A Guide to the Perplexed

IMG_5021 - Version 2 The irreconcilable differences that exist, like yawning chasms, between the various historical and cultural strands of Buddhism sometimes threaten to overwhelm their important commonalities. Mahayana concepts such as emptiness and non-duality seem out-of-keeping with (and appear nowhere in — at least in their post-Nagarjuna sense) the Theravada literature, while Theravada’s no-self seems incompatible with Mahayana’s inherent Buddha-nature or with Vajrayana beliefs concerning reincarnation. Theravada’s Brentano-like assertion that consciousness is always a “consciousness-of-something” conflicts with Mahayana’s belief in pure objectless consciousness. These unbridgeable disputes create perplexity in the minds of thoughtful beginners who are bound to wonder “who is right and who is wrong?” The truth is that all of these propositions — and others like them — reside outside the realm of the provable or falsifiable. What objective interpersonally verifiable test could possibly determine whether we have no-self or a Buddha-nature, or whether consciousness must always, without fail, have an object? There is never any way to resolve these perennial debates except through a leap of faith or a resort to one’s possibly erroneous or self-deluded interpretation of one’s own private — and therefore interpersonally unverifiable — experience. It’s more useful to think of these ideas as pedagogical strategies rather than as ontological statements, that is, as potentially skillful means to promote and facilitate practice/progress on the path. They each may be more or less useful in this regard, and the extent to which they facilitate practice/progress is — at least in principal, empirically verifiable. I suspect — and this is pure fantasy on my part, but please indulge me — that if some future experimental Buddhologist were to test the pedagogical mettle of these ideas that 1) they would show equal degrees of efficacy, or 2) different strategies would be differentially useful to persons with differing sets of cultural beliefs and expectations, or with differing personality traits and issues. The Thai Forest monk, Ajahn Chah, once remarked when accused of self-contradiction in the instructions he gave to different practitioners:

“It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, ‘Go left, go left.’ Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, ‘Go right, go right!’ That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, ‘Let go of that too.’ Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma. ” (A Still Forest Pool, p. 115)

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

Each of these contradictory Buddhist teachings probably have some value, either by virtue of the way they point out important aspects of experience, or by the way they encourage greater devotion to practice. For example, the notion of no-self may help reduce attachment to conceptions of the self or clinging to various self-aspects, whether some image of oneself, one’s sense of superiority due to some skill or talent, one’s vanity over one’s appearance, or a delusional belief in unchanging health and youth. The idea of a Buddha-nature, on the other hand, can encourage a belief that progress on the path is possible for anyone, that calm and compassionate observation is always possible in even the most turbulent emotional waters, and that everyone is deserving of kindness and care regardless of how different or appalling their appearance or behavior. Similarly, the idea of “emptiness” encourages us to discover our interconnectedness with others and the world.

In each and every case, the important thing is not the concept itself, which is never more than a metaphor, but the aware, embodied practice that, like the finger pointing to the moon, it directs us toward. Does a teaching facilitate awareness, openness, and kindness, and decrease grasping, hatred, self-centeredness and self-involvement? While dogma can be muddy and complex, practice itself is always clear and simple: pay attention, open up, let go, be truthful, be kind.

Everything else is just gravy — or interference.

There are some who will object to the notion that these ideas are only skillful means. They will insist that their idea of ultimate reality is the objective truth of how things really are, and who knows, they might even be right. The point is that you and I, dear reader, will almost certainly never know whether they are or not, and — more importantly — it doesn’t really matter. Most of us are on the Buddhist path, not because we want to know the objective truth of reality — most of us nowadays turn to scientists for that — but because we want to be more present, more aware, more open-hearted, more connected, more alive, more centered, less egotistic, more responsible for our actions, and less interpersonally toxic. We want our lives to be existentially meaningful and contribute to the welfare of others. We want to love more, better, and wiser.

The answer to the question of whether or not we actually have a Buddha-nature is always mu.

On the other hand, the answer to the question of how to increase our awareness and open-heartedness, just like the answer to the question of how to improve any quality or skill, or how to get to Carnegie Hall for that matter, is always “practice, practice, practice.”

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Self and Not-Self

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

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

“No, lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synchronic and Diachronic Self Obervation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody got it?

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

The Great Matter of Life and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now all the uncles are gone.  Every one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Dogen Zenji reminds us:

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

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Tarantula!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see you, Mara!”

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

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

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

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

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Mindfulness is Intimate Attention

Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” –Dogen Zenji

There are two types of attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unskillfulness and Sin

Christians believe in a variety of sins: original, venal, mortal. An external Evil Agent, Satan, tempts us into it.

Jews believe in an innate יצר הרע (yetzer hara) or evil inclination that entices us to stray from God.

In either case, sin is Evil with a capital “E” and denotes a rupture in our relationship with God. Certain things are sinful because they violate God’s commandments. They are sinful because God has ordained it so.

Buddhism has no concept equivalent to that of sin. While there may be gods in Buddhism, there is no God, The Eternal Creator and Judge. In Buddhism actions are judged by their utilitarian value: whether they lead to greater happiness for the person and affected others, and whether they lead to better karma, rebirth, and progress on the path to Enlightenment. The Buddhist terms for judging whether actions have a felicitous or unfelicitious effect are (in the Pali language) kusala and akusala, which usually gets translated as either wholesome and unwholesome, or skillful and unskillful. The utilitarian nature of these concepts is made clear in the Kusala Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 2.19):

“Abandon what is unskillful, monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because it is possible to abandon what is unskillful, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

“Develop what is skillful, monks. It is possible to develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to develop what is skillful, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because it is possible to develop what is skillful, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.'”
Kusala Sutta [1]

When we say that skillful actions promote happiness, we are not just talking about the happiness of the individual. In Buddhism the individual and others in the community have equal claims to happiness. Buddhism is, as Shohaku Okumura has observed, [2] neither individualist nor collectivist, but represents a middle-way between these dialectical opposites. This is, in part, a consequence of the Buddhist emphasis on emptiness, the interdependence of all things. It is also due to the Buddhist view of the absolute truth of the oneness of all things balanced against the relative truth of our individual uniqueness. Skillful actions promote the happiness of the individual and the community synchronistically.

Just as something unskilful, like an addictive behavior, brings ruin to the individual and his family and involves broader social costs, skillful actions bring happiness to the individual, his social group, and the larger social order. Selfish behavior does not bring genuine happiness, but only fleeting sense pleasures and ego gratification. Selfishness disturbs our loving social ties with others, creates dissension in the community, and makes us slaves to the hedonic treadmill of transient pleasure. The Buddha (like Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics) believed that real happiness came from the cultivation of wisdom and character. Aristotle differentiated eudamonia, or genuine well-being, from hedonia, or sense-based pleasure. Contemporary Positive Psychology is demonstrating the truth of the Aristotelian-Buddhist idea of a deeper, more worthwhile sense of well-being that is wisdom and character based.

Not only can actions be unskillful, but thoughts, which are really interiorized actions, can also be unskillful. Thoughts are often the first stirrings of action, with skillful thoughts leading to skillful actions, unskillful thoughts to unskillful ones. We are what we think. If we are to live skillfully we must first establish some degree of control over our unruly minds. This is where mindfulness comes in. If we’re heedless of thoughts we’re driven by them like a leaves in the wind. If we’re mindful of thoughts, we can exercise discerning judgment about them. We can discern whether or not a thought is skillful and then decide whether or not to rehearse, practice, nurture, and reinforce it.

Thinking about actions as being unskillful rather than sinful allows us to take responsibility for behavior without the added burden of surplus guilt. We avoid unskillful behavior because we want ourselves and others to be happy, not because we’re afraid of Hellfire or God’s wrath. The only source of retribution we really need worry about is the one we ought to: Cause-and-Effect. This is true whether one believes in the Buddhist concept of karma, or the modern scientific understanding of cause and effect.

Go and sin no more.



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  1. [1]–translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  2. [2] Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing Genjokoan, Boston:Wisdom