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Concerning “extreme ethics”

This is the second post courtesy of my hostile interlocutor, Sophia.  In fact, she started our conversation by asking what I was going to write about bodhisattvas killing people, and she provided some excellent fodder for the conversation in the form text from a site, here.  I suggest you read this before continuing.

Mostly these are examples of what I call “extreme ethics,” ethical conundrums where someone has to die or suffer horribly or violate serious taboos.  (The significant exception is the sexual one.  This is just a case where a marriage has outlived its usefulness and the two people should go their separate ways.)  In cases of extreme ethics there is no escape for the would-be virtuous person, no dodging the bullet.  Either they sin by commission or by omission—sinning is not optional.  These situations exist and they have to be considered if we are going to create—and practice—a mature ethic of living.

The issue I’m most interested in here is where somebody killing or dying appears unavoidable, and this is clearly what interested Sophia.  She seemed of the opinion that Mahayanists were lax in this regard, less strict about the precept on not killing than Theravadans are.  She may have a point.  That is, I think there have been more instances of excuse-making within the Mahayana tradition as regards this precept than within the Theravada.  Note, however, that I’m not going to try documenting this suspicion with textual evidence because I really don’t care which tradition is “better” or more “pure.”  What interests me is the question of whether or not, in certain circumstances, it might be the “right” thing or at least the “better” thing to kill than not to kill.

This is how I addressed the issue with Sophia.  I wrote:

Let’s say you are a good German during World War II and you’re hiding a family of Jews in your house.  An SS commander comes to inspect your premises for whatever reason and discovers the family.  You have it in your power to kill the man on the spot, thereby saving the family (for now, at least).  Do you do it?

I think any sane person capable of thinking quickly enough and keeping his/her wits about him would kill the SS officer.  It is a “simple” calculation of life against lives, where you are in the unfortunate position of being the decider of fates.  Oddly, while it is a good thing to save a family, at the same time it is a bad thing to kill a man, regardless of his intentions.  The former, in my opinion, does not obviate the latter.  Moreover, to say that there will not be negative repercussions for killing a man “in cold blood” would be silly.  The “good German” in this situation will almost assuredly feel distress, possibly for the rest of his life, for killing the SS officer.  He might “justify” it (i.e. attempt to relieve his guilt) by thinking of the people he saved, but he is still guilty of killing and only psychopaths feel no remorse.

I actually have had a less extreme personal experience of this kind of thing, this moral “residue” of a choice I made.  Back when I was in college I was on break and at my parents’ home.  My father found a baby possum in broad daylight.  (Possums, of course, are nocturnal animals, so this one was obviously lost.)  It had probably fallen out of a tree or somehow gotten separated from its mother.  Anyway, the poor creature was defenseless, but what were we to do?  So, we put it in some bushes and wished it good luck.  An hour or two later I went in to my father’s workshop.  The door was open and since the light was not on I walked in out of sunlight into relative darkness.  I couldn’t see much and as I stepped in, reaching for the light switch, I kicked something.  I flicked on the light and there was the baby possum, contorted in pain.  Obviously I had broken its back or crushed some organs.  Clearly it was going to die.  I felt horrible, but worse was the prospect of letting the little creature die a slow, agonizing death over who knows how long a time.  So, desperate to end the thing’s suffering, I cut off its head with a hatchet.  Now, needless to say, its death was not my intention.  I would not harm such a creature for anything, but I was in a no-win scenario that happened by accident.  Did I do the right thing or not?  I think yes, but to this day remembering the event makes me queasy.  Now, how much worse would it be for that good German in our earlier example?

This is all to illustrate that living ethically, “being a bodhisattva,” is not some special designation we get and then go through life with, wearing it on our lapel.  Every day we are called upon to make ethical choices, and most of them, thankfully, are not extreme.  But every choice leaves its mark, and even the most compassionate and courageous among us make mistakes.  We may not make the right choice every time, and even if we do we will possibly have second thoughts.  Even if we know what we did was right (as the good German ought to know) that does not mean the decision is “clean” or easy, that it does not injure us psychologically in some way or another.  This is simply to say that the ethical laws governing a bodhisattva’s actions are not in any way different from the ethical laws anyone else must answer to.  A bodhisattva is simply someone who has chosen to practice ethical living in a more conscious and energetic fashion.  This choice, of course, is itself an ethical decision, and sometimes it may place them in extreme circumstances where no good, ethically “clean” outcome is possible.

So, to get back to what I originally said: killing is always unethical and any “justification” for it is always contrived.  But sometimes, when compared to other decisions, it may be the best decision to make.  The notion that by that fact killing somehow becomes heroic and “propels us on our bodhisattva career” is, I think, silly and immature, not to mention dangerous and delusional.  This is to pretend that one person has a special status that other people do not have.  Nobody has a special status, not even the psychopath, who simply becomes more psychopathic the more frequently he kills and does not care.  I would therefore argue that the extent to which you really do care about your actions and their effects is the extent to which you are ethical.

Her response was to say scenarios such as my “good German” found himself in are “contrived.”  My response to this would be to say Please, get out of your velveteen palace and live a little!  If you don’t believe ethical choices in extremis actually occur, talk to people who have been in combat, who have lived or worked in war zones.  Visit a war zone.  Talk to rescuers in disasters or the victims of extreme crime or terrorism.  Many of these people have had to make split second, life-and-death decisions, where they were literally deciding the fates of others.  I was once the victim of a home invasion, and I can tell you that considerations of appropriate force, weapons for self-defense, and expedient measures are all very applicable in such cases, even if you have only minutes or seconds to decide.

If you feel, like Sophia, that our ethics do not have to account for such situations, I suggest you make a day-trip to a maximum security prison with people facing life sentences or capital punishment for unspeakable crimes.  You should talk to the wardens and guards and inmates, asking them about the extreme choices that led them to such extreme fates.  Or, you could take a sabbatical to a place of soul-wrenching poverty, where you might actually see people dying on the roadside, neglected and alone.  If this doesn’t incite your moral imagination, I don’t know what will.

You don’t have to travel far to see the face of misfortune, though.  I work in a hospital where I cross paths with chemo-bald, dying children every day.  Imagine the choices their parents and caregivers have to make as regards the allocation of limited resources and medicines for life extension: how much, for how long, at what cost, and to what end?  You should visit a cancer ward and consider these issues, keenly aware as you breathe easily, free of disease.

Another simple suggestion would be to talk to emergency room staff.  For almost two decades my sister has been a nurse.  She’s seen it all: triages where she decided who lived and who died, dealing with relatives wanting to help sick loved ones die by over-dosing them with pain relievers, not to mention the necessity of having to repeatedly save people who seemed hell-bent on killing themselves by their destructive habits.  When it came time for our father to pass away (he was pronounced terminal on account of multiple tumors growing around vital organs), he asked my sister to help him end his life.  If you don’t think this is a moral conundrum comparable to my “good German” scenario you should get your head examined.  I can tell you, though in the end our father died as painlessly and gracefully as could be hoped, the ethical quality of our choices regarding parental euthanasia did not admit of a “happy” ending, just an ending.  As I said, sometimes the sin is unavoidable: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The point of all this is to say that one day you, too, may find you have to make a decision, either at a moment’s notice, or over the course of hours and days, where you determine the life or death of a person or persons.  They could be anyone, strangers or lovers.  If you hold high political office it could be the fate of a nation.  If you’re a CEO you may have to decide who loses their job and their livelihood.  In every one of these situations there is no course of action that does not hurt someone (yourself included), and no matter how well you choose you will not experience a sense of comforting clarity or the thought that everything is okay now since you made the right choice—assuming you made the right choice.  While we may like our ethical problems to be neat and clean and to resolve with the moral certainty of a John Wayne movie, sometimes we are mere instruments of fate, weighing the feelings and existences of others like lumps of meat on a scale.

If you think I am in any way validating murder, giving it a thumbs up whenever the shit hits the fan, that would be a very mistaken interpretation of my meaning here.  I want to state emphatically that I believe killing is morally wrong for the simple reason that it numbs and destroys us inside, not to mention what it does to the victim.  At the same time I say beware of people who hold to absolute and inflexible standards of ethical value and conduct.  Such beliefs do not acknowledge the bleak uncertainty and instability of our lives.  This often manifests in gross hypocrisy, as when a politician claims he’s “pro-life” and “pro-gun” in one sentence.  (I’ve actually seen this and it is breathtaking.)  It is easy to give a pretense to morality and honor if all you do is mouth chapter and verse, and this is why the commandments of sky gods and prophets can never substitute for deliberate and conscientious consideration of the reality of the situations we find ourselves in.

One final point.  In defense of her “moral clarity” Sophia offered this famous verse from the Kakacupama Sutta (M.21):

Even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: “Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” That’s how you should train yourselves.

Many people use this and similar quotes as a defense of the notion that the Buddha’s teaching is one of total passivity in the face of injustice or violence being inflicted upon individuals or whole communities.  But notice that what the Buddha addressed here was the mental state of the person being attacked.  He’s saying, in effect, that regardless of what happens to you do not allow anger and resentment to take over your mind.  He did not say you should let them saw you up and run you over.  I hardly think he would be averse to an attempt to escape from or disarm the bandits.  In fact, nowhere in the suttas have I ever seen an example of someone rightly practicing allow or encourage someone to allow the rape or slaughter of others because that was the “peaceful” thing to do.  Obviously, in the case of bandits, the best way would be simply to avoid or escape them.  If that’s not possible, then resist them to the extent necessary to make a getaway.  If that’s not possible, you may have to fight for your life while hopefully exercising the presence of mind necessary to use only the minimal and necessary force to avoid gross injury to either party.  You see how quickly such a scenario, in the moment, becomes dicey and uncertain?  How comforting it must be to sit back in your easy chair, pondering your scriptures and philosophy books, and say that if ever you are attacked you will calmly let yourself be robbed and slaughtered.  My question to such a person would be Why do you value your own life so little?  

My challenge to the Sophias of the world is this: Show me one instance in the Suttas or Vinaya where the Buddha or a rightly practicing disciple allowed him or herself or anyone else in immediate proximity to be murdered, beaten or raped while offering no resistance, even if it was just the exercise of psychic powers to effect escape or change the circumstances.  If you can show me one unambiguous example I will reevaluate and, possibly, recant the position I have elaborated here.

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So what the hell kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?

I recently had some email conversation with a person named Sophia.  Although the issues we discussed were of great intrinsic interest, I cut off the conversation on account of my correspondent’s insistently aggressive snarkiness.  It just got to be a little much.  However, I would like to address some of those issues in more detail and hopefully clarify what I really think about them.  While I can’t say this is for Sophia’s benefit, it may be of interest to some people or, if perhaps anyone else was thinking along the lines she was thinking, may head off future conflict or misunderstanding.

Perhaps the first matter to clarify is whether I am Mahayanist or Theravadan in orientation.  A lot of the challenges and points she was making seemed to assume this dichotomy, and also seemed to assume I was the former over against the latter—this, no doubt, because I’ve been writing a lot recently about the bodhisattva ideal.  I find this confusion puzzling since I’m pretty up front about my position in the “About Me” section of my blog: “Regarding Buddhism: my bias is towards the Pali suttas—no other texts can claim veracity as regards the historical Buddha…”  The only caveat I can add to this is that the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings and practices have certainly added worthy ideas and technologies to the Buddhist tradition.  This stance should not, I think, be in any way controversial, given modern scholarship regarding the history of Buddhism.

What might be controversial (to some) is my decidedly secular approach to these teachings.  That is to say I do not take a religious, fundamentalist, or absolutist view of anything in Buddhism (or anything else).  I do not see anything “perfect,” “revelatory,” or “final” about the Buddha’s or Buddhist teachings.  I do not accept anything just because “it is written.”  I do not accept anything just because “so it is said” or because “this teacher said so.”  (Think the Kalama Sutta.)  I land where scholarship and actual testing in practice tells me I should land.  Thus: the Jatakas are not the Buddha’s past lives—they are Indian folktales appropriated for didactic purposes by the Buddhist tradition.  The Buddha did not teach the Abhidhamma to devas in Tavatimsa heaven—it is a later scholastic creation, often at odds doctrinally with the Suttas.  And the Buddha was not omniscient—he actually said as much, and there is no doubting that many of his powers and achievements have been exaggerated.  (I could say the same thing of Jesus or any other pre-modern miracle worker or saint.)  It is also silly to say the Buddha was the “most enlightened, most perfect, peerless, ultimate teacher of gods and men to ever walk any world in any galaxy.”  Maybe he was, probably he wasn’t.  There is no way to know, and anyone who says this kind of thing is pretending to knowledge they obviously do not have and is speaking from nothing but faith—blind faith.  (An equivalent assertion is the oft-repeated Christian dogma that Jesus rose from the dead or never sinned, etc.  I find such wild presumptions of knowledge puzzling, not to mention grossly immature.)  This position of mine in no way obviates the worth of the Buddhist tradition or the excellence of the Buddha as a teacher.  I personally think the Buddha is the best teacher of whom we have a reasonably complete and reliable record, but this is just my opinion based upon my limited information; I should be—and am—always willing to change my opinion if I happen upon better evidence.

Getting back to the Theravada/Mahayana dilemma:  I should point out that a lot of the Theravada incorporates beliefs and practices not found in the Suttas.  Remember, the Theravada was and is a school—it is the not the Buddha’s Teaching per se.  What might be the Buddha’s teaching, what holds the clearest claim to be such, is the Pali Canon, specifically the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas, and then some of the texts in the Sutta Pitaka are clearly later and apocryphal, e.g. the Buddhavamsa, the Cariyapitaka, etc.  One must tread with care determining what is what.  Now, while determining what the Buddha actually taught is a fascinating historical and scholarly endeavor, for a contemplative practitioner it is a waste of time.  The reason is because there are many ways to skin a cat.  The phenomenon of human awakening—“enlightenment”—is not something dependent upon a particular set of practices or a particular tradition.  One personality type will be most helped by this practice, another by that practice.  Whether it is Advaita Vedanta or Vajrayana or Theravada is not important: what works is important. This is really the heart of what I mean by being “secular”—a practical, non-ideological approach is required.  This way opens up the whole human contemplative endeavor to each one of us rather than shutting us off in separate schools, everyone claiming “Mine is best!”

If religious Buddhists find this stance offensive, that’s okay.  They are welcome to their views.  They can practice over there and I will practice over here.  But even if we practice cheek-to-jowl they probably will never know I am “secular” because I have no problem bowing to statues, chanting precepts in Pali, observing Uposathas, etc.  In other words, I do not eschew the forms—in fact, I love the forms.  The forms help us and comfort us, they guide us, but they must not cage us.  You might even say I am Buddhist because I find the forms of Buddhist practice the most comfortable to live and work with, as opposed, say, to Taoist or Hindu forms, not to mention Christian or others.

I hope the above clears up any doubts people might have about where I’m coming from; if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.  I’m really not such an important person that you have to grok my Dharma—or should I say “Dhamma”?

Comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (1)

This post and several forthcoming will be my thoughts on Acariya Dhammapala’s excellent little “Treatise on the Paramis,” which I’ve now read three times.  I don’t have any particular plan or order of progression to follow other than what the text gives, though perhaps some grander, more intelligent approach will reveal itself as I go along.

The paramis as a heuristic tool: Sometime during my second reading I wrote the following at the top of the treatise: “The paramis are a heuristic tool to think about how a person needs to be to 1) best help himself, 2) best help others, 3) perfect samadhi and paññā.”  They are a training guide, almost a kind of mnemonic device, for inculcating certain personality traits.  As such, they are in no way absolute.  That is, the list of ten we have in this treatise could have been twelve or nine or, as they are in the Mahayana tradition, six.  This is important to keep in mind, as it will enable one to be flexible in how one appraises one’s own character and tries to effect changes.

The meaning of “parami”: Usually the meaning of the word is given as “perfection,” but Dhammapala offers some interesting wrinkles on this.  He says, first, that “bodhisattvas, the great beings, are supreme (parama), since they are the highest of beings by reason of their distinguished qualities…”  So the word can also refer to supremacy or primacy.  Furthermore, the paramis are the character or conduct of the bodhisattva, of one who is supreme.  We could therefore alternately translate the word as “excellence,” so long as we think of excellence in an active sense–as a verb instead of a noun.  Thus when you act with excellence or from excellence, you demonstrate the paramis.

helping hands

Their sequence: In this text and others it’s suggested one performs or perfects the paramis in a sequence.  I am not convinced of this.  It seems to me the path of development is holistic, with every attribute activating, strengthening and reinforcing, every other one.  I’m sure there’s some hard science on this somewhere, but my suspicion is that greater renunciation (self-restraint or discipline) is positively correlated with higher levels of mental energy, or more generally ethical behavior.  Some paramis may be easier to perform initially, but that does not mean one will necessarily perfect them in any particular order; this would seem to be determined in great part by native disposition.  One should note, too, that throughout the course of the treatise compassion and skillful means are placed first as the guiding lights of all the paramis.  They are, in effect, paramis themselves, though not called such.  What is compassion but loving-kindness in the general, affective sense, and what is skillful means but wisdom in action?  There is lots to say about these categories: how they overlap and interplay, and whether or not this is even the best list.  For remember, this is not the only list–the bhumis in Tibetan Buddhism and the Avatamsaka Sutra are different.  I’ll need to look at this later, needless to say….

“All the paramis, without exception, have as their characteristic the benefiting of others; as their function, the rendering of help to others, or not vacillating; as their manifestation, the wish for the welfare of others, or Buddhahood; and as their proximate cause, great compassion, or compassion and skillful means.”

Analysis by five ways: The author proceeds to analyze the paramis by five ways.  He describes 1) their perfection, or how they ideally manifest; 2) their characteristic, that is what is their fundamental attribute; 3) their function, or what they do; 4) their manifestation, i.e. what do they look like in practice; and 5) their proximate cause, that which allows them to unfold.  See the attached table here: The Paramis

The Great Aspiration: Here Dhammapala ramps up the difficulty of the bodhisattva project to inhuman levels.  He writes:

The condition of the paramis is, firstly, the great aspiration (abhinihara). This is the aspiration supported by the eight qualifications, which occurs thus: “Crossed I would cross, freed I would free, tamed I would tame, calmed I would calm, comforted I would comfort, attained to nibbana I would lead to nibbana, purified I would purify, enlightened I would enlighten!” This is the condition for all the paramis without exception.

Following this inspiring vow are the “eight qualifications,” and I’m sorry to inform you that none of us,not a single person on the planet, can be certain he or she possesses all eight.  To say this is a problem is an understatement, so much so that this section of Dhammapala’s essay is likely to turn people off, depress them, or make them think something’s fishy about the whole thing.  However, there is almost assuredly more here than meets the eye, and I do not think we should let ourselves be trapped by tradition–Buddhist or otherwise.  My next post will be an essay devoted entirely to the problem of the Great Aspiration and the eight qualifications.

On reading Buddhist books

I’m now on to my second book about the paramis (Skt paramitas) and I’ve come to a conclusion: what people read, what sells, and what has lasting value can be divided into four types of literature or writing.  These are…

Wait!  First, I want to preface my pending revelation with a rather obvious statement: This is just my opinion.  Nobody should get offended or think I’m talking down to them.  I am a certain type of person and as such have certain preferences and standards.  What works for me is not what’s going to work for everyone–if I have gained one iota of wisdom in my nearly half century of living, this much at least I can be sure of.  Now, back to the revelation.

Taichung_Baojue_Buddhist_Temple3

Read my books!

The four types of Buddhist literature are:

Popular: This type of book sells surprisingly well and is always twice as long as it needs to be.  For better or worse, a lot of people who aren’t even Buddhist read this stuff and feel good about themselves on account of reading it.  As a result, you definitely know who the authors of these books are so I won’t bother telling you their names.

Now, here’s how you can tell a Buddhist book is a “popular” book.

  1. If you do an Amazon search for “Buddhism” it probably comes up near the top of the list.
  2. The author was once a monk or nun but realized at some point that writing books was a more lucrative endeavor.
  3. The author is now a media personality and has founded one or more organizations.
  4. The author quotes indiscriminately from all the different Buddhist schools–as well as from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Taoist, secular, and scientific writers, maybe even popular songs.
  5. The word “being” is used at least once every other page of every book the author writes.
  6. Quotes from other people and books are never given more attribution than the fact they were said/written by so-and-so.  In other words, the source text is rarely cited, and chapter and verse are never offered.
  7. Quotes from the Buddha, especially, sound like someone talking at your office–with an amazingly modern diction and vocabulary for a guy who died two and a half millennia ago.  Again, chapter and verse are nowhere to be seen.
  8. The historical veracity of the Mahayana and Vajrayana accounts of the Buddha’s words and biography are never doubted.
  9. The ultimate truth and unity of all religions is not questioned.
  10. Mother Theresa and/or Martin Luther King will be mentioned at least once and their sublime virtues discussed in passing
  11. Everyone is naturally, originally, uniquely, perfectly Good–if only they knew it.
  12. The writer’s grandmother was invariably the wisest and most awesome of hidden sages.
  13. There are no footnotes, endnotes or bibliography, and indexes are optional.
  14. The titles of these books are often derived from well known sayings, songs, or folksy expressions, etc.

Scholarly/practical: The authors of these sorts of books often have significant contemplative experience under their belts, with academic training to boot, though some are purely academic in their background and just happened to have broken into the public consciousness.  While not usually as popular or well known as the writers of “popular” books, their work can sell well.  Authors I would put in this category include Walpola Rahula (What the Buddha Taught), Gil Fronsdal (translator of the Dhammapada), Bhikkhu Bodhi, Daniel Goleman, and Henepola Gunaratna (Mindfulness In Plain English).  Their works are typically characterized by the following:

Gil Fronsdal

  1. 80-90% less fluff language than is found in the works of popular writers; instead, their language is typically crisp and intelligent though not dry or opaque.
  2. Uncommon and unique insights–no garden variety “wisdom” here.
  3. Almost always include indexes, as well as–frequently–bibliographies and endnotes.
  4. They actually provide citations for quotes and don’t rephrase the quotes to make them sound like 21st century utterances.
  5. Fewer stories from regular life, though these are still included.  Instead, many more stories and examples from original sources.
  6. You probably won’t learn anything about their grandmother, cat, or best friend.
  7. They are mindful of the differences between Buddhist schools and, except on rare occasions, don’t feel the need to invite comparisons with other religions and philosophies.
  8. You are more likely to remember one of these books a year later than you are a popular book.
  9. You are more likely to keep one of these books with the intention of rereading or consulting it in the future than you are a popular work, which will probably turn yellow on your shelf, assuming you don’t first charitably donate it to your local library or regift it to a wayward relative.
  10. You will probably want to underline, highlight or otherwise mark up one of these books.
  11. The authors of these books are less prolific than popular writers.  So the book in your hand will probably be one of only two or three (max) widely known works by him or her.  Popular writers, on the other hand, are constantly coming out with new and improved versions of the Dharma they wrote about last year.

Scholarly: These books are easily spotted.  They usually come from university presses and you have to dig for them on Amazon.  Their authors are invariably professors, scholars, and other learned sorts–or were: maybe now they are living out a hermit-like retirement.  While some of these authors are good writers, they don’t hesitate knocking you over the head with Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and/or Korean technical terms, and their sentences can take on a cerebral knottiness that requires multiple reads.  (Note: Tibetan terms in these books are invariably rendered in English via the unpronounceable Wylie system.)  Furthermore:

The_art_scholar_by_amartinsdebarros

Too short a life and too many books!

  1. Diacritic marks and the italicization of technical terms are inevitable.
  2. Endnotes can run for dozens of pages.
  3. There is often a bibliography of works from the original language (Sanskrit, Chinese, etc).
  4. You have never heard of the author apart from the book in your hands.
  5. He or she may or may not be Buddhist.  If the author is Buddhist, he or she has not informed any professional colleagues about this fact.
  6. The author probably doesn’t meditate because that would (allegedly) impair his or her objectivity.
  7. The book may never break out of hardback and will be three times more expensive than a regular book of the same size and make.
  8. The topic of the book will be about a particular doctrine of a particular school in a particular century that ended long before you or anyone you know ever breathed.
  9. You will feel very intelligent while reading the book, but afterwards you will wonder what you should do with all that knowledge.
  10. You will probably keep the book, but will be afraid to open it again.
  11. No more than one–maybe two–people will have reviewed the book on Amazon.
  12. The reviewers’ comments will indicate they are much smarter and better read than you are.
daniel-ingram

The laughing arahat

Hardcore: These are the polar opposite of “popular” works, though they can, in fact, actually be popular.  Their authors are not typically interested in scholarship or “good works,” rather in the practice and achievement of exalted states of mind—jhanas, nyanas, nirvana, even siddhis.  Writers of this genre are typically very self-assured, speak with the confidence of “direct knowledge,” and are not generally terribly concerned with philosophical subtleties.  While they are sometimes quite orthodox in their thinking (simply accepting whatever theory is at hand), there is a tendency for some of them to challenge orthodox notions if tradition conflicts with their experience.  Moreover, these works:

  • Are long on practice and short on theory
  • Disdain fluff
  • Are grounded in meditative achievement
  • Are rarely published by big houses, but can yet attain “underground” or “cult” status
  • Don’t care how flowery or literary their prose is
  • Don’t tell lots of stories
  • Are often psychologically technical
  • Don’t quote original sources much but if they do are as likely to cite commentaries as suttas/sutras
  • Will make you feel like you’ve not done enough
  • Will inspire you to get up earlier, sit longer, and eat less

Examples of these books are some of Goenka’s material, Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma (originally Living Buddhist Masters, a book that had a significant impact on me when I first read it–the rest of Kornfield’s material is decidedly popular), books by some Burmese teachers (e.g. Webu SayadawMahasi Sayadaw and U Pandita) and Thai forest masters (e.g. Ajahn Chah) and, last but not least, that icon of the “hardcore dharma” movement,  Daniel Ingram (pictured above), author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

I have read many examples of all four.  Popular books occasionally contain gems scattered among the endless deserts of vapid prose.  This, and the inevitable language of optimistic self-improvement they employ (hence the fluffy verbiage), is what keeps you reading them–they tell you you’re extraordinary, that you possess Buddha-nature (if only you could see it!), and you want to believe, so you read and read and read and read.  If you’re a beginner, these are naturally the sorts of books you’ll start with, but if you don’t get beyond them you’re probably doomed to never learn anything you couldn’t have gleaned from the pages of Reader’s Digest.

Most of the best reading you’ll do will be by scholar-practitioners and hardcore dharma nuts.  People in both these groups really have something to say.  They are not looking for the next big seller; they know what meditation is about; they don’t have an organization to run (or if they do its supported by donors); and the scholar-practitioners especially are familiar with the original texts and the histories and can discuss them intelligently and practically.  Read as many of these (scholar-practitioner and hardcore) books as you can, but when particular issues become problematic for you or whet your interest, don’t be afraid of good scholars and their tomes, however weighty.  Some examples of excellent scholars and their work would be Steve Collins’ Selfless Persons, books by Richard Gombrich and Paul Williams, David Loy (Nonduality and others) and Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach among others.

Happy reading!

The Buddha and J. Krishnamurti: Reflections

The following is my principle response, slightly revised, to a gentleman named Martin, based in the UK, concerning the definition of enlightenment as well as possible relationships between the teachings of J. Krishnamurti and the historical Buddha.

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Hi Martin,

It seems your issues boil down to the following:

  1. What is enlightenment?
  2. How does the arahant change on account of becoming an arahant?  (The person’s “secular nature” as you put it.)  How does he/she not change?
  3. How do K and the Buddha compare, in terms of their attainments, teachings, effects?
  4. How might one coming from K’s “slant” (such as you) make sense of the teachings in the Pali Canon (i.e., the historical Buddha)?

 

Question #1: What is enlightenment?

Oddly, the first question is probably the easiest to answer.  Here goes:

Enlightenment is the cessation of subjectivity.

Anything else you say about enlightenment (or “awakening”—which is the more accurate term) is a cultural add-on, an expectation borrowed from somebody’s tradition, and is, by that fact, unnecessary or gratuitous, though this is not to say undesirable.

As for an explanation…

As long as your normal waking state of mind is self-referential, intuitively perceiving that “there is someone” over and against other “someones” or nature itself, or if your experience is characterized by a discrete (even if ultimately indefinable) center that interacts with phenomena—be they in the body or in consciousness or “exterior” in the sense of people and events—you are not enlightened.  A person in this state (99.999% of humanity) “suffers” because regardless of their emotional-cognitive state (happy, sad, successful, comfortable, etc), he or she is always limited in power and scope and subject to ending at any time.  These facts are the source and cause of anxiety; this anxiety is dukkha.  All popular religion (including religious Buddhism) is an effort to overcome this anxiety, though the solutions offered are invariably contrived and ultimately futile.  (K made this point again and again, and it was one of the best things he did in the course of his career.  You can also learn this from the existential philosophers—Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Nietzsche, etc.)

The word for this state of affairs is subjectivity, and for all intents and purposes, anxiety is the operationalization of subjectivity.  If subjectivity is a state of being, anxiety is its expression.  This way of existing is subjective because it always exists in relation to (or, as often as not, in conflict with) an object—something or someone else.  Or, alternatively, the presence of objects (in consciousness) gives the lie that a subject must exist.  This is the experience of the putthujjana—the “worldling,” as he/she is called in the Pali Suttas.  (Note: Subjectivity is not identical with consciousness.  This is a common mistake, made by, among others, J-P Sartre and horror author Thomas Ligotti in his mostly excellent book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.  Failure to understand this distinction leads to many problems….)

In the Buddha’s teaching the experience of waking up (bodhi) is nirvana (nibbana in Pali).  Nirvana is the disruption or cessation of the lie of subjectivity.  It is a discontinuity in (subjective) consciousness.  That is why even the stream enterer (sotapanna)—lowest in the echelon of awakened beings—knows intuitively that the self is a mirage; he/she has seen the cessation of the subject, though has not yet permanently done away with it; the arahant has.  Note that the Buddha never said there is no self.  Anatta means “not self,” the point being that if you look for a self or subject you will not find it, simply because it is always something (mis)construed from experience; there is no self/subject inherent in experience.  You could say the self is the “solid” form of the subjective, a hypostatization of an ever-present characteristic of the worldling’s experience.  But again, one cannot discover a self in the actual datum of experience.

So: awakening is the cessation of this contradictory and unsatisfactory state of affairs.

(I should point out that the ego, as the personality complex or expression of a particular person’s being-in-the-world, is totally different from the phenomenon of subjectivity.  The ego exists as an activity or expression, not an entity.  It is not in the least subjective, though an unenlightened person will necessarily conflate his/her ego with the “experience” of subjectivity.  Unfortunately, the English language is insufficiently nuanced in this regard; both in common parlance and scholarly circles “self,” “subject,” and “ego” are terms often used—mistakenly—as if they were interchangeable.  This is a particularly difficult issue I could write about at length, though it would take us a bit off track.)

Enlightenment typically happens by one of two means: the gradual or developmental path (as in the Buddha’s teaching in the Pali Suttas) or the “sudden” or “nondual” path, as in some Mahayana schools and Advaita.  (Tibetan Vajrayana—and tantrism in general—shows characteristics of both.)  The developmental path progresses through a gradual unfolding in which the goal (nonduality or non-subjectivity) steadily comes more and more into focus, culminating in the mind of the arahant.  The sudden or nondual path is, per its name, immediate and without apparent stages or states; the end state simply materializes, though usually after a period of striving.  Now while it is common for people in the latter camp to assume their path is superior to the former, the results are the same, and I suspect the way in which any individual attains the goal is more a matter of his/her particular practice and innate hardwiring rather than one path being better than the other.  Interestingly, the Buddha, though his teaching in the Pali Suttas is developmental in nature, seems to have gone from unenlightened to fully enlightened in one night (after six years of hard work, of course), which is a feat more characteristic of what you’d see in the nondual tradition (think Ramana Maharshi).  Whether or not his state subsequently underwent modification can’t be told from what’s recorded in the Canon.

Then you have what I refer to as “naturals”—people who without even trying just seem to wake up.  Their experiences are usually characterized by intense kundalini phenomena and appear almost biological in nature (UG Krishnamurti was quite emphatic that this is indeed the case).  The end states for these people are invariably nondual in nature—subjectless, I-less—and they are typically less effective as teachers helping regular sorts because they themselves did not go through the trials and tribulations of “getting enlightened.”  People in this camp would be both Krishnamurtis, Ramana Maharshi, Franklin Jones (aka Adi Da) to an extent, and some others.

 

Question #2: The changing/unchanging arahant

There are many indications from the suttas that the basic character of a person is not altered by awakening.  Since enlightenment as I have defined it is “merely” the cessation of subjectivity, it stands to reason that if you’re a science geek and bookworm before your awakening, you will assuredly be the same after.  Similarly, if you’re naturally a gregarious, fun-loving kind of guy, this will probably not stop being the case after your transformation.  This shouldn’t surprise us too much, really.  After all, “character” (ego, if you will)—that is someone’s particular complex of mental and behavioral traits—is peripheral to “being a self”; it is simply an aggregate of patterns, not a core process or fact of experience, like subjectivity, which is ipso facto the putthujjana’s experience regardless of what kind of person s/he is.  And so we find in the suttas that Ananda continued being the highly social, charismatic guy he clearly was both before and after his enlightenment (all stages of it).  And Mahakassapa, who appears to have been a somewhat surly, rough edged sort inclined toward solitude, was this way before and after.  And Sariputta, clearly the Sangha’s chief intellectual after the Buddha, did not somehow stop being an intellectual after he became an arahant.

What does tend to change as one spiritually evolves is a reduction in unskillful (i.e. unethical) behaviors.  These would subside during the course of practice and as practice bears fruit.  However, it is possible in some circumstances to come to deep states of awakening and yet still stand on very shaky grounds ethically.  This was the case with Adi Da as well as J. Krishnamurti.  Notice though that both these men were what I call “naturals,” and their spiritual careers were dominated by spontaneous kundalini phenomena.  Both shunned—even boohooed—the traditional external trappings or practices of asceticism, of self-abnegation, of ethical rules.  So while Adi Da was an athlete of extreme shakti experiences, my wife, upon seeing a photo of him, immediately said “He looks corrupt,” correctly diagnosing him as a moral failure.

Despite examples such as these, what seems clear from the suttas and from most every other body of contemplative literature is that advanced spiritual states are hindered, not facilitated, by immoral behavior.  The reason should be obvious: unethical practices create more conflicts, more problems, more headaches, than ethical practices.  They are destructive of mental calm, not to mention community.  And so the Buddha’s path as proclaimed in the Pali Suttas is arguably the most rigorous and explicitly ethical training found in any religious literature anywhere.  Moreover, that literature tells some very illuminating stories—Agulimala is the most famous—about people being morally transformed by their enlightenments—or, more accurately, by their assiduously following and practicing the path that led to their enlightenments.

Do you see the difference?  Spontaneous awakening versus following a path to awakening (whether nondual or developmental).  The former may yield totally benign results—as in UG Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi—or dangerous results—like Sai Baba and Franklin Jones (Adi Da)—or mostly benign results with serious lapses—such as J. Krishnamurti.  However, following a structured path, especially one with an ethically coherent and comprehensive system such as that of the Pali Canon, offers a higher likelihood of success in terms of producing morally benevolent, enlightened men and women than does anything else.

So to get back to the original question: What really changes for the arahant and what doesn’t change?  I think I’ve answered the latter part pretty clearly.  As for the former: what ends is anxiety, frustration, suffering, dukkha.  Moreover, the tendency to engage in unskillful behaviors that might aggravate or perpetuate suffering is greatly ameliorated.  Why?  Because once the subject-object dilemma no longer troubles one, if subjectivity has ceased, who is there to suffer?  Why engage in, why practice, suffering?  (An interesting notion that—unethical behavior as the “practice” of suffering.)  Mere phenomena arise, but nobody is home.  When the house burns down (as it inevitably does), nobody is there to get burned.

 

Question #3: K vs the Buddha

How was K like the Buddha? 

Several ways:

Spiritual presence: K clearly had the ability to awaken altered states of attentiveness and quietness in his listeners.  This was attested to over and over again.  I myself encountered this phenomenon in the person of Ven. Nyanavimala, an 80+ year old German Theravadan monk, easily the most remarkable man I ever encountered.  It is a palpably real phenomenon.  The Buddha, even assuming exaggerations in the texts, had this ability or power to an extreme degree: spontaneous enlightenments occurred around him quite frequently, often at the conclusion of short, emphatic lectures or personal interviews.  The most remarkable such instance was the stunning and complete transformation of the wanderer Bahiya, to whom the Buddha delivered a pregnant and powerful sermon (a few lines, really) and the guy became an arahant just like that.  (The Buddha pronounced him the “fastest to attain the goal” among all his disciples.  See the sutta here.)

Charismatic speakers: Reading K, looking at his pictures, reading about responses people had to him, one cannot help but sense the enormous dignity and charisma of the man.  He was not simply good looking in the ordinary sense, he was special looking.  Not to mention the fact that he was devastating in argument or retort when challenged.  Again, the Buddha possessed these attributes to an exceptional degree, so much so that the leaders of rival schools would try to dissuade their disciples from going to talk to him or hear his sermons because they almost invariably ended up becoming his followers.  (They accused him of being a “magician” on account of this!)  In this sense the Buddha was, I think, perhaps the most persuasive man on record, in any literature I’ve ever read (fictional, historical, religious, contemporary).

Born psychologists: Both men were psychologists par excellence, and both laid out their analyses of the human condition in startlingly original, non-authoritarian, non-ideological terms.  In both cases there was no recourse to belief—one was merely invited to listen and do the experiment oneself, to watch oneself and see what happened.  This is perhaps the place where it is most natural and easy to compare them, and the comparison is appropriate.

Mindfulness: If you boil K’s teaching down to one word, I would say “mindfulness”.  He’s constantly encouraging his listeners to observe, to watch, to pay attention.  This is the “right mindfulness” (samma sati) of the eightfold path.  Since this particular tool lies at the heart of both men’s teachings it is not surprising they would, to a great extent, end up sounding alike.

How are the two men different? 

The problem, as you pointed out, was that K seemed to expect a spontaneous alteration upon hearing him speak, provided one listened with “right attention.”  (Clearly he was an advocate of “sudden enlightenment.”)  This may have happened on occasion, but I doubt there were many such cases.  As a “method” it leaves much to be desired—it is too narrow and assumes everyone can instantly gain such insight.  And, even if they do, what do they then do with that insight?  How do they develop it?  These kinds of questions K would not or could not answer.  By contrast, the Buddha offered a complete program of ethical and meditative training.  It was explicitly “gradual,” with the expectation being that people would apply themselves over time and change accordingly.  K, on the other hand, seemed positively annoyed when people asked him how to do what he was talking about.  The result was that K can claim few if any people who transformed and became like him—the Buddha, even granting exaggerations in the texts, clearly helped awaken thousands of people during the course of his ministry.

A few points stand out pertaining to the above: 1) The role of concentration: K actually disdained the development of concentration, making fun of mantras, breath counting and the like.  The Buddha, on the other hand, recognized that concentration was a necessary tool of mental training and that a concentrated mind would more likely attain the goal.  2) The role of effort: Since K hesitated to tell people what to do, the role of effort was sidelined in his “program”.  The Buddha, on the other hand, said strong, goal oriented effort was the single most important key to success.  In this sense the Buddha was talking to the average Joe, the person who wants to change, wants to know how to change, and then needs a kick in the butt to get going.  K’s method almost guaranteed that a great many people would get lost in intellectualizing because they were given very little to hang onto in a practical sense.  3) Conventional religious practice: K, of course, was the great iconoclast.  He disdained pretty much everything about organized religion.  In the process, though, he threw out a lot that is actually helpful.  I think the Buddha was more discriminating in this sense: he knew what to criticize and chuck out (sacrifices, hierarchy based on birth or profession, etc) and what to keep (useful terminology, practices that could be redirected to his ends, prevailing mythologies that spurred effort, etc).

Use of organizations: The Buddha made much more effective use of human organizations, both in terms of how he played local politics (influencing leaders) and in terms of building a sangha.  As a result, he had a much bigger impact in his day, and his impact will assuredly be far more durable.  (Well, it’s already lasted 2,400 years plus….)

Teaching of meditation: Relating to my first point—the Buddha offered many methods of mental cultivation, different types of concentration practices, insight practices, and heart practices (for example the Brahma Viharas, which can also be used for insight).  He was a much broader, more eclectic and adaptive teacher than K.

Attainments: It is difficult, even silly, to compare attainments of various teachers—kind of like comparing superheroes.  (“Batman could kick Spiderman’s ass!”)  Nonetheless, if you look at the literatures (the Suttas versus other contemplative writings) with consideration for the degree of mastery over mental states—development of powers (siddhis), concentration states, fruitions, nondual states, etc—the Buddha appears to me unsurpassed in this regard.  I haven’t encountered any other literature detailing such a wide degree of effective mental mastery as I see in the Pali Canon—at least not as it applies to one particular individual.  Krishnamurti, on the other hand, seems simply to have been the beneficiary of good genes; I would hardly call him a “master of consciousness.”

Finally, as regards the ethical sphere: Because K’s teaching was in fact quite narrow in terms of being a vehicle of training, he did not touch upon or emphasize the ethical sphere so much.  This is not surprising, given that he was humping his business manager’s wife for a couple decades.  (Oh the cognitive dissonance!!)  The Buddha’s side of this hardly needs any comment; you can learn more about ethical integrity from Warren Buffett than you can from J. Krishnamurti.

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An after-note on the above: I came across a quote (don’t know the source) of a dialogue between K and a student.  Here it is:

Question: After having us shown the goal and emphasized the necessity for destruction, can you make somewhat clearer the means by which we may reach that goal? Much stress has been laid on the destructive side of the work. Why is the constructive one so vaguely spoken of?

Krishnamurti: “The necessity for destruction” – I do not know of what! …. “After having shown us the goal… ” – I have not shown you the goal. I want to awaken the desire in you to see the goal, and you will see it. If I showed you the goal, the absolute truth without finality, it would not be the truth for you; and if I establish for you the way towards the truth, it will not be the way for you. It is easy to establish a way, to lay down certain ethical moral laws which will bind you, but that is not my purpose… “Can you make somewhat clearer the means by which we shall reach the goal?” – But surely that is what I have been trying to do! That is what I have been trying to explain. But you must understand, you must create the goal, the path, not I. You would like me to say: “Get up in the morning at such and such a time, meditate for so many hours. Do not eat this but eat that. Think this but do not think that.” You would like me to circumscribe, limit your life and your understanding. You will then think that that is showing you the way. Life points the way to him who is desirous of understanding the truth.

No doubt this will sound very familiar to you—K evades any specific prescriptions, to the point where it leaves his listener in the dark, so to speak.  The Buddha, on the other hand, had a knack for diagnosing where people were and then giving them the teaching they needed while at the same time indicating that the listener/student had to do the work.  K also says this but is vague about what “the work” is!  The difference between these two approaches—in terms of substantive, life-altering changes—is night and day.  Compare, for example, K’s response to his interlocutor to the Buddha’s with Bahiya.  These two examples well illustrate the respective approaches of—and results obtained by—the two men.

 

Question #4: What should someone from the Krishnamurti camp make of the Buddha’s teaching?

For someone such as you to come to meaningful and positive terms with the Buddha’s teaching is not so hard.  The point is to focus on what K did right: his descriptions of where people are (the mind of the “worldling”), where they want to go (the mind of clarity and nonduality), and one of the principle tools to use to accomplish that transformation—mindfulness.  All you really have to do is notice that the Buddha’s eightfold path includes mindfulness. (It is part of the threefold training—sila “morality”, samadhi “concentration”, paññā “wisdom”.)  So you do not have to “throw K out of the ring.”  He’s in the ring for a reason and has something to say.  He has expressed some very deep insights quite eloquently, in ways that modern people can easily approach.  I would suggest viewing what he has taught as part of a larger enterprise that can engage your whole person.  This should be quite clear if you really consider the eightfold path of the Buddha.  So much of what K talked about can be used to describe parts of that path, with the added benefit that the B’s teachings give you more practical tools by which to work with what K said.

I remember one instance I read about where K really did get practical.  It was a question put to him in some school.  He was dealing with kids and so couldn’t take the lofty, intellectual approach he’s best known for.  He had to get down to their level.  He told them to close their eyes and start watching their thoughts.  Watch them arise, watch them persist, watch them go. Well, there’s a name for this: dhammanupassana—“mindfulness of mental objects.”  You can find descriptions of this scattered throughout the suttas, but especially in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is the single densest meditation instruction in the Pali Canon.  (See especially parts C & D.)  So….it’s all there.  But, this doesn’t work for some people.  Some need the breath (anapanasati) (part A1), or mindfulness of the body (kayanupassana) (part A 2-3), or something else—maybe loving kindness (mettabhavana) or work with a kasina.

So my biggest critique of K would be to say that, contrary to his assertions, there is a “how”.  And asking “how” is perfectly legit.  If you’re lost, simply being told you’re lost is not helpful; you need instructions.  I would recommend any of the Buddhist traditions, as well as the Hindu yogic and Advaita traditions, as excellent resources for learning how to get to where you want to go.

One final note: There are many clues in print about K’s own attitude and beliefs as regards the historical Buddha.  See, for example, the following web page, which details some of them:

http://www.buddhanet.net/bvk_study/bvk22a.htm

Apparently K believed he had been a monk in the Sangha during the time of the Buddha.  Regardless of one’s take on the ideas of reincarnation and rebirth, this says quite a lot!

Hope some of this helps, though I’m guessing I’ve raised as many questions as answered.  Let me know what you think.

 

Craig

 

Clearing the Path by Ñāṇavīra Thera

Clearing the PathClearing the Path (1960-1965) by Ñāṇavīra Thera. Path Press Publications 2010, 621 pages.
How does one review a book that, arguably, is the most influential book in your life?  Well, I’ll start by directing readers to my bio of Ñāṇavīra.  This, better than anything I could say in this review, will prep you for the work itself.  But of course, a few words on that are presently in order…
I don’t actually recall how/when I first encountered Ñāṇavīra’s writings.  So, I can’t say how they struck me at the time.  But I can say that for a while–a good many years, in fact–they basically defined the Buddha’s teaching for me.  What purpose, exactly, did these amazing and unique documents fulfill in my thinking?
First, they directed me to the suttas and away from that which would interpret them for me (think the Commentaries) or pretend to supersede them (the later schools, Mahayana, etc).  And while my range in Buddhism has broadened considerably since then, I still think that if your interest is to know what the historical Buddha said this is a healthy attitude to have.  If it’s just any kind of spiritual thought or practice you’re after, there are a great many out there to satisfy you, but if your intention is to get to know Shakyamuni Buddha, the Pali canon (but not all of it!) is where you’ve got to go.  All others are pretenders and wannabes.
So Ñāṇavīra pointed me to the original texts.  But he also, to my mind, illuminated them like nobody else ever has.  In his writings there is a combination of integrity, clarity, rigor and exactness that is rarely found in spiritual writing, even the best.  The man had a first rate head on his shoulders, a wry wit, and the writerly chops to get it all across in the best style possible.  Not to mention the fact that he wrote from actual meditative attainment (i.e. sotapatti, meaning stream entry) and so knew first hand something of the Buddha’s teaching and how the texts related to that attainment.
Another notable aspect of Ñāṇavīra’s writings is his relating of the Buddhist suttas to twentieth century European philosophy—specifically existentialism and phenomenology.  This is not to say he thought Sartre & Co had somehow discovered the Dhamma on their own, but rather he noted that their perspective on the human situation mirrored the Buddha’s own position to an uncanny degree and so, for many Westerners at least, might offer a door in to the Stream.  I think there is little to argue about in this regard–that is, the case, I’d say, is pretty well proven.  So those who come to the Buddha’s teaching from an existentialist or phenomenological position might find more that is familiar than they would expect.  Ñāṇavīra pointed this out to me, and through this understanding I found myself adopting a different attitude with a consequently greater appreciation for the existentialists.Beyond mere intellectual illumination though there is also Ñāṇavīra’s wrestling with questions of life and death.  He lived, for the better part of a decade, with ill health, chronic discomfort, and the prospect that his solitary enterprise as a Buddhist monk might be go down to defeat on account of intestinal parasites.  As a result, his writings discuss with startling matter-of-factness the possibility of his death by suicide on this account, and what such a death might mean within the context of Buddhadhamma.  As one reads, the omnipresent possibility—indeed, inevitability—of his end weighs in the background, lending a degree of drama.But what about the contents?  What comprises this unique text? Clearing the Path has been described as a “workbook,” and it is certainly is that.  You should know though that it is not a single piece, but consists of one major original work—Notes on Dhamma, written to illuminate certain critical terms  in the suttas–and a slew of letters to correspondents who came to Ñāṇavīra with questions about life, the Dhamma, and the meaning of it all.  One piece, entitled Fundamental Structure, is rather forbidding and opaque–something like a mathematical proof.  Readers are advised to leave it for last and not to get their hopes up too high as for understanding it; I confess I grasped portions, but large swathes escaped me.

Which leads me to my one cautionary note: this book is for advanced Dhamma students only.  People unfamiliar with basic Pali terminology and/or Buddhist thought will be hopelessly lost.  I should also add it is not, primarily, a meditation manual; its principle thrust is the philosophical under girdings of the the historical Buddha’s thought as it is found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school.  If you’re looking for some other Buddhist school, this will not be your cup of tea.

I leave you with a few snippets–mere appetizers–of writing from the sage of Bundala:

Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable.  Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified.  But—and here is the vital difference—the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world. Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha’s Teaching—for which, indeed, there can be no substitute.  The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a “commoner,” and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve. The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are.  One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, “noble,” and no more a puthujjana, and he is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha’s Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world (from the Preface).

At the time I read [Joyce’s Ulysses]—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering” (M.22:38), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?”  (pp. 404-5).

Suffering (dukkha) is the key to the whole of the Buddha’s Teaching, and any interpretation that leaves suffering out of account (or adds it, perhaps, only as an afterthought) is at once suspect. The point is, that suffering has nothing to do with a tree’s self-identity (or supposed lack of self-identity): what it does have to do with is my “self” as subject (I, ego), which is quite another matter…  As I point out…, “With the question of a thing’s self-identity (which presents no difficulty) the Buddha’s Teaching of anatta has nothing whatsoever to do: anatta is purely concerned with ‘self’ as subject.” But this is very much more difficult to grasp than the misinterpretation based on the notion of flux, so flux inevitably gets the popular vote (like the doctrine of paramattha sacca, of which it is really a part). The misinterpretation is actually of Mahayanist origin; and in one of their texts (Prajñaparamita) it is specifically stated that it is only on account of avijja that things appear to exist, whereas in reality nothing exists. But the fact is that, even when one becomes arahat, a tree continues to have a self-identity; that is to say, it continues to exist as the same tree (though undergoing subordinate changes on more particular levels—falling of leaves, growth of flowers and fruit, etc.) until it dies or is cut down. But for the arahat the tree is no longer “my tree” since all notions of “I” and “mine” have ceased (p. 175).

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki

Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki.  Wisdom Publications 2010.  190 pages.

Book blurbs are invariably hyperbolic, laudatory and, well, a wee bit exaggerated.  In this case, I think they’re actually spot on.  Consider this from Christopher Germer: “This book has the power to change how you see yourself and the world.”  Or the following from Joseph Goldstein: “[Olendzki] enlarges our understanding of basic principles and raises occasionally unsettling questions about familiar assumptions.”  Or, from David Loy: “Olendzki’s presentation of the Abhidhamma is particularly helpful and informative.”  I could go on, but you get my drift.  This is, indeed, a work of great knowledge and perspicacity.

First, as to the contents.  The book consists of previously published essays from a variety of venues, mainly Tricylce, Insight Journaland Buddhadharma.  The upshot of this is that there really is no sustained polemic or argument to the text, though it is organized into sections with such titles as “Caring for the World,” “Constructing Reality,” “Self and Non-Self” etc.  I admit I hardly noticed these as I read though. The individual essay topics hit all the traditional Buddhist favorites–dependent arising, not-self, suffering, impermanence, karma, ethics, as well as war and peace, the environmental crisis, modern psychology, and other things besides.  However, the book does not really develop progressively from section to section.

This hardly mattered to me because each essay is itself a little gem.  Olendzki brings several strengths to his work.  First, he is very familiar with the Pali texts, the oldest Buddhist scriptures and the only ones that can claim a direct link to the Buddha himself.  Second, he has clearly read and pondered and used these texts in the way they are meant to be studied and used–as guides to one’s world of inner experience.  He has done this thoroughly and reflectively, and brings a strong teaching resume to the work.  (His academic credentials are solid, plus he has a long-time association with IMS.)  Third, Olendzki is an excellent writer.  He is quotable, to the point, clear, and succinct.  In other words, he’s got all the ingredients necessary to turn out a masterful book, and that is what he’s done.

This is a work that can speak for itself, so I offer a few quotes as examples.  Here is Olendzki on the ever-controversial issue of anatta:

One assumption challenged [by the Buddha] is that the self has some sort of privileged ontological status as a substance, an essence, or a spiritual energy that is something other than the manifestations of a person’s natural physical and mental processes.  Self might be a useful word for referring to a person’s body, feelings, perceptions, behavioral traits, and consciousness, but it cannot be construed as something underlying or transcending these manifestations.  It may be a good designation of a person, in other words, but a person is not something other than how he or she manifests in experience (9).

Olendzki adds much as well to the understanding of paticca samuppada:

As an example of interdependent origination making a specific contribution to the new psychologies, we can look more closely at the relationship between feeling and desire.  As we have already seen, Buddhist psychology regards feeling–the affect tone of pleasure or displeasure–as an intrinsic feature of the mind/body organism.  Every moment’s experience of an object will come with a feeling tone, whether or not this feeling is accessed by conscious awareness.  In response to a feeling of pleasure or pain, an emotional response or attitude of liking or not liking the object may also arise.  Most of us conflate these two experiences much of the time, concluding that a particular object is liked or disliked.

However, in fact the object is merely experienced, and the liking or disliking of it is something added by our psychological response to it.  This difference is a subtle but important nuance…  It is the difference between “I am an unworthy person” and “I am a person who is feeling unworthy just now” (13-14).

Here Olendzki puts the Buddhist path into perspective, at the same time revealing its non-theistic origins:

Having identified that suffering is caused by a thorn–craving–lodged deep in the heart, the Buddha offered to pull out that thorn, allowing a person to find peace in any circumstance.  It turns out that extracting the thorn is not something magical, requiring the special grace or powers of a transcendent being; rather it is something that can be learned by almost anyone.  Since the causes of human suffering are ultimately psychological, the healing process is psychological.  This somehow puts the whole enterprise within reach, and renders it attainable (15).

Amazingly, the above passages are all found just in the introduction!  With such a wealth of well-put insight, how could any sincere and open-minded person not benefit from this book?

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Karma This, Karma That…

I recently encountered someone online who described karma as a “theory,” or “thesis.”  Ironically, they also criticized Stephen Batchelor as doing a disservice to Buddhism.  I noted that the Buddha in Anguttara Nikaya 6.63 explicitly stated: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and thought.”  Since I can see my intentions in real time (if I look), I therefore can see karma and, ipso facto, karma is not a theory but a lived fact, like breathing or farting or whatever.  For good measure, I quoted the Sutta Nipata where the Buddha defined karma as that which has consequences or results:

651-By action [kamma] is one a farmer, by action a craftsman,
By action is one a merchant, by action a servant,

652-By action is one a thief, by action a soldier,
By action is one a priest, by action a king.

I thought this made the stance of the historical Buddha as regards the definition of karma pretty clear.  But in response I was told that we do not see karma, only enlightened beings can do this.  I was also told karma is both cause and effect and the force that binds these together.  I was also told to get my head out of the Pali Canon.

I found these responses and the attitude they betrayed perplexing to say the least, and I’d like to take a moment to dissect what’s going on here.

First, let’s get back to Stephen Batchelor.  Batchelor is famous for his efforts to strip Buddhism of its mythology, dogma and old-fashioned delusions.  For this general program I applaud him, but he has a frightening tendency to confuse babies with bathwater.  When it comes to karma he kind of, almost, sort of gets it right, since in the chapter entitled “Rebirth” in his Buddhism Without Beliefs he quotes the above passage on the equation of karma and intention.  But then he goes on to spout silly and unjustifiable things, as when he claims on page 37 that karma is (just) an “ancient Indian metaphysical theory” and that “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  The first statement directly contradicts the definition of karma as intention (nothing theoretical there) and the second is simply false since if you can directly observe something it is a datum of experience and not something you need take on faith.

This misapprehension of the term karma seems to be a widespread problem, partly because not all Buddhists are even willing to acknowledge the quite straightforward definition of the term from the oldest texts—as in “get your head out of the Pali Canon.”  The inevitable result is vacuous assertions like “only enlightened people can see karma,” which is exactly the mindset Batchelor—quite rightly—criticizes.  In the case of my interlocutor, he clearly had an animus toward “narrow hinayanists,” not to mention a dislike for evidence that didn’t conform to his beliefs.   Such an attitude reflects a “true believer” mentality, since if we cannot experience something until the hoped-for day we get enlightened, then we have no choice but to accept the word of those who claim themselves enlightened.  This way of thinking reduces the Buddha’s teaching to a faith-based religion.

I loathe faith-based religions.  While I may with good reason accept a proposition as a working theory, I remain ever ready to toss it out if and when strong contrary evidence comes to light.  I treat a range of phenomena in this fashion, most notably the thesis of rebirth.  I accept rebirth for a variety of reasons, but I would not say I believe it.  I am willing to dispense with the notion; it just so happens that the balance of data I’ve encountered so far weighs in favor of it.  (When I went to Asia at age 23, I was quite firmly of the opinion rebirth/reincarnation did not happen.)

But I digress.  Back to karma.

Another point I made in the debate was that karma is cause, not effect.  I noted that vipaka (“fruit”) is the word the Buddha defined as the effect of karma; it is what happens as a result of my intentional action.  I was told this amounted to “an appeal to authority” and was therefore an illegitimate argument.

[Scratch head.]

Imagine you and I are playing Scrabble.  I disagree with your spelling of a word, or even doubt the word’s existence.  You suggest we look it up in Webster’s.  I then say “No dice!  That’s an appeal to authority.”  What should you do other than punch me?  I mean, really?  The issue here is not “authority.”  The issue is the definition and proper use of technical vocabulary, and it seems a great many people—especially when it’s something they’re emotionally vested in, like a religion—are inclined to making up definitions to suit themselves.

Think of the chaos that would ensue in daily life if everybody went about their affairs in this way.  Suppose you’re a Freudian analyst and one day, for amusement’s sake, you switch the meaning of the words “id” and “ego.”  How long will you last before you’ve lost everyone in the room?  How long will you last before you lose your board certification and are out of a job?

As in any endeavor, progress begins with learning the lingo.  It continues with clear and sincere motivations.  It is consummated when you are able to effectively communicate your realization, your understanding, to others in such a way that it helps them.  For this reason I find karma deniers and obfuscators among the most pernicious so-called Buddhists around.  They take a simple but very important idea and flog it until it submits to their ulterior motives.  This is not helpful.  It is bad karma.

Dipa Ma by Amy Schmidt

Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of A Buddhist Master by Amy Schmidt.  Blue Ridge 2005.  175 pages.

This is the story of how one sick, poor tiny Bengali woman became a spiritual giant whose influence, through those who met and studied under her, has spread around the world.  It is a most unlikely story, for Dipa Ma seems to come almost out of nowhere.  Her life, like so many people living in such dire conditions, consisted of a series of tragedies–infertility (this in a terribly patriarchal society where children made the woman), the deaths of several children she bore, the death of her husband, poverty, and then declining health.  It looked as if this little beetle of a woman would see an early grave.

The only thing going for her was an intense aspiration to practice meditation.  But even there she was stymied for decades by her husband and/or her health, until finally the first was gone and the second going.  What did she have to lose?  She crawled into the meditation center, but once she got going not even a dog attack (which put her in the hospital to get rabies shots) could stop her.  Her concentration went off the chart, and by the end of her first retreat she attained stream entry (sotapatti).  Her health did an about face, and higher paths soon followed.

Dipa Ma developed at an unprecedented speed, as, later, her daughter and son did.  (Clearly genetics plays a role.)  Under Anagarika Munindra’s guidance she developed an extensive repertoire of powers (siddhis), exhibited shaktipat, an unusual facility for jhanas and a great power of loving-kindness.  Soon students–housewives, school kids, even monks–began coming to her tiny one bedroom apartment in Calcutta (the conditions she lived in never really improved) for teaching and guidance, and her fame spread.  Through Munindra Westerners began beating a path to her door, among them such luminaries as Jack Engler, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The book is a brief portrait of this amazing woman.  Its biographical section is actually quite scant.  There are not a lot of details, no foot or endnotes, but many testimonials.  Famous and unfamous alike attest to the ways this woman impressed and changed them, and many of these accounts are quite moving.  Clearly she was a prodigy, a saint by any measure.

Wonderful things really do come in small packages.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield

A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield.  Bantam Books 1993.  366 pages.

I can sincerely say this is an excellent book but that it is not the correct book for me at this time.   Books tend to be time sensitive documents, meaning if you read one at the “right” time, it can light fireworks under your butt, while if you had read the same book at an earlier or later time of your life, you might toss it aside and pick up instead the latest copy of Time (pun intended).  My experience with what is probably Kornfield’s most widely read book is somewhere in between, but again, this may be on account of personality or timing.  Anyway, having read the book and announced this caveat, I’ll plunge in to my review.

First let’s nail down what the book is about, because it’s not immediately clear by looking at the table of contents.  The title comes from an oft-quoted passage from Carlos Castaneda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge:

For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart.  There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length.  And there I travel looking, looking, breathlessly…

The spiritual life is not just a path, but a forest, with infinite numbers of highways and byways and small trails, and if you’re not careful, or don’t have a good guide, it is easy to end up at a dead-end or some bad place you never intended.  This book is meant as a guide or map to this terrain.

Its range is necessarily vast, covering everything from the important questions of one’s life (“Did I love well?”) to making peace with oneself (“dealing with our stuff” as Daniel Ingram would say), and initial attempts to train the wayward mind (the “puppy” as Kornfield puts it).  Salient topics such as the stages of insight and the perennial debate of True Self versus No-Self are considered from Kornfield’s typically ecumenical and gracious standpoint.  The particular issues of Westerners dealing with abuse, codependence, and self-loathing are tackled, and the positive role psychotherapy can play in unwinding these issues is also discussed.  Karma is defined and the necessary role of compassionate, helpful work as “meditation-in-action” advocated. 

Kornfield is one of the godfathers of the American meditation scene, and his vast experience, sensitive expression and insight are abundantly on display.  It is not surprising then that while I would heartily recommend it as an introduction or preliminary text to one’s sadhana, it also bears reviewing at later stages of development.  In other words, this is neither a book for beginners, intermediates, or advanced students of the Way; it’s for everyone, since everyone at all times is running into at least one or two issues discussed in the book.

Quality-wise Kornfield’s insights, suggestions and clarifications are impeccable.  He is a very human and down-to-earth guide, one who sees beyond the starry-eyed ideals of perfection many traditions advocate (cf. Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha for more on this), and while the Theravada is his “home base” so to speak, his vision is all-embracing as regards the varieties of approaches one can take to the contemplative path.  I would recommend this book even to dyed-in-the-wool Christians—maybe an evangelical or two… (but maybe not)—without hesitation.  I don’t see how it could fail to inform or advise someone, regardless of where they are.  In the end, sincerity and a desire to learn are what count.

Despite all these good points, I found myself constantly irritated by Kornfield’s writing.  It is, to say the least, a little on the saccharine side; nay, sometimes it went down like seven packs of Splenda in my coffee.  There’s a little too much “wisdom and compassion,” “heart,” and “joy,” “being” and Buddha-nature here, and in Kornfield’s world everyone is a “master”: a Zen Master (with both words capitalized no less, like it’s a job title or something), a meditation master, a spiritual master, or just plain master.  I’m sorry, but not everyone can be a master.  If you’ve been on retreat for ten or more years or you’re a natural-born genius, you might qualify, but these sorts are rare; the word is overused.  (Besides, I don’t want a master; I want a teacher or guide or good friend, but I digress…)  To make a long story short: Kornfield is heavy on the “fufu jargon,” and for a spiritual curmudgeon like me it just doesn’t fly.

This kind of writing is unabashedly “popular,” politically correct, and “nice.”  The above is symptomatic of this, but his willingness to water down passages quoted from other (especially traditional) sources, to massage them into accordance with his way of presentation, also points to this tendency.  (Not to mention irritates the hell out of me!)  I groaned at one point (page 74) where, when quoting don Juan (from Castaneda) Kornfield felt it necessary to stick the word “spiritual” in front of the word “warrior,” as if without we might all think he was advocating something he clearly wasn’t.  Two pages later an even worse example of this sort of heavy-handed editorializing reared its ugly head.  In Kornfield’s words, the Buddha said:

Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the Way, and this is the taste of freedom (76). 

The source is Udana 5:6, where in the original Pali it says “Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so too this Dhamma and Discipline have one taste: the taste of freedom.”  Clearly, the Buddha was describing his teaching, not anyone else’s, but Kornfield, liking the passage, “adjusted” it to fit his message.  I think you can see why this sort of thing, indulged in on a regular basis, would rub some people the wrong way.

So, the brilliant and witty, the philosophically profound and the airy-fairy—it’s all here and much more.  I will leave you with some sage advice on this book from Daniel Ingram, who called A Path With Heart a “masterwork”:

Only major problem is that is it so nicely written and gentle you might not realize how hard hitting it is. Assume it is very hard hitting and technical despite its friendly tone and you will get more out of it.            

 My Amazon rating: 4 stars

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