Contemplative Chaplaincy, Psychotherapy, and Buddhist Ministry: Similarities and Differences

Foundations of Contemplative Care, NYZCCC, 2017

Contemplative Chaplaincy, Psychotherapy, and Buddhist Ministry: Similarities and Differences

I’ve just completed the nine-month Foundations of Contemplative Care program at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC) as a support for my part-time volunteer role as a chaplain associate in an acute-care hospital. I wish to express my profound gratitude to Koshin Paley Ellison, Robert Chodo Campbell, Evan Zazula, all the NYZCCC staff, and my forty Foundations co-participants who helped make the program such a profound learning experience. The following summarizes my view of how contemplative chaplaincy both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry.

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Japanese Tea masters are familiar with the saying, “ichi-go ichi-e”—“one time, one meeting.” It means that each time we meet is a unique, unrepeatable moment—something precious to be savored and treasured.

Volunteering in an acute care hospital with an average length of stay of just three days, I get to see most patients only once. If hospice chaplaincy visits are poems, acute care chaplaincy visits are haikus. Seeing people just once for, at most, an hour or so raises immediate questions. How can one make such visits meaningful? How can two people, meeting as strangers, have an encounter that makes a difference? What kind of difference does one want to make? I’m aware each time I enter a room that this is truly one time, one meeting. I enter with one question in mind: what’s possible between us as two people right now? How can this moment be of benefit in some way for the person I’m dropping in on?

While any brief encounter can be freighted with meaning, there’s something about being in a hospital that makes it more likely to occur. The patient is often in a heightened emotional state—fearful, angry, in pain—and may be encountering significant existential questions involving the possibility of death, disability, dependency, transfigured appearance, and changed habits, vocations, and relationships. The contemplative caregiver is entering the room in the role of “chaplain” with all the connotations the term carries for the patient. Contemplative chaplains are the bearers of the patient’s projections. We’re coming, in the patients’ imaginations, to pray for or bless them; to hear their confessions or doubts; to offer reassurance, comfort and solace; and to talk about ultimate things. Or else we’re coming to offer platitudes and hogwash; to be scolded, blamed, and berated; to be argued with or converted or whatever else being a “chaplain” signifies for the other. We are God’s intermediaries, purveyors of the opiate of the masses, authoritarian repressors, and the bearers of chicken soup all in one.

This blog post is an attempt to sort out my thoughts about contemplative chaplaincy and how it both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry. In sorting these thoughts out, I’m comparing my chaplaincy experience with my prior experiences as a clinical psychologist and as a novice Zen priest. In thinking about this, it’s become clearer to me that there are certain skills and habits of mind that one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that carry over into and enhance contemplative chaplaincy. There are also certain skills and habits of mind one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that interfere with contemplative chaplaincy. It’s useful to sort out which are which.

By contemplative chaplaincy, I mean an approach to being with people who are troubled, sick, or dying that emphasizes presence and communicative intimacy without any specific predefined destination or goal other than establishing, maintaining, and repairing breaks in that presence and intimacy. The assumption underlying this approach is that accompanying a person on his or her journey is the most important feature of contemplative care—really being with him or her—and if one can make that happen—if the other person can experience the “being-with” of the caregiver, and can feel that he or she is heard and appreciated in the fullness of his or her verbal and nonverbal communication—then several beneficial things may happen in turn.

First, the fundamental aloneness that so many suffering people experience is, at least in that moment, changed and mitigated—that feeling that no one understands the specific and particular texture of one’s suffering and what it is like to suffer in exactly this kind of way, or that no one cares or appreciates or fully hears what it is the sufferer is trying to share, express, or convey. We can all remember what it was like as young children to be alone and afraid in the dark, and how it felt qualitatively different once a parent came into the room to lie down next to us, to hold our hand, and quietly talk with us. One can never underestimate the transformative power of being-with.

Second, there is an internal process that unfolds when one experiences being fully heard. When we feel we haven’t been heard, we feel we have to keep repeating what hasn’t been heard until someone finally “gets” it. Until that point we’re stuck and can’t move on. We aren’t ready to hear or discover something new that hasn’t been felt or acknowledged before. Once we are heard, there is an inner process that is ready to unfold. The stuck-ness is gone and something new is free to appear. That something else may be something we’ve never noticed before about our own situation or our feelings about it—some undiscovered or unacknowledged facet of what is implicit, waiting to be experienced. Every situation is infinitely intricate and complex, like a tangled ball of yarn, connected in some way with everything else we’ve ever known, thought, or experienced. Pull one end of the string a bit, and a little more unravels, revealing itself in the light of consciousness. By being with and hearing a suffering person, we co-create a shared space in which the sufferer’s experience can unfold in new and surprising ways.

Third, if the contemplative chaplain is sufficiently attuned to the rich and specific language that sufferers use—especially their lively use of metaphor, imagery, and symbol—it’s possible to help sufferers stay attuned to their own unfolding process in a way that facilities their discovery of new ways of experiencing their situation, with the discovery of new inner resources, and with a feelingful transformation of their relationship to suffering.

In addition to these three fundamental aspects of “being-with,” there are two other facets to contemplative chaplaincy that loom large in my experience: the “mobilization of healing energies” and the “witnessing of existential choices.” The first is the mobilization of the patient’s internal healing resources. While we still know comparatively little about the role psychological processes play in disorders involving the autonomic, endocrine, and autoimmune systems, one can make a good case that reducing anxiety and panic and mobilizing hope, optimism, equanimity, gratitude, acceptance, humor, and a sense of internal control can all have potentially beneficial effects on one’s suffering and maybe, also, on the disease process itself. There are also, however one wants to conceptualize it, energies and internal resources associated with religious archetypes (Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, the Buddha, Kwan Yin, and all the various spirits, angels and saints) that can be mobilized through prayer and blessings and that have the potential to reinforce movements towards wholeness and well-being.

The second is witnessing the sufferer’s exploration of his or her existential choices. Many patients experience their illnesses as a kind of crossroads experience—as a wake-up call, or as an enforced time-out from routine that provides an unasked for opportunity for reflection. Patients often want to tell the chaplain how their illness marks some crucial turning point—how old ways need to be let go of and new directions sought out and begun. Witnessing and acknowledging turning points helps vivify and reinforce them, increasing the likelihood they may be instantiated in behavior once the patient has left the hospital.

In all of these five aspects of contemplative care—being-with, fully listening, linguistically tracking the experiential process, mobilizing healing energy, and witnessing existential choices—the chaplain is sensitive to whether, in fact, this is the kind of intimate contact the sufferer really wants in this moment. The chaplain is always assessing what is possible in the meeting between two people as these possibilities wax and wane throughout a chaplaincy visit. Sometimes people want company; sometimes they wish to be alone. Sometimes they want some specific other person to be with them—not necessarily the contemplative chaplain. Sometimes they are weary or in great pain and just want to obliterate consciousness. Sometimes they are not open to exploration that might dredge up feelings they would prefer to keep in abeyance. Sometimes they need to maintain a state of denial. Sometimes they need to pretend to have it all together, to be perfect, to be competent to deal with everything on their own without assistance, to be strong. The contemplative caregiver needs to be sensitive to this at all times, to give space when space is needed, to be superficial when superficiality is called for. We all go through life and death as best we can. Some people leave this life with grace, some go out kicking and screaming, and some need to pretend they aren’t leaving at all. The contemplative chaplain is never afraid to knock on any door—or rather, the contemplative caregiver is prepared to knock on any door however anxious he or she may be—but the contemplative caregiver is also always prepared to leave doors unopened when appropriate, or to have doors slammed in his or her face.

It’s all well and good to talk about “being-with” or “communicative intimacy” or “presencing,” but the question remains, what exactly are we talking about when we use these terms? These terms overlap to some degree with other frequently used terms such as “mindfulness,” “being in the here-and-now,” “openness,” and so on. If one is a meditator, it’s possible one has a leg up on understanding precisely what these terms convey, but it’s also possible to understand them without having any meditation experience—some people do it more or less naturally—and it’s also possible to be a meditator who engages in focused-attention meditations (as opposed to open monitoring ones), and never get the “feel” for engaging in these modes of being while in communication and interaction with another person. In understanding “being-with” and “presencing,” metaphors like “dropping down into the body,” “spaciousness,” “equanimity,” “silence” and “slowing down” also come to mind. We all know what it’s like when people are really fully paying attention to us, and when they’re only half-heartedly doing so. We know what it’s like when people are listening to us with their minds on their next reply, and when people are listening so they really “get” us. We all understand what it’s like when someone’s relationship with us is “instrumental”—they’re trying to use us or do something to us in some way, and when it is an “I-Thou” relationship involving “letting be,” that is, encountering us and letting us be just as we are.

The contemplative chaplain is interested in quieting his or her chattering, scheming, planning mind as much as possible. He or she is not worrying about what to say next or whether he or she is being liked, approved of, valued, successful, or competent. Or rather, all those concerns are there—noticed, and allowed to come and go in a more spacious field of awareness—one that also includes awareness of one’s body, emotions, and felt senses—an awareness that isn’t centered in one’s “head” but is more likely centered mid-torso or perhaps, in one’s hara or dan t’ian. This field of awareness is a bi-personal field (or if relatives, nursing aides, or friends are also present in the room, a multi-personal field) in which one is also aware of the words being spoken, the gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice of self and other, and the reactions to those words, gestures, and expressions as they arise in oneself and the other moment-by-moment. Of course, it’s impossible to simultaneously attend to the richness of this field in all its complexity. One can only shuttle back and forth, dancing between various “internal” and “external” objects of awareness. To do this well, one must first slow down sufficiently to allow the back-and-forth awareness of the myriad complex facets of experience to arise—not rushing from one to the other, but allowing time for each facet to be savored, appreciated, acknowledged, and then let go of. This slow, gentle, dance of aware-ing occurs within a larger context, and it is the gestalt of this larger context that helps keeps these shifting aspects of awareness relevant to the purpose of “being-with.” It is the larger context of being curious about the other person, wishing to fully get to know and hear them, wishing to be fully present with them, and wishing to be of real benefit to them.

If there are similarities between this contemplative “being with” and meditation, the astute reader may also have already recognized the similarities between “being with” and certain forms of psychotherapy—especially those existential-humanistic psychotherapies (e.g., Rogers, Gendlin) that emphasize relationship, empathy, and the creation of the fundamental conditions that facilitate therapeutic change. In these therapies, the core therapist skills involve being a good listener, conveying accurate empathy (letting the patient know they’ve been accurately heard), being authentic, and helping the client stay in touch with his or her internal processing—especially somatic-affective-intuitive rather than cognitive processing—what Gendlin calls one’s “felt sense” of the complex, intricate whole of a situation.

How is the task of the contemplative chaplain different from that of the psychotherapist? The first important difference is that the psychotherapist assumes an expert role vis-a-vis the patient. The therapist is being consulted because, presumably, he or she knows something that the patient does not. He or she is an expert in something or another. That “something” may be “diagnostic categories” or “personality dynamics” or “cognitive errors” or “reinforcement schedules,” or “hypnotic inductions,” or “family systems,” or something entirely different depending on the type of psychotherapist he or she is. In contrast, the contemplative chaplain starts from the vantage point of “not knowing” and “beginner’s mind.” He or she may be an “expert” in establishing rapport and in checking with his or her own internal process, but he or she is not an expert in knowing the client, understanding the client’s problem—if in fact the client has a problem—or knowing what might be best for the client. The contemplative chaplain starts with an attitude of curiosity and being interested in finding a way to meet the patient where the patient is, but other than that, he or she has no idea of what might possibly unfold. He or she is equipped with a sense of adventure, a wish to be of benefit, and little else. There is no guiding theory other than trust in “being-with.”

The second important difference is that the therapist is attempting to fix a problem. You wouldn’t come to consult with a psychologist without one. There is a tacit or explicit assumption that there’s something wrong with the patient that needs fixing. The contemplative chaplain starts with no such assumption. The chaplain has not been invited into anyone’s room—he or she is entering the patient’s room unbidden. The patient hasn’t asked for a chaplain, and probably hasn’t thought he or she needed or wanted to see one. This strange, unknown person bearing a suit jacket and a nametag has wandered into the room. Perhaps the patient is curious, perhaps not. Perhaps he or she wonders what this person—the chaplain—wants with him or her, what the chaplain wants to do to him or her. Every other stranger who enters the room has a specific task and function—drawing blood, giving medication, taking vitals, changing bedpans, bringing meals. What does this person want? The contemplative chaplain is the one person walking into the room without an agenda, other than being-with. The chaplain doesn’t assume the patient has some problem needing fixing. The chaplain begins with the attitude that we’re all doing the best we can, that we’re here just to meet and be together as best we can. By “we” the chaplain means the patient and him or herself. We’re all the same, all of us in the midst of our complicated, messy lives. We’re all of us wounded, all of us competent. We’re all of us dying, some of us quickly, some of us more slowly. Whether we succeed as two strangers in meeting together or not, it’s the best we could manage in this moment given our respective limitations.

We can think of other differences between the psychotherapist and the contemplative chaplain as well. Psychotherapists plan out interventions; contemplative chaplains just have conversations. Psychotherapists want to change patients; contemplative chaplains have no investment in the patient changing. Psychotherapists carry out interventions: they teach, convince, exhort, reinforce, give homework, hypnotize, offer interpretations and advice, and so on; Contemplative chaplains offer their presence.

So far I’ve been comparing contemplative chaplaincy with psychotherapy. How does contemplative chaplaincy compare with Buddhist ministry? It should be apparent by now that there are skills one acquires in Buddhist practice that help foster the kind of skills that a contemplative chaplain needs. These include an understanding of the contemplative stance which shares so much in common with the meditative stance: mindfulness, spaciousness, embodied awareness, being present, being fully attentive, and approaching things whole heartedly and one-mindfully. There are also one’s Bodhisattva vows that orient one towards behaving beneficially towards others in conjunction with the path ethical elements of right livelihood, right action and right speech. Finally, there are the Buddhist emphases on equanimity and interconnectedness and the Buddhist de-emphases of ego-aggrandizement and goal-directedness and achievement. These are all helpful qualities for the contemplative chaplain to cultivate.

But there are also aspects of the Buddhist ministry that can get in the way of contemplative chaplaincy. For example, we might find ourselves leaning in favor of patients finding “Buddhist” solutions to their difficulties. As priests, we might prefer they find ways of dealing with illness and death that accept impermanence as a fundamental fact of existence, or that emphasize self-compassion, kindness towards others, and similar Buddhist qualities. We might find ourselves wanting to teach an anxious patient meditation, teach an angry patient loving-kindness, or a patient mourning loss of function how to be grateful for their remaining capacities. After all, the core of our first Bodhisattva vow is to not just to help others, but to help others “cross over” to enlightenment. This urge to “preach and teach” is antithetical to being-with, being present, and fully listening. It can useful to remember than in many of the Pali suttas, the Buddha was reluctant to offer an opinion on all sorts of things until he was explicitly asked to do so three times.

Additionally, the chaplain’s identification as a “Buddhist priest” can sometimes get in the way of the patient’s receptivity to his or her presence. “Buddhists” as a group are generally viewed positively by the U.S. Population. The general population’s view of Buddhists is roughly equivalent to its view of Evangelical Christians, and only slightly less positive than its view of Catholics, “Mainline” Protestants, and Jews. Nevertheless, there are religious groups whose views on Buddhism are somewhat more negative and who may not be open to a Buddhist chaplain’s visitation, or who may be called upon to try to “save” the Chaplain as a matter of religious duty. In principle, this barrier is no different than the way that atheists, for example may receive a “chaplain,” or the way a Christian might receive a Jewish Chaplain. The patient’s reaction to the chaplain’s identification becomes grist for the mill as the chaplain explores whether it’s possible for patient and chaplain to meet together in an authentic and beneficial way.

The patient’s spiritual path, the patient’s view of the chaplain’s role, and the patient’s view of the chaplain’s spiritual path intersect in complex and endlessly fascinating ways. Just this past week, for example, I visited three patients who exemplified these complexities.

The first was an alcoholic who’d stopped drinking a decade ago after miraculously surviving an assault. After eight years of sobriety, he’d resumed drinking and developed cirrhosis of the liver. That’s why he was in the hospital. He’d broken his promise to God to never drink again, but now God was also offering him another chance: his hospitalization was a wake up call. This time he wasn’t going to promise God he’d never drink again. Humans are weak and can’t necessarily keep their promises. Instead, he was going to pray God grant him the strength to keep his resolve one day at a time. He saw me as someone to confess to. After listening attentively, I asked if he would like us to pray, and together we devised a prayer that acknowledged his sincerity, his weakness, and his wish for divine assistance.

The second patient was distressed that her stay in the hospital was taking so long. We talked about her illness and its impact on her life, but her mind soon turned to religious themes and she asked me about my own beliefs. I replied that I ministered to all faiths– that while I was personally a Buddhist, I considered all religions valid spiritual paths to the sacred. She strongly objected to this: Accepting Jesus was the only route to salvation! Given her palpable concern for my well being, I asked if she would like to pray for me. She embraced the opportunity, praying that God open my heart to the truth. God had prolonged her hospital stay so that we could meet.

The third patient wasn’t interested in talking with me at all. He said, “Tell me what you want to tell me and get it over with.” Whatever it was I had to tell him, he wasn’t interested. He was apparently used to people telling him things he had no use for. I replied I had nothing to tell him; I was only there to listen. He responded by telling me that the doctors said his body was “riddled with cancer,” adding, “but I don’t believe in cancer.” “What do you believe in?” I asked. “Jesus,” he replied. I told him that I understood. He may have turned his body over to the doctors to do whatever they thought best, but his soul was with his maker.  We prayed together, saying that Jesus determines all things—who shall live and who shall die, who has eternal life and who does not—and that we trusted Him to always do what was best.

As Zen Master Dizang says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” One can never anticipate what direction spiritual conversations may take. In previous weeks, similar kinds of conversations had gone in uniquely different directions. Two weeks earlier, an atheist patient informed me that it was pointless for us to talk. When I suggested that wasn’t necessarily the case, he challenged me, asking, “What then should we talk about?” I looked around the room for some clue as to how to begin. “Tell me about your tattoos,” I said, seizing on the most salient aspect of his appearance. An exploration of his tattoos led naturally into a discussion of his life philosophy and how his deepest goals were at variance with his current life situation.

A month earlier, a patient had issued a full-throated cry for me to leave her alone: “Get out! There is no God!” I stayed and listened to her harrowing tale of being savagely beaten and miscarrying her baby. She told me how, throughout her entire life, well-intentioned people had told her they “cared,” but nobody really did anything to help. I was just another one of those people. We spent an hour in Hell together. I only hope it was better for her than spending that hour by herself.

The point of these vignettes is that none of these spiritual encounters had anything to do with my specific beliefs as a Buddhist priest, and that there are ways, if I wore my being a Buddhist priest too heavily, that being a Buddhist priest would have undermined my role as an interfaith chaplain. We are here to listen to and be with patients in whatever way seems beneficial; not to teach or preach. What my Buddhist training offers me, however, are the Zen Peacemaker Order tenets of “not-knowing,” “bearing witness,” and “compassionate activity.” These tenets are the very backbone of contemplative chaplaincy.

Allow me to conclude this comparison of the roles of the contemplative chaplain, psychotherapist, and Zen priest with a joke designed to capture the essential differences between them. It’s not a great joke—but I never claimed to be a comedian.

A Zen priest, a psychologist, and a contemplative chaplain walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Say, did you hear? Joe’s in the hospital!” The priest says, “I’ll go visit and teach him about impermanence and non-attachment.” The psychologist says, “I hope he doesn’t get depressed! I’ll go visit and encourage him to think more rationally.” The contemplative caregiver remains silent, as if meditating. “What are you going to do?” the bartender asks, puzzled by the silence. “What will you say to Joe when you visit him?”

“Tell me the whole story,” the chaplain replies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thoughts After Shukke Tokudo

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I recently ordained as a novice Zen priest in a ceremony officiated by Sensei Daiken Nelson at White Plains Zen. The traditional Soto shukke tokudo ceremony included some textual emendations courtesy of the Zen Peacemaker Order along with a priest’s pledge Daiken and I cowrote that was loosely based on an earlier pledge that originated with the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community.  Our version read:

“To be a priest is to serve sangha and world in accord with the Buddhadharma. I pledge to care for the Sangha, manifesting and maintaining practice and places for practice; transmitting and renewing its liturgy, rituals, and values; acting as a celebrant and mourner for rites of passage; and offering pastoral care in moments of need. I will study, embody, and share the Dharma. Taking the backward step, I will turn the light and shine it inward. As my robes signify the potential for awakening available to all, I will wear them with dignity. I will strive to actualize the fundamental point in each moment, practicing whole-heartedly, cultivating an intimate, careful attention to all things, bearing witness to the world’s cries of suffering, and fulfilling my vow to help all beings awaken. This is the way of the priest.”

The role of the American Zen priest is—like everything else—in flux. It’s clearly different from that of the traditional Japanese Zen priest who inherits a family-run temple and conducts funerary rituals. It’s also different from that of the Sensei who’s recognized for having achieved a certain level of spiritual attainment and is authorized to offer teisho and daisan. The novice lacks the full priest’s authority to teach, offer jukai, or preside over marriages and funerals. What the novice priest essentially has is the authority to chop wood and carry water—the exact same authority one had prior to ordination—that, and the right to wear the inner and outer robes of the priest and to learn how to conduct onself with menmitsu no kafu—the exquisite, careful, considerate, and intimate attention to detail that uniquely characterizes Soto Zen activity. In a culture addicted to fame, competition, consumption, and acquisition, the robes are reminders of the Enlightened Way to all who wear and witness them.

In American Zen, the path of the priest opens up opportunities to engage in pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, interfaith collaboration, presiding over rites of passage, and promoting social justice. It’s a means of both transmitting Japanese liturgy, ritual, protocol, and etiquette and also of thoughtfully adapting them to American needs. The priesthood embodies the Bodhisattva ideal of service to all beings. Since retiring from psychotherapy, I’ve sought to use the skills I acquired as a therapist—listening, presence, holding a space, using language to unlock potentiality—in some new role unconstrained by the dictates of professionalism, the medical model, the fifty-minute hour, and the insurance industry. It’s my greatest hope that the priesthood will prove to be a path that allows me to offer my skills in the service of wisdom, compassion, and awakening.

My Buddhist journey is a fifty-year arc: the adolescent student attending Alan Watts lectures in the 1960s; the psychologist on internship at the Center for Mindfulness in the 1990s; the yogi on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society and the Springwater Center; my jukai and shukke tokudo in the White Plum Asanga lineage and Zen Peacemaker Order. I went from being a Westerner interested in Buddhism, to a Buddhist sympathizer, to a lay Buddhist, to an ordained Buddhist—each of these stations on a journey towards greater commitment to a path that has continued to enrich my life beyond words, and for which I am profoundly grateful.

I have some concern as to how my fellow sangha members may react to my robes. Robes have the potential to signify something else for others than they do for me. It’s possible that the robes may be experienced—subtly or unsubtly—as somehow putting a separation between me and others. I hope that concern proves to be unfounded. While fully dedicated to zazen and awakening, many of my sangha members do not identify themselves as being “Buddhists,” and some are skeptical of and even averse to Japanese tradition and ritual. They lean towards a modern, American Zen—spiritual, but not necessarily religious—rather than towards preserving Zen’s Japanese heritage. I’m sympathetic to that—I’d have never found my own entry into Buddhist practice through more traditional Asian Buddhist forms. I’d probably have run the other way. My first teachers, like the late Toni Packer, stripped sitting and awareness down to its barest essentials, making it possible for a skeptical Westerner like myself to relate to them. 

On the other hand, I’ve become more of a traditionalist over time, worrying about what may get lost in translation. I find traditional Japanese forms of practice beautiful and inspiring, and find great value in an etiquette based on infinite respect for all things, the spare Zen aesthetic, and a careful, intricate attention to detail. They remind me of my interdependence with and gratitude/respect for all-and-everything. They also serve as an antidote to the modern Western overemphases on individualism, the network of “me-ness,” and our focus on forever trying to arrange things closer to our preferences and desires. As the saying goes, “only don’t pick and choose.”

We’re all beneficiaries of an ancient flowing tradition. I’m grateful for that tradition and wish to continue to honor it as we step into the future. Not every aspect of it—not the authoritarianism and sexism, for example.  But much of it. The dialectical tension between traditionalism and modernism affects every aspect of Buddhist metaphysics, ethics, and practice. It always has and always will as Buddhism has historically crossed and continues to cross cultural and temporal boundaries. I’m glad to be deeply rooted in and a part of an evolving tradition, and to be intimately engaged in the never-ending dialogue over how to shape its future. 

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Photos courtesy of Bunny Solomon

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No End to the Sky

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“When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky.”

—Eihei Dogen, Genjokoan (Okumura trans.)

The metaphor of an arhat’s or bodhisattva’s path being like that of a flying bird is a familiar Buddhist trope, recurring in the Dhammapada, the Ten Stages Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and Dongshan Liangjie’s Recorded Sayings.  When Eihei Dogen put his own specific spin on this avian metaphor, he was doing so to illustrate that there’s no end to practice/realization.  In Theravada Buddhism there’s a path with a final destination: complete and perfect Enlightenment. In Dogen Zen there’s no path, no end to delusion, no end to realization, no end to practice.  In Dogen’s non-dual universe realization is already present in our practice, and delusion is inseparable from it — separating delusion from enlightenment is itself a subtle form of dualism. When we sit zazen, we express an enlightenment that’s already present and always “ours” given our Buddha-nature, but there’s no end to practice and our expression of realization. 

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir describes another kind of endless process when she says of human aims, “the goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing.” This idea of existence as a continuous act of self-surpassing is relatively new in Western thought—something rooted in the nineteenth-century philosophies of Nietzsche and Hegel.  A similar idea is carried forward in the twentieth-century philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead who describes a process of “concresence” in which, in each and every moment, we create ourselves anew.

A complete description of any process—and process is all there is—includes an implied next step, a place where the process is heading, which in turn creates a new state of affairs and, along with it, a new next step. My lifting my leg and shifting my weight implies the step to follow.  Feeling hungry implies the next step of searching for food. Oxygen combined with iron in an acidic environment implies the next step of an exchange of electrons. Seeds, soil, water, and sunlight have plants as their next step; Plants have seeds as their next step: the arrow of time points one way.

This endless self-surpassing, this forever taking of a next step, is a metaphor for how we live. Each moment reveals new possibilities, allowing Being to disclose itself in new ways. Each accomplishment opens up new horizons, and along with them, new questions, new disequilibria, and new abilities.

Buddhist practice changes us.  Each time we sit, each time we exercise compassion, we’re subtly changed, and the odds of how we’ll act in the next moment have subtly shifted. Just as our ability to appreciate music and art changes with our increased experience of them, so our appreciation of zazen changes with experience.  Our understanding of the limits of our compassion changes with experience, as does our understanding of what to do with our lives. Other things change too: our enchantment with material things; our understanding of sickness, old age, and death; our ratio of self-centered to altruistic thoughts; our emotional reactivity to adverse events.  The opening words of the Heart Sutra dharani—gate, gate, paragate — “gone, gone, gone beyond” — express this self-surpassing movement: we’re always going “beyond.”  Only there’s no final, complete end to this beyond — only an endless movement towards the horizon. 

There’s no end to the sky.

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Authenticity and Zen

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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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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

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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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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.

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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

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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

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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.” 

Panpsychism

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. 

But:

….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

God

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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On Desire

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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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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.

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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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The Meal Gatha

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We’ve just passed the Thanksgiving and Hanukkah/Christmas season, our modern harvest and solstice celebrations, and celebrated them with — if you’re like most people — family feasts: turkeys with all the trimmings for Thanksgiving, latkes on Hanukkah, perhaps a Christmas ham. Perhaps you went around the table taking turns to acknowledge all you were thankful for, or perhaps you began the meal by saying grace. In Jewish households, brachot are recited before meals and birkat ha-mazon afterwards to acknowledge God, the creator and sustainer of all things. Christians households recite grace before meals, thanking the Lord for blessings bestowed.

Zen has its own pre-meal incantation, the Meal Gatha, or Verse of Five Contemplations:

First, seventy-two labors have brought us this food. We should know where it comes from.
Second, as we receive this offering we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the mind to be free from clinging, we must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life, we receive this food.
Fifth, to realize the way, we accept this food.

 

The gatha is extracted from the elaborate, formal oryoki ritual described in excruciating detail by Dōgen in his Eihei Shingi, written in 1237 C.E.  Unlike its Judeo-Christian counterparts, the gatha isn’t an homage to a deity, but an attempt to establish one’s frame of mind for the meal to come.

The first contemplation makes mention of seventy-two labors. In the elaborate division of labor within Japanese monasteries, seventy-two positions, from the abbot to the cook, contribute to the conduct of monastery life. Seventy-two labors is a metaphor for acknowledging that our meal doesn’t come to us miraculously like Athena sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus. Instead, innumerable labors contributed to it — farmers raised the produce, middle-men packaged, transported and sold it, family members prepared it, and an even larger cast of supporting characters built our kitchen appliances, constructed our electrical grid and gas pipelines, and provided the farmer’s seed and fertilizer, tractors and combines. While we’re at it, lets also acknowledge the vital contributions of the sun, the earth, the rain, the atmosphere, and pollinating insects. This meal arrives at our table by virtue of innumerable contributors. It’s an opportunity to both acknowledge the interconnectivity of all life, and to express our gratitude for it.

The second contemplation is an open inquiry into whether our day has been aligned with our vows and intentions, and whether we’re living out our aspirations in accordance with the Dharma. Are we worthy of this meal? The 8th century sage, Baizhang Huaihai, used to say, “a day without work, a day without eating.” Out of all the schools of Buddhism, Zen is perhaps unique in viewing manual labor as integral to practice. Work not only provides the wherewithal for our sustenance, but offers us opportunities for whole-hearted, mindful activity, erasing the dividing line between the secular and the sacred. So the question of whether we’ve earned this meal has both worldly and ultramundane implications. Have we contributed to the world through our labor, and have we contributed to the process of realization through our vows and intentions, through our zazen and our wise and compassionate activity?

The third contemplation is a truncated restatement of The Four Noble Truths — suffering comes from clinging and aversion, and liberation from overcoming greed, hatred, and ignorance. Meals are an opportunity for practicing non-greed — to eat what’s needed for our health and well-being, but not more; to accept the meal as is without comparing it to other meals we’ve enjoyed in the past; to be grateful for whatever has come our way. Unlike countless millions around the world, today we aren’t starving. We aren’t suffering from malnutrition. Can we be grateful for “enough” and “good enough,” even if this meal, right here, right now, isn’t our favorite? Even if it’s too cold, too overdone, too whatever? We suffer today from diseases of too much — diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. Just enough is better.

The fourth and fifth contemplations are statements of why we eat — the fourth, a reminder that we eat to live, the fifth that just living is not enough — that we eat to fulfill our vows and realize the Way. The historical Buddha spent years fasting and practicing extreme austerities before discovering that mortification of the body yielded not enlightenment, but emaciation and exhaustion. He attained enlightenment only after ceasing his austerities and embarking on a “middle way” between abstinence and greed. In the Buddha’s day, monks begged in the morning for food, eating once daily, and accepting whatever they received with gratitude. They ate enough to sustain themselves and their practice, but without becoming attached to tastes and preferences.  This is a far cry from our contemporary epicurean focus on deliciously prepared food as a cornerstone of la dolce vita.  Gourmands eat to enjoy, dazzle the palate, and sate the senses. Buddhists eat to cultivate practice. Dōgen’s Eihei Shingi instructs the monastery cook to give exquisite, mindful attention to the process of meal preparation, but to treat all the ingredients with equanimity.

In preparing food never view it from the perspective of usual mind or on the basis of feeling-tones… If you only have wild grasses with which to make a broth, do not disdain them. If you have ingredients for a creamy soup do not be delighted. Where there is no attachment, there can be no aversion. Do not be careless with poor ingredients and do not depend on fine ingredients to do your work for you but work with everything with the same sincerity… A rich buttery soup is not better as such than a broth of wild herbs. In handling and preparing wild herbs, do so as you would the ingredients for a rich feast, wholeheartedly, sincerely, clearly. When you serve the monastic assembly, they and you should taste only the flavor of the Ocean of Reality, the Ocean of unobscured Awake Awareness, not whether or not the soup is creamy or made only of wild herbs. In nourishing the seeds of living in the Way, rich food and wild grass are not separate… Wild grasses can nourish the seeds of Buddha and bring forth the buds of the Way. Do not regard them lightly.

Does this equanimity seem joyless to you? Not to Dōgen:

This life we live is a life of rejoicing, this body a body of joy which can be used to present offerings to the Three Jewels. It arises through the merits of eons and using it thus its merit extends endlessly. I hope that you will work and cook in this way, using this body which is the fruition of thousands of lifetimes and births to create limitless benefit for numberless beings. To understand this opportunity is a joyous heart because even if you had been born a ruler of the world the merit of your actions would merely disperse like foam, like sparks.

Dōgen even dares speak of love in this regard:

A parent raises a child with deep love, regardless of poverty or difficulties. Their hearts cannot be understood by another; only a parent can understand it. A parent protects their child from heat or cold before worrying about whether they themselves are hot or cold. This kind of care can only be understood by those who have given rise to it and realized only by those who practice it. This, brought to its fullest, is how you must care for water and rice, as though they were your own children.

In engaging in this practice, Dōgen asserts, one cultivates a heart as vast as a the ocean.

This vast heart does not regard a gram as too light or five kilos as too heavy. It does not follow the sounds of spring or try to nest in a spring garden; it does not darken with the colors of autumn.

With right view and right intention, everything becomes practice — shopping, cooking, eating, and cleaning up after — the whole world, a cauldron for our awakening.

I hope you’ve had a joyous holiday season, surrounded by loved ones, enjoying the bounty of the earth. Some of you may have spent the holidays alone, having but a few grains of rice to eat. Whatever your condition and circumstance, may every moment be an opportunity for awakening, may every moment be an opportunity to benefit others.  And may the new year be an opportunity to renew and sustain your practice for the benefit of all beings.

 

 

Oryoki photo taken from http://www.shambhala-toulouse.fr/shambhala/oryoki

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