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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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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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.

Indras-Net-Image-Cropped-300x300

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

oryoki_set

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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The Harbor and the Weir

There’s something strange about Zen’s 10th Grave Precept — the one against “defaming the Three Treasures” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Why would anyone want to maliciously slander the Three Treasures?  The very thought  of it reminds me of the Stephen King protagonist who, concerned about the paradoxes inherent in time travel, asks “what if you went back and killed your own grandfather?” Another character replies, “Why the fuck would you do that?”

Exactly.

It’s not as if the Three Treasures need anyone’s protection. You can defame “2+2=4” all day long up and down the block, but “2+2” still equals “4”.  You can defame the Dharma all you want, but it remains unstained — how can you defame mindfulness or compassion?

The 10th Precept is often accompanied by two Japanese quotes (the translation is credited to Robert Aitken Roshi and his Diamond Sangha).

The first quote is attributed to Bodhidharma:

“Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the One, not holding nihilistic concepts of ordinary beings and sages is called the Precept of Not Defaming the Three Treasures.”

The Bodhidharma quote opens up the question of identity.  What is our true nature (self-nature) and what is the nature of other beings (ordinary beings and sages)?  What is our nature when seen through the lens of the absolute (the realm of the one)?  Bodhidharma’s quote points to both our mutual co-participation in the fabric of reality and our potential for awakening. When we fail to see how we are all an integral part of the whole, when we give up on anyone’s potential for awakening, we are defaming the Three Treasures — the Buddha (our potential for awakening) the dharma (the interconnectedness and contingent nature of all things) and the sangha (our participation in the community of awakening beings).

The other quote is undoubtedly Dogen’s:

“The teisho of the actual body is the harbor and the weir. This is the most important thing in the world. Its virtue finds its home in the ocean of essential nature. It is beyond explanation. We just accept it with respect and gratitude.”

A teisho is a dharma talk given by a Zen teacher.  In this case, the dharma talk in question is not a verbal one —  and it’s not given by a Zen teacher.  It’s the teaching we may receive at any moment from the actual body.  Our actual body is this body right here and now, this lived body as we experience and act through it  —  but it’s not just these five or six feet of skin, bones, muscles, sinews, and internal organs.  Our body is an integral part of all that is, including not only the live feel of movement and emotion, but birdsong, wheat fields, trees, and stars.  Everything is teaching us all the time.   Theologians sometimes question why God spoke to the prophets but no longer speaks to us  — but Dogen’s actual body never shuts up.  Let those who have ears hear.  This actual body, the dharmakaya, is our safe home (a harbor for boats, a weir for fish).  Dogen tells us this living teaching of the universe is the most important thing in the world.  Listen!  Feel!  See!  This teaching is beyond words — there’s no explanation we can give.

But what does Dogen’s quote have to do with not defaming the Three Treasures?

The answer lies in the line “We just accept it with respect and gratitude.”  Gratitude and respect are our natural responses when we listen openly to life.  We ourselves become filled with life — we feel ourselves unfold and flow.  This is grace.  In the presence of gratitude and respect, defamation doesn’t even exist as a possibility.  Defamation is the act of a dried-out husk — cynical, cut-off, despising, ungracious — not a being living each moment in harmony and awareness. In this sense, the 10th Precept is not a mere admonition to avoid slander — it’s an invitation to receive grace — to awaken, to open, to be aware, to listen with one’s whole being to the ongoing teisho of life.

As Dogen says, this is the most important thing in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Five Practices

Buddhism has a thing for numbered lists:  Two Truths.  Three Marks of Existence.   Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  Five Precepts.  Six Paramitas.  Seven Factors of Enlightenment.   The Eightfold Noble Path. Twelve links of Dependent Origination. Thirty-two Marks of the Buddha. Fifty-one Mental Factors.  Fifty-two Stages of the Bodhisattva Path.  There’s a lot of stuff to remember and the lists are mnemonic devices that help keep everything straight.

Buddhist practice can be endlessly complicated.  Some people like things with more details, more rules, more rituals, more practices, complex visualizations.  If you are one of them, there is a Buddhism that is just right for you.  There are 84,000 different Dharma doors.

Not me.  I like things simple.  My favorite ice cream is plain vanilla.

My practice is very simple.  My numbered list contains only Five Practices:

  1. Be Present
  2. Be Open-Hearted
  3. Show Respect
  4. Have Courage
  5. Let Go

Five is as much as I can wrap my head around.  If I stick with these five there is more than enough to keep me busy.

1) Being Present — The practice of Being Present involves mindfulness, both in dedicated sitting practice and in daily life.  It also involves a commitment to whole-heartedness — if you are going to do something, do it all the way with your whole being.  It also means showing up — be there to do what is needed — don’t evade responsibility for doing what has to be decided or done.

2) Be Open-Hearted — Open-Heartedness is the practice of commitment to the way of compassion, lovingkindness, empathy, tolerance and forgiveness.  It is the practice of accepting people the way they are, no matter how different or deficient they may be.  That doesn’t mean that you accept or approve of everything others do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t protect yourself from the harmful action of others.  It just means that you keep them in the category of “one of us.”  All beings are “one of us,”  no matter how much they might seem otherwise.  We say, in the metta chant, sabe satta, “whatever beings there are.”  We wish them happiness and freedom from suffering.  Compassion and kindness are not just emotions to be cultivated as mental states.  They involve our compassionate and loving activity in the world.

3) Show Respect — All things are interconnected.  Who we are, our very life and existence, is dependent on the interdependent cooperation of all things.  Can we show appreciation, gratitude, and respect for all things?  This means not only bowing to and respecting all beings, including animals and plants.  It means appreciating and caring for all things that come into our little circle of life. It means keeping air and water clear and unpolluted.  It means appreciating and respecting the earth, and being a good steward.  It means raising animals humanely and growing crops without toxins.  It means keeping our living space orderly and clean.  It means taking care of the things we own.  It means respecting and caring for other people’s belongings.  We bow deeply to all.

4) Have Courage —  Don’t live your life out of fear, but live your life out of your convictions.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand, to express a conviction.  Don’t be afraid to love.  Don’t be afraid to do what wisdom tells you needs to be done.  This doesn’t mean that you should be in other people’s faces or take foolhardy risks.  It just means that your existence should be life-affirming, not fear-based and avoidant.

5) Let Go — No one died and left you in charge of things.  The world is not yours to control.  Our practice is one of mindfulness, open-heartedness, respectfulness and courage.  That doesn’t mean that everything we do turns out right, the way we had hoped and expected.  It doesn’t mean that others always reward us or appreciate us for what we do.  It doesn’t mean we get what we want.  We still get old, and sick, and die.  All relationships, even the one’s we care about most, even the good ones, all end eventually.  If all goes well they end with our death or theirs, if all doesn’t go well, they end in acrimony.  Nothing we like and want to hold onto remains constant.  Change, entropy, habituation, and cycles of decline, transformation, and rebirth govern the multiverse.  Our practice is a continual one of letting go, non-clinging, and acceptance, over and over.  Just like when we do our sitting practice, the practice is one of continual letting go moment by moment.  Letting go of our demands on the moment — how this moment ought to be — and accepting it just the way it is.

Do I personally embody these practices in my own life?  No.  They are horizons to be aimed at, not accomplishments to be attained.  The practice-life never ends.  We have to recommit to it moment by moment.  We continually fall short of our practice goals, notice when we have fallen short, and recommit again, until we forget again.  This is our human life.

Will these practices make you Enlightened?  They haven’t made me Enlightened.  But engaging in these practices is enlightened activity.  When we engage in these practices all things express Buddha nature through us.

“Grass, trees, and lands are all embraced by this activity and together are radiant and endlessly express the inconceivable, profound Dharma. Grass, trees, fences, and walls bring forth the Teachings for all beings, usual people as well as sages. And they in accord extend this Dharma for the sake of grass, trees, fences, and walls. Thus, the realm of self-Awakening and Awakening others is fundamentally endowed with realization lacking nothing, and realization itself is actualized ceaselessly.”  — from Dogen’s Bendowa [1]

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  1. [1] translated by Anzan Hoshin Roshi and Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi

Thanksgiving 2010

“Monks, I will teach you the level of a person of no integrity and the level of a person of integrity. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, “Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful & unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful & thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity  –  Kataññu Sutta

Gratitude is an antidote for the poisons of greed, jealousy, resentment, and grief.  When we are grateful we do not wish for more than we have, but appreciate that which is already present in our lives.  We do not chafe at the good fortune of others, or resent or mourn that which is missed, lost, gone, or never had.  The desire for more can be boundless and endless.  There is always one more thing to want.

Acceptance and gratitude are feelings that can occur spontaneously, but they are also attitudes that can be cultivated.  The more space we make for them in our lives, the more we practice them, the less room there is for mental poisons to take root.

Can we be grateful in this moment that we have this human life to cultivate and develop?  That we live in a time and place where we can hear and study the dharma?  Can we be grateful for the earth that holds us up, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that nourishes us?   Can we be grateful for the presence in our lives of people who love us, and people that we love?  Can we be grateful that, whatever ailments afflict us, we are still able to breathe and think and move?   Can we be grateful that, whatever financial reverses we may have suffered, we still have shelter, clothing, and food to eat?  Can we be grateful for our parents who gave us life and kept us alive through childhood, who fed and clothed us, who cared for us when we were ill?

As you try to cultivate gratitude for what is present, do resistances arise?  The “yes, buts” and “if onlys?”  Yes, but my parents were self-absorbed, judgmental, controlling… If only I were thinner, richer, healthier, younger… Let the resistances arise, observing them without pushing them aside, without amplification, without judgment.  Do they persist or dissolve?  What’s possible in this very moment?

What’s it like to be grateful when you have cancer?  When you are incarcerated?  When you are unemployed?   Can we be grateful and appreciative no matter what?  In practice we “open the hand of thought” and let the story line become permeable, transparent.   We let the world shine through.

“Continuous practice, day after day, is the most appropriate way of expressing gratitude. This means that you practice continuously, without wasting a single day of your life, without using it for your own sake. Why is it so? Your life is a fortunate outcome of the continuous practice of the past. You should express your gratitude immediately.”  — Dogen (Kazuako Tanahashi, trans.)

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On Reading Dōgen in Translation

I’ve been reading Dōgen’s Genjōkōan with Shohaku Okumura [1] as my guide.  Dōgen is my perennial favorite Buddhist writer.  In fact, my Buddhist BFF.  I return to him again and again year after year.  I only wish I understood a word that he wrote.

“Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen”Dōgen

Dōgen is, of course, the master of using language to subvert language and I’m reading him in English when he wrote in archaic Japanese.  His writings are an ongoing conversation with a stream of Sino-Japanese ancestors and contemporaries.  I’ve only barely dipped my toes in that stream.  (Most of my Buddhist study has been in the Pali tradition with excursions into later Indian writers like Nagarjuna and Shantideva.)

So I’ve employed Shohaku Okumura as my somewhat trusty guide.  Okumura is a Sōtō Zen priest and Dharma successor to the late Kōshō Uchiyama Roshi.  Okumura has spent a lifetime struggling with Dōgen.  He’s translated many of Dōgen’s essential works into English as well as contributed to the scholarly Dōgen literature.  Okumura was born in Osaka and grew up, studied, and enrobed in Japan, but he has also lived in Massachusetts, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.  He currently resides in Bloomington, Indiana where he is the founding teacher at the Sanshin Zen Community.

I like Okumura as my guide, in part because he shares my prejudices.  For example, when it comes to the issue of rebirth, Okumura writes:

“Personally I don’t believe in literal rebirth, yet I don’t deny its existence either.  I have no basis for believing in or denying literal rebirth; the only thing I can say with surety is ‘I don’t know.’”

A man after my own heart!  But then, Okumura may go too far when he attributes the same view to Dōgen:

“People often ask me, ‘What is the Sōtō Zen view of rebirth?’ This is a difficult question because Dōgen Zenji, I believe, advocates ‘not knowing’ in this case.”

Did Dōgen really recommend not-knowing in this case?  Or is Okumura perplexed because Dōgen held contradictory views that are impossible to reconcile?  (For example, the thorny, unresolvable issue of “if there is nothing but the five skandhas, what gets reborn?”)  Don’t ask me.  I don’t know.

But here’s the interesting point:  I’m a twenty-first century American reading an English translation of an untranslatable thirteenth-century Japanese text by a twenty-first century translator born in a Japan altered by an American occupation, and teaching in a United States altered by contact with Japanese culture.  It’s like trying to read Dōgen in a funhouse mirror.  Dōgen’s texts, like all compound phenonema, are empty of fixed self. They are living documents endlessly open to interpretation and reinterpretation even as we attempt to fathom their original meaning.

A project like this is fraught with difficulty!  Who can say with any certainty what Dōgen meant when he wrote what he wrote?  We view Dōgen through complex prisms of time and culture, condemned to reading them through the perspective of our unique personal experience and with our necessarily limited knowledge of the vast, boundless 2,500 year-long Buddhist dialogue.  We bring our own intentions to Dōgen’s texts; we read him for our own reasons.  We can only do our best. It’s a miracle he can still speak to us at all!  But speak he does.

Okumura uses his own life experience and zazen practice to help unlock the meaning of Dōgen’s texts.  It’s another reason why I like him as my guide.  Because Dōgen is all about living and doing rather than talking and thinking. Right?

In fact, think not-thinking.

“There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped.  We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.”  Dōgen


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  1. [1] Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing Genjōkōan: The Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, Wisdom: Somerville, MA.

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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Don’t Side With Yourself

Bankei, the seventeenth century Zen master, had this to say: “Don’t side with yourself.” By this he meant don’t give your own wants and desires such importance; don’t reinforce your own sense of being a separate, unchanging self; don’t be selfish; don’t take sides. The Buddhist universe doesn’t have sides or edges.   It doesn’t have an inside or an outside. The universe doesn’t take sides.  It doesn’t side with the east wind; it doesn’t side with the west wind.  It doesn’t prefer sunny days to thunderstorms.  Everything is just as it is.

Zen Master Dogen once wrote about an eternal mirror of the Buddhas that had “no blurs or flaws within or without.”  Dogen went on to say, “The mirror is unclouded inside and out; this neither describes an inside that depends on an outside, nor an outside blurred by an inside.  There being no face or back, two individuals are able to see the same. Everything that appears around us is one, and is the same inside and out.  It is not ourself, nor other than self, but is naturally one and the same.  Our self is the same as other than self; other than self is the same as our self.  Such is the meeting of two human beings.”  This is our Buddhist practice.

What does it mean to be socially and politically involved if one doesn’t have a side?  Politics demands to know “which side are you on?”  The Abrahamic religions believe in dichotomies: good against evil, God against Satan.  Our Western culture reflects this everywhere.  We find ourselves in the midst of multiple wars both here and abroad, whether the war against terrorism, or the culture wars between fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives.

And yet, the universe does not have sides.  Buddhists do not see the world as a conflict of absolutes.  We see that everyone has his or her own limited interests, points of view, and desires and that these clash with each other. We see history as great waves of historical forces crashing into each other and creating cataclysms that resolve over time in the same way that air currents crash into each other and create weather.  The universe does not favor the east wind or the west wind.  The universe does not favor calm weather or hurricanes.  At the highest level of understanding everything just happens and just is.

Our Buddhist practice is one of cultivating compassion and wisdom and alleviating suffering wherever we encounter it.   This leads us to make certain choices in the way we vote, donate money, and communicate within the political community.  Is it possible to support a course of action without demonizing, demeaning, or ridiculing those who support another course?  Is it possible to view those who disagree with us with respect, caring, and loving-kindness?  Is it possible to do this even when we think someone’s views reflect their greed, hatred, or delusion?  This is Buddhist practice.

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