Self and Not-Self

Vacchagotta, a wandering mendicant, visited the Buddha and asked him if there was such a thing as “self.”  The Buddha didn’t answer him but just sat silently.  Vacchagotta then asked if there was “no self.”  The Buddha was again silent, and Vacchagotta left with his curiosity unsatisfied.  Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, was puzzled by the Buddha’s silence and asked him to explain. The Buddha replied:

“Ananda, if I…  were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism.  If I … were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism.  If I … were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”

“No, lord.”

“And if I…  were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?’”     – Ananda Sutta [1]

Anatta, or “not-self”, is a frequently misunderstood Buddhist concept. Let’s clear up three common misconceptions about it right off the bat.  Buddhism doesn’t deny you exist, deny you have a personality, or imply you shouldn’t have an “ego.” What Buddhism does deny is a false conception of the self:  a self that is separate-unto-itself and unchanging.

In its narrowest sense, anatta is a denial of the Vedic conception of atman, an unchanging soul which transmigrates and which, according to the ancient Vedic formula, shares an identity with Brahman, or the godhead.  More broadly, anatta is descriptive of all conditioned phenomena, not just the self, and corresponds to the Mahayana idea of śunyata or emptiness: nothing possesses an unchanging self-nature.

The self can be compared to a whirlpool in the ocean.  A whirlpool is a distinctive feature of the ocean: it’s visible, tangible, and measurable.  It’s real.  It exists.  On the other hand, at any given moment the water that makes up the whirlpool is different from the water that comprised it a moment before, and from the water that will comprise it a moment later.  The whirlpool is a pattern that retains a discernible identity while it continues to exist.  At any given time, there is no separation between the whirlpool and the ocean.  It makes no sense to say that the whirlpool is “here” and the ocean is “there.”  Whirlpooling is a feature of the ocean.

It’s the same with the self.  The self exists as a pattern: a pattern of behavioral response. But that pattern is always in some degree of flux.  While I am always, in some sense, the same person, I am different now than I was at age three, and different from the way I will be at age eighty.  My intellectual capacity and memory will decline as I age.  My tastes and opinions may change as well.  While we are a relatively enduring pattern, we are also constantly changing: learning, developing, maturing, declining.  We also change depending on the situation we find ourselves in.  We behave differently at work, at home, in the bar, and in the zendo.

We are also inseparable from the world around us.  Our skin connects us to the world, rather than separating us from it.  It excretes, transpires, absorbs. We are constantly taking in the environment as we breathe, drink, eat, listen, watch, and feel.  We are constantly returning parts of ourselves to the environment as we sweat, excrete, exhale, and communicate.  Our body is constantly shifting state in response to the environment: its temperature, brightness, noisiness, novelty, and complexity.  Our minds are also inseparable from the world.  They are made up of memes [2] and schemas [3] learned from parents, teachers, peers, opinion makers, and the media, and through our interaction with the world.  We are like the whirlpool and the ocean: there is no place where we stop and the world begins.  This is our self: changing and interconnected.

Synchronic and Diachronic Self Obervation

In meditation we observe the present moment.  This is what can be called synchronic observation, as opposed to diachronic observation where we study phenomena over time. In any given moment or succession of moments we can observe a flux of sensations, sounds, smells, thoughts, images, memories, but no self.  Meditation reveals a world of sense objects and a process of knowing, but nothing solid we can call a self.  The Scottish empiricist philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), came to the same conclusion as the Buddhist meditators about this:

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception….  I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”

When we observe human behavior (including mental behavior) over longer periods of time, however, a different picture emerges.  We can observe regularities in thought and behavior that recur over time and across situations that are typical for a given individual, at least over a circumscribed time period of months and years.  These regularities are what we mean when we talk about personality, character, and the nature of self. [4]

Jeffrey Rubin discussed the difference between synchronic and diachronic views of the self in “Close Encounters of a New Kind: Toward an Integration of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. [5] Rubin compared synchronic observation to looking through a microscope, and diachronic observation to looking through a telescope.  He argued that neither method provided what he called “immaculate perception:”

“The self (or anti/no-self) that they “discover” is intimately related to how they investigate it. The telescopic approach to self-experience employed by many psychoanalysts yields a substantial self shaped by a particular history. Examining self-experience microscopically as Buddhist meditation does, reveals the fluid and unfolding nature of identity, the way we are shaped anew, moment-by-moment.  We need a bifocal conception of self that realizes that the self is both a substantial, embodied, historical, agent as psychoanalysis suggests, that perceives, chooses, and acts, and a fluid, uncongealed process that is created afresh by changing states of consciousness in the present.  Each conception of self is useful in particular circumstances.”

Why is any of this important?  Thanissaro Bikkhu has argued that the Buddha’s intention in discussing anatta was not to make an ontological or metaphysical point about the existence of the self, but to make a soteriological point about how to relieve suffering. How then does a belief in a skin-encapsulated, isolated, unchanging self lead to suffering? Here’s one answer from a (slightly altered)  book chapter [6] I wrote a few years back:

“There are real existential and ethical consequences that flow from our erroneous view of selfhood.  On an existential level, the existence of this inner self separates us from the rest of creation; we believe we are different from stars, rocks, ferrets and daisies; we believe ourselves to be this free mental thing that stands outside of materiality and causality.  When we experience ourselves as a process that is one with the universe, however, our sense of existential loneliness and estrangement drops away. Our sense of existential estrangement underlies some of our most destructive behavior.  When we harm the environment or another being we feel we are harming something other than ourselves.  When we wake up to our existential continuity with Being, we realize that when we harm others we are harming ourselves….

We are always worrying about the status of this self as if it was a currency whose value was floating in a free market:  “What’s the value of my self at this moment?”   In contemporary free-market societies the self seems to fluctuate in value from moment to moment.  The resulting insecurity means we are always trying to enhance our value through the accumulation of wealth, power, and status, through the pursuit of perfection, through ceaseless defensiveness and self-promotion, and through the defeat and humiliation of our rivals.  The anxious self, worried about its own insufficiency, is at the root of most human cruelty….

There are also psychological consequences to our erroneous view of the self.  Our clinging to a separate, enduring self can become a false refuge from existential anxiety and can impede a genuine awakening to our human condition. We often hear exhortations from within the self-help community to “express ourselves,” “love ourselves,” “be our true selves,” and “discover ourselves.” These exhortations have genuine value when they encourage the undoing of habitual self-abnegation, self-hatred, or self-obliviousness. They become hindrances, however, when they encourage glorification of the self, or pursuit of the self as an end-goal in life…  The Buddha believed that trying to take refuge in insubstantial, transient, and ultimately unsatisfying things was the root cause of human suffering. The belief that “if only I had this I would be happy” is reborn in the human heart in each and every moment: “If only one had more money”, or “a better job,” or “a better partner,” or was “more beautiful,” or “talented,” or “healthier,” and so on, ad infinitum. This belief in psychological rescue and refuge in ultimately unsatisfying things leads us to waste our lives in their pursuit, or leads us to berate and hate ourselves for failing to obtain or be them.

The Buddha believed that if one clearly saw that the self for what it was, one would not cling to self, and that this would assist one in ending suffering…   One would not take pride, for example, in being intelligent, and use that personal characteristic as a way of feeling either existentially sufficient or superior to others.  Intelligence is not a static, fixed thing: we act intelligently one moment and stupidly the next. Intelligence is not permanent: at any moment it can be impaired by age, injury, or disease.  Intelligence is also not “ours;” we cannot take credit for it:  It is a function of our parents’ genes, adequate nutrition, gifted teachers, the inculcation of good study habits, and the knowledge passed on to us from past generations. So there is no reason to cling to it: it is something that is here due to previous causes and conditions and is ephemeral. It is the same with every trait that we take to be part of the self: our kindness, our beauty, our courage, our strength.  All of it is due to causes and conditions, and will vanish with changing causes and conditions; none of it is ours.  We can be happy it is here, but it can’t be our refuge.

Not that the self is all bad.  All human beings above a minimal level of intelligence develop a sense of self, regardless of culture.  It’s also clear that they do so at a very early age, although the sense of self continues to elaborate and develop across the life span.  The universality of the self suggests that we are biologically predisposed to develop one, and that this self must have important survival value for us as a species. This sense of self and agency are also deeply imbedded within language which has a semantic structure based on the distinctions between actor, action and object.  While some think that our sense of self grows out of the semantic structure of language, it seems more likely that a proto-self emerges prior to language acquisition, and that both the self and the semantic structure of language have similar roots in the structure of human experience given our biological makeup and our interaction with the world.

Some of the earliest roots of the self lie in mammalian behaviors such as territoriality, possession, and the social structure of the pack.  It’s easy to intuit the survival values of those behaviors and their role in natural selection.  It is also easy to tie identity formation to the welfare of the family and clan; identity is in part determined by the reflected appraisals and ascribed roles of family and clan, and in turn serves as a locus of social responsibility for parents and teachers as they enculturate the child.

The fact that we are biologically predisposed to view things in a certain way, and that it might be useful to do so for some purposes, doesn’t mean that it is the only, or even the most useful, way to view things.  We are biologically predisposed to see objects as solid, and it is in many ways useful to do so; but objects are mostly empty space, and viewing them as solid prevents us from making other kinds of use of the material world.  It looks to us as if the Earth is flat and that the sun moves around it; for most purposes that suits us well, but it is woefully inadequate for other purposes.  As our social and intellectual evolution progresses, and as our species continues to interlink across the globe and reach beyond it, and as we begin to alter our environment and genetic makeup in radical ways, and as we develop technologies that can lead to our own extinction, prior ways of seeing things may no longer serve us. In our ancestral world of open space and small competing clans with only limited powers of control and destruction, the old view of self and other may have been good enough.  Now, perhaps, a view of understanding what connects us, the unity of all things, a vision of inter-being, becomes imperative if we are to survive as a species.

One further problem with a false view of self is that it can prevent us from growing psychologically and spiritually.  We can mistakenly believe that our narratives about ourselves are our true indentity, and not see them for what they are: just stories. Often we can be hemmed in by inadequate narratives that preclude and hamper our ability to change.  If one sees onself as inferior, or deficient, or “an addict,” or a “mental patient,” or “a victim,” for example, one may buy into that definition.  If you are woefully deficient in some way, there is nothing you can do about it.  You just have to suck it up.  Personal growth requires us to let go of old stories and definitions and try on new identities.  The less intensely one clings to a particular identity, the greater the potential for growth and change.

The Buddha, in neither endorsing self nor not-self in response to Vacchagotta’s questions, came awfully close to the four-fold denials of Nagarjuna, the second century poet-yogi-philosopher.  We can always count on Nagarjuna to take things one step further, so it’s fitting to end this post with Nagarjuna’s take on self and not-self:

“It is said that “there is a self,” but “non-self” too is taught. The buddhas also teach there is nothing which is “neither self nor non-self….”   Everything is real, not real; both real and not real; neither not real nor real: this is the teaching of the Buddha.”  -Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamikakarika (Stephen Batchelor trans.)

Everybody got it?

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  1. [1] Samyutta Nikaya 44.10, translation by Thanissaro Bikkhu
  2. [2] Minsky, M. (1988). The Society of Mind. Simon and Schuster: New York
  3. [3] Piaget, J. (1953). Origins of Intelligence in the Child, London: Routledge & Kegan
  4. [4] Over the centuries Buddhism itself came to recognize that the synchronic view of mental processes was insufficient, and the concept of the alaya-jijnana, or “storehouse conciousness,” developed to provide continuity over time.  See, for example, Waldron, W.S. (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-Vijnana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge: London.
  5. [5] Rubin, J. (2003). Close Encounters of a New Kind: Toward an Integration of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.  In Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY.
  6. [6] On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist: A Dialogue With Myself in Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY.

The Great Matter of Life and Death

Life is like getting onto a small boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”  -Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

This past week I attended two funerals, one for an an uncle, one for a cousin.

This coming week I’ll be attending a birthday party for one of my grandchildren.

My family shrinks as elders depart, grows as children enter the world.

This week was also the autumnal equinox: the end of summer, the beginning of autumn.

The world ceaselessly instructs us in impermanence.  Nothing remains the same because there is no “thing.” Every “thing” is always a process in transition to becoming some “thing” else.

When I was young, my extended family seemed to be a stable, unchanging entity.  It was filled with uncles, aunts, and cousins. Two decades went by with only minimal change.  It felt like I could count on it forever.

Now all the uncles are gone.  Every one.

Now all the aunts are gone except for one.  She is ninety-four and suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.

And now two of my own generation, my cohort of cousins, are gone too.

But those cousins have had children, and their children have had children.  One branch withers, another blossoms.

My body also gives me daily lessons in impermanence.  It reminds me of it when I take my insulin for my diabetes.  It reminds me of it when I visit my oncologist for my six-month check-up.  It reminds me of it when I wake in the middle of the night to pay obeisance to the prostate gods.   Ceaseless change.

Four years ago my first wife, the mother of my children, passed away after enduring the ravages of cancer.  Two months before she died, our son’s wife gave birth to twins.  One warm, bright April morning my wife and I took a cab from the emergency room at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where we had spent another traumatic night to go to the neonatal ICU at Beth Israel Hospital for a first look at our beautiful new grandchildren.  Was there ever a day more filled with intense, contradictory emotions?

Now I’m remarried, and my new wife brings me the joys of her children and their wives and children.  My family contracts and expands.

This is what I want you to know.  We had no beginning.  We are part of a ceaseless chain of events that began, this time around, with the Big Bang.  We came from our parents’ DNA, and they from their parents’ DNA. The effects of our actions reverberate throughout time and ripple throughout history.  We are part of the vast tapestry of being.  In the absolute view of things, we have no end.

Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no…. decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping…   (The Heart Sutra)

But from the relative point of view we have an end. The fact of our impermanence, of death-in-life, can sharpen our awareness of the limited time we have available to make use of our precious human lives.

Cambridge Insight Meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg tells the story of meeting Tara Tulku Rinpoche who repeatedly fingered the beads of his mala while reciting a mysterious mantra.  When Larry asked the meaning of the mantra, the lama replied “I’m going to die. I’m going to die.”  We all need reminders to focus on using our life wisely. When we realize our time is limited we can ask ourselves how we really want to spend it.  What’s really important?  We want our loved ones to know how much we care about them.  We want to improve things around us.  We want to leave something of value to those who come next.

As Dogen Zenji reminds us:

Life and death are of supreme importance.  Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.  Each of us should strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take Heed! Do not squander your life!

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Tarantula!

Desire never stops.   There is always something else or new we want.  Something better.  Something new to obtain; something new to attain; some new way to be.  It’s the mainspring that drives our behavior in the world.

When we sit down to meditate the mind is flooded with desire:  We want the room we’re in to be warmer or cooler.  We want the environment to be quieter.   We want our posture to be better.  We want our sitting position to be more comfortable.  We want our minds to be more alert, more concentrated, more still.  We can watch the parade of these desires with some degree of detachment and bemusement.  It’s the same old “Wanting Game” again and again.

Buddhist legend tells us that Mara the Tempter appeared to the Buddha in various disguises following his Enlightenment.  Each time Mara would appear, the Buddha would see through his disguise saying “I see you, Mara!”  With that, Mara would disappear, sad and disappointed.  The Buddha didn’t have to struggle with Mara.  He just needed to see Mara for who he was.

Similarly, when we see desire clearly it loses it’s power to enchant.

When I was in elementary school I used to go to the movies every Saturday afternoon.  I could see a double feature, five color cartoons, and a newsreel all for twenty-six cents.  I especially liked science fiction and monster movies.  One Saturday afternoon the local theater was showing the movie Tarantula!

I had seen the coming attractions the previous Saturday, and couldn’t wait to see it.  This had to be the scariest, best movie of all time!  Unfortunately for me, my mother had other ideas.  She was taking me to the dentist for my annual check-up that afternoon.  I was beside myself!  I begged and I pleaded!  Not while Tarantula! was in town!  Couldn’t we call up the dentist and cancel?  Couldn’t we see the dentist next week?  My mother was unrelenting, and I can still remember the taste of my disappointment today, fifty-five years later.  Seeing that movie was the most important thing I could possibly imagine.  When I asked the other kids about it on Sunday, they all agreed it was the best movie ever.  And I had missed it! Sheer misery!

I got a chance to finally see Tarantula! recently.   Here’s what James O’Ehley, the webmaster at Scifimoviepage says about it:

“As far as 1950s giant insect movies go, this… isn’t all that bad. Acting isn’t too rotten… You can certainly do a lot worse….  The older movies such as Tarantula become, the less interesting they become as movies in themselves. It certainly ticks off all the conventions of this particular subgenre: small town in the Arizona desert setting (check), mad scientist (check), army fighting giant insect creature (check), and so on…  Tarantula is simply slow-moving and dull by modern standards. There is a lot of leisurely chatter going on and the finale is anticlimactic to say the least.”

The reviewer is being generous to a fault.  I couldn’t watch more than 15 minutes of the movie.

Isn’t that the way with so much of desire?  How many possessions we couldn’t wait to obtain have been long since sold-off at tag sales or on e-bay or are accumulating dust in some attic or basement?  How many events we wanted to attend were better in anticipation than in actuality?  How many record albums, CDs or MP3s, the one’s we just had to have, now lie unlistened to?  How many things did we wish for that actually turned out to be toxic for us in some way?  Like the sugar, fat, and salt that makes junk food so appealing?  Can we see desire for what it is?

I see you, Mara!”

This is not to say that all desiring is wrong.  We can desire to educate ourselves, parent our children better, be kinder to others.   All good things.  Right now I want to learn how to play Chopin on the piano, and I’m looking forward to a trip touring the National Parks.  I’m also looking forward to another tomato ripening in our garden; they’ve been spectacular this year.  Nothing wrong with that.

What is important is that we look at our desires with discriminating wisdom.  Is what we desire really good for us and others around us?  Is it really worth the price we’re going to have to pay to get it?  Not only the monetary price, but other costs as well: our time, effort and emotional involvement, and the effect it has on loved ones.  Also, the other things we couldn’t afford because of the resources expended on fulfilling that one particular desire.   Is our desire based on a true evaluation of our situation, or is it a senseless craving, an addiction, a whim?

One way to assist in the process of discerning the nature of the desire is to wait a bit.  If we want something now, what if we wait a few minutes, or hours, or days, and see if we still want it?  That is why when we sit down to meditate and the room is too hot or too cold or too noisy, we don’t do anything about our desire to make things better.  We just sit there.  It’s boot camp for life.

[Deep apologies to everyone connected with Tarantula! including director Jack Arnold who went on to direct the wonderfully mystical Incredible Shrinking Man two years later, and actor Leo G. Carroll, who was terrific as Topper on TV.  Apologies also to (genuflect! genuflect!) Clint Eastwood who played an uncredited jet squadron leader in the film.  I didn’t write about this movie because it was especially bad, only because of my memories of having missed it.]

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On Not Killing

The Buddhist path is often characterized as consisting of three components: sila (ethics), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom). The Five Precepts (Panca-Silani) are the foundation of ethics for Buddhist lay practitioners.  Unlike the biblical Ten Commandments, the precepts are not divine edicts, but are intended as training rules.  Buddhists observe them in order to live skillfully and happily in harmony with other beings, to obtain good karma and fortunate rebirth, and to make progress along the path to awakening.

The first and most important precept is the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures:

“Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.”

It’s the Buddhist version of the biblical Sixth Commandment (“Thou Shalt Not Murder”) and roughly parallels the Hindu/Jain doctrine of ahimsa (non-harming).

At first blush, it seems the easiest precept to follow.  Far easier, say, than never telling an untruth or maintaining complete sobriety.

The more one examines the precept, however, the more problematic it becomes.

What does it mean to refrain from destroying living creatures?

In India, the Jains sweep the ground in front of them so as not to inadvertently kill any insects.  Does the Buddha ask us to do the same?

As it turns out, no.  If we accidentally trample an insect, no bad karma is created.  This is because there was no intention to kill.  In addition (in some traditions) insects are thought to be lower on the sentience scale than large mammals, primates, cetaceans, etc., and killing them has less karmic import.

Intention is the key to karma.  Accidents, in general, do not create bad karma the way intentional acts do.

On the other hand, some accidents are almost predictable.  What if one goes about carelessly and heedlessly and accidentally kills another being?  A drunk driver doesn’t intend harm, but driving while intoxicated raises the odds that harm might occur.  Here in the West we consider that to be vehicular homicide.  Does this kind of unintentional but heedless killing create bad karma according to Buddhist doctrine?

What about the killing of animals for food?

The Buddha did not prescribe vegetarianism.   Buddhist monks are permitted to eat meat, for example, if it is put in their alms bowl by a lay supporter.  They are not permitted, however, to eat an animal that has been killed on their behalf.

As lay Westerners we have an endless variety of protein sources available to us that are not the result of killing animals: dairy products, unfertilized eggs, soy-based products, legumes, etc.  Should we refrain from eating killed animals?

Meat sold in supermarkets has not been killed specifically for our benefit.  There was no particular consumer in mind at the slaughterhouse at the moment the animal was killed. Is it therefore all right to buy meat in the supermarket?  Or is that disingenuous?  After all, if more people declined to buy meat, the law of supply and demand would result in a decrease in animal killing.

In addition to concerns about killing per se, there are also serious ethical concerns about the way animals are raised on modern factory farms.  Who is creating a greater moral offense: the hunter of wild game, or the agribusiness livestock breeder who is raising animals under unnatural circumstances?

Buddhist traditions vary in allowing or discouraging meat eating.  Some Buddhist traditions permit meat eating (e.g., fish in Thailand, yak meat in Tibet) and others discourage it.

And what of harmful pests: bed bugs, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, fire ants, and rodents?  Is one permitted to rid one’s home and neighborhood of them, or must one endure them, even when they are unsanitary or serve as a vector for serious infectious disease?

And what about bacteria and internal parasites?  Is one permitted to use antibiotics?

And what about the autoimmune system? Doesn’t the autoimmune system kill foreign living organisms all the time?

And what about killing in self-defense or to protect one’s family, neighbors or countrymen?

To complicate matters further, Mahayana Buddhism introduces the concept of “skillful means” (upaya kausalya).  Under certain circumstances one may violate precepts when one’s motivation is wholesome.

Tibetans, for example, venerate Pelgyi Dorje who assassinated King Langdarma almost 1,200 years ago.  Langdarma allegedly suppressed Buddhism and persecuted Buddhist monks, and Pelgyi Dorje killed him to preserve the Dharma for the benefit of all beings and to save Langdarma  from creating even worse karma for himself.

Similarly, in the Upaya-Kausalya Sutra, a virtuous sea captain named Great Compassion (the Buddha in a previous lifetime) is permitted to kill an assassin who plans on killing a cohort of 500 bodhisattvas who are aboard ship.  In doing so, Great Compassion is willing to be reborn in a Hell Realm as a consequence, but his act is morally commendable, and his karma is not as bad as it would have been had his motivation been impure.

I am raising a series of questions and resolving none.

It’s not my intention to cite this-or-that text in this-or-that tradition to support one answer or another.  I refer the interested reader to Peter Harvey’s excellent book [1] on the topic if they’re interested in exploring Buddhist ethical doctrine in greater depth.

Instead, I only wish to point out that things are not as easy or straightforward as they might initially seem.  When we vow to refrain from killing living beings, we are being invited into an exploration of how far we are willing to go to put the vow into practice.  Are we willing to allow ourselves to be killed by a tiger, as the Buddha did in a previous life in one of the Jataka Tales, so that her hungry cubs might live?  Are we willing to kill an intruder who is invading our home and threatening our family?  If we lovingly rescue spiders by carefully removing them from our homes, are we as loving with an infestation of cockroaches?  Are we willing to eat fish, but not beef?  Will we join pacifist protests when our country goes to war?  Where will be draw the line in our lives?

There is a famous Quaker anecdote about William Penn.  When Penn first became a Quaker, he still wore his ceremonial dress sword on formal occasions, as was the custom of the time.  He was aware, however, of the moral conflict between Quaker pacifist beliefs and sword-wearing, and asked George Fox for advice.  Fox replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.”  When they met again a short time later, Penn no longer had his sword.  When Fox asked where it was, Penn replied “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.”

This is what Buddhism asks us to do.  To investigate the circumstances of our lives.  To live with difficult questions and address them as best we can in the moment.  To see how far we can go to refrain from killing in our lives, knowing that the extent to which we are willing to go may change and evolve as we proceed along the path.

Rather than being absolutes, Buddhist training precepts are invitations to explore how our lives change as we take on certain ethical challenges.

As the Buddhist saying goes, “Ehipassiko:”  Come see for yourself.

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  1. [1] Harvey, P. (2000).  An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mindfulness is Intimate Attention

Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” –Dogen Zenji

There are two types of attention.

One is a kind of critical scrutiny.  It’s the kind of attention in which we set ourselves up to be judges rating and evaluating some aspect of our behaving, thinking, or experiencing.  We watch ourselves in a distant and detached way like scientists observing a specimen under the microscope.  We make our behavior the focus of a series of inquiries:  “Why did I do that?” “What happened in my past that caused me to establish such-and-such a pattern?” None of this really helps us much: it distances us from life rather than joining us to it.  It leads to a proliferation of thinking rather than dropping us into a deeper space of awareness.

The other kind of attention involves genuine contact with what is being attended to.  It’s an empathic attunement to our own experiencing; an open listening without judgment; an intimacy with our own stream of consciousness.  Meditation brings this open, noncritical, intimate listening, seeing, and feeling back to our life again and again.

The Pali word for this kind of attention is sati (mindfulness).  Mindfulness is a bare-bones attention that lightly touches its object in an intimate way.  It is free from judging, comparing, and thinking.  It notices both sensations and the mind’s emotional, cognitive, and somatic reactions to them.  It is for and against nothing.  It doesn’t take sides or wish for things to be different from the way they are.

Mindfulness involves adopting an intentional stance vis-à-vis one’s own experiencing.  That stance can best be described as both a “letting go” and a “letting be.”  When we are mindful we let go of aspirations to achieve any particular outcome.  We temporarily suspend acting on our desires to prolong or avoid experiences and our tendency to label experiences as either “good” or “bad.”  We let experiences be.  We give them space and let them breathe. We let them speak for themselves.  Experiences manifest without effort on our part, and subside without effort on our part.

When we are mindful we don’t allow experiences to take us for a ride, however.  We sit like a mountain, intimately experiencing phenomena blossom, persist, and fade.

When we are mindful, we are not observing the world.  The world is manifesting through us.

A bird is singing in a tree.  Where is the birdsong?  In the tree?  In the vibrating air molecules?  In our ears?  In our auditory cortex?  In our minds?  In the bird’s mind?

When we are mindful we co-participate with all things as they co-arise in the world/mind.  We are an integral part of the seamless web of being.   How could it be otherwise?

“Conveying oneself towards all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion.  All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.” -  Dogen Zenji

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Spiritual Maturity

A few years back I described a model of adult development that included the idea of spiritual development. [1] The model posited adults as advancing along multiple developmental lines which were semi-independent but which could exert mutual influence on each other. Exceptional levels of functioning in one developmental line could exist side-by-side with pathological levels of functioning in another, and unremarkable levels in yet a third. In Piagetian terms, there were decalages between these semi-independent developmental lines, but the functional level of one line could assist or hinder progress in another. The model included the following developmental lines:

  1. Self-definition [2]
  2. Interpersonal relatedness [3]
  3. Cognitive Ability [4]
  4. Morality [5]
  5. Spirituality

A spiritually developed person would be wise, compassionate, aware, intuitive and authentic. These qualities are not the sole provenance of any particular religion or philosophy, although it may be that some religions or philosophies might be more effective in developing and cultivating them than others.

In this model, spiritual maturity involves the development of a variety of attitudes, capacities, and understandings including:

  1. Self-Decentration
  2. Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Intimacy with Being
  5. Care and Concern for an Ever-Widening Circle of Beings.

It might be useful to say a few words about each of these five aspects of mature spirituality.

Self-Decentration

Piaget described how the developing child saw himself as being the center of the universe. For Piaget, cognitive development involved a series of decentrations in which the child gradually realized that the universe did not really revolve around himself. At first, for example, young children, noticing the moon’s presence in the night sky whether they were at home or at grandma’s, would think that the moon had followed them around. Later they understand the moon’s position is governed by natural law that doesn’t involve them personally. In the same way children learn that two people looking at the same object from differing vantage points see the objects differently. At first they assume that everyone sees things from the same vantage point they do. The understanding of Cartesian space, that spatial coordinates exist independently of our bodies, is yet another decentration. As the scientific revolution progressed, humankind’s understanding of its place in the universe underwent a similar series of decentrations. The earth was no longer the center of the solar system, the solar system was no longer the center of the universe, and human beings were no longer the center of the natural world.

This concept of decentration can also be usefully applied to the domains of interpersonal relationships and to social identification. Mature interpersonal relations require the ability to see others as having their own unique desires and points of view, and the ability to provisionally leave one’s own framework and see things as they might. They require the recognition that others’s desires and points of view might have equal existential standing to one’s own, even when one does not fully share them. They require the ability to put others’s needs before one’s own under a multiplicity of circumstances.

We are born with the tendency to draw an inclusive boundary around social groups we identify with, and then assign those outside the boundary to a lesser existential status. Mel Brooks, acting as the Two Thousand Year-Old Man, joked that the world’s first national anthem was “Let ‘Em All Go To Hell Except Cave 76.” Our identifications with family, clan, religion, political party, and region can be profound. This demarcation of our in-group against their out-group is a primary feature of teenage social behavior and is part of the process of identity formation. It is also, unfortunately, one of the primary factors underlying social discrimination, civil war, and genocide.

The ability to move beyond identifications with family, clan, class, religion, politics, and nationality and to see other groups and cultures as having equal rights and value is a process of decentration that continues (or doesn’t!) throughout adult development. Being able to see others as like ourselves and treat them fairly is an integral part of wisdom.

Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems

Psychology has long been aware that human beings have two separate information processing systems. Freud recognized this when he made a distinction between primary process and secondary process thinking. Seymour Epstein has made a similar distinction between intuitive-experiential and analytic-rational thought processes.

Analytic-rational processes involve linear thinking in words. They are organized and directed thought processes that use hypothetical-deductive reasoning and problem-solving algorithms to arrive at conclusions. They weigh and sift evidence and test theories. They take a bit of time to figure things out. They are the mainstay of science, mathematics, logic, and philosophy.

Intuitive-experiential processes provide information though imagery and subtle bodily sensations. They are vaguely sensed and operate according to non-linear gestalt principles. Information often emerges and manifests without directed effort. Intuitive-experiential processes are fast and dirty. They provide us with an amorphous intuition that something is not quite right long before our analytic abilities can figure out exactly what has gone awry. It is what we talk about when we talk about trusting our gut, or feeling something in our bones. It’s the mainstay of poetry, art, and mysticism.

Everyone has potential access to both of these systems, but some people rely more heavily on one than another. Wisdom requires an ability to tap into both, and to achieve an integrated balance through a process of shuttling back and forth between systems. Carl Jung was aware of this when he wrote about adult individuation as being, in part, a process of learning to balance thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting. Intuition without the check of logic can turn into prejudice and mistaken conviction. Logic without intuition can miss feeling, nuance, and common sense. Wise people know how to reason logically, but also know how to listen to their deepest selves.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness allows us to drop into the immediate present. It allows us to leave the business of mental proliferation, multitasking, and sensory overload and find a place of inner stability and stillness. It allows us to increase our awareness of both intuitive-experiential and verbal thought processes. It allows us to develop our sense of aliveness. Mindfulness serves an an antidote to obliviousness and impulsivity, and is an important component of wisdom.

Intimacy with Being

This refers to a sense of in-touchness and rootedness in the unfolding present moment that develops as a consequence of increasing mindfulness. As we increase out capacity to abide within the moment, in our bodies, and in intimate connection with whatever phenomena manifest within the circle of our awareness, we feel more deeply connected to ourselves, others, and the natural world in heartfelt way.

Care and Concern For An Ever-Widening Circle of Beings

This is an emotional capacity that develops as one decenters from one’s social identifications. The sense of caring and concern we have for loved ones can extend to friends and acquaintances, and eventually to strangers and even enemies. It can also extend to the non-human realm of animals and plants. In the traditional Pali lovingkindness chant we extend kind intentions to “sabbe satta,whatever beings there are. Kindness and compassion are talents or skills that can be enhanced through practiced intention. As we develop spiritually, we open our hearts to others we could not have cared about earlier. Spiritually developed persons are not only wise, but compassionate as well. The spiritually mature person lives at the intersection of wisdom and compassion, the two qualities both balancing and reinforcing each other. As the saying goes, “wisdom without compassion is not wisdom; compassion without wisdom is not compassion.”

These five qualities point to a concept of spiritual maturity but do not exhaustively define it. Readers might be able to think of other qualities that are also necessary features of spiritual maturity. Virtues like equanimity or courage, for example, or a wholesome sense of humor. Please feel free to add to this list in your comments below.

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  1. [1] Segall, S. (2005). Mindfulness and Self-Development in Psychotherapy, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 37 (2), 143-163
  2. [2] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  3. [3] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  4. [4] For more information about this see: Piaget, J. (1997). The Child’s Conception of the World. London: Routledge
  5. [5] For more information about this see: Kohlberg, L. (1984). The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper and Row.