A Guide to the Perplexed

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

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

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

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

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

Everything else is just gravy — or interference.

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

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

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

3 Replies to “A Guide to the Perplexed”

  1. Hi Seth,

    I found your article after googling “Buddhism existentialism”. As someone who has studied and practice Buddhism in considerable depth over the last 25 years, I was a bit put off by the opening paragraph which seemed to me to overemphasize (to the point of exaggerating) apparent contradictions within Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings.

    For example, I am not aware of any contradictions whatsoever between the Theravada concept of no-self and the Mahayana concept of emptiness (Tibetan: tong pa nyi), or the “Vajrayana beliefs concerning reincarnation.” These concepts are all seamlessly interconnected in my mind, although it’s quite possible my study is dusty and I am not picking up on some implied meaning between the lines.

    Also, usually, reincarnation is discussed in lower scope of the Lam Rim (gradual path) genre of teachings, which, with the medium scope – is completely harmonious with the Theravada.

    Of course, there are apparent contradictions within Buddhism – the most obvious one is between sutras where Buddha says the self exists (and therefore we need to pay attention to our actions of body, speech, and mind), and sutras where Buddha says no-self exists. Padmasambhava’s words reconcile this apparent split: “Though my View is as vast as space, my respect for cause and effect is as fine as grains of flour”.

    Different strokes as you say. Love the quote from Ajahn Chah. I studied with Ajahns Amaro and Passano, two of his direct disciples and remember many stories like this.

    And I like your closing emphasis on the ultimate testing ground of practice (listening, reflecting, meditating) over getting too involved in philosophical debating. However, in making that point, I think you do a disservice to the pure lineages of Buddhism when you (to me) exaggerate doctrinal contradictions. The ones you mention above seem very reconcilable.

    But back to existentialism – next fall, I’ll be entering a Masters program in Existential Phenomenological Therapeutic Psychology at Seattle University. I’ve started digging into the readings already and am wondering if you have come across any literature by Buddhist scholars relating to Existential-Phenomenological Psychology? Thank you,Jordan

    1. Jordan, thanks for expressing your thoughts on whether or not I exaggerated the differences between different historical and cultural stands of Buddhism. Just keep an awareness that there are many different schools of Buddhism and that they may well vary as much as the Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints do within Christianity, or Reform Jews and Hasidim do within contemporary Judaism. I find it hard to reconcile the anatta teachings of Theravada with some interpretations of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine which, I think, re-inject a notion of an essential self back into Buddhism, or in the idea of reincarnation (as opposed to rebirth) of Tibetan lamas. I mentioned emptiness only to point out that the concept is not present in the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings, and that seeing into the empty nature of reality had nothing to do with achieving Nibbana in the Pali Niyakas. We may also point to differences about whether or not consciousness must always have an object, differences over the duality or non-duality of nirvana and samsara, differences over the definition/understanding of Enlightenment, etc. The fact that many later teachings are not really the word of the Buddha doesn’t concern me — I’m happy with an evolving dialogical tradition — but the lack of acknowledgement of these thorny differences can be nettlesome.

      Regarding Buddhism and European existentialism-phenomenology, you might want to contact Belinda Khong (http://www.belindakhong.com/profile) who did a doctoral dissertation on Buddhism and Heidegger a few years back. She may have kept up with the scholarship in this area better than I. I’m the only existentially-oriented psychologist I know of who is both a practicing Buddhist and writing about it — all the other Buddhist psychologists I know are intersubjective psychoanalysts, Jungians, Kohutians, cognitive-behaviorists, etc. It’s a shame, because there are so many important similarities between modern Western interpretations of Buddhism and (at least) the American strand of humanist-existential therapists like Perls, Gendlin, Rogers, etc. including an unwritten history of how they co-evolved in the US with Buddhist teachers like Ruth Denison having traveled in the same social circles as Fritz Perls and Alan Watts, the history of the Esalen Institute, etc. Good luck at the University of Seattle! It’s nice to know that there are schools aside from Duquesne University that are carrying on a tradition that is barely holding its own in the U.S.

  2. Hi Seth, Thanks for taking the time to respond and for your encouragement in my studies. I find your receptiveness to dialogue encouraging as I enter academia which – I am told – is not always completely receptive to such questioning.

    I have not been reading Buddhist literature much since returning from India in 2002, so my knowledge is dusty, but my interpretation of Buddha Nature is that every sentient being has it, AND, it is just like any other conventional truth in that when one searches for it with ultimate analysis, it cannot be found. Similarly, with regards to rebirth, whether it is the intentional act of a highly evolved bodhisattva, or the unconscious outcome of the complexities of an individual’s karma, the only thing which is reborn in either case is the “mere person” (dependent upon parts, causes, and conceptual imputation) which again cannot be found in any ultimate sense. Therefore, it lacks inherent, independent existence. Believing in that intellectually – via logical analysis – is an important step towards spiritual freedom, but not a substitute for directly perceiving it (i.e. non-conceptually).

    These debates over differences in scriptural interpretation are ringing a note of familiarity, but personally, I see them as arising due to scholars who have not really understood emptiness or anatta (a corollary of emptiness) in my opinion. (Not that I have understood emptiness, but it’s just my hunch at this point).

    Although I’m just beginning my studies in existentialism, it seems clear that tradition arouse out of a reaction against the subject-object dualism of natural science, so there does indeed seem much resonance at the center of both the existential-phenomenological approach, and the Buddhist wisdom of non-dualism (i.e. emptiness).

    For students of the Mahayana tradition, the bodhisattva vows invoke scriptural authority to establish that the Mahayana teachings are the word of the Buddha. Of course, not everyone sees it that way, though once when I considered ordaining with Ajahn Amaro, he said that having the Bodhisattva Vows created no conflict for him. As a follower of the Mahayana, I avoid pejorative terms such as “Hinayana”. That’s not mere diplomacy on my part, but genuine appreciation for the Theravada path which is the foundation of all Buddhist teachings and certainly the foundation of the Vajrayana. When a Mahayanist is told that his or her teachings do not come from the Buddha, I personally don’t feel put down, but I can see how that might create religious disharmony. Certainly from a conventional stand point, it is difficult to prove the contention that the Vajrayana was taught on a different spiritual plane and then brought to this world via great living masters like Nagarjuna and Asanga. But absence of proof does not prove that it did not happen that way.

    Does consciousness need an object? I think it is possible to meditate on emptiness and have studied with many teachers who teach that specifically, but in general, again I like your encouragement simply to keep practicing. That is, for me, it would be far more beneficial simply to observe the arising of anger, impatience, greed, etc. than to engage in idle metaphysical speculation.

    Thanks for the link to Belinda’s website. I will do further investigation.



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