Wishes for Toni

imgresI just received word that Toni Packer, after a brief hospitalization, is now in hospice care at the Livingston County Center for Nursing.  My first impulse was to write that I had heard the news “with great sadness,” but those words would not be entirely true.  I’m not at all sure that Toni feels any sadness at the moment, or if she does, I suspect it’s fleeting, coming and going with the clouds and the warm summer breeze.  My fantasy is that she’s ready for whatever comes, embracing and investigating each moment with her customary clarity and equanimity, and not necessarily eager to hang on to a failing body with all its attendant pain. This is all, however, just my fantasy, my projected wish for Toni’s last days.  It’s been years since we’ve last talked or corresponded.  My own personal sorrow is mixed with my great appreciation for having met and known her, and a wish for her suffering to be minimal and at its end.

Toni has been in pain for over a decade. In 2003 she wrote me about her chronic and debilitating pain and neuropathy, hoping her doctors would come up with some “miracle med.”  (“Too much to expect?” she asked in parenthesis.)  Despite the pain, she tried to maintain her life’s work of meditative inquiry and dialogue:

“The one thing that has not been affected by this ailing body are talks and meetings even though we had to cut back schedules.  There seems to be even more than the usual clarity and sharpness of mind in meeting together, and I’m thankful for that indeed.”

As time went on, her energy and mobility decreased, until she became bed-ridden.

In 2006 I’d written Toni about some changes going on in my own life, including my late wife’s struggles with cancer and my first grandchildren — twins! — on the way.  Toni’s response says, I think, something about her perspective on her own worsening adversity:

“And twins about to arise… have they fully made their appearance?  I wish you all the best for your new family!  It won’t be easy, but good if you can maintain some equanimity in the midst of all this relentless change, the endless demands that little human beings bring into life from the very outset.  Wishing you lots of strength, remaining in touch with that bottomless source of energy that only seems to elude us at times — with sufficient patience a little bit of a toe-hold is always possible!”

She ended with her characteristic warmth:  “Sending you love and a big hug for all of you.”

Toni was one of my very first teachers.  The first time I heard her voice was at a Q-and-A session at the 1997 Buddhism in America conference in Boston.  It was the most moving dharma talk I’ve ever heard, composed and delivered in the moment, spontaneously, from the heart.  It seems fitting now that what she talked about then was life and death — how people who are dear come and go in our lives — how that’s the very nature of our existence.  It wasn’t so much what she said, but the way she said it, tinged with tenderness, emotion, and the ring of hard-earned truth. I decided then and there that I wanted Toni in my life as a “teacher” (she would reject the term), and began a series of retreats with her at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry.

Toni’s the real thing.  She talks the talk and walks the walk.  There’s a clarity, genuineness, and openness about her that very few people possess.  She invites you to sit with her and discover things for yourself, without dogma, ritual, or cant.  She doesn’t need to teach you anything, but gives you the space to discover things for yourself.  She’s a true kalyana-mitta, or spiritual friend, and she’ll always be with me.

When I first sat retreat with Toni, it seemed to me she did things backward. Coming from a Theravada tradition, I had traditionally meditated with eyes-closed. Toni meditated Zen-style with eyes open, but when she gave her dharma talks, she often did so with eyes closed.  It was as if the attention she needed to find the right words required that she shut out all possible distractions.  When she spoke, her body moved and swayed with her words, so that she wasn’t talking from her “head,” but with her whole body-heart-mind.  I have never seen or heard anyone else talk in just that way.  Her talks never seemed canned or rehearsed, but were truly of and in the moment.

As Toni nears her end, I wish her everything she wished for me seven years ago — equanimity, connection to the “bottomless source of energy,” and the possibility of “maintaining a toe-hold” in “aware-ing” and “presence.”   Her life has been extraordinary from beginning to end, from the little half-Jewish girl raised in Berlin in the shadow of the Third Reich, to her marriage, family and immigration to the U.S., to her pioneering role at Phillip Kapleau Roshi’s Rochester Zen Center, to the gradual process of shedding past attachments and allegiances to create her own Center, forged from her acquaintance with Zen and Krishnamurti, but also from her own unique understanding of awareness.  Along with other seminal figures like Charlotte Joko Beck, she has helped shaped the course of Buddhism in America for the better: a Buddhism that’s centered in the aliveness of discovering the moment, freed from authority and dogma, and welcoming of women on a footing of respect and equality.

Toni, I’m thinking of you as you begin your final journey.  My heart and thoughts are with you.  And Toni, as Milton Erikson used to say, “your voice goes with me.”  You’re a part of me and everyone you’ve touched in all your years, and you live on in the future of the Buddhism (and non-Buddhism) you’ve helped shape.

Many blessings!  And may your path be easy!

Technorati Tags:


About “Speculative Non-Buddhism”


In music something exciting happens when traditions cross-breed.  African music’s encounter with the European tradition gave birth to gospel, blues, and jazz; Chicago and Memphis electrified blues and made it rock; Rock-a-Billy merged Rock and Country;   Bernstein melded classical and jazz and put it on Broadway; Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project furthers the cross fertilization of Eastern and Western traditions.

Similarly, Modern Buddhism (or “Protestant Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism”) continues to emerge from ongoing dialogues between East and West, traditionalism and modernity, Buddhism and science, romanticism, and existentialism.  Purists deride emergent forms as heretical, inauthentic, and watered-down. Skeptics think the emergent forms don’t go far enough in a modernist (or post-modernist) direction. Charismatic con men, hucksters, and self-appointed gurus ride the emergent wave along with a spectrum of sincere seekers, scholars, teachers, bloggers, reformers, and critics. In the midst of this ferment, Buddhist influence on American culture continues to grow (and vice versa).  According to the Pew Foundation’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, “Buddhism” (whatever that means) is now the fastest growing religion in America.

In staking out my own position regarding American Dharma – – loving practice, affectionate towards tradition, skeptical of dogma, favoring transparency, appreciating scholarship’s demythologizing of received narratives — I’ve recently come across a number of contributors to the Buddhist Blogosphere who take a position towards Buddhism somewhat more radical than my own.  I am thinking of writers like Ted Meissner (The Secular Buddhist) who is atheist where I am merely agnostic, of David Chapman  (Meaningness) who rues the incorporation of Western Romanticism into Modern Buddhism, and Glenn Wallis (Speculative Non-Buddhism), a long-term practitioner and scholar who, having found the Buddhist project “fruitlessly tedious,” makes no assumptions about the validity or value of any Buddhist practice or tenet, wishing to open everything to the “coruscating gaze” of reason.

I want to focus this particular post on Glenn Wallis, who holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard.  He’s taught at the University of Georgia, Brown University, Bowdoin College, RISD, and (currently) the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, and has written a number of books including Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Random House, 2007), The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way (Random House, Modern Library, 2004),  Mediating the Power of Buddhas (State University of New York Press, 2002), and, most recently, Buddhavacana: A Pali Reader (Pariyatti Press, 2011).  Clearly Glenn Wallis knows more about Buddhism than I can ever hope to know.

I welcome Wallis’s intention to examine Buddhism dispassionately — neither as insider nor outsider — from a distance sufficient to obtain clarity, but close enough to know the material intimately.  He brings an interesting and provocative mind to the online mix.  It’s his tone, however, that I find disquieting.  He intends his gaze to be coruscating, but his voice tends toward the corrosive  —  arrogant, scornful, and dismissive of those holding differing beliefs and attitudes.  Now I’m not one of those who believes, along with Alice’s Dodo, that “everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Not all opinions are created equal — some are clearly wrong.  (As Daniel Patrick Moynahan famously observed, we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.)  It’s fine to engage in robust discussion and critical discourse, to call things as you see them.  I draw the line, however, at sneering derision that impugns the intelligence and motivation of one’s peers.  Buddhist (and Non-Buddhist!) values call us to a higher standard.

Let me cite examples from two of his recent posts on Speculative Non-Buddhism.   Wallis begins a post entitled “The Elixir of Mindfulness” with the following paragraph:

 “The mighty “Mindfulness” juggernaut continues to roll joyously throughout the wounded world of late-capitalism. And why shouldn’t it? The Mindfulness Industry is claiming territory once held by the great occupying force of assorted self-help gurus, shrinks, health care workers, hypnotists, preachers, Theosophists, the church, the synagogue, actual gurus, yogis, meditation teachers, and even—gasp!— Buddhists themselves.  Who, after all, can compete with an industry that claims to offer a veritable fountain of bounty, an elixir to life’s ills?”


He concludes:

 “By re-packaging age-old optimisms, the Mindfulness Industry feeds off of the multi-billion dollar addiction of the desiccated twenty-first century middle classes for anything that will lead them to the promised land of ‘well-being.’”


Not content to skewer would-be healers who have jumped aboard the mindfulness train without sufficient grounding in practice, Wallis goes right for the jugular in attacking its founder, stating “the vacuity of the term ‘mindfulness’ can be traced, in fact, to the vague, platitudinous, and circular definition given it by Jon Kabat-Zinn.”

Now Mindfulness is not sacrosanct.  There are plenty of unresolved questions about what to properly include in its definition, how best to measure it, differentiating state and trait aspects, discriminating active ingredients from placebo, and understanding who might best benefit from it.  There is already a substantial and mind-numbingly voluminous body of research and scientific literature exploring all of these questions.

Having followed a great deal of that scientific literature (which I doubt Wallis has), having contributed to it, having participated in an MBSR internship at the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine, and Society, and having had the experience of teaching mindfulness to clinicians, medical patients, and psychiatric patients over the years, I have a different perspective on mindfulness than Wallis has.  I found it to be personally transformative and of great benefit to a variety of my clients with problems as diverse as anger management, chronic pain, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative disorder.  The research literature has found it helpful in a great variety of other disorders, as well as in simply relieving stress, and has begun to explore the biological correlates of mindfulness practice, including its effects of brain structure and function and immune function.  This is not trivial work.

Nowhere, however, does Wallis acknowledge Kabat-Zinn’s depth of understanding of the Dharma, sincerity, intelligence, and commitment to the scientific method as a means of exploring the nature and value of mindfulness.  I find Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness to be perfectly intelligible and clear as a guide to practice, if not sufficiently operationalized for research purposes.   I’ve always found him, and the researchers associated with the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine and Society, to be open to critique and willing to follow wherever the data leads.  These are serious people engaged in a serious project.

Why the animus against them?  Why question the relationship of mindfulness practice to Buddhist practice in general?  Are Thich Nhat Hanh (who wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness and Bhante Gunaratana (who wrote Mindfulness in Plain English) not sufficiently Buddhist-y for Wallis?  Who meets his qualifications?

In the second example,  Wallis accuses Buddhism (in general) and Zen teacher Barry Magid (in particular) of “flinching” because of its/his claim that practice leads to deep joy.   Wallis begins by expressing admiration for Magid (and his teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck), but then quotes Magid’s “In Memoriam” piece for Beck in Buddhadharma:

“When students were preoccupied with transformation, she took what was in danger of becoming a toothless Zen cliché—being just this moment—and turned it into the challenge of having no hope—a radical acceptance of the totality of the present. Yet she never failed to emphasize that at the bottom of the well of self was deep joy. A lifetime of teaching about death and dying was summed up as ‘this too is joy.’”


Wallis, apparently, objects to all this “joy” talk, writing:

He, Beck, and all of Buddhism shore up the existential nullity…  with what amounts to an ideological sandbag: “deep joy.” The “bottom of the well” and the “deep” are not given in the equation. They are smuggled into to it by merchants of hope. They are instances of a transcendent, specular, all-seeing-from-above dharmic dream of what should be/we would like to be the case. They are not, by any means, necessarily what is. The “deep joy” at the “bottom of the well of self” is a new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché; one, moreover, that flashes the sharp teeth of all “spiritual” salesmen—and saleswomen. For it locks the practitioner into the endless pay loop of should-could-want-would-like-deep-joy.”

Toni Packer, one of the teachers who has deeply influenced me, shares a great deal in common with Joko Beck.  Like Joko, she makes all of life grounds for investigation and questions the value of many traditional Buddhist practices.  She also went one further than Joko, leaving even words like “Buddhism” and “Zen” behind.  For Toni, there is truly “just this.”

I can’t remember Toni ever using the word “joy” per se, but this [1] is her interpretation of her own experience:

 “Sitting quietly, without desire or fear, beyond the sense of time, is vast, boundless being, not belonging to you or me.  It is free and unattached, shedding light on conditioned being, beholding it, and yet not meddling with it…. It is not what is seen that matters, but that there is seeing, revealing what is as it is, in the light of wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend.

I suspect this description of “vast, boundless being” and “wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend” is what Beck and Magid mean by “joy.”  It’s what Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol meant when he described the mind’s nature as “intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, and ceaselessly responsive.”  It’s quite all right to say that never having experienced what they experienced, one wonders whether their view of the way things are is real.  Its quite another to say that in presenting their own experience they are “flinching,” in other words, being intellectually dishonest and evasive.  I never thought Toni was offering up a “new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché” or acting as a “spiritual” saleswoman.  She was just sharing her own experience, and her belief that if others would only look they might discover the same.

Magid responded to Wallis in this way:

 “The Buddha might have said Life is Suffering and left it at that. Impermanence is inescapable and our practice is first and foremost a confrontation with our avoidance of this reality. But Zen is not just a matter of swallowing bad tasting medicine. The experience of long sitting also opens the door of joy — when we cease our protests against life as it is we experience the poignancy and joy that life emerges changes and departs. I don’t hold this out as a carrot or antidote or promise. But it is my (and Joko’s) first hand report from the front lines.”


To which Wallis, in turn, responded:

“I am sure you’ll agree that each of us has to submit our own first-hand report. It’s wonderful that some reports contain descriptions of deep joy. But I can’t submit a report based on what you or Charlotte Beck or the Buddha discovers on the front lines. That report would be untruthful. Why are some first-hand reports from the front lines universalized by tradition (and its present-day teachers) as necessarily desirable, as a special species of experiential truth-telling? And what effect does it have on students when teachers make such reports openly? What are teachers doing when they do so?”

I’m sorry that Wallis hasn’t found the joy at the bottom of the well in his own practice.  I can’t imagine, however, why he questions the value of teachers reporting on their own experience as a way of pointing out what might be possible to their students.

All of this boils down to the question of what motivates our practice to begin with.  Why practice at all, unless one is seeking medicine for spiritual unease and the unsatisfactoriness of one’s life?  If the Dharma isn’t authentic medication for that, what use is it?  Does it provide us with a way of being that feels more authentic and vital?  Does it help us to develop awareness and equanimity?  Does it help us in becoming less self-centered?  Does it assist us in exploring our narrative of who we are and the way we construe the world? Do we become more compassionate in the process?  These are all meaningful questions.  We all have skin in this game.  We are in it because we are seeking something.  If some people who have been at this longer than we have report that joy is part of what we might find at the bottom of the well, is that somehow magically illegitimate?  Is that hucksterism?  Is that wishful thinking?  Why not include that in the list of things we may just discover if we persist in our practice?

Wallis loves the idea of existential courage — of facing things as they are without any sops.  But the idea that in moments of clear seeing there might be genuine peace and happiness beyond mere sensory pleasure can be part of reality too. It’s not all grimness and eat your peas.  There’s a certain degree of sourness at the bottom of Wallis’s well.

I want to contrast Wallis’s slash-and-burn style with an alternative mode of inquiry that Andrew Olendzki proposes in an article excerpted in the latest issue of Buddhadharma.

In discussing rehabilitating Protestant Buddhism Olendzki writes:

“A crucial first step in the process is to recognize that new forms of Buddhism, at their best, are based upon the creative ways of synthesizing meaning rather than on undermining the beliefs and practice of others.  In other words, while it is not okay to say that others have got it wrong and this is the right way of looking at things, it is entirely appropriate (and natural) to say, “ Here is an interesting new way of understanding things that I find particularly meaningful.”  Even if we get it wrong once in a while, better to be actively inquiring into the meaning of the dhamma at every opportunity than to passively accept tradition in a given form…. We are not necessarily better at understanding these teachings because we are moderns or Westerners or humanists or typing on keyboards.  We cannot assume the troubling bits, about miracles, rebirth, and hell realms, for example, must not be “true” and that we, of course, know better.  It is possible to hold the greatest respect for all those who think differently from ourselves, for all those who construct their own meaning of these teachings differently than we do, and simply say at some point that we are not capable of seeing it that way.”



Catch the difference in tone?  It’s possible to question, critique, and explore, without being beholden to any orthodoxy, and at the same time remain open to, and respectful of, those who hold the teachings differently.

I’ll continue to read Wallis’s blog.  He has interesting and important things to say.  It’s helpful to grapple with ideas that challenge one’s own assumptions.  He’s a member of my club — the club of Westerners struggling with the gift of centuries of Buddhist practice, devotion, and contention.   But I hope he finds a way to be more at home in the world, more happy, and  — dare I say it — more joyous.  And I hope he discovers a tone of voice that’s less prickly, less irritating, less dismissive, and — dare I say it — more consistent with Buddhist aspirations.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

  1. [1] Packer, T. (2004). The Wonder of Presence. Boston: Shambhala, p. 131

A Place to Hang My Hat

After fifteen years of Buddhist practice, I’ve finally decided to become a Buddhist.  It’s been a slow process.

At first I was a Jew practicing meditation and learning about the Dharma.  I tried as hard as I could to retain my Jewish religious identity while absorbing what was valuable from Buddhism.  I had friends who were Jewish-Buddhist, as well as teachers who managed to straddle the divide.  There came a time for me, however, thirteen years ago, when that was no longer tenable, and I resigned from my Temple.  I wrote a letter to my rabbi:

“My reason for leaving is my own particular spiritual journey over the past several years which has resulted from my encounter with Buddhist beliefs and practices.  I’m afraid that encounter has left me feeling neither particularly “Jewish” nor particularly “Buddhist;” I seem to be equally ill at ease within both traditions.  For a while my lack of a spiritual home was unsettling, and I retained the hope that I could find within Judaism what I was finding outside of it.  Over time I have become more comfortable with my homelessness; this Diaspora seems like the most authentic place for me to be right now.”

In 2003 I published “On Being A Non-Buddhist Buddhist” which expressed my continuing homelessness.  I felt at the time that “being a Buddhist” was an oxymoron, since Buddhism meant, to me, giving up all identifications and just being present.  I wrote at the time:

“Let’s face it: Buddhism is just another religion, and religion is always an escape from uncertainty, an attempt to explain the inexplicable with the implausible.   Why leave the Jewish religion you were born into to just to join another illogical escape from life’s ambiguities that once again requires reliance on spiritual and textual authority?”  I added,  “My native Judaism… requires…  suspensions of logic.  One is asked to believe in a supernatural Being who stands outside of the material world, and whose existence leaves no material footprint.  One is asked to believe that this Being dictated the Torah to Moses, even though all available evidence suggests that Moses never wrote the Torah…  and that it, like the Buddhist Sūtras, is a compilation of the works of various authors who had their own unique agendas to pursue.  One is asked to assume that this Being is very much concerned with whether or not one mixes meat with dairy products, or whether one has trimmed the foreskin of one’s penis.  None of this makes very much sense, and I am unwilling to state, like the second century Christian Apologist, Tertullian, that “credo quia absurdum est” (“I believe because it is absurd”)….  I’m not about to replace the superstitions of Judaism with the superstitions of Buddhism with its colorful heaven and hell realms and celestial beings.” [1]

That’s where things stood for the longest time.  I’ve often wondered why I couldn’t keep my Jewish religious identification as many of my Jewish-Buddhist teachers and friends did.  The answer is that my personal Jewish roots while, ethnically meaningful, lacked spiritual depth.  There wasn’t all that much to hold on to.

My grandparents and parents spoke Yiddish together when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, but otherwise, Yiddish was a dying tongue in our home.  My grandfather went to the temple on the High Holidays, but rarely at any other time.  My father  didn’t read Hebrew, never went to Temple, and hadn’t been Bar Mitzvahed  (rumor had it his father had a falling out with the rabbi).  My mother took me to “visit” my grandfather at Temple on the High Holidays, which meant I got to play with the fringes of his prayer shawl and hear the sound of the ram’s horn.  My parents kept a kosher home, but ate shellfish and Chinese food when dining out.  After my grandparents died, my parents gave up keeping kosher at home.

We lit candles on Shabbat, but didn’t go to temple, celebrate Havdalah, or say blessings before meals.  Our home observance of Jewish holidays were defined by what we couldn’t do: no driving, writing, cooking, watching TV, or turning on the lights (but also no praying, singing, dancing, story telling, tzedakah, or celebration.)

My mother’s religion was one of piety and respect for her parents’s traditions, but she wasn’t interested in religious matters.  While we weren’t the type of Americanized Jews who had a  “Hanukkah bush,” my mother took me to Macy’s each December to sit on Santa’s lap.  My father was a closet agnostic with a strong ethnic identification.  He was proud of being Jewish, but didn’t believe in God.  I never found out about his agnosticism until a few years ago.

My father took an interest in Temple, but not to pray.  He organized a Bingo game to pull the temple out of financial difficulties, joined the men’s club for socializing, and eventually became its President.  When the congregation tried to dump our rabbi, my father defended him and helped him keep his position.  Our rabbi was a learned man, but cold and remote. His sermons — filled with an outdated moralism coupled with virulent anti-communism — were far from inspiring.

I went to Hebrew School three afternoons a week.  My teacher was a delightful young Orthodox woman whom I had something of a crush on.  She married a Hasidic rabbi, and I had the pleasure visiting their home to celebrate Shabbat in the Hasidic style. The joy of that Shabbat with her family and friends stays with me to this day:  I learned that religion could be more than a set of prohibitions and restrictions which occupied a small unhappy corner of one’s life, but could be a full-time commitment celebrated through story, prayer, dance, song, charity, and righteousness.  I developed an interest in becoming religious, and fantasized about becoming a rabbi.  I wore a tzitzit katan under my outer garments, prayed with tefillin, and went to temple every Shabbat.  My parents became alarmed that I was becoming too pious.  They needn’t have worried, though. This period didn’t last very long due to two other influences in my life.

The first was my interest in science.  I loved reading about physics, astronomy, and paleontology, and my parents did everything they could to encourage my interest.  My father helped me with science fair projects, took me to a rocket show at the New York Coliseum where I met Werner von Braun, and enrolled me in a summer biology program where I met Nobel Prize winner Edward Tatum.  I volunteered in the cardiac research unit at Maimonides Hospital.  I soon discovered that a literal belief in Genesis and the laws of astrophysics and biology didn’t mix.  I know many modern Orthodox Jews find a way to reconcile Orthodoxy with science, but I couldn’t.  I remember being at a Science Fair where two Orthodox boys commented on my project on DNA, saying I couldn’t believe in both Darwin and the Torah.  Perhaps foolishly, I believed them.  I decided I believed in Darwin more.

The other influence was my mother’s sister and her family.  My uncle was a photographer and avant-garde artist and their daughter hung out with folk musicians in Washington Square Park. They demonstrated as a family on behalf of nuclear disarmament, attended classical music concerts, and visited museums.  It was a whole new world to me  — modern, cosmopolitan, aesthetic, and liberal.  Its seductiveness was overwhelming.  I learned to play guitar, joined the civil rights movement, and hung out with assorted would-be poets, playwrights, actors, jazz musicians, and philosophers. By the time I left for college there was very little left  of my interest in Judaism.  I’d become like my parents: respectful of my grandparents and their ways, enjoying the familial aspects of Judaism (seders, holiday dinners), but with no real interest in the spiritual side of life.  I think that’s why my Judaism couldn’t stand a chance against my growing interest in Buddhist practice.

There are aspects of Judaism that resonate to Buddhist themes — I’m especially fond of the  Pirkei Avot, for example — and Martin Buber’s reinterpretation of Hasidic tales sounds suspiciously Zen.  But there are four basic tenets that lie at the very core of Judaism:

  1. God created the world, intervenes in it, and judges it.
  2. God made a special covenant with the Jewish People
  3. God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai
  4. The Torah (and Talmud) define what is permissible and good.

If one doesn’t believe in God, his covenant, or the Torah’s divine authorship and inerrant authority, what’s left?  There’s the generalized ethical intention of the Torah — according to the Talmud, when a gentile approached Hillel the Elder (110 B.C – 10 A.D.) asking him to teach the entire Torah while he stood listening on one foot, Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to others.  That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.”  There are the wonderful stories of the Torah and Talmud that constitute a unique cultural heritage. There are the beautiful melodies of the liturgy, the sense of communal belonging, and the joyous occasions for familial celebration.  I still love the stories and melodies, and cherish the opportunities to join together as an extended family.  I still identify as an ethnic Jew in a thousand different ways — the foods I eat, the way I speak, the way I value intellectual life and ethical conduct.  But that’s as far as it goes.

Buddhism, on the other hand, asks one to believe very little, but to find out things for oneself.  Its basic tenets — suffering is a part of life, everything is interconnected, everything changes — are  verifiable from experience.  The value of practicing mindfulness, non-clinging, equanimity, lovingkindness, and compassion are also verifiable  The harder-to-believe aspects  — rebirth, celestial beings, the surplus meaning of karma — don’t seem absolutely central to practice.  You can imagine Buddhism without literal rebirth — its harder to imagine Judaism without God.

I’m finally comfortable with identifying as a Buddhist.  After fifteen years as a non-Buddhist Buddhist, I’m taking the plunge.  I’ve decided to start the path leading to Jukai, the precept-taking ritual that means formally becoming a Buddhist in Zen.

I’m not fully sure why I’m going ahead with it.  It’s not a rational decision.  But it feels right.  It doesn’t mean I’ll stop being an iconoclast.  It doesn’t mean I’m drinking the Kool-Aid or joining the club.  It doesn’t mean I think Buddhists are better than anyone else or that everything in Buddhism is true.  It does mean I’m ready to say “this is my path,” and I’m ready to make a deeper commitment to it, rather than always standing a little bit outside.

Toni Packer, one of my core teachers, would probably wonder about this decision.  She went the opposite route, from being a Zen Buddhist teacher, to being a Zen teacher, to teaching no-thing.  Shedding all aspects of tradition and authority was an important part of her journey and practice.    Her pathless path, like Krishnamurti’s before her, is clear and unwavering.  She would ask me to question this wish for identification, for going along. “Why now?  What’s missing?  Can you name and identify the longing it’s supposed to fulfill and just see it?”

I can.

It’s finding a place in a new home and community.  A place that’s more consistent with who I am right now.

She would ask, “what’s the loneliness you’re evading by belonging somewhere?  Can you just see it?”

I can.

But even though the Buddha advised us to go into homelessness — having a home isn’t all bad.  You don’t have to always stay inside, but it’s nice to have a place to hang your hat.


Technorati Tags: , , ,

  1. [1] Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. Albany: SUNY Press.

Finding The Right Teacher, Finding the Right Practice

Lama Yeshe and Jan Willis, 1974

Wesleyan University Professor Jan Willis tells a beautiful story [1] about finding her teacher, Lama Yeshe. The first time she heard his name mentioned:

“I began to experience a strange, though pleasant, sensation.  It was unlike any sensation I had ever experienced before: a sort of warm tingling feeling that began at the nape of my neck and then radiated downward and outward to encircle my whole body.  Then, as though I had suddenly stepped into an invisible field of static electricity, I noticed that the hairs on my skin stood up erect.”

Before meeting her future teacher, Willis had a near death experience in a terrible automobile accident while hitchhiking from Paris to Lyon. After Willis’s first meeting with Lama Yeshe in Nepal, his parting words were:

“Lama is so happy you… have come, especially after… you know… that bad thing in France.”

She had never discussed her accident or traveling in Europe with him.  How could he have possibly known?

Their’s was a magical connection from the very first.

If you have a story like that to tell, then you too have met your teacher.

If you don’t have a story like that, how do you find your teacher?  How do you discover which tradition to practice with?  One of the Tibetan schools?  Zen?  Pure Land?  Theravada?

There are so many choices — 84,000 Dharma doors.

For most of us, our journey begins from the time we first learned about the Dharma.  It seems pure happenstance, how and when we first learn of something.  Of course, some would say it’s no accident — that our opportunities to learn the Dharma are a function of our karma.

I’ve written before about my first exposure to Zen at a series of Alan Watts lectures at my college.  Those lectures kindled my interest in Buddhism, but didn’t lead to my finding a teacher.  At least, not immediately.  Think of it as a seed that had been planted, but the conditions were not yet ripe for it to come to fruition. Some of my contemporaries did find teachers.  One friend went to Rochester and became a Zen priest under the guidance of Philip Kapleau Roshi.  I, on the other hand, had just graduated college, was looking for work, was thinking about a career, was getting married.  Running off to Rochester – never mind Katmandu!  — was not in my plans.

My introduction to practice came years later when Ferris Urbanowski, one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR teachers, came to Connecticut to give a talk.  I’d seen Jon’s work on a PBS Bill Moyer’s series called The Healing of the Mind and was immediately hooked.  Watching the filmed images of Jon teaching meditation to chronic pain patients awakened the seed planted years earlier by Alan Watts.  As a psychologist, I’d treated chronic pain patients with biofeedback and hypnosis with limited success.  I was intrigued by the possibility of using meditation to ease their suffering.  When I attended Ferris’s workshop, I thought I was acquiring a skill to help my patients.  Instead, as I meditated for the first time under her guidance, I discovered something of vital importance for myself.  At the end of the workshop I asked Ferris if I could train at the Center for Mindfulness.  She told me I’d first need to cultivate my own meditation practice and then complete at least one ten-day retreat before applying.  I began sitting daily, did my first ten-day retreat at IMS with Ruth Denison, and did my internship at the Center for Mindfulness.  I was off and running.

Ferris, Jon and Ruth were fabulous first teachers, but neither Ferris nor Jon billed themselves as Buddhist teachers, and Ruth, who was authorized to teach, was on the other side of the continent.  I began searching for local teachers I could learn more from.  I attended the Buddhism in America conference in Boston in 1997 where I heard Dharma talks from a variety of teachers from different traditions.  Two of them “clicked” for me: Larry Rosenberg and Toni Packer.  I then went on a number of retreats with both of them and am deeply grateful for what I learned.

What made Larry and Toni “right” for me?  For one thing, they didn’t have inflated egos.  They didn’t call themselves “Enlightened.”  They didn’t surround themselves with  admirers.  They didn’t project themselves as charismatic leaders.  They didn’t ask for submission, obedience, agreement, or belief.

The first thing I felt with both of them was “safe.”  I didn’t have to surrender my intelligence or my independence.  For better or worse, that’s what I needed.  You might argue that I overvalue intellect and independence — that these are attachments I need to work on — but I could never have gotten started by surrendering them.

Another thing that attracted me to Toni and Larry is that they didn’t push aspects of the teachings that would have been too much of a stretch for my analytical-empirical mind.  I could explore everything Toni and Larry talked about on my own to see if it was true for me.  Teachers who might have stressed rebirth, celestial beings, special powers, etc. would have lost me at “hello.”

Finally, as I spent more time observing Larry and Toni I could see that they were trustworthy and that they embodied the Dharma in their own lives.  Who they were was consistent with how they presented themselves and what they were teaching.

To summarize, I started with them because they were 1) nearby, 2) non-threatening, 3) trustworthy, and 4) allowed me to absorb the Dharma with my analytical-empirical approach to things 5) without surrendering my independence.  That’s what I needed to start out.  As I’ve continued my journey I’ve met many wonderful teachers.  It may be that as I go on in the Dharma I may need teachers who offer something different — something more challenging — something less compatible with my natural approach to the world and my view of myself.  We’ll see.

Over the years I’ve been exposed to a variety of traditions.  I started out in the Insight Meditation tradition, which has sometimes been described as Theravada practice with a Mahayana frame. I’ve practiced with non-teacher Toni Packer in her non-tradition.  I’ve received pointing-out instructions for Dzogchen practice from a Tibetan lama.  I currently practice with Zen’s White Plum Asanga tradition.  All of these traditions stress the cultivation of awareness.

What brought me to my current practice community?  It’s nearby.  I like the leadership and the teachers.  I like the sangha members.  It stresses the practices, values and teachings that are important to me: awareness, compassion, and non-clinging.  There isn’t a lot of talk about reincarnation or celestial beings.  It’s a congenial practice home.

Is it the “right” place for me?  Is it the “best” practice for me?  Where is the all-knowing Celestial Judge who could possibly answer that question?  It’s the one my karma has led me to, and I’ll continue to follow it as long as it continues to be of benefit.  Or until my karma brings me to the teacher who makes my hair stand on end.

Here’s my advice on how to find a tradition and a teacher.  Try a few out.  See what’s a good fit — a place where you can practice with sincerity and without giving up what you value in yourself.  See if you seem to be benefiting.  See if the teacher is genuinely there to benefit others and isn’t simply on an ego-trip.  There isn’t one true school of Buddhism.  There are 84,000 Dharma doors.  You only need to find one that works for you.

When you find one that’s congenial, try sticking with it.  Don’t keep looking for the perfect place, the perfect practice — the one that will magically make you enlightened within a year.  The perfect place is wherever you happen to be.  The perfect practice is your own awareness here and now, and compassion for the people you encounter every day.

Thanks to Terry Sherwood for suggesting I write on this topic.




Technorati Tags: , ,

  1. [1] Willis, Jan (2001). Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. Riverhead Books: New York.

How to Listen to a Dharma Talk

I once heard filmmaker Stan Brakhage tell a story about a movie theater that opened in some unnamed African country.  The theater opened with King Kong and the moviegoers loved it.  A few weeks later the owners tried a new movie, but this time the audience rebelled.  They wanted King Kong again.  And so it went.  The theater showed King Kong for years.

If you have young children, you know what it’s like for a child to latch onto a story and want to hear it over and over again.  There’s something sweet and reassuring about old favorites, even after the excitement of newness is gone.

Dharma talks are a lot like that.  They’re always the same: suffering, attachment, mindfulness, letting go, loving-kindness, compassion, wisdom, awakening.

The Buddha said I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the release from suffering.  I guess the Buddha couldn’t count very well, because that’s actually two things.  But the Buddha said it over and over, thousands of times in long discourses, medium length discourses, short discourses, numbered discourses, and miscellaneous discourses —  the whole Sutta Pitaka.

I’ve listened to nearly one thousand Dharma talks over the past fifteen years.

The Dalai Lama. Toni Packer. Thich Nhat Hanh. Henapola Gunaratana.  Bhikkhu Bodhi. Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  Joseph Goldstein.  Sharon Salzberg.  Larry Rosenberg.  Sylvia Boorstein.  Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Lama Surya Das.  Stephen Batchelor.  Robert Thurman. Narayan Liebenson Grady.  Michael Liebenson Grady.  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Peter Matthiesson.  Grover Genro Gaunt.  Claude Anshin Thomas.  Gavin Harrison.  Jan Willis.  Sulak Sivaraksa.  Myoshin Kelley. Ajahn Amaro. Rebecca Bradshaw. Christina Feldman.  Michelle McDonald. Alan Wallace. Ruth Denison. Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia. Robert Kennedy Roshi.  Paul Seiko Schubert.  Michael Koryu Holleran. Tsultrim Allione. Annie Nugent.

I’ve even been guilty of giving a few myself.

Toni Packer sometimes begins talks by asking “is it possible to listen freshly?”

Toni Packer

What does it mean to listen freshly to something one’s heard a thousand times?

The mind is like a Greek chorus listening in and ceaselessly commenting.

“That makes sense!”  “That doesn’t make sense!”  “I agree!”  “I disagree!”

The mind can’t help itself.  Usually when teachers say something we agree with they’re brilliant, when they say something we disagree with they’re wrong.

“Listening freshly” means two things. (Let’s see if I can count better than the Buddha.)

First it means not assuming we’ve heard something before.  We actually haven’t heard this particular talk before.  This particular talk may say something in a way that allows something new to click, or that helps new questions to arise.  Thinking you’ve already heard something before is a way of shutting down and preventing the possibility of discovery.  So first and foremost, “listening freshly” is adopting an attitude of openness.

Secondly, “listening freshly” means listening to everything that’s going on.  The speaker’s words.  The sounds of birdsong in the background.  The Greek Chorus in your mind.  When thoughts like “I agree” or “I disagree” arise, can they be bracketed off and seen as conditioned responses to what’s being heard without assigning them a truth value?  The speaker’s words sink in, and reactions arise.  Watch the entire movie.  It’s King Kong.  Again.  You may learn more about the Dharma from observing your reactions with genuine interest and non-attachment than you do from the speaker’s words themselves.

I’ve recently been re-learning this lesson as I’ve been listening to Dharma talks in my zendo.  As my faithful readers may remember, my particular zendo has a Jesuit priest as it’s roshi and another Catholic priest as a visiting sensei.  Getting used to this has not always been easy.  I was raised within the Jewish faith and attended synagogue until I was fifty years old.  I never set foot inside a Church until I attended a friend’s wedding in college.  With a history of nearly two thousand years worth of persecution by Christians, sitting in the Episcopal Church, where my zendo is located, still carries some negative connotations.  My initial entry into Buddhism was made easier by the fact that most of my earliest teachers were either Jewish or half-Jewish in origin.  If my current zendo had been my first Buddhist experience, I might never have become a Buddhist practitioner.  This is not a negative statement about my zendo, but a statement about the power of conditioning.  We all come from somewhere and have attachments that can close us off to what is actually transpiring in the moment here and now.

What’s actually transpiring in my zendo?  It’s a beautiful structure with a vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.  The building creaks and groans in the wind when the weather is stormy.  Cicadas chirp outside in the summer.  It’s a wonderful place to sit.  It’s a friendly community, and we all sit together with inspiring sincerity and determination.

Occasionally a teacher will mention God during a Dharma talk, or even Jesus.  As a Jewish agnostic, my mind goes into overdrive whenever that happens.  “Buddhism is non-theistic!As a member of an historically persecuted minority, I don’t want to hear Jesus talk.  “That was a perfectly good Dharma talk until he dragged Jesus into it!” My fellow sitters, who are mostly Christian in background, are probably comforted by the reference, just as I was comforted by my early exposure to Jewish teachers.  “What I’m doing here really isn’t apostasy.” All of it, the raised hackles or the comfort, conditioned response.

The hard thing is to hear what the teacher is saying behind the words.  What he means by “Jesus” or “God” may be what I mean by “dharmakāya.”  Or maybe not.  Can I “listen freshly?”  Is there something in his experience that can reverberate in mine?  Something beyond conditioned responses?

It’s not for nothing that the Buddha’s first disciples were called śrāvakas, or “hearers,” those who actually heard the Buddha speak.  That’s our aspiration too, to be “hearers.”

Larry Rosenberg used to say (maybe he still does) that watching our own conditioned responses over and over is like watching “Gone With the Wind” one thousand times.  It’s a great movie, but (unlike the King Kong audience!) we eventually tire of it and are able to drop the story.

That’s our job in Dharma practice.  Dropping the story.

Dharma talks — stories to end stories.






Technorati Tags: , ,


The Noble Eightfold Path

The Pali for “Noble Eightfold Path” is Ariya Aṭṭhangika Magga, literally the “Aryan Eight-Limbed Path.”   Nowadays, the word “Aryan” has negative connotations because of its appropriation by Nazis and white supremacists, but in ancient Pali it meant “noble” or “exalted,” and Buddhists reserved it as an honorific for practitioners who had reached a high level of realization: stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, and arahants.  The name “Noble Eightfold Path” is a bit misleading, because it’s not so much the path that’s noble, as it is the path that nobles follow to attain realization.  The Noble Eightfold Path is the path alluded to in the Fourth Noble Truth: the path towards release from suffering.  It’s the Buddha’s prescription for what ails us.

Traditionally, the Eightfold Path is subdivided into three aggregates: wisdom (pañña), virtue (sīla), and concentration (samādhi).

The wisdom aggregate has two components: right view (sammā ditthi) and right intention (sammā sankappa).  Right view, at an initial level, is an understanding of karma — that actions have consequences — as well as belief in rebirth and the possibility of liberation.  At a higher level of realization, it is also the ability to directly perceive the three marks of existence: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anattā) in all compound phenomena.  Right intention involves both a renunciation of clinging, and the adaptation of an attitude of good will and non-harming to all beings.

The virtue aggregate includes the components of right speech (sammā vācā), right action (sammā kammanta), and right livelihood (sammā ājīva).  Right speech refers to abstaining from lies, backbiting and slander, abusive and hurtful speech, and frivolous talk. Right action involves adhering to the ethical precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual impropriety, and intoxicants.  Right livelihood means earning one’s living in a way that adheres to the precepts.  Certain occupations are specifically proscribed for Buddhists including trafficking in human beings, weapons, meat, intoxicants, and poisons.

The concentration aggregate also has three components: right effort (sammā vāyāma), right mindfulness (sammā sati), and right concentration (sammā samādhi). Right effort means developing control over one’s mental state by abandoning unskillful thoughts, preventing unskillful thoughts from taking hold, and reinforcing skillful thoughts.  Right mindfulness means cultivating awareness of bodily sensations, feelings, mind, and mental objects in all one’s activities.  Right concentration is the development of one-pointed concentration through practicing the meditative absorptions (jhānas) in order to have sufficient stability of mind to develop insight into the marks of existence.

The Eightfold Path has both a mundane and supramundane level.  On the mundane level one follows the path elements to prepare for stream-entry, but at the point of stream-entry all eight elements coalesce into the supramundane path from stream-entry to arahantship.

One can think of each of the path elements separately, but one can also think about them as reflecting and reinforcing each other, like the jewels of Indra’s net, or like holograms, each element containing all the other elements within them.  For example, right speech requires right intention, abstaining from intoxicants, abandoning unskillful thoughts and maintaining right mindfulness.  When one is practicing one aspect of the path, one is reinforcing them all.

The Noble Eightfold Path is Theravāda Buddhism’s map for Destination Nirvana, but other schools have provided somewhat different maps for realization.  Mahāyāna Buddhism has its Bodhisattva path; Vajrayāna has Atiśa’s Stages of the Path. There’s even a Zen-inflected pathless path:  As Toni Packer has written:

“Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever.   Awareness, insight, enlightenment, wholeness — whatever words one may pick to label what cannot be caught in words — is not the effect of a cause. Activity does not destroy it and sitting does not create it. It isn’t a product of anything — no technique, method, environment, tradition, posture, activity, or nonactivity can create it. It is there, uncreated, freely functioning in wisdom and love, when self-centered conditioning is clearly revealed in all its grossness and subtleness and defused in the light of understanding.”

So what do I make of the Noble Eightfold Path?  After all, I’m an existential Buddhist who doesn’t believe in literal karma and rebirth.  Since I don’t believe in literal rebirth, I also don’t believe in the literal meaning of stream-entry, i.e., being on the glide path to non-rebirth.  According to the Theravāda map, I’m already hopelessly mired in wrong view.

With the exception of the karma/rebirth issue, however, the Noble Eightfold Path still seems like a pretty good prescription.  It emphasizes the importance of the interplay of intellectual understanding, intention, ethics, enlarging the heart, and meditation.  Practicing one of these without the support of the others is probably the fast track to nowhere.  Without an initial understanding of suffering, impermanence, and interdependence there is little motivation to practice.  Just meditating, however, without the larger envelope of the intention to help all beings can lead to detachment and withdrawal.  Trying to calm the mind while one’s immoral behavior is busy generating turbulence is like trying to erect a tent during a hurricane. Rushing out to save beings without developing discernment, mindfulness, and equanimity is a recipe for what Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion.”  Finally, a sterile intellectual understanding of Buddhist concepts without the direct experience of reality arrived at through meditation leads to a mistaking of the map for the territory.  One haggles over concepts without ever touching the reality the concepts merely point at.  Alan Watts called this eating the menu instead of eating the meal.  Compassion, ethics, meditative practice, and intellectual understanding are all necessary components of paths to realization — however one imagines that destination — if we are to avoid drifting too far off, either to the left or to the right, and winding up in a side-ditch.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,


My Problem With Enlightenment

Sensei tells me to believe in Enlightenment.

“It’s real,” he says.  “Trust me.”

“I can’t,” I reply.

Sensei is a lovely man: charming, warm, direct.  He gives a great dharma talk.

But I’m a wary customer.  I’m incapable of belief without evidence.

When I first went searching for a teacher, I was attracted to Toni Packer.  When Toni was asked if all this sitting ever got us anywhere, she responded “why not try it and find out.”  I liked her because she never asked me to believe her, but invited me to see for myself.  (A few year later I asked Toni privately whether all that sitting had gotten her anywhere.  She replied it had.  She said she spent many hours each day in a state of undivided awareness, and when she was kicked out of it she found it easy to resume. I had no reason to doubt her.)

But Enlightenment? With a capital “E?”  What am I being asked to believe?

The words awakening or enlightenment mean different things within different Buddhist traditions.  A non-exhaustive list of various meanings might include 1) a permanent end to the arising of states of desire, aversion, and ignorance, 2) an end to rebirth, 3) the realization of emptiness, and 4) the attainment of (depending on your tradition) either arhathood or Buddhahood.

I have never seen any persuasive evidence for believing in reincarnation.  From what I understand about the human central nervous system, I find it difficult to believe that human beings can completely cease having desires.  I also have never, to my knowledge, met a living Buddha or arhat.  Lots of wonderful, inspiring spiritual teachers… but no fully Enlightened beings.

So I guess I can’t really believe in Enlightenment with a capital “E.”

That’s not to say Enlightenment doesn’t exist.  Just that I’m indisposed to believe in it.

Is there something enlightenment-like that I can believe in?

I can believe in awakening as a gradual process with Enlightenment as its hypothetical end-point: a far horizon aimed for but never reached.

I can believe in increasingly developing our capacity for mindfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, and equanimity through continued practice.

I can believe in learning to become less self-centered.

I can believe in becoming less reflexively attached to our personal narratives of who we are.

I can believe in striving to increase who we include in our circle of caring.

I can believe in striving to become more ethical in our dealings with others.

I can believe in consolidating and integrating these attainments so that they become increasingly manifested in our behavior across situations and domains.

Is this Enlightenment-Lite®?

Is it enough?  Am I aiming too low?

Others might argue that big goals bring big attainment, small goals, small attainment.

Without the goal of unexcelled and complete awakening am I cheating myself out of what I’m really capable of?  William James argued in The Will to Believe that there are cases where “a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.”   Ajahn Jayasaro argued in his dharma talk Faith in the Quest that “Nobody can prove that there is such a thing as enlightenment but if we don’t have faith that there is, our practice is unlikely to go very far.”


But I can only do what I can do.  I can only believe what I can believe.

Unlike the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, I can’t believe six impossible things before breakfast.

It seems to me, however, that the gradual process of awakening, the one that I can believe in, the one without a perfect achievable endpoint, is good enough.

It gets me to continue my practice.

It will have to do.


For now.

(Many thanks to Brooke Schedneck’s post “Lacking Faith in the Western Buddhist Communities” in Wandering Dhamma for making me aware of the Ajahn Jayasaro quote.)

Technorati Tags: , , ,