist values underlie my practice.  I have tried, and failed, to force myself to think that [Japanese-style] monastic practice is better than, or finally even necessary at all for meaningful, everyday worldly practice.  Have I lost anything in that?  Yes. Have I gained something?— indeed, my whole life, just as it is, reclaimed and renewed as precisely the territory of unsurpassed enlightenment.”

This search for authenticity — to be authentic, to find something authentic to cling to — is an inevitable aspect of postmodernity: we feel adrift amidst competing traditions which have lost their compelling authority, and competing visions of ourselves that call out for embodiment and enactment.  Which path constitutes a genuine movement of the “true” self in its unfolding and actualization, and which is mere play-acting and posturing — something ill-fitting, ugly, ungainly, and grafted on?  Is there a “true self” to develop and express, or is “emptiness” and “formlessness” our real home? If nothing is genuinely “authentic,” how are we to fashion ourselves? What are the goalposts and guidelines? What do we even mean by “authentic?”

We Western convert Buddhists find ourselves in an awkward position. We’re postmoderns par excellence —doubters, questioners, and searchers — rejecting our birth religion and setting ourselves adrift.  We want to ground ourselves in something authentic, but are incapable of the kind of faith and trust in our new religion that we rejected in our old. 

There are, however, aspects of this new Buddhism that are uniquely suited to our postmodern sensibilities—most specifically the Zen ideal of “not knowing.”  In addition, the doctrine of emptiness fits hand-in-glove with the process-relational aspects of postmodernism, the understanding that at bottom there is no bottom: no unchanging essence that stands behind us or anything else.  It’s process and flux all the way down, and the bits and pieces we borrow to create ourselves are not “ours” but borrowings from the detritus of our culture, memes afloat in our hive mind. The question is, which borrowings and adoptions carry something valuable forward — liberate and actualize potentials in a positive way—and what criteria should we adopt in evaluating our progress?  Western Zen reinforces and develops a number of criteria — presence, awareness, whole-heartedness, integrity, openness, and  interconnectedness — that resonate with Western romanticism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and existentialism — and weds them, as (David Chapman rightly points out) to contemporary Western liberal ethics with its emphases on empathy, mutual understanding, compassion, fairness, justice, and liberation.

Is this an “authentic” Buddhism?  Thanissaro Bhikkhu doesn’t seem to think so, as he makes clear in his cogent historical analysis of the genesis of Buddhist romanticism, but he’s an apologist for the Theravada agenda, shoring up arguments in support of his own existential commitments.  Of course he’s right in a sense: It’s not your grandfather’s Buddhism.  It’s not Theravada. It’s not Bodhidharma Zen. It’s not Dogen Zen.  But Western Buddhism is completely authentic in another sense.  It’s authentic in that we can completely get behind it. It’s a platform on which we can authentically practice without pretense, without cutting off or eliding what we, as postmoderns, sense deeply and irrevocably in our bones. 

Will it take us to the other shore? Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi, Swaha?  Thanisarro Bhikkhu argues that it won’t, but do we really believe in that other shore anymore?  Something wholly transcendent, a final destination, permanent, beyond all suffering?  Does it make any sense? Does it ring true to postmodern ears? Do we really need it? Have we met anyone who’s attained it?  Not someone who said they attained it, but someone we genuinely believed actually did? Do we live in Mappo, the degenerate Third Age of Buddhism, when attainment is no longer possible? What good is an “attainment” no one ever ever actually attains?

What Western Buddhism can do is move us continually beyond our old selves, breaking the chains of habit, prejudice, and character, opening us to deeper levels of interconnectedness and Being, opening our hearts, lessening our clinging and egocentricity, developing our equanimity and acceptance, and enabling the continual questioning that makes our never-ending journey an adventure worth living. That’s not another shore exactly, but it’s a process we can sincerely believe in.

This isn’t the final Buddhism; its just ours. The next historical era will require something new — something drawing different water from the Buddhist well and blending it with the insights specific to its own time and place.  Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “philosophy can never revert to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher.” Every great philosopher changes the world so that we can never quite see things the same way again.  We can’t live as if Hume, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger never existed — whether we’ve read and understood them or not, our culture has already been changed by them, and we’ve been changed along with it. In the future some new philosopher will no doubt think new thoughts and change the possible ways our descendants can understand and use the Dharma.  As a 2,500 year old conversation on awakening and liberation, the well of Buddhism is deep. It will always have something valuable to contribute.  And once again, it will be reborn, the same but different.

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Book Review: Greek Buddha

IMG_7923Four centuries lie between the time the Buddha lived and the time the earliest known Gandhari and Pali Buddhist texts were committed to writing. Since religions are never static affairs, these texts undoubtedly diverged to some extent from the Buddha’s original teachings, but exactly how far and in which ways is uncertain; our knowledge of the gap between the earliest Buddhist teachings and early canonical Buddhism is basically a vast, empty chasm. Unfortunately for us, the Buddha’s Indian contemporaries lacked both a written language and an understanding of how history differs from mythology and hagiography.

Indulge me in a thought experiment: Imagine that you and I live in a preliterate society. Imagine that nothing Abraham Lincoln ever said or did was written down, either at the time or subsequently. Imagine that there are no photographs or drawings of him. Imagine that there were no documents pertaining to the Civil War – no quartermasters’ inventories, no Mathew Brady photographs, no slave diaries, no rosters of those who served, no records of Lincoln’s speeches. Imagine too that there is no written record of the presidents who served before or after Lincoln.  All that exists is our memory of what our parents and teachers told us face to face, based on their memory of what their parents and teachers told them.

If this was so, how accurate would our knowledge of Lincoln be today? How much of what he said would be accurately remembered and generally agreed upon?

Think of all the apocryphal Lincoln “quotes” that currently float through the Internet in all their glorious inaccuracy.


Now imagine that another three hundred years passes before the orally transmitted “knowledge” of Lincoln is finally set down on paper.  How much more inaccurate would those ideas about Lincoln be?

This is the state we find ourselves in when in comes to the Buddha.

Christopher Beckwith’s new book, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (2015, Princeton) is a fascinating attempt to fill this historical void with educated speculation. Beckwith urges us to make his own mental experiment. He suggests that we bracket off almost everything we think we “know” about early Buddhism from canonical sources, and instead invites us to follow him as he attempts to reconstruct early Buddhism from sources closer in time to when the Buddha actually lived, namely the stone edicts and pillars of the Mauryan kings, the records of ancient Greek travelers, recent archeological findings, and the earliest Chinese Taoist texts.

Beckwith pays special attention to one such Greek traveller: Pyrrho of Elis, a young artist who travelled with Alexander the Great to Gandhara in the years 327-325 B.C. where Pyrrho met with and was influenced by a group of early Buddhist practitioners. Pyrrho returned to Greece espousing a radical new philosophy—“Pyrrhonism”—which bore more than a surface resemblance to the Buddhism he encountered in Gandhara (as has been noted previously by scholars like Georgios Halkias). For example, Pyrrho cultivated apatheia (passionlessness) in order to develop ataraxia (inner calm). He made explicit use of the fourfold negation of the tetralemma [five centuries before Nagarjuna!]. He was celibate, lived in simplicity, engaged in meditation, and was regarded by his neighbors as a holy man. He recommended  an attitude of “not-knowing” in regards to pragmata, ordisputed ethical questions.” Pyrrho viewed pragmata as having three primary characteristics: they were inherently adiaphora (undifferentiated by logical differentia—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “anatta”), astathmeta (unbalanced—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “dukkha”) and anepikrita (indeterminate — possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “annica”). The degree to which Pyrrho’s three qualities of pragmata actually map one-to-one onto the Buddha’s three marks of existence is a question I’ll leave to better philologists and philosophers than myself, but I found Beckwith’s argument intriguing. 

Beckwith then takes his argument a step further. He notes that concepts like “karma” and “rebirth” are mentioned by neither Pyrrho nor Megasthenes (another traveling Greek who served as Seleucus Nicatator’s ambassador to Chandragupta from 302 to 298 B.C.). Based on this, Beckwith asserts that these ideas weren’t a part of early Buddhism. This seems like an awfully big assumption to make, especially since Pyrrho himself wrote nothing—we only know of his thoughts through the writings of his contemporaries and students.  In addition, while Pyrrho’s philosophy may have been based on Buddhism, he may not have adopted all of Buddhism’s tenets; he may have picked and chosen those ideas that were most consonant with his Hellenic background.  While Beckwith is correct that we’ve no hard evidence that karma and rebirth were Buddhist beliefs prior to 100 B.C., absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. The most we can say is that he may be right.

Beckwith also speculates on the Buddha’s ethnicity. He argues against the canonical assertion that the Buddha was a native Magadhan born in Lumbini, and argues instead that the name “Śākyamuni” (“Sage of the Śākyas”) suggests that the Buddha was a Śākya, i.e., an ethnic Scythian (a Central Asian people who dominated the steppes). Of course the epithet “Śākyamuni” doesn’t necessarily imply that the Buddha himself was actually “foreign-born.” Alternatively, the Buddha could have been descended from Scythians who migrated to Magadha somewhat earlier, perhaps as early as 850 BC as Jayarava Attwood has speculated. One interesting implication of the Buddha’s possibly Scythian origin is that he may have developed the Dharma, at least in part, in response to Zoroastrianism, the religion of Darius’s Achaemenid Empire which stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley. If so, Buddhism can be understood, in part, as a rejection of Zoroastrian monotheism and cosmic dualism.

Beckwith suggests, following the controversial chronology suggested by Johannes Bronkhorst, that early Buddhism preceded the Upanishads and, then goes off on his own to suggest that it also preceded Jainism. He believes that these allegedly later religious traditions adopted aspects of Buddhist teachings and then projected their own origin stories into an imaginary pre-Buddhist past to lend them greater authenticity, in much the same way that the Mahayana would later claim greater antiquity for its own sutras. Beckwith can find no support for the early existence of Jainism in the kinds of data he deems acceptable. The Greek travelers, for example, fail to mention it. The earliest datable references to Jainism are found in the post-100 B.C. Pali literature. Beckwith believes that those Pali Suttas that treat the Buddha and Mahavira as contemporaries are useful fictions designed to address Buddhist-Jain disputes that were current during the era in which they were actually composed.

Even more fascinating is Beckwith’s speculation that Laotzu and the Buddha were one and the same person, and that Taoism grew out of very early Chinese contact with Buddhism. Beckwith does a linguistic analysis of Laotzu’s “actual” name (“Lao Tan”) as recorded around 300 B.C. in Chuangtzu.  He argues that “Lao” is the same as “K’ao,” and that K’ao-Tan could plausibly have been pronounced “Gaw-tam” in certain old Chinese dialects, making it intriguingly close to “Gautama,” with the final /a/ being dropped due to canonical monosyllabicization. This is a linguistic argument far beyond my powers to evaluate.  If true, it makes for a wonderful story of how Buddhism first influenced the formation of Taoism, and then several hundred years later, Taoism returned the favor in coloring how the Chinese translated and understood the Mahayana Sutras. What goes around comes around. In any case, Beckwith believes it to be no accident that similar theories arose nearly simultaneously in Greece, India, and China during the Axial Age, and that there was a greater degree of intercourse between these cultures than has previously been thought. 

There is much more to Beckwith’s book, including discussions of Pyrrho’s influence on David Hume, the provenance of the Mauryan stone edicts and pillars, the linguistic facility of Alexander’s entourage, and Pyrrho’s place in the stream of Greek philosophy.  Beckwith’s discussion of the connection between Pyrrho’s quasi-Buddhist philosophy and David Hume’s examination of the problem of logical induction serendipitously coincides with Alison Gopnick’s recent speculation about how Hume may have become familiarized with Buddhist thought during his stay at the Royal College of La Flèche. Like the parallel emergence of novel philosophies during the Axial Age, the parallels between Hume’s philosophy and Buddhist insights may be due to more than mere coincidence.

There are problems with the Beckwith’s book, to be sure.  As mentioned above, it’s impossible for a non-scholar like myself to evaluate Beckwith’s claims. While some seem plausible, others seem more of a stretch. I suspect it’s better to think of them as hypotheses which can spur future research than to think of them as strongly supported facts. I should also note that  Beckwith could have benefited from a better editor to help him eliminate some of his repetitiveness—he can, at times, worry a point beyond all endurance.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss Beckwith’s theses as being largely irrelevant to Buddhist practice.  They might think, “What does it matter, in the end, whether the Buddha was really a Scythian or one-and-the-same person as Laotzu?  What matters is how one is coming along in one’s practice and realization.”  While I’m sympathetic to that point of view, I think it’s a mistake.  Our hypotheses about who the Buddha actually was and what the Buddhist project is ultimately about deeply inform our approach to practice. Consider, as one example, Stephen Batchelor’s recent historical reimagining of early Buddhism and his proposal that doctrines of karma and rebirth weren’t nearly as central to it as some contend. Beckwith’s arguments buttress Batchelor’s, and together their ideas  have the potential to significantly inform the future dominant direction of Western Buddhist practice.

Even if Beckwith’s arguments turns out to be deficient in many of their particulars, Beckwith successfully points to the limitations of taking the Pali Canon’s account of Buddhist history at face value. Buddhist texts need to be read with a certain degree of suspicion. They need to be read alongside contemporaneous Greek and Chinese sources, checked against emerging archeological findings, and understood within the context of our growing understanding of Central and Southern Asian history. I’m incapable of doing this myself and I have no way of judging the ultimate worth of Beckwith’s arguments.  On the other hand, I look forward with interest to whatever lively discussion ensues.



Getting Out of Our Own Way

IMG_7948It sometimes seems that so much of the Buddhist path is simply learning how to get out of one’s own way.  It’s the Self — that tangled web of attachments and aversions constituting the network of me-ness — that complicates even the simplest of human transactions, making life more difficult than it needs be.  Nine times out of ten, “I” am my own worst enemy.

The other night as I was washing up after dinner, cleaning some baked-on mozzarella that had hardened on the ceramic cookware, my wife pointed out that I needn’t struggle so and poured some baking soda into the hot rinse water.

“Try it this way,” she suggested — and the cheese came off like a charm. 

You’d have thought I’d be grateful, but “I” got in my way. 

Instead, my initial reaction went something like this:

“I’m sixty-seven years old. I’ve washed cheese off cookware hundreds of times.  I’m perfectly satisfied with my old elbow-grease intensive method. Why’s she trying to improve me?”

Only she wasn’t “trying to improve me.”  She was only trying to make my life easier.  The thought running through my head was basically a screwy variation on a two-year old toddler’s way of thinking, namely: “I can do it myself!”

Later, when my wife asked how it went, I stopped myself before grumblingly acquiescing that “it went okay” and said — somewhat more appreciatively, I hope — “it worked great!”  It took a moment of mindfulness — the ability to stand back and see how my old reactive pattern, my stale old story about “me” and “my way,” failed to capture the reality and essence of “now” — to catch myself in mid-knee jerk, and avoid (just barely) a fleeting emotional disconnect with my wife. Our lives are a tapestry made up of such tiny moments  — moments in which we either honor or betray our deepest connections to those we love.

It’s a just a small example of something that probably happens to us many times each day. The imperial “I” reasserts itself in ways large and small, imperiling our capacity for intimacy and warmth.  “I” want credit and appreciation.  “I” feel hurt or wronged. “I” want to do things my way.  “I” feel superior or envious.  “I” feel included or excluded, wanted or ignored.  “I” get puffed up or deflated.  “I” deserve more or better.  Who, exactly, is this “I” who seems to be the center of the universe and interprets everything in terms of itself?  Buddhism teaches that this “I” is a fundamental mistake, the reification of an ever changing inter-relational process. The more we can see this Self for what it is, the more transparent it becomes, the more we can learn to get out of our own way.

It’s easy to see how this mistaken view of self comes about. Young children think they’re the center of the universe: their immediate needs are their ultimate concerns and it makes no sense to them that others are equally preoccupied with their own needs.  Developmental psychologists tell us that very young children believe the the sun and moon follow them home as they walk down the street, and that they can’t visualize or imagine how things look from another’s point of view.  The ability to understand that there are other ways of seeing the world and that everything isn’t about us takes a certain degree of maturity.  Some of us never quite get there. 

The Buddhist view is that nothing is about us. Things happen according to causes and conditions, not because we like or desire them.  Other people, for the most part, are preoccupied with their own wants and needs; they don’t spend all day thinking about ours.  Other people’s reactions to us often say more about themselves than they do about us.  While we create our own karma, it too is an impersonal process.  When negative consequences ensue from our actions, it’s not because the universe wants to punish us.  It’s just cause and effect.

The more familiar we become with our own reactive patterns and decenter from our personal preoccupations, the more we’re able to open to the reality of the moment as it is, fostering our capacity to live relationally, and connect to and collaborate with others.  It’s just a matter of getting over ourselves.  It’s just a matter of getting our “selves” out of the way.


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Shine As Brightly As You Can


A friend read my recent post on Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead in hopes of finding reason for hope.  Dogen and Whitehead posited meaningful universes fit for humans to dwell in — Dogen’s universe nudging us towards Enlightenment and Whitehead’s towards greater novelty, complexity, and beauty. That sounds pretty hopeful, doesn’t it?  My friend worries about his mortality and about the future his children will inherit.  He wonders whether we humans have a future.  He wants to hope so.  He wants to believe, like Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” that our lives are a journey into a better future.

Is there reason for hope?

Maybe not.

In the short term, we’re all mortal; in the longer term, all things are impermanent — things fall apart.  Astrophysicists say our sun has a limited shelf life.  Cosmologists tell us our universe will eventually succumb to entropy or collapse.

The intermediate term isn’t much rosier.  There’s the so-called Fermi Paradox — the contradiction between the fact that our universe contains an astronomical number of potentially habitable planets and our failure to detect signs of intelligent life elsewhere.  There are many possible reasons for this, including economist Robin Hanson’s notion of the Great Filter — a theoretical barrier which reduces the odds of any evolving intelligence surviving beyond a critical point.  Whenever a species reaches a certain level of technological sophistication, they — like the unfortunate Krell in the 1956 Sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet — unintentionally create the conditions leading to their own extinction.  We humans seem well on our way towards a multitude of Doomsday scenarios of our own devising: environmental catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, genetically engineered plagues, or potentially hostile artificial intelligences, just to name a few.  The odds of our inadvertently causing our own demise seem fairly high. While the universe may, as Whitehead thought, be generally evolving in the direction of greater complexity, intelligence, and beauty (at least in the short-to-intermediate term), it’s not placing all of its bets on us. We’re one of an almost infinite set of variations on an evolutionary theme, and the universe may well be indifferent to our specific success or failure. 

So hope may be unwarranted.

Except for this.

I once worked in a rehabilitation program for people with spinal cord injuries and other neuromuscular impairments.  All of the clients — without exception and against all medical evidence — believed they’d one day walk again. Their doctors sometimes advised them to “get real.”  It wasn’t going to happen.  One of the clients — a former dancer, now both quadriplegic and blind — responded to doctors’ attempts to disabuse her of her “unrealistic” hopes by educating them that “hope is what gets you through the day.” Hope is what gets you through a dark time to a better time when nothing else sustains you.  I learned never to discourage hope, however unrealistic, unless I’d something better to offer in its place.

Yet for me personally, hope for the future seems somehow unnecessary.  I prefer “not knowing” to “hoping.”  Not the “not knowing” of ignorance, but the “not knowing” of understanding that all ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations about the future are just that — merely ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations and nothing more — a gossamer web of thought.  The future is unknowable, yet to be born. We all have our ideas about it — we’ll moulder in the grave, or live in Heaven, or be reborn; the universe will keep on expanding or will collapse; the laws of physics are immutable or impermanent; the human race will become extinct or we’ll survive as space travelers, dwelling in the light of foreign suns.  We may have strong or weak convictions about all this, but really, who knows?  How many of your past strong convictions have already proven to be incorrect?

Suzuki Roshi once said that life was “like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.”   I like his perspective.  We don’t need assurances about rosy futures.  We’re here briefly and then we’re gone.  That’s it.  What use are we to make of our brief but precious lives?  If there’s to be a future, it will be due to the collective effect of our individual actions. There are no assurances that what we do will matter in the end — but what difference does that make? If we survive it will be because we’ve acted with sufficient awareness of our interconnectedness, sufficient intelligence, and sufficient compassion and love. If we don’t survive, if we’ve just one brief moment to strut upon the stage, why not make that brief moment one of presence and awareness, of love and connection?  Why not shine as brightly as we can? 

Regardless of our hopes and fears, every one of our actions is a vote for or against the future.  Every action we take, every dollar we spend or invest, every word we speak, ripples throughout time, changing the world in some small way, tilting the balance in one direction or another. Shine as brightly as you can!

Change happens. The last two centuries have given birth to a gradual extension of rights to people of color, women, and the gay and transgendered.  We’ve seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to Apartheid. We’ve seen the emergence of new concepts of international law and universal human rights.  We’ve seen fragile, tentative movements towards international cooperation through institutions like the United Nations and the European Union.  We’ve seen sixty years of relative “peace” between the competing great powers who, while testing each other through gruesome proxy wars, have — so far— resisted direct combat and global catastrophe. 

There’s reason for hope.

On the other hand, we’ve endured the two world wars, genocides in Turkey, Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia, and Rwanda, fratricides in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, the Soviet Gulag and the Ukrainian famine, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, endless enmity between Pakistan and India, repression in Tibet and saber-rattling in the South China Sea, bloody American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam and Cambodia, the spread of Jihadism, and a thousand other failures of humanity. 

There’s reason for despair.

Are things getting better?  Are they getting worse?  Flip a coin.  Hope and despair are both “something extra” — projections of thought into the unknown.

Let thoughts drop away.

All we have is this moment; use it well.

Shine as brightly as you can!

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Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Sally Gross, the acclaimed minimalist avant-garde dancer and choreographer, passed away last week at the age of eighty-one.  If you’ve never seen one of Sally’s live performances, you might have seen her in the 1959 “beat” film Pull My Daisy (together with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) or in the 2007 documentary, The Pleasure of Stillness, that noted filmmaker Albert Maysles made about her work. Sally was the friend of a friend, and I’d the good fortune to see her dance live over a decade ago at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. I also had the good fortune to have Sally accompany me on a journey five hours up to and five hours back from Toni Packer’s Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry where we’d gone together on a seven-day silent retreat.

Sally wasn’t in the best of moods for our trip. Her long-term boyfriend, art dealer Richard Bellamy, had passed away in 1998, and if I remember correctly, there had been some dissension between Sally and his family in the wake of his death.  While my memory about the particulars is somewhat fuzzy, I distinctly remember Sally as still actively angry and grieving a she talked about Richard all the way up to Springwater.  At the time of his passing, Richard served as an art dealer for the work of only one artist, the abstract expressionist sculptor Mark di Suvero. I wasn’t familiar with di Suvero’s work, but I’d learned of his existence only a few months earlier when he received a Governor’s Art Award from New York Governor George Pataki in an impressive ceremony alongside the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur

I happened to be there because noted photographer Milton Rogovin, the father of a friend, was also receiving an award that night. Mark di Suvero gave a memorable acceptance speech that made a lasting impression on me, and as a consequence, when Sally mentioned his name, the name meant something to me.  At the time I thought it was interesting — I’d never heard of di Suvero before, and here he’d “turned up” twice in just a matter of a few months. Life’s funny that way. I decided that I’d have to familiarize myself with his work once I got home.  As a curious aside, di Suvero’s name came up for me once more a decade later when my daughter completed an artist’s residency at his Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.

On the road back from Springwater, Sally told me that her entire retreat experience had been permeated, haunted, and dominated by Richard’s “presence.” She spent the entire week processing her complex feelings about their relationship and his death. We were still caught up in talking about this when I noticed with some alarm that I’d missed my exit off Route 17 where it intersected with Route 84. I had gone to Springwater several times in the past, and had never missed my exit before!

I got off the next exit, and rather than doubling back, tried making my way to Route 84 along some back roads.  Along one of those roads, we passed a country inn. The Inn was familiar to Sally —  she and Richard had stayed there once and she reminisced with me about it.  A little further along, we found ourselves passing the Storm King Art Center — an outdoor sculpture garden which I had never seen before — and Sally began pointing out an impressive series of giant di Suvero sculptures that were clearly visible from our car along the length of the road. Suddenly, missing my exit didn’t seem a mistake, but deeply connected in some mysterious way to Sally’s unrequited grief, as if Richard’s ghost was somehow guiding us.


di Suvero sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined a word for these kinds of seemingly meaningful coincidences — synchronicity — by which he meant temporally coincident occurrences of acausally connected events. Jung thought that events could be meaningfully connected through some principle of simultaneity distinct from the usual connectivity of sequential cause-and-effect. He believed that meaningful coincidences like these revealed something profound about the deep structure of the universe — something akin to the “spooky action at a distance“ in quantum entanglement.  In Synchronicity (1952), Jung provided an example of synchronicity at work in psychotherapy:

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

“My example concerns a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably “geometrical” idea of reality. After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself. Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab — a costly piece of jewelry. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, “Here is your scarab.” This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.”

Of course, skeptics will dismiss this as “just coincidence.” In a universe with an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, coincidences like these will inevitably appear, but they’re ultimately meaningless.

But then there are stories that seem so remarkable, they seem beyond mere coincidence.  Like the time my friend Victoria from Nigeria had the eerie feeling that something awful had happened to her brother back home.  Alarmed and disturbed, she called her parents in Nigeria, who assured her all was well. Several days later, however, she received another phone call from her parents.  Her brother was dead.  Unbeknownst to them, he’d died days earlier in a car accident while far from home — the very day Victoria had first called them. The police had just brought them the news.

The eminent psychologist, Charles Tart, posted one of the most convincing examples of synchronicity I’ve ever read on his T.A.S.T.E. (The Archives of Scientists’s Transcendent Experiences) website.

Psychologist Charles Tart

Psychologist Charles Tart

In 1974, Tart drove to pick up an East Coast psychologist named “Terry” who was visiting Berkeley California and staying at an address at 2924 Benvenue Avenue. They were going to go out for a cup of coffee.  As he was driving to pick Terry up, Tart’s mind was suddenly overcome by thoughts of violence:

“…I lost track of what I had been thinking about and instead found myself thinking about bad neighborhoods with criminal gangs in them…. The thought not only persisted, it quickly built into a frightening set of obsessions about being beaten up, about gangs of people with guns, shooting, violence, and the conviction that I would be mistaken for a burglar and shot when I walked between the houses to meet Terry at the kitchen door. I became very frightened and wanted to turn the car around and drive away as fast as possible. The closer I got to Benvenue Avenue, the worse I felt! … I felt intensely ashamed and embarrassed: I had to be crazy to feel like this! There was absolutely no reason for any normal person to feel this way! The psychologist part of my mind diagnosed me as having a paranoid schizophrenic attack of high intensity…”

When he finally reached Benevenue Avenue, Tart searched for a parking space, then walked back to where Terry was waiting for him.

“I was still quite frightened and I looked into every shadow and parked car, and between houses, looking for gangs or an ambush….  Much to my relief, Terry was waiting out in front of the house… We said hello, chatted as we walked back to my car, and drove off to a coffee shop…”

Tart didn’t tell Terry about his weird experience.  They were still in the process of just getting acquainted, and Tart didn’t want Terry to think he was crazy.  A week later, Tart received a letter from Terry, who’d subsequently returned back to the East Coast.  In the letter, Terry wrote that he’d had an almost identical paranoid experience to Tart’s while waiting for him to arrive.

“…While he was waiting for me in front of the Institute, he started feeling paranoid, worrying about people with guns and getting shot! He too felt pretty silly and ashamed. He was relieved when I arrived and we left for the coffee shop.”   

And then — the most interesting part of Terry’s letter!  As it turns out, at the very moment when Tart and Terry were experiencing their simultaneous paranoid episodes, several cars with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were parked alongside Benvenue Avenue. They had already kidnapped mathematician Peter Benenson who was crouched on the floor of one of the vehicles, and they were preparing to kidnap Patty Hearst who lived at 2603 Benvenue:

“…Armed with their automatic rifles and pistols, they went down the walkway between the apartment and the adjoining house that leads to the apartment entrance and knocked. When Patty’s boyfriend, Steven Weed, opened the door, they rushed in, threw him to the floor, and began beating and kicking him. Patty Hearst was grabbed and carried screaming from the house. Weed finally managed to get loose and ran screaming from the apartment, while one of the men kept pointing his rifle at him with a cold smile on his face. A neighbor came to see what was happening: he was grabbed, beaten, and knocked unconscious to the floor, a floor that was already soaked with Steven Weed’s blood. Two women who came out of the next apartment were driven back inside as automatic rifle fire splintered the shingled wall beside them. Patty’s captors threw her in the trunk and fled in Peter Benenson’s car, with Benenson still crouching terrified on the floor, expecting that the next shot would be for him….”

One could perhaps say that Tart’s paranoid episode — one he had never had before or since — was just a panic attack and that its simultaneity with the Hearst kidnapping was mere coincidence, but then how can one account for Tart and Terry having simultaneous paranoid experiences?  A skeptic might say that the odds of these things coinciding by chance are infinitesimally small, but that given a nearly infinite universe, coincidences with infinitesimal likelihoods randomly occur from time to time.  I personally believe that occurrences like these reflect more than just mere coincidence, however. Whatever their explanation, synchronicity is a good label for them. They point to the incompleteness of the physicalist account of the universe, and remind us to keep our minds open about the ultimate nature of things. They point to a deeper interconnection between events that goes beyond sequential cause-and-effect — the kind of interconnection I’ve written about recently in my postings on Dogen and Whitehead.

In the meantime, here’s a link to Albert Maysles’s film about Sally Gross. 

I remember her fondly.  She’ll be missed by all who knew her.

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Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead

wordcloud (3)I can’t remember a time when I really believed in God.  Maybe as a small child when I still pictured him as a bearded old man in the clouds.  Even then, however, God was a stranger to me.  My parents never talked about Him, my father was a closet atheist, and I was the kid in Hebrew school who asked questions about the things I couldn’t wrap my head around—issues like the problem of theodicy, or how God’s omniscience conflicted with human free will.  As an adolescent, the hypothesis of God seemed increasingly unnecessary and lacking in credible supporting evidence. Scientists seemed to be doing just fine accounting for the universe without Him, and Occam’s razor rendered Him superfluous.

Even if I could convince myself that He existed, what was He like and what exactly did He want from me?  Which religion got Him right? Was he a God of love, or a God of hell-fire? Did He want me to avoid shellfish, stone adulterers, and put homosexuals to death? To offer burnt sacrifices? To love my neighbor? To wage jihad? To fight for justice and equality? To ban abortions? To prevent climate change?  Was there one God, or many? Was He everywhere, or did He exist in some extra-spatial realm? How could one even begin answering these questions? 

One could depend on holy texts or religious authorities, but which ones? The Torah? The Koran?  The Upanishads? The Book of Mormon?  Why believe one over the other?  One could rely on mystical experiences, but how could one tell if they were veridical or merely the result of brain chemistry gone awry?  Science, at least, provided intelligible criteria for discerning truth. Science had discovered genetics, nuclear energy, black holes, chemotherapy, and computers. Science was transforming the world.  Science was the place to go for answers.  At the age of thirteen I gave up thoughts of becoming a rabbi and decided to become a scientist instead.

But science has its own limitations. For one thing, science is unable to tell a coherent story of how consciousness fits into the material world.  Scientists tend to believe in physicalism, the belief that the world is only made of one thing — physical stuff. Where does consciousness come from? Consciousness is said to be the product of the integral activity of the brain.  And how does consciousness arise from the brain?  We have to wait for that answer. Science has only been studying the brain for a relatively short time, and the brain is very, very complex. But don’t worry.  Science will provide a full account of consciousness once it better understands the brain. When that happens, consciousness will be revealed to be—tada!—an “emergent” process.


Emergence is the idea that as systems become more complex they display novel properties which couldn’t have been predicted from their simpler components.  A typically given example is that oxygen and hydrogen atoms lack “wetness,” but when combined to form H2O, voilà! — wetness “emerges.” It’s always been unclear to me why this is considered to be a good metaphor for the emergence of consciousness.  What does the fact that water, oxygen and hydrogen become liquid at different temperatures have to do with “emergence?” Wetness, on the other hand, as opposed to liquidity, is a phenomenological property, a quale, a conscious experience that derives from human-chemical interaction. It isn’t a property that inheres to H2O itself.  I’m not sure what’s emergent about wetness, either.

A better example of “emergence” involves insect colonies. Individual insects go about their business without any intention of serving a “higher purpose” in the colony or comprehending their role within it, nevertheless, the aggregate sum of their individual actions creates an emergent hive society, much as human free market economies emerge under the aegis of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  Similarly, simple electrical circuits, each of which are “dumb” in their own right, yield “smart” calculations when aggregated together in computers. Intelligent behavior arises from components which lack intelligence on their own. These are much better examples of “emergence,” but the premise that intelligence may be emergent is not the same thing as consciousness being emergent. Intelligence is an adaptive response to environmental circumstances, whereas consciousness is a felt experience. What the metaphor of emergence doesn’t do is offer any insight as to how non-conscious neurons, silicon chips, or any other non-conscious material, can produce the raw feel of consciousness. The experience of “redness” arises when humans interact with certain wavelengths of light, but there’s no raw feel of the quality of “redness” within the brain itself.  When you look inside the brain, all you see are moving electrons and secreted neurotransmitters. Computers can calculate, but they aren’t conscious. Brains aren’t conscious either; we are. This explanatory gap between non-conscious brain processes and conscious human experience is what philosopher David Chalmers has anointed “the hard problem.” Now, there are some philosophers who don’t think this explanatory gap is as unbridgeable as I seem to think it is. They don’t see it as being “the hard problem.”  Either there’s something they’re not getting that seems intuitively obvious to me, or there’s something I’m not grasping that seems obvious to them. Maybe the unbridgeable gap is not in the brain at all, but between us.  In any case, I find “emergent” arguments for consciousness singularly unpersuasive. Emergence is a metaphor that gives the outward appearance of solving the problem of consciousness without really solving anything at all.

But there are more problems with the physicalist model than just the “the hard problem.” First, the standard neurological model also treats thoughts as the mere effluvia of neurological happenings, and since “mental” events can never have an impact on “physical” events, thoughts can never play a causal role in the physical brain.  All the causal work is done by physical processes, not by thoughts. Thoughts, then, are something extra, like legs on a snake; they serve no identifiable purpose.

Second, the physicalist model is deterministic.  Every brain event is determined by a prior chain of physical causes, so that the appearance of “making a choice” is illusory. Given a particular chain of circumstances, one can never behave any differently than one does. It’s meaningless, therefore, to assign credit for blame for behavior, or to ever employ the conditional tense.

Third, science holds that while things happen due to causes, they don’t happen for a reason. There is no meaning inherent in things, no ultimate grounding for human values, morals, or aesthetics other than in human preferences. While what you do may matter to you, it doesn’t matter to the indifferent universe. Today many people in advanced societies accept this notion that the universe is devoid of inherent meaning and that meaning is a human invention. Since Jean Paul Sartre, it’s been a basic existentialist premise — although Sartre, unlike physicalists, believed in the reality of human freedom and choice.  But the reader should be aware that the meaninglessness of the universe is a metaphysical proposition, and that there’s no empirical evidence either for or against it.

Now, it’s all well and good to assert that consciousness is epiphenomenal and that choice is only apparent. These are defendable metaphysical propositions. Not provable, but defendable. The problem is, try living your life as if they’re really true. Try living your life as if you don’t have the power of choice, and that your thoughts have no causative power. Just try it. These propositions violate our deepest intuitions, and while it’s possible to verbally attest to them, it’s impossible to authentically live as if they were true.  In addition, the scientific process itself requires scientists who are conscious and make decisions. Science presupposes consciousness and choice, then turns around and questions their existence. Can any determinist, epiphenomenalist philosophy truly be  “adequate?”  If the story the physicalist model tells us about the world isn’t adequate, what would be?

In the past six months I’ve been reading writers who tell a very different story about the universe: Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese Zen monk, Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch Jewish philosopher, and Alfred North Whitehead, the twentieth century British-born mathematician and philosopher. Each of these original thinkers challenges the standard physicalist account of reality in his own unique way. While there are profound differences between them, there are also threads of commonality.  I intend to focus on those threads, but first I need to describe their individual metaphysics.

Eihei Dogen

Eihei Dogen

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) was not what we in the West would call a “philosopher.”  He was a Buddhist monastic devoted to the training of Zen monks, and his interests were matters of practical soteriology. He wasn’t interested in creating a metaphysics, and he interpreted the philosophy he drew upon from its Chinese T’ien T’ai and Hua-yen sources in his own unique way. He was a conjurer of words, and his metaphysics has to be wrestled from his difficult, enigmatic, and densely poetic prose.

So what is Dogen’s metaphysics like?  As I’ve described in a previous post, Dogen’s universe is one in which space and time is fully integrated, and where every point in space and every time is immediately and intimately connected with every other.  It’s a chiliocosm — a multiverse of infinite Buddhas and infinite worlds, even within a single atom or blade of grass. It’s a universe that makes no distinction between animate and inanimate, where mountains “walk” and walls, fences, tiles, and pebbles endlessly teach the Dharma. It’s a universe where all things are in a constant process of change and derive their being from their interrelationship with everything else. It’s a universe where all things conspire to encourage us to wake up and recognize our true nature: our non-dual, compassionate relationship with all of reality.  There’s no God in Dogen’s world, but there are an infinite number of Buddhas. His multiverse is co-extensive with Buddha Nature, all of reality the Buddha’s dharmakaya, or “truth body.” Dogen’s universe is an integrated, benevolent, purpose-laden home for human beings.

Baruch Spinoza


Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) lived in an entirely different culture than Eihei Dogen, and in an entirely different historical era with a different set of concerns. Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew who was born and lived in Protestant Amsterdam at the dawn of the modern scientific revolution.  Although they neither met nor corresponded, Spinoza and Isaac Newton were contemporaries, and the nature of physical laws, cause-and-effect, and the relationship between mind and matter were topics of intense interest and debate.

Spinoza wrote his Ethics, in part, as a reaction against Rene Descartes’ claim that the world was divided into two substances, matter which has extension in space, and thought which has none. Spinoza thought there was only one substance in the universe, and that the one substance had both material and mental properties, which he called “attributes.”  In Spinoza’a system, everything has both a material and mental side to it. You can describe events in physicalist language (e.g., as events occurring in the brain), or in mentalist language (e.g., as thoughts and experiences) but you have to stay consistent within whatever language frame you start in. Physicality and mentality are two poles of the same process described in different languages.

It’s “easy” to talk about the dual physical and mental properties of matter when we’re talking about the human brain, but what is the mental process of a rock like?  We don’t know how it is to be a rock, but we can say that rocks, like living organisms, change in responsive ways to their environment. If we throw a rock, for example, its atoms and electromagnetic fields realign themselves to changes in gravitational force as the rock rotates through space, and its potential and kinetic energy undergo momentary changes throughout its arc of flight. There’s a lot going on. The rock isn’t inert. It responds in some genuine way to the world. It’s possible that these physical changes in relationship to changing external circumstances are in some way meaningfully analagous to whatever physical changes are occurring in our brains when we “have” experiences.  Or maybe not.  When we speculate that electrons, atoms, molecules, inanimate objects, and one-celled organisms have “experiences,” a question arises about whether we’re stretching the meaning of the word “experience” beyond recognition.

Spinoza’s universe was a true “uni”-verse.  His “one substance” was identical to what he called Deus sive Natura, or “God or Nature.”  Spinoza’s “God or Nature” was very different from the Abrahamic God.  Spinoza’s “God or Nature” manifests everything imaginable out of His/Its infinite potential, the appearance of the many out of the one. “God or Nature” is infinitely creative.  Everything that exists is perfect, since “God or Nature” is perfect, and He/It has no choice but to cause everything to be exactly as it is. Everything that is follows the laws of nature by inexorable cause and effect. God is as bound by the laws of causality as humans; neither have free will.

Spinoza’s “God or Nature” is not a supernatural Being. The natural universe in Spinoza’s system, depending on how you interpret his writings, is either coextensive with “God or Nature,” or resides within “God or Nature,” but “God or Nature” is immanent in the world, not transcendent to it. God is the logos, the underlying order of the universe, the generative force behind it.  We are natural expressions of God’s infinite, endless creativity. 

The reason why it’s uncertain whether Spinoza’s “God or Nature” is fully coextensive with the universe is because Spinoza defines “God or Nature” as having an infinite number of attributes, whereas Spinoza’s universe has only two: extension and thought. This leaves Spinoza’s system open to the possibility (although he does not say so) that our universe is one of an infinite number of possible universes, some of which might have more or different attributes, however unimaginable they might be. Spinoza’s universe, like Dogen’s chiliocosm, is friendly to speculative physics about the universe’s being a multiverse.

Spinoza’s “God or Nature” is not a God of love, however, and the universe wasn’t created with us in mind. God is indifferent to us, caring neither more nor less for us than for viruses or tornados. The universe wasn’t created for humankind’s benefit, but out of God’s infinite imagination. Nevertheless, Spinoza says that the person who is wise will love God and seek to gain adequate ideas about Him/It.  Adequate ideas give us the power to overcome our passions, thereby increasing our ability to maintain and enhance our being.  According to Spinoza, increasing one’s power to maintain and enhance one’s own existence is the prime directive of all being. Ethics flows from it as a consequence, since maintaining and enhancing our existence depends largely on optimizing our relationships with other people.

Alfred North Whitehead


Writing early in the 20th Century, at the dawn of the age of relativity and quantum mechanics, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) wanted to create a metaphysics that was compatible, not only with newly emergent scientific facts, but with the things human beings are most certain of: that we have conscious experiences, that these conscious experiences have causal efficacy, and that we make meaningful decisions in the world.  Whitehead wanted a metaphysics that found a place for consciousness and choice within the very heart of reality.

Whitehead’s philosophy shares certain features with Spinoza’s. Like Spinoza, he believed that mentality inheres in matter, and in the necessity of a God whose creative force is immanent in the world.  But there their similarities end.  Spinoza’s world is a deterministic one running entirely on a chain of causation, whereas decision and choice are real for Whitehead.

Whitehead’s philosophy is often called “process-relational” because it holds that the world isn’t made of substances, but of processes and relationships.  Everything interacts with everything else in a constant process of transformation, only the “things” that are interacting aren’t really “things” at all. “Things” are abstractions from temporal slices of ongoing process. The “thing” we happen to designate a “flower,” for example, is an abstraction from a process occurring over time: seed becoming seedling, seedling becoming flower, flower becoming compost, compost becoming soil, ad infinitum. This beginning-less, endless process occurs within a web of mutually unfolding relationships with other processes, solar, meteorological, geological, ecological, and atmospheric. The flower’s existence is unfolding process and relationship. The same is true of everything without exception, from the smallest elementary particle to God Himself.

Whitehead was also a pan-experientialist. Not only does process and relationship go all the way down and all the way up, but every event within a process is also a “drop of experience.” Even elementary particles have experiences of some kind, whatever they might be. The future, in Whitehead’s view, does not yet exist. Unlike deterministic philosophies that decree the future a forgone conclusion given the constellation of causes set in motion at the moment of original creation, Whitehead’s future remains unwritten. Processes draw on their past experiences and their experience of current influences, but use them to creatively generate the next moment.

Complex processes have more choices in generating the future than simple processes.  Humans, for example, have considerable choice; elementary particles, only a little. The reason why the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle accurately characterizes the quantum world, according to Whitehead, is that elementary particles, in some meaningful sense, “choose” their location within their probability matrices. In Whitehead’s language, all processes “prehend” their past and the ways the world impinges on them to create the future out of the array of relevant options. We, and everything else, are forever at that moment of creation when past manifests as present.

Whitehead saw the necessity of including God in his metaphysical system. Like Spinoza’s God or Nature, Whitehead’s God is neither supernatural nor anthropomorphic. For Whitehead, God is that which transforms creativity and infinite potential into something concrete and definite, giving value and organization to an otherwise inchoate set of indeterminate possibilities. He is a kind of anti-entropic force encouraging greater complexity, interrelationship, and creativity.  He is a patient persuader, guiding us towards love and mutuality.  Whitehead calls him “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.” He co-experiences the experiences of all processes, past and present, “the great companion; the fellow-sufferer who understands.”  He provides the universe with an Aristotelian telos, a general direction for the course of its unfolding evolution, as He gently nudges it in the direction of greater freedom, complexity, creativity, and mutuality. 

While Whitehead’s evolving universe bears some resemblance to the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s (1881-1955) evolving universe, de Chardin’s universe evolves toward a final, fixed end, whereas Whitehead’s universe evolves as an undetermined, open-ended process. Although Whitehead’s God co-experiences all the experiences of all processes past and present, he isn’t omniscient. He doesn’t know the future, which remains uncreated possibility. Since He dwells in time, His co-experience of all experiences past and present changes how He meets the future. In a universe that’s process-relational all the way up and all the way down, God changes us, and we change Him. God and the universe co-evolve together.

Threads of Commonality

There are four crucial ideas expressed in Dogen’s, Spinoza’s, and Whitehead’s writings that hold my interest. The first, found in both Spinoza and Whitehead, is that of panpsychism—the idea that experience and materiality are both attributes of the same substance or process. The second, found in both Whitehead and Dogen, is process-relationality—the idea that reality is woven out of processes and relationships rather than our of “substances” and “things.”  The third, found in Whitehead and Dogen, is the idea that values are inherent in the universe and not merely projections of the human mind. The fourth, found in Spinoza and Whitehead, is the idea of the existence of something that may best be labeled “God.” 


I’m intrigued by descriptions of reality that find mental activity woven into the essential fabric of being and becoming. That’s not to say that Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s “panpsychist” or “pan-experientialist” views aren’t problematic. The strengths and weaknesses of these views are a matter of active debate by contemporary philosophers like Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and their critics.  Panpsychism’s first problem is the fundamental unknowability of what the experience of elementary particles, nonorganic processes, plants, and simple animals such as protozoa are like.  Second, there are explanatory gaps in how one gets from the proto-experience of elementary particles to the consciousness of human beings, or how human beings develop a unified consciousness when all of their cells and elementary particles are busy having their own experiences. Despite these significant problems, there seems to be something intuitively appealing about rooting consciousness deeply into the warp and weft of the world. In a way, there shouldn’t be any mystery to consciousness. It’s what we know best about the world; we understand embodied consciousness from a more intimate perspective than we understand anything else. We know what’s it like to be conscious; it’s matter that’s opaque and mysterious.

As a lengthy aside, it’s unclear how Dogen would weigh in on this controversy.  Buddhism’s metaphysical stance on the ontological status of mind and matter is both complex and confusing, tending to muddy the waters rather than resolve problems.  While the particular rabbit hole Buddhism goes down is slightly different from Descartes’, it’s a rabbit hole nonetheless.  Buddhism views consciousness and physical form, under “usual” circumstances, as two tightly interacting, mutually affecting streams of momentarily arising processes. There are times and instances, however, when these mental and material processes separate out, e.g., during the formless jhana meditative states, in the “formless realm” where subtle mental beings reside, in the “astral” travels of the “subtle body,” during the bardo states and process of rebirth, and through the mind’s ability to manifest simulacra of the body (manomayakaya) in space. Dogen inherited this tradition and did little to question or clarify it.  While Dogen makes frequent use of the Japanese word shinjin (“body-mind”) which implies a body-mind unity, it’s unclear what the deep ontological underpinnings of that apparent unity are. The best one can say is that Western ontological categories are completely irrelevant to Dogen’s soteriological project.

Process-Relational Metaphysics

I’m strongly drawn to process-relational descriptions of reality that clarify our mutual interdependence with all things. The crises of our era are essentially crises of failures in relatedness, whether with our biosphere or with our neighbors as we tribally-oriented humans— in other words, all of us—are necessarily confronted with the difficulties of living cheek-to-jowl with strangers-turned-neighbors in the global village. Beyond that, process-relational thinking helps us to understand identity and personhood in ways that accord with fundamental Buddhist insights into the nature of selfhood. Whitehead’s process-relational thinking precisely mirrors Dogen’s metaphysics of impermanence and radical inter-relationship. In Mahayana Buddhism, all dharmas (phenomena) are not only anitya (impermanent) but also śunya (empty), meaning lacking in “inherent self-existence” and deriving their momentary being from an evolving flux of inter-relationships. This is what Mahayana Buddhists call “dependent origination.”  This natural affinity between Whitehead’s philosophy and Sino-Japanese thought is one reason why there is a growing interest in Whitehead’s philosophy in contemporary China.

The Value Laden Universe

I’m charmed by descriptions of reality that have moral and aesthetic values baked in from the get-go, and that argue for a universe that’s not morally or aesthetically neutral, but naturally inclined in the direction of goodness and beauty. Whitehead believes God moves the universe towards greater beauty, while Dogen believes the fabric of reality encourages us to realize our Buddha nature and awaken together with all things. The idea that in maximizing the good, the true, and the beautiful we’re living more in accord with reality, helping things to flow in their intended direction, makes for a wonderful story.  Much nicer than the story that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that we’re either sharks or sardines.  Much nicer, also, than the story that nothing matters, so we can do whatever pleases us. I’m not sure I buy these nicer stories; there are plenty of reasons not to.  But I find myself increasingly willing to at least consider them.

Spinoza, on the other hand, isn’t a member of the Inherent Values Club.  He’s the father of our modern hard-edged “realism.” He denies the universe is flowing towards greater perfection; it’s  already perfect — meaning the only way it can be — as it is. “Good” and “bad” are just categories the human mind projects onto nature:

“After men persuaded themselves, that everything which is created is created for their sake, they were bound to consider as the chief quality in everything that which is most useful to themselves, and to account those things the best of all which have the most beneficial effect on mankind. Further, they were bound to form abstract notions for the explanation of the nature of things, such as goodness, badness, order, confusion, warmth, cold, beauty, deformity, and so on; and from the belief that they are free agents arose the further notions of praise and blame, sin and merit. 


….things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind. To those who ask why God did not so create all men, that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence…  — Spinoza, Ethics


Which brings us back to the start of this post — my inability to believe in God. I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off.  But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.

Final Thoughts

Of course, metaphysical speculations like these lie well beyond the realm of proof or falsifiability. They’re not scientific questions. That’s why they’ve fallen out of favor in contemporary philosophy.  But to say they’re unprovable is different from saying they’re meaningless or useless. They’re stories, narrative devices, that help us to organize our behavior and orient us towards the future. They have their own realms of utility.

For a moment, let’s look at this from the Jamesian pragmatic perspective: Which description, if tentatively adopted as-if-true, would most likely enhance human flourishing? Where does a deterministic, physicalist, purposeless universe take us, and where does a pan-experiential, process-relational, value-laden world take us?  I invite you to take some time and try to imagine the moral and social consequences of each.

It’s possible that a physicalist framework might be more useful for the purposes of certain scientific investigations, but that a pan-experiential, process-relational, value-laden perspective might be more useful for rearing children and good citizens, organizing social, political and economic relations, preserving the planet, and cultivating the beautiful and the good.  And it just might be — it’s possible— that there are even certain scientific questions — ones related to ecology or quantum events, for example — where a process-relational perspective might prove more fruitful.

It’s something worth thinking about.

Many thanks to cosmologist, cousin, and Whitehead scholar Matthew David Segall who kindly reviewed an earlier draft of the Whitehead segment of this post and helped me avoid some errors.  Any new errors in interpreting Whitehead that crept into this essay during the revision process are solely my own.  Thanks also to Bob Brantl who commented on an earlier draft and helped this to become a better essay than it otherwise would have been — although I suspect he will still not be happy with what he considers to be my caricature of theism in the opening paragraphs. Thanks also to Susan Mirialakis for her many helpful suggestions to improve the readability and flow of this dense essay.

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Happy Fifth Anniversary!

IMG_2849_2For those of us who like nice round numbers, today marks The Existential Buddhist’s fifth anniversary and its one hundredth posting.  Since July, 2010 it’s attracted 215,000 visits from readers in over 150 countries. If you’ve been a loyal reader, thanks for sticking around.  If you’re a newcomer, welcome.

Although the Buddha taught that all things are subject to change, The Existential Buddhist’s mission has remained relatively constant: to investigate Buddhist teachings through the twin lens of reason and personal experience, and further the dialogue between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy.  Although the mission has remained constant, the content of the posts has not. I’ve tried not to repeat myself, so many of the basics of Buddhism (beginning meditation, the precepts, karma, the eightfold path, the nature of awakening) were covered in earlier posts, never to be taken up again. If these are the topics that interest you, please browse through the older posts; their content is timeless.

The reader who, for some unknown reason, plows through all one hundred of these posts will probably note that the earlier posts draw more from Theravada teachings, while the newer posts draw more from Zen. This parallels a change in my personal life: I moved from one geographical location to another, choosing a new practice home on the basis of convenience and congeniality rather than staying rooted in one tradition. As a consequence, many later posts reflect my growing understanding and appreciation of the theoretical and practical differences between the traditions.  Some of the posts reflect changing times, focusing on disputes regarding secular versus religious interpretations of Buddhism, the ordination of women in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhist response to climate change, and responses to politically-based critiques of mindfulness.  Others reflect the vagaries of my reading list — something I read in Dostoevsky, Dogen, or Aristotle that sparked my interest.  And then, of course, there are the personal matters that inevitably arise in the course of Buddhist practice, some perennial, some fleeting, that can always be relied upon to provide new grist for the writer’s mill.

Taken as a whole, these essays reflect my ongoing love affair with Buddhist practice and my ongoing lover’s quarrel with antiquated dogma. They’re my attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I’ve no special qualifications for this task. I’m neither a scholar nor an authorized teacher. I haven‘t received Dharma transmission or achieved Enlightenment. The only reason to read these essays is that you might enjoy my companionship on your own journey.  You’re more than welcome to adopt me as a spiritual friend as we travel the path together. 

I’ve learned a thing or two on my journey.  The first is that Buddhism is not one fixed thing.  In fact, it’s not a “thing” at all.  It’s an evolving set of traditions, multiple branching streams that have the Buddha’s teachings as their initial inspiration.  Buddhism is a live and ongoing conversation about the nature of awakening that’s undergone countless revisions, reinterpretations, and transformations throughout its 2,500 year history.  Some people will try to tell you otherwise.  They’ll tell you they know precisely what the Buddha said, even though none of his teachings were written down until centuries after his death.  They’ll tell you the Buddha was infallible and that everything he said must be true.  They’ll tell you they know the one true path to Enlightenment.  If you meet these people, it might be a good idea to run the other way.

I invite you, instead, to trust logic and your own experience; to read the words attributed to the Buddha in all their various incarnations; to listen to authentic teachers from all the traditions; to practice a variety of forms of meditation; to compare and contrast the Buddha’s teachings with those of the great Western philosophers; to discover for yourself what works and what does not, what’s transformative and what’s tripe, what makes your life virtuous, heartful, intimate, and whole, and what makes it cramped, dull, and inauthentic; to take what’s useful and leave the rest.  This is how modern Buddhism is evolving.  Not through top-down proclamations, but through the simple daily choices of millions of practitioners.

I’ve called this practice Existential Buddhism to distinguish it from traditional forms. It isn’t based on the authority of Buddhist scripture; it’s informed by it. I don’t believe every word of the Suttas and Sutras. I don’t believe in reincarnation or supernatural versions of karma. I don’t believe in permanent and perfect Enlightenment. What I do believe in is the reality of impermanence and interconnectedness; in the virtues of equanimity, non-grasping, and compassion; in meditation as a path of intimacy with the world and with oneself; in mindfulness and discerning wisdom as a way of being in the world; in paying attention and listening to life.  These are truths anyone can discover through their own efforts.  I call them existential because they’re something we validate through living and doing, not through reliance on authority. 

The other thing I’ve learned on my journey is that Buddhism isn’t simply a set of beliefs.  It’s not a philosophy, something to think about.  It’s something to live, something to do.  That’s why we call it Buddhist practice.  It’s something that seeps into our very marrow, something we embody and breathe.  Tibetans, I’m told, don’t say they have a “religion.”  They say they have a gyu, or “way.” In China, the word Dao also means “path” or “way.” 

Buddhism is a path, and a path is something to walk, not something to believe. 

I look forward to The Existential Buddhist’s sixth year, and I invite us to continue to walk the path together.


On Desire

This evening we recited our Bodhisattva Vows as we do every evening after sitting. Our sangha recites the English version of the second vow (Bon No Mu Jin Sei Gan Dan) as “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,” but bon no is really Sino-Japanese for the Sanskrit kleśas, usually translated as “defilements” or “afflictions,” most notably the three so-called “poisons” of desire, aversion, and ignorance.

It’s a pretty grandiose vow when you come to think of it. The idea that you and I are going to put an end to our desire, aversion, and ignorance is, on the face of it, patently absurd. Let’s just focus on desire, for one thing. As the Sephardic Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, might have said, desire is an example of “natura naturans,” nature doing what nature does, and our brains can’t help producing states of desire and aversion regardless of our intentions. It’s the nature of the hypothalamus to make us thirsty when we’re dry and hungry when our energy’s run low. That’s what brains do. That’s how mammalian species survive.

Above and beyond that, we can rightly ask if desire is always something that must carry such a negative connotation. Do we really want to put an end to it? All of it? What about our aspirations to do and be better? What about our aspirations to help others, be more present, be more kind? What about our wish for the aesthetic enjoyment of unspoiled nature or of great music, art, and literature? What about wanting a hug or a cup of hot chocolate? Can there really be a plausible description of human well-being that doesn’t honor these basic human desires?

So how are we to meaningfully understand and make use of the second Bodhisattva Vow? What are we really supposed to do about desire? The Sino-Japanese word dan in the vow literally means “cut off,” but extirpating desire never seems to work out all that well. Consider how well the celibate priesthood has worked out for the Catholic Church. Or just as an experiment, try counting from one to ten without thinking of a white rabbit. As psychologist Daniel Wegner points out, attempting to suppress psychological processes often ends up only ironically reinforcing them.

The Buddha’s first talk after his Enlightenment was his discourse on the Four Noble Truths at the Deer Park in Sarnath. The Four Noble Truths are like an Aryuvedic prescription, diagnosing the nature of the human dilemma, its etiology, and its treatment. The First Noble Truth is a description of the problematic nature of human existence, namely, that our lives are, in some fundamental way, unsatisfactory. This is sometimes translated as the “truth of suffering,” but the Pali word dukkha is more nuanced then that, suggesting something out of balance or off-kilter. In any case, the First Truth points to a fundamental dissatisfaction with our lives, and the inability of any relationship, achievement, attainment, experience, or object to plug that gap and make our lives wholly satisfactory.

Why does anyone come to a zendo to sit for long periods (often uncomfortably) in silence and chant in an incomprehensible alien tongue? People only come because their lives are not completely satisfactory as they already are. Maybe they want a little less suffering or a little more inner peace. Maybe they want to be happier. Maybe they are looking for more meaning in their lives, something deeper. Maybe they want to be kinder to others, or to be more present. Maybe they are looking for something beyond the materialism and gospel of success preached by our culture. Maybe they are looking for something to replace their old religion with which they grew disenchanted. Whatever the reason, there is some present dissatisfaction that motivates people to become “seekers.” It’s that desire for “something more” that brings us to Buddhism, and there’s more than a little irony in the fact that “wanting something more” is also part of Buddhism’s definition of the problem, and that often, what people genuinely derive from Buddhist practice is not the “more” they were initially seeking.

The Buddha identified the source of human dissatisfaction in the never-ending process of desiring itself. We are forever wanting something else, not wanting what we already have. Whoever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are always wanting, wanting, wanting. We want to have a better job, or do a better job. We want more money, better health. We want more loving relationships. We want to be thinner, younger, and more beautiful. We want to be more popular, better appreciated and respected. We want to do something more substantial, more important. Our lists never end. When we get what we want we find it wasn’t what we thought it would be, or that it doesn’t last, or we grow weary of it, or we soon find ourselves wanting something different or something more.

So we sit down to do zazen, hoping for a respite, but as soon as we sit, we notice the inexorable desire for things to be different than they are as it manifests in the present moment. Nothing has changed just because we are sitting down to do zazen. We want the room to be warmer or cooler. We want it to be quieter. We want our thoughts to slow down. We want our mind to be more focused and concentrated. We want our meditation to be the way it was yesterday when it was so pleasant and peaceful. We want to be more alert and awake. We wish the pain in our back or leg would go away, the itch on our nose to cease. We want our stomach to stop gurgling. We wish our posture were better. We wish the bell would ring. We want to be better at this meditation thing. We want to be Enlightened. And so it goes.

If you attempt squelching these wishes and try making them disappear, you soon discover that you are setting yourself up for a battle with the impossible. It’s like struggling with quick sand — you just sink deeper. The trick is to simply notice the desire and allow it to be as it is, but at the same time, in the very act of recognition and noticing, we are in a very real way unhooking from the desire. It’s there, but we’re no longer driven by it. We can step back and watch the urge grow and intensify, and then wane and pass, only to return again later. We can surf the desire like a wave that ebbs and flows. The trick to desire is mindfulness and non-attachment. Once we can step back and watch desire, we can use discerning wisdom to analyze its pros and cons, to decide whether pursuing it is something in our own and others’ best interest — or whether it’s just another one of those endless desires to open our hands to and let go of.

The problem with desire isn’t that it exists, but that it drives us — that it controls us whether it’s good for us or not. Desires have an inherent velcro-like stickiness to them, but mindfulness, to pursue the metaphor beyond the boundaries of good taste, Teflon coats them. In Zen we say that while ordinary people are pushed by their desires, Bodhisattvas are pulled by their vows. The real intention behind the second vow is to remind us to deal skillfully with desire, to live guided by the North Star of our aspirations rather than being tossed hither and yon by the passing currents of our whims.

So we sit zazen and watch desire come and go. And the golden rule is: Don’t live driven by desire. If you want to move, don’t move. If you have an itch, don’t scratch. Just sit. See what happens.

Gesshin Greenwood explored this “don’t move” policy in a recent post in That’s So Zen. She was about to undergo the traditional trial period in Japanese Zen monasteries when newly ordained clerics must sit still for a week, excepting bathroom breaks and meals. Dreading this, Gesshin asked her teacher:

“What do I do if I have to move?” A week seemed like a really long time, and I had heard horror stories about people digging their nails into their palms and drawing blood in order to keep on enduring the zazen posture.

“You can’t move,” he said.

“But what if I really have to move?”

“Don’t move,” he reiterated.

“But what if I really, really have to move?”

“Well, then you move.”

It sounds so simply when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it? We take up the posture of not moving, and we don’t move, and don’t move, despite the pain and itchiness and restlessness, until we simply must move, and then we do. This is true with most things, too. With any sort of commitment– a friendship, a romantic relationship, a marriage, a monastery, a period of academic study, a job, a diet, an exercise regime, a forty minute zazen period. We try our best to stay in one place, where we promised to stay, until we can’t anymore, and then we move.

Sometimes staying in one place and being patient is right, and sometimes moving is right, too, when it’s the only thing left to do.”

The end of zen training is learning how to be with each moment as it is — letting go of the desires and aversions that interfere with just being present. All of these desires only reinforce the network of me-ness, our narrative of identity. They are all about “me:” what I want, what I want to have. The universe is supposed to go the way I want it to. When we loosen our attachment to desire, we are also loosening our attachment to “I,” learning to get our “selves” out of the universe’s way. We’re learning to see reality from outside the confines of our necessarily limited point of view and see it, as Spinoza would say, sub specie aeternatatis — from the vantage point of eternity.

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The Politics of Mindfulness


In his 1942 essay, “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Arthur Koestler outlined two extreme responses to the exigencies of communal life.  One was the belief that social improvement could only occur through collective activity to alter the ownership of the means of production.  The other was the belief that change could only occur through individual spiritual transformation.  Each generation has seen these twinned Hegelian opposites reappear in new guises, viz., the beatniks and young Trotskyites of the 1950s, or the Hippies and Yippies of the 1960s.  Today, this same polarization is re-emerging in response to the introduction of the Dharma to the West.  Some see both Buddhism and secularized mindfulness as, for better or worse, a field of individual spiritual transformation, while others critique both Buddhism and mindfulness for insufficient social engagement. If one listens carefully, one can almost hear echoes of the original Mahayana critique of so-called “Hinayana” Buddhism for its alleged exclusive concern for individual liberation.  

It is Western Buddhism’s peculiar provenance that its early practitioners were drawn largely from politically liberal social strata: beatniks, hippies, peace corp volunteers, psychedelic enthusiasts, and disaffected intellectuals — I count myself among them — people who were alienated from the dominant culture’s emphasis on consumerism and conformity, its empty professions of piety, its worship of celebrity and success, its aggressive evangelization of American Exceptionalism, its insufficiently explored dark history of African slavery and native American genocide, and its profound unease with socially marginalized groups and unwillingness to share its largess with them.  It’s therefore not at all surprising that American Dharma has become an ideological battleground between those wishing to keep it arms length from politics, and those who take the Bodhisattva ideal as a mandate for political activism. Politically active Buddhists almost always continue to pursue their pre-Buddhist Leftist predilections under the Buddhist flag, providing, in some ways, a mirror image to Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity’s embrace of right-wing policies.

This debate over Dharma and politics has emerged with renewed energy as mindfulness practices have made their way into corporate America and the military, and the rhetoric of mindfulness has been adopted by wealthy elites.  The Left, reflexively suspicious of business, the military, and the rich, is concerned that mindfulness’s emphases on equanimity, acceptance and non-grasping may make it a tool for pacifying disadvantaged classes, encouraging them not to stand up and fight for what is rightfully theirs. It worries that secular mindfulness, divorced from a larger ethical frame, may help soldiers become better killers. It worries that, accommodating to the American gospel of success, it may become just another vehicle for promoting professional and material advancement.  It worries about a Dharma that “professionalizes” and becomes another way to “earn a living.”  It worries about a Dharma becoming just another brick in the capitalist superstructure.

In “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Koestler understood that the thesis of the commissar and the antithesis of the yogi required some new kind of synthesis, some Buddhist or Hegelian middle way.  On the other hand, he found the prospect of such a synthesis elusive:

“It is easy to say that all that is wanted is a synthesis — the synthesis between saint and revolutionary; but so far this has never been achieved. What has been achieved are various motley forms of compromise — the blurred intermediary bands of the spectrum — compromise, but not synthesis. Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons why we have made such a mess of our History.”

In dialectical debates of this kind, truth never abides in one corner. Every voice must be attended to, and hopefully people are not speaking past each other.  In fact, one hopes for dialogue rather than debate. That’s the best away to struggle towards a new synthesis.

That having been said, I have my own particular point of view as someone who is deeply interested in the future of both Buddhism and of secular mindfulness, but who is neither reflexively anti-business nor anti-military.  My general point of view is politically liberal, but not politically radical.  I don’t belong to a marginalized or disadvantaged social group, although I am sympathetic to their claims.  My family has historically benefited from the American experience. My father’s family emigrated to America from Romania in the first decade of the twentieth century to escape the rise of Romanian proto-fascism.  My father’s father was a simple cobbler who died in a work-related accident.  My father never graduated from high school.  He enrolled in the army before the onset of the second world war and trained as a flight navigator in the 8th air force.  When his plane was shot down over the North Sea, he endured fourteen months in a Nazi POW camp. After the war, he went to work driving a truck and then working in a small factory making vertical window blinds.  With a loan from a more successful brother, he eventually bought the blind factory, working long hours personally involved in sales, manufacturing, installation and repair for his product. My mother worked too, supplementing his income as a secretary in the New York City school system. My parents never owned their own home until they retired and used the proceeds from the sale of the business to help finance a small condo in Florida. My mother passed away that year and never got to enjoy it.

My father didn’t cheat or exploit people in his business. He made a superior product that people wanted and sold it at a fair price.  He was good towards his employees.  When one of his employees occasionally wound up in jail after a particularly rough night on the town, he was the one who showed up to bail him out.  My parents made it possible for my sister and I go to college and further ourselves. The American dream has been good for us, but I understand it has not been good for everyone. I also understand that there is some element to my own family’s success that may have been purchased at the expense of other people’s misfortune. The New York State Scholarship, the National Defense Education Loan, and subsidized state university education that enabled me to go to college were not available to everyone, and the monies spent on them might have helped someone else eat or get medical attention. The large corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank and Union Carbide that bought my father’s vertical blinds for their international headquarters and helped put food on our table were not entirely benign enterprises. Just one look at the Bhopal tragedy attests to that.  I get that.  I only recite my background so that you can understand both my appreciation for and my ambivalence about the American experience.

I’ve also been someone who’s been politically active for liberal causes my entire life.  As a high school student I was involved in the movement to desegregate the New York City public schools, and as a college student, I organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in my college town of Binghamton, NY.  As an adult, I’ve demonstrated against the Iraq War and for changes in environmental policy.  I helped organize a chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, am an active supporter of Buddhist Global Relief, assist in my sangha’s soup kitchen, and helped write my town’s climate action plan.  I say all this to clarify my politics — I’m an old fashioned, unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the kind Marxists deride as being hopelessly petit-bourgeois.  

Having clarified where I’m coming from, allow me to move on to what I regard as several key points in the debate about the politics of mindfulness.

First, Buddhism, on its own, does not possess a social theory, anymore than it has a macroeconomic theory or a theory of particle physics.  While Buddhism is anti-greed and anti-hatred, it does not prescribe any specific remedies for social inequity or injustice.  While the Bodhisattva ideal requires us to hear the cries of the suffering and not turn away, it does not supply a social recipe for how to go about ending that suffering.  While the Buddha taught non-killing, he did not advise kings to abolish armies.  While the Buddha accepted women and members of all castes into his sangha, he did not advocate for the ending of the caste system. In saying this, I am not saying we should emulate the Buddha in this regard.  I am only pointing out the historic disconnect between Buddhism and social theory.  We can invent something new, a twenty-first century Buddhist social theory, but we cannot tell from historic Buddhism itself what the specific content of that social theory ought to be.  It will have to be something altogether new.

Second, there is no reason why a new Buddhist social theory needs be dogmatically anti-Capitalist. I can imagine it being neutral about capitalist economic organization, per se.  While the Buddha eschewed personal ownership of more than a robe, a begging bowl, and a razor, he never advised kings to divest themselves of their treasuries.  Some people think that global poverty will only end when capitalism ends, but it’s possible to make the case that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other form of economic organization.  Socialism in its various forms failed China, India, North Korea and the Soviet Union, doing little to end poverty and alleviate human misery — in fact, in many ways only tragically adding to the level of human misery though terror, collectivization, famine, slaughter, cultural revolution, and the Gulag. Some may argue that these governments were not really socialist, and that one cannot judge socialism by their successes and failures, but then it is up to critics of capitalism to provide a counter-example, any example, of a non-capitalist society that has significantly ameliorated poverty within its borders, and even more so, has done so without endless accompanying terror and oppression.  China and India are only now making great strides at lifting their masses out of poverty after having adopting capitalist methods. It’s true that the mixed-economy social democracies of Western Europe have been successful at both producing wealth and limiting the growth of income inequality — better in many ways than our more gung-ho, free-enterprise, individualistic United States.  Here in the U.S. there are arguments to be made for finding a better mix of planning/redistribution and the free market. There are reasons to think that adjusting taxation formulae, reinvesting in infrastructure development, providing universal day care and pre-kindergarten schooling, improving models of and access to lifetime education, providing for adequate nutrition and universal health care, and reforming the justice and prison systems will help to reduce the current level of income inequality. But this is only an expansion of the ends and goals of the old-style welfare state, not a revolution.  On the other hand, there is zero evidence that radically unwinding capitalism itself  — whatever that means — would lead to human betterment.   Capitalism is far from heaven on Earth, but we could do a lot worse.

There are some who argue that corporations, by their very nature, despoil the environment and exploit workers and third-world countries in their endless pursuit of shareholders’s interests.  One can point to innumerable disturbing examples of this, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. The problem with corporations is that they’re insufficiently constrained by both law and a countervailing moral ethos.  There’s no broad social consensus about how much profit is justifiable and how much is obscene.  There’s no extant social ethos compelling corporations to acknowledge their stakeholders and not just their shareholders.  Corporations can be morally constrained by the larger culture they exist within, but that kind of transformation is primarily an ethical and spiritual matter, and not an economic one. Socially important transformations of consciousness occur all the time — witness the changing world cultural consensus on matters like slavery and women’s suffrage over the past two centuries, or the rapidly changing consensus on gay marriage.  Marxists believe these changes are always economically determined by changing economic relations. While economics undoubtedly plays an important role in determining consciousness, reality is always a two-way street, with ethics and economics mutually informing each other.  We require a moral, social, economic, and political co-evolution — and moral evolution is something Buddhism has a great deal to say about.

In recent weeks I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a secularized version of the Dharma to employees of a large corporation.  I accept no money for this service, since it’s my belief that the Dharma should always be offered freely.  I also do not approve of the product this particular corporation is most famous for.  I do, however, appreciate the employees who come to learn what I have to offer. They are neither evil minions nor exploited workers.  They are people bedeviled by the normal existential issues of life and death, grief and loss, pain and illness, guilt and shame, success and failure that we all struggle with.  These are exigencies that owe little to capitalism, per se.  They are the same everywhere.  The Buddha, after all, taught that life is suffering, not that capitalism is suffering.  I’m happy to pass on what limited tools I can to make a difference in their suffering.  It’s heartening when something “clicks” and a member of the group “gets” what mindfulness is about — not adding to suffering through cognitive elaboration, touching the vital ebb and flow of life itself, becoming fully present, non-grasping and letting be, and finding all mental states ultimately workable.  I have no idea whether or not this will make them better “employees” or further their company’s “mission.”  I am unconcerned with that, and they’re there for their own myriad personal reasons. They come on their own free time and of their own free will.  It’s not a obligation placed on them by the corporation. I’m concerned that they have the opportunity to improve their emotional intelligence and find ways to more fully embrace their humanity.  If I wanted to change their corporation’s policies, I would write a letter to its president, or vote for change at a shareholder’s meeting, or organize a boycott of their products. Teaching the Dharma is an entirely different endeavor, and one that I believe transcends politics. 

In recent months I read concerns about aspects of the Dharma being appropriated by economic elites.  I’ve read criticisms of the Dalai Lama for speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, or Jon Kabat-Zinn for speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos.  Some people react as if this is a kind of betrayal, as if the Dharma was solely the possession of the dispossessed.  This, in fact, has always been the way the Dharma has percolated through societies. The Buddha advised kings and Brahmans.  It was King Ashoka who spread the Dharma throughout India.  In China and Japan, Buddhism was adopted by elites before it disseminated throughout the broader culture.  Seminal figures like the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and Dogen were members of their respective aristocratic classes by birth, and often taught and advised other members of their class. 

Billionaires need help with the existential difficulties of life every bit as much as you or I.  You may not believe this, but they do.  The very rich, while more cognitively satisfied with their lives’s achievements, are not any happier on a day to day, moment to moment basis than you or I.  The Dharma is for them too, just as the Buddha taught that even the gods needed the Dharma.  Will their exposure to Buddhist ideas make them more socially responsible?  That’s a lot to ask from a brief encounter with the Dharma.  Years of deep and committed practice would probably be transformative, but not a mere dabbling acquaintanceship. On the other hand, for some CEOs, mindfulness can serve as a gateway to serious practice.  It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but wealth is not of necessity a barrier to enlightenment.  And then there are always individual cases like the Aetna CEO who learned meditation to deal with his chromic pain and wound up raising the salaries of his lowest paid employees.    

Lastly, let me briefly turn to the issue of mindfulness in the military.  Mindfulness has been introduced to the military as a means of preventing the degradation of attention caused by stress, and perhaps preventing or reducing the post-combat sequelae of PTSD, alcoholism, and suicide. These are all desirable outcomes.  No one wants soldiers, armed to the teeth, making thoughtless decisions in the midst of heated emotion and diminished attentional clarity.  No one wants young men who only wanted to be of service to their country or to escape the jobless poverty of their communities to suffer the life-long consequences of intense stress — burdens they then impose on their families and on the communities they return to.  None of this training is designed to disengage soldiers from their consciences and turn them into more efficient killing machines. The question of whether recent military deployments have been either moral or wise were questions addressed, well or poorly, by men in Washington, DC, and not in the field. The Dharma belongs everywhere, in the boardroom and in the foxhole, and not just in the zendo. 

None of this is meant to be summarily dismissive of critic’s concerns. We need to do more to make our sanghas inclusive and welcoming to marginalized communities.  We need to attend to the ethical issues involved as secularized versions of the Dharma move into the hospital, the workplace and the military.  We need to keep the flame of Dharma transmitted to us by our Asian teachers fully lit, and in constant dialogue with its secularized cousins, as we make slow and careful adaptations to the needs of twenty-first century Westerners. We need to think through what a socially engaged Buddhism looks like as we try to develop Buddhist social theory.  Let’s be thoughtful about the process, and let’s not turn this into an us against them enterprise, whoever “they” may be.  Businessmen, the wealthy, and soldiers are not our enemy.  Greed, hatred, and delusion are.  And let’s not saddle our new Western Buddhism with outmoded Nineteenth Century political and economic dichotomies that do no real service to the complexities of modern life and offer no real assistance to those most in need.


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Dogen’s Universe and Ours

Eihei Dogen

I’m auditing a course on Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) that’s being taught by Taigen Dan Leighton under the auspices of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Dogen, the founding father of Japanese Soto Zen, was a prolific writer whose essays and recorded talks are, in turns, dense, perplexing, ironic, and poetic. He had an eye for imagery, an ear for language, an encyclopedic grasp of the koan and sutra literatures, and a perverse desire to torture ideas, turning them upside down and inside out until he had wrung whatever he could from them. Reading Dogen is difficult going because it’s often hard to tell when he’s being straightforward, when he’s waxing poetic, and when he’s pulling one’s leg.  He’s most challenging when he’s being absolutely straightforward  because he understood “time,” “space,” and “nature” as a medieval Japanese Buddhist would.   

Dogen’s view of time and space was influenced by the Flower Garden (Huayan) School which flourished in China from 600-845 and emphasized the “unimpeded interpenetration” of all phenomena. The Huayan Buddhists illustrated this unimpeded interpenetration through the metaphor of Indra’s Net, and image of the universe as a vast multidimensional net with jewels lying at each of its intersecting nodes, each jewel reflecting the light of every other jewel.  Each node was intimately and immediately interconnected with each and every other node, each and every node participating in and reflecting the totality.  A modern physicist might reinterpret this as each and every quantum particle being intimately and immediately connected with each and every other quantum particle.


For Dogen, space is equivalent to everything that has form — objects, beings, and the distances between them. Space is inseparable from everything that’s happening within it, including our psychological states and our actions. Dogen thought that when we sit zazen, that moment is facilitated by all things in the universe, and at the same time transforms all things in the universe. 

When one displays the Buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment.

—Dogen (Bendowa)

Our twenty-first century minds view space as something abstract —  three Cartesian dimensions measured in invariant units, each centimeter equivalent to every other centimeter — an empty place with objects lying at specific coordinates within its grid.  This is space that has been disenchanted and killed.  Humans, with their feelings, intentions, morals, and sensibilities, inhabit a dead space, conscious presences in an insensate world. 

Space for Dogen, on the other hand, is responsive and alive.  Compassionate humans live in a compassionate Buddha-verse.  Apples, after all, grow from apple trees, not from rocks. (Except that apple trees do grow from “inanimate” minerals, at least in part!)

There is a path through which the complete perfect enlightenment of all things returns to the person in zazen, and whereby that person and the enlightenment of all things intimately and imperceptibly assist each other. Therefore this zazen person without fail… universally helps the buddha work in each place, as numerous as atoms, where buddhas teach and practice, and widely influences practitioners who are going beyond buddha…  At this time, because earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm in the universe in ten directions carry out buddha-work, therefore everyone receives the benefit of wind and water movement caused by this functioning, and all are imperceptibly helped by the wondrous and incomprehensible influence of buddha to actualize the enlightenment at hand.

—Dogen (Bendowa)

Our modern conception of time is also an abstraction. Time is uniform, and linear, stretching back into the past and forward towards the future.  We think the only moment that actually exists is “now,” although “now” is inherently problematic.  “Now” is some abstract point of zero duration — an immediate past that’s already gone rushing off towards a not yet existent future, a fictional zero point that’s neither here nor there. 

Dogen, on the other hand, says existence is time.  Time isn’t abstract, anymore than space is.  My being “here” is also my being in “this time.”  If in Dogen’s chiliocosm all space interpenetrates, each locus intimately and immediately connected with every other locus, the same goes for time.  All times interpenetrate and reflect all others, past, present and future.  When we sit, we not only sit with all things, but with all times.  Each blade of grass is an expression of and reflects the entire universe.  Each moment is an expression and contains/reflects all moments.  We talk about being “here” and “now,” but this is already a mistake. We’re really here/everywhere and now/every-when.  We find all of space and all time reflected in just this moment, the “moon in the dewdrop,” as Dogen says, or William Blake’s “Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”

“In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments.  Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”

  – Dogen  (Uji)

For Dogen, our commonplace belief that we sit now to get enlightened later is also mistaken.  We’re not sitting alone — we’re sitting with all the myriad things, and not only with all the myriad things “now,” but all the myriad things, past, present, and future. We’re sitting with all Buddhas/We are Buddhas.  We are/affect “them” and they are/affect “us.”  Awakening occurs in an unimaginable field of mutual interpenetration.  In a strictly psychological sense, the Buddhas and ancestors, through their teachings and example, help us forward and beyond.  Our “future ancestors” encourage us as well — we’re pulled forward by our imagined future “enlightened self,” and we practice for our grandchildren’s sake.  But Dogen means this in more than a psychological sense.  He means it in an ontological sense as well. It’s the true state of the way things are — all of reality awakened, all of reality awakening us, past, present, and future — and our awakening, not somewhere off in some distant future, but here right here, everywhere and right now, every-when.  “Just actualize all time as all being,” Dogen writes.  “There is nothing extra.”

Dogen offers us a seamless vision.  Any degree of awakening I obtain (but there’s no “I” obtaining “it” — the “world” and “I,” inseparable from the very beginning, are co-awakening) is affecting/affected by everything else that’s happened/is happening/will happen, including the very nature of spacetime itself.  As twenty-first century Westerners who live in a scientifically informed spacetime, Dogen’s understanding of the interaction between mind and physical reality seems alien and superstitious. Science hasn’t been able to integrate consciousness into its physicalist model except as mere epiphenomenon. Awareness is a “ghost in the machine” that can never transform space and time.

Yet there’s something appealing about Dogen’s idea of a mental life inseparable from physical reality.  As far as Dogen is concerned, there’s no reason why this seamlessness should only be a one-way street, why physical processes should only affect mental processes and not the other way around.  For Dogen, this is not some supernatural spookiness (or at least nothing spookier than the quantum entanglement of particles) but, as Suzuki Roshi might say, “the way things is.”

If modernity has killed God and disenchanted space, medieval Dogen dwelled in a spacetime filled with the awesome presence of innumerable Buddhas. 

What are the consequences of our taking Dogen seriously?  Of provisionally trying this vision on for size as a kind of thought experiment?  The next time you sit zazen, try sitting in this space that’s intimately connected with everywhere and every-when, that’s filled with the awesome presence of innumerable Buddhas.  Allow that the universe, ancestors, bodhisattvas and Buddhas, past and present, a sangha stretching throughout and pervading time and space, are present with you, co-participating in the Enlightenment of all beings and things, of space and time itself.  Imagine that just as we carry the intention to care for all beings, the universe cares for us right back, that we dwell in a caring, alive, responsive space.

Is this a fairy tale, or is it a reality? 

Which vision opens one’s heart?  Which vision enables one to feel more intimately connected with all things?  Dogen thought of life as a dream and that we live “expressing the dream within the dream.”  Seeing the world rationally and scientifically may be the best way to build spaceships to Mars, but Dogen’s vision may better actualize our full humanity here on Earth.  It may also better enhance our care and concern for the each other and the planet, sustaining and reinforcing an ecological vision that allows us and our fellow species a future upon it.

As twenty-first century Westerners, we can’t undo history.  The twentieth century Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt once wrote, “What was once thought can never be unthought.”  We are all children of the Western Enlightenment now.  We can’t think in the exact same way that medieval Dogen did, but maybe we can recast the heart essence of Dogen’s view in a more contemporary idiom. Physicists like David Bohm and philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead have tried. Living abstractly does nothing for the human spirit.  Modern concepts of space, time, and nature reinforce estrangement, isolation, meaninglessness, self-centeredness, and despair.  We need a reality that’s a suitable habitat for our caring, connected presence. 

Dogen’s life-world is a good place to start.

It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not merely in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds.There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings within fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the world of phenomena. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass…. Wherever there is a world of sentient beings, there is a world of buddha ancestors. Thoroughly examine the meaning of this.

—Dogen (Sansuikyo)

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