Buddhism Learns to Stand on its Head

 Zhang Huan’s Three-Legged Buddha, Storm King Art Center (photo courtesy of Capucine Gros)
Zhang Huan’s Three-Legged Buddha, Storm King Art Center (photo courtesy of Capucine Gros)

Lately, I’ve been reading Amod Lele’s blog, Love of All Wisdom.  Lele has a doctorate from Harvard where he studied cross-cultural philosophy–an inevitable choice for him, given that his mother was raised as a Christian and converted to Buddhism, while his father was raised as a Hindu and converted to Marxism.  Lele opted out of the philosophy job market, such as it is, and now works as an educational technologist for Boston University while further developing his philosophical ideas in his blog.

One of the things Lele writes about is the dialectic between ”ascent” and ”descent,” and the dialectic between ”integrity” and ”intimacy” as they are expressed in both Eastern and Western philosophy.  It’s helpful to think of these contrasting concepts as poles at the ends of a continuum rather than as dichotomies.  I’ve found these concepts to be useful in sorting out some of my own thoughts about the evolution of Buddhism. What follows is my own understanding of these ideas, and not necessarily Lele’s.  I hereby absolve him of any and all responsibility for my mangling and misappropriation of his work.

Lele borrows the concepts of ”ascent” and ”descent” from Ken Wilber and, to a lesser extent, philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  Ascent and descent refer to our relationship to the mundane world.  Does ”Enlightenment” in Buddhism (or ”Salvation” in Christianity) have to do with leaving the mundane world behind and ascending to some pure, sacred realm (Nirvana, Heaven), or is Enlightenment to be found in the here-and-now particulars of our messy, everyday existence?  This distinction partially parallels the distinction in Christian theology between transcendence (God exists beyond the world) and immanence (God is manifest in the world).  I am uninterested in ”ascent” and ”descent” in reference to issues pertaining to spirituality versus materiality. I am interested in them to the extent that they reflect a stance of either disenchantment with everyday life and the desire to escape it to some better place beyond, or something which we might, for lack of a better word, call a ”spiritual life” that can be found by embracing the entirety of existence just as it is.

Lele borrows his ideas on intimacy and integrity from philosopher Thomas Kasulis.  Kasulis’s interest in these terms is primarily philosophical, while mine is mostly psychological.  I’m interested in whether the goal of the holy life is essentially one of purification and making oneself Good (integrity), or one of deepening one’s  interconnection with all Beings and with life itself (intimacy).  Ascent philosophies often emphasize integrity, while descent philosophies often emphasize intimacy, although, as Lele points out, that’s not always the case.

These distinctions are highly relevant to Buddhism’s evolution as it migrated from the Indian subcontinent to East Asia and then on to the West. Indian Buddhism was initially, like other contemporary Indian religions,  a religion of integrity and ascent.  The goal of the holy life was to purify oneself by ridding oneself of desire, aversion, and ignorance in order to leave cyclical existence behind. The method involved leaving one’s family, livelihood, and society behind, and going off into the forest to meditate.  This emphasis on ascent was partially tempered a half-millennium later by Nagarjuna, who identified nirvana with cyclical existence, or samsara. Once Buddhism spread to China, however, it was reinterpreted through a Taoist filter, and moved even more towards the polarities of descent and intimacy.  Thus in Zen, Nirvana is to be found within the mundane world of the ten thousand things (hence Zen master Joshu’s declaration that the meaning of Zen is the ”cypress tree in the garden”), and the holy life is not to be found through becoming pure, but by becoming intimate with all of life. The Bodhisattva ideal of saving all beings and not just oneself is a further nod towards interdependence and yet another step towards the polarity of intimacy. The move towards descent and intimacy is not yet complete, however, as the holy life still involves becoming a monk and withdrawing from family and profession.

The drift towards descent and intimacy reaches its apotheosis in contemporary Western Buddhism with its emphasis on lay practice.  Lele points out that while in early Buddhism the interdependence of all things (their emptiness of self-existence, or sunyata) was seen as a reason for disenchantment with the mundane world, helping us to thereby let go of our grasp on things, modern Western Buddhism views interdependence as a positive good in and of itself.  As such, recognizing our unity with all things essentially defines Awakening. Similarly, the modern Mindfulness movement encourages us to seek enchantment in the world, to more fully appreciate sensations, to learn to be in the moment and ”smell the roses.”  The Buddha’s original instructions for disenchantment with the world are, in a way, completely stood on their head.

I began Buddhist study and practice within the Theravada tradition, but am now a Zen practitioner. Trying to sort through the continuities and discontinuities between these traditions, founded some 1,000 years and 2,000 miles apart, has not been an easy task.   Is there ”one Dharma,” as Joseph Goldstein once proclaimed, with a single genotype underlying its phenotypical variations, or are there, in fact, many Buddhisms?  If there are many Buddhisms, what is the right path of practice?  This question has stirred minds for millennia. Historically there were arguments for the purity of early Buddhism as opposed to its later ”degenerate” forms, and arguments for the superiority of later Buddhism over the earlier ”lesser vehicle.”  Contemporary writers rue the incorporation of elements of Romanticism into Western Buddhism, urging a return to some earlier form of ”real” Buddhism.  There is always some other form that is more real, more authentic.  Others argue for a dialectical synthesis of ascent and descent.

I like to think of the different streams within Buddhist culture as different voices within an ongoing conversation about the nature of the good life, the meaningful life, and the sacred life.  Asking who was right is a little like asking ”who was right about musical harmony, Bach or Wagner?”  There are many great voices within this conversation:  the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Dogen, and Hakuin, just to name of few.  I’ll let you name the others. They all have something worthwhile and important to say.  They all see themselves as part of one continuous tradition.

What is it like to just listen?

Are you confused?  Only stay confused.  Nothing dulls the mind so much as certitude.  The true holy life is about living deeply into questions, not about finding answers.

The trick is to find the questions that are alive for you.

The one’s that set your hair on fire.




20 Replies to “Buddhism Learns to Stand on its Head”

  1. Not to dispute anything you’ve said here, because I find it mostly agreeable, but more as an aside: becoming pure is becoming intimate with all of life, if you perceive, as I think many of the Taoists did, purity as meaning the natural order of things.

    1. Nice point. Also, can we say that for Mahayana Buddhists, if form is emptiness and emptiness form, then ascent is descent? Zen always retains its bifocals. It’s not that there is no “higher realm,” it’s just that the higher realm is right here.

  2. Seth – Your thought-provoking essay prompts me to think of Layman Vimalakirti, particularly the moment when the Layman is re-entering Vaishali and runs into the Bodhisattva Shining Adornment, who is surprised to see him heading into the noisy city. “Where are you coming from?” the Bodhisattva asks. “I am coming from the place of practice,” the Layman answers, by which he means the “upright” (or “straightforward” or “true”) mind, not a particular location. Given Mr. Lele’s metaphor, I can well imagine Vimalakirti descending into Vaishali. But the Layman’s answer suggests that the “place of practice” (sometimes translated as the “dojo”) is not dependent on locale.

    1. Ah, neither ascending or descending, just “here.”

      “Place of practice” is a wonderfully Zen translation. Bob Thurman translates it as “seat of Enlightenment,” working off of the Tibetan translation which, he thinks, is more faithful to the original Sanskrit than the Chinese translations. But of course, since Dogen says practice and Enlightenment are one, we don’t really need to choose.

  3. “Of the proper way to sing, the birds and frogs disagree.”

    Old Korean saying I picked up during my years there. Thank you for putting into words something I’d noticed in various Buddhist discussions. For some people, transcendent perfection, Nirvana, escape from this world of samsara, is the goal. I point out how impossible a goal it is, like stepping through a mirror. Others say it’s all about being mindful and in the moment and competely engaged. I point out that a murderer is being completely engaged and in the moment while he’s killing. So no, mindfulness in itself isn’t getting you anywhere.

    So it’s both and neither. It’s everything and nothing. It’s emptiness and form.

    And that’s more thinking than I normally do in a week.

    1. Jerry, thanks for the Korean adage. I had never heard it before.
      And thanks for pointing out the futility of attending to only one pole of these continua. Mindfulness is only one part of a larger dharmic package — it can be an isolated skill unless it is taught within a broader philosophical context and in conjunction with other aspects of the path. Fortunately, my own experience has been that programs like MBSR do teach mindfulness within a broader context (e.g., a philosophy emphasizing non-clinging, self-directed and other-directed compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity and a naturalized form of karma).

  4. Hi Seth. I just saw this; thanks for it! I’m glad you find these categories helpful, since I’ve been grappling with them for a while and sometimes wonder how much others benefit from them.

    I would just like to expand on one point here: “Ascent philosophies often emphasize integrity, while descent philosophies often emphasize intimacy, although, as Lele points out, that’s not always the case.” Indeed. I think that historically integrity has often linked to ascent and intimacy to ascent, with exceptions. But one of the reasons I keep coming back to the categories is that that isn’t true anymore. The modern world, of capitalism and natural science and liberal democracy, is very much a world of integrity descent in a whole variety of ways. I find people who are interested in premodern Asian traditions are often looking for something that’s eluded them in the modern West, and that that something is typically either intimacy or ascent – but they often don’t understand the difference between the two, which leads to a whole host of misunderstandings. A bit more on this point here: http://loveofallwisdom.com/blog/2011/12/11/chinese-intimacy-and-indian-ascent/

    1. Amod,

      Thanks for your wonderful blog.

      And thanks for pointing out that modern Western culture has both an integrity and (to the extent that it is post-Judeo-Christian) descent orientation — descent in that it is enthralled by materiality and suspicious of spirituality, and integrity in its relentless emphasis on individualism. Your suggestion that modern Westerners who feel something is lacking in their own culture often search for intimacy or ascent in pre-modern Asian cultures, and that those who are looking more for ascent turn to ancient India, whereas those looking more for intimacy turn to China and Japan, makes a good deal of sense. I would love to read more about the misunderstandings that might ensue from not understanding the difference between these orientations — perhaps there already is such a post? If not, I hope you’ll write one soon.

      1. Hi Seth,

        Thank you for the kind words. The misunderstandings I have in mind are those which treat Indian Buddhism, and classical Indian thought more generally, as if it had an intimacy orientation – often simply because it is visibly different from modern Western thought. I have written several posts on this topic, so there’s a lot of food for thought for you:


        1. Just from reading the first link here, ”Buddhists against interdependence”, I have to say that there seems to be some misunderstanding about the misunderstandings. Yes, the ”circle of causes is bad.” But the point is that the chain can be reversed or purified. This, according to one of the Pali accounts, is the realization the Buddha had on his night of enlightenment.

          It’s true that the early Buddhist schools did not give the same connotation to pratitya-samutpāda that the Mahayana schools did, but the seeds of interdependence or conditionality (idampratyayata) are contained in the formula of ”because of this, there is that” which can be found in the Majjhima Nikāya, Samyutta Nikāya, and other Pali suttas. So, I am not sure that the idea of interdependence is ”almost the opposite of what the classical Indian Buddhists” especially if we include the Madhyamaka and Yogacara school into that category.

          Nor do I feel it is correct to assume that nirvana was viewed as something independent by the early Buddhists. Nirvana or nibbana refers to the cessation of trsna, the cooling of thirst. As I have mentioned on my blog a number of times, Prof. Trevor Ling noted, ”the original Buddhist goal, nirvana, was the restoration of healthy conditions of life here and now, rather than in some remote and transcendent realm beyond this life.” That would make nirvana not something independent or separate, but rather a state of mind co-existing with suffering.

          None of this is to say that the Chinese, Japanese, or we, moderns, have not added shades of meaning to many of these ancient Buddhist concepts. At the same time, since this is an interdependent world, nothing comes from nothing, so as I said, the seeds of these meanings are there. Besides who can say with certainty that it wasn’t the ”classical Indian Buddhists” of the Pali canon who didn’t add inferences that were almost opposite to what the Buddha originally taught?

          1. David, I think the main point here is that the early Buddhism of the Pali Nikayas emphasized disgust and disillusionment with and abandonment of attachment to the five skandhas, including the perceptual world. Impermanence, non-self and unsatisfactoriness were the three marks of all conditioned phenomena, whereas nirvana was the one unconditioned phenomenon. The fact all phenomena were non-self (the concept had not yet been broadened out into the idea of “emptiness”) was reason enough to release attachment to them. Actually, the idea of the interdependence of all phenomena and interbeing was not yet on the table in early Buddhism. If they were, I have no doubt that they would have been added to the pedagogical project of disenchantment with the world — things lack self-existence, so don’t become attached or enthralled. This does seem to me to be very different from the love of nature that came to Zen through Taoism, and very different from the mindfulness movement’s current stress on the pleasure derived from presence within the moment.

            One can argue, as modern Buddhists sometimes do, that the Buddha’s brief was for non-clinging to pleasure, but that he didn’t eschew pleasurable feeling in and of itself. One can point to descriptions, for example, of the rapture and bliss that are part of the first jhana (although even these pleasant sensations are let go of as one enters the higher jhanas, as they still contain too much excitement to foster true stability of concentration). Nevertheless, the Buddha didn’t advocate smelling the roses. He thought we should only eat in order to give us sufficient energy to practice the Dharma. Enjoying food was not part of the project. Monks were forbidden to dance, sing or even swim. This was a very Puritanical, anti-sensual program, and very different from what gets taught in Western Dharma Centers today. I don’t think this is necessarily bad or wrong. Lets just acknowledge that it is different, and that things have changed.

  5. Seth, I am not too sure about any of this. I think non-attachment has been a very strong theme that persists even today in Western Dharma Centers. Perhaps not as Puritanical as in the past but it’s still there. And as you seem to suggest, independency does not take anything away from non-attachment. Even the Zennists and Taoists with their love of nature, still emphasized the idea of abandoning worldly affairs, pleasures, etc.

    I’m also not sure that non-attachment necessarily means reducing our dependence on the world around us. The bhikkhus were highly dependent on the outside world. They depended on people in the world to provide the food that they ate only so they could have sufficient energy to practice the Dharma. They were not monks, isolated from the world, and while their lifestyle was austere, it was a communal lifestyle in which they were mutually dependent upon each other.

    Anyway, all I was saying was that the seeds for interdependency or interbeing were there from the beginning, and all modern Western Buddhists are doing is pouring a bit more water on those seeds so that they can grow. As far as things being different, to be completely frank, I think the real misunderstandings are on the part of those who for some strange reason insist on viewing Eastern philosophy through the lens of Western philosophy even while they recognize and acknowledge that they are each built upon completely different modes of reasoning.

    1. David,

      As to your first point:

      “I think non-attachment has been a very strong theme that persists even today in Western Dharma Centers.”

      Sorry I wasn’t clear. I agree. Non-attachment is still taught as the core of Buddhist practice. It’s pleasure itself that is now viewed with less suspicion.

      As to your second point, “Independency does not take anything away from non-attachment,” we again are in agreement. In my discussion I suggest that had early Buddhists understood independency the way the Mahayana understood it, they would have added it as another reason for non-attachment.

      As for “Even the Zennists and Taoists with their love of nature, still emphasized the idea of abandoning worldly affairs, pleasures,” we again agree. I mention in the post that Chinese and Japanese Zen still uphold a monastic ideal. Western Buddhism, on the other hand, has been more of a lay affair with all that entails.

      As for, “I’m also not sure that non-attachment necessarily means reducing our dependence on the world around us,” I also agree. We are always dependent on all things. Interdependency is a fact, non-attachment is an attitude.

      So where, if at all, do we disagree?

      “The seeds for interdependency or interbeing were there from the beginning.”

      Here I am not so sure. The twelve nidanas of dependent origination in the Pali Nikayas are very different from Nagarjuna’s interdependency. You will very rarely come across the word “sunyata” in the Nikayas. I am not sure it has quite the same connotation when it occurs in the Nikayas, though, and if it does, I am not sure if these are “later” suttas either written or redacted after the Mahayana had started rolling. Perhaps some scholar-reader can enlighten us on this point. If the seeds of interdependency were there from the beginning, they were dormant and buried very deep.

      Lastly, “I think the real misunderstandings are on the part of those who for some strange reason insist on viewing Eastern philosophy through the lens of Western philosophy even while they recognize and acknowledge that they are each built upon completely different modes of reasoning.” Here I strongly disagree. Both Eastern and Western philosophy grow from similar roots, and the early Buddhists and Greek Stoics and Epicureans have an awful lot in common — an astonishingly awful lot. The Dharma is the Dharma, whoever discovers it and wherever it is discovered. Logic too is logic, wherever it is found. Even if it isn’t, we as modern people are all heirs to the Western Enlightenment — we can’t help it — and are dishonest to ourselves when we pretend we’re not. We must think like moderns even while we practice premodern modes of being, sometimes just setting thinking aside, and like Dogen, thinking non-thinking.

      1. Seth, I think for the most part we are in agreement.

        In regards to the ”seeds”, I thought I had given some indication where they could be found — and I think the seeds for the Madhyamaka sunyata exist as well — but I’ll leave it at that.

        ”the early Buddhists and Greek Stoics and Epicureans have an awful lot in common” — true, but I think it has less to do with common roots than with some other phenomena that is similar to the way in which medieval Tibetan murals were constructed with almost the exact same technique used in European murals of the same period, and yet, there was no connection between the two groups of artists. ”Something in the air” I suppose would be one way to put it.

        My interest in philosophy is in its practical value. I suppose that might make me a bit of an anti-intellectualist, I don’t know. Discussing Eastern philosophy using Western terms like ”intimacy” and ”integrity” or constructing conversations between 8th century Buddhist poets and 20th century Western philosophers may be interesting to some people, but since I question the relevance of such exercises, I tend to feel they only confuse matters rather than clarify them.

        1. Dear David,

          Thank you for your thoughtful replies to my and Seth’s posts. I do not have time to do all your points justice but I’d like to offer my thoughts on some of them.

          I am not convinced by Ling’s assertions as you describe them. While the Pali texts do describe the Buddha as still being around after he achieved nirvana, the greater, higher nirvana – mahāparinibbāna – occurred at the moment of his death, his leaving the world. Moreover, the point of the tradition as expressed in the Four Noble Truths – not necessarily the single core of the tradition as they’ve often made out to be, but still a formula widely circulating – is that it offers a way out of suffering, described in some respect as nibbāna/nirvana. If nirvana were to “coexist with suffering”, that would seem to miss the point.

          Re the dependence of monks, one of the posts I cited was specifically challenging some aspects of that idea, and while you may not agree with it I suspect you will at least find it thought-provoking: http://loveofallwisdom.com/blog/2012/04/22/the-monks-independence/

          On the question of finding “seeds” in early Buddhism, one needs to be careful about reading later views back into earlier texts, when one can find some passages that justify them and others that don’t. It is much like the Christians going back and turning the Tanakh into the Old Testament – retaining its content but rearranging it and interpreting it anew so that now it is a prequel to the arrival of Jesus. There are enough resources for such an interpretation in the Hebrew Bible that it can be read in that way. (By way of contrast, I don’t think the Christians could have done it with the Pali Canon.) But we do a disservice to the Hebrew prophets’ own voices if we read their own project as if it were all about Jesus. Here, much will depend on what our project in reading the texts actually is. If it is a theological project in the broad sense – which is to say, we are already convinced of the truth of a given tradition as a whole and seeking to justify its own account of itself – then this is a time-honoured strategy. But one should be aware that that is what it is.

          That in turn leads into the final points regarding philosophy and practice. What you find interesting is up to you. I will add that philosophy becomes important primarily when we are seeking not just practical effectiveness but truth. Sometimes searching for that truth is itself necessary to making our practices effective; this is especially the case when one is not persuaded that the truth is to be found entirely within one tradition. As Seth notes in his post, that latter is the case for me, and given my background it could scarcely be otherwise.

          With regards, Amod.

  6. Hi Amod,

    Regarding Prof. Ling and Nirvana, it has to do with word usage at the time and its original meaning. I may be wrong but my sense is that nowadays most folks are skeptical about the ”annihilation” definition of nirvana. In any case, I would invite you to read Ling’s book ”The Buddha,” he has some very interesting facts and theories concerning the Buddha’s life and the early days of the sangha. I don’t agree with all of it, but it contains the most realistic portrait of the Buddha I have found, and I think his research still holds up some 40 years later. In the meantime, you can read one of the first posts that I wrote on my blog summarizing many of Ling’s conclusions. It’s not terribly well-written but the info is there.


    Yes, I did find your post thought provoking. As for seeds, don’t think I am trying to read later views into the earlier texts. I guess I have a different definition of ”seed” than you and Seth. As I am using it, seed means a small thing, like the ”germ” of an idea, a source for later development.

    Lastly, it is also up to you how you wish to study Buddhism, and since I am a practitioner and not a scholar and the only degree I have is from the School of Hard Knox, I probably should not criticize scholarly pursuits. But since I am an outsider, I like to think (or I con myself into believing) that I am a bit more objective about those pursuits, and I feel that philosophy too often is not a science, in that it is dealing with known facts and the relations between them, but rather a system of conjectures based upon occasionally invented constructions. That’s not meant as an insult, it’s just my average Joe, layman’s opinion.

    And to echo Seth’s sentiment, quoting the immortal Stan Lee, ”Nuff’ said.”

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