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Archive for the category “Mysticism”

What is meditation? or Why meditate?

I go on meditation retreats.  Not everyone understands this–my sister, for one.  She knows I’m reasonably intelligent and sane (I’m her business partner, after all), so she wants to understand this odd behavior.  However, it’d difficult to explain yourself or have a discussion with someone when there’s so little, maybe no, common ground.  So I recently sent her a note, the text of which is as follows:

Hi J-,

You’ve on several occasions asked me about meditation and my retreat experiences.  However, because of the strangeness or newness of these activities from your perspective, I think what I say about them is likely to go in one ear and then mostly out the other.  Writing it down, so you can read, review, consider, read again, and—if you are so moved—to ask further questions, seems the more productive approach.

I think rather than lengthy theorizing or explanation the best approach is through demonstration.  The following are a few exercises you can do on your own time which illustrate what meditation is and what it might offer.

Exercise 1, “The everyday mind”

Stop reading this paper.  Put it down.  Wherever you are, whether standing or sitting, look around.  Don’t do anything you would not ordinarily do.  Do this for one minute.  After one minute or so, ask yourself the following questions: “Was I breathing?”  “What was I just thinking?”  “Where is my self?”  You will note these questions are progressively more profound.  I suggest you try exercise #1 three times, each time concluding it with one of the above three questions.  The first two ought to be readily answerable.  The third will be much more difficult, and assumes you’ve already developed the faculty of internal awareness to a good degree.  The point of this exercise is to show several things: 1) Your “everyday” experience is unaware of a great deal that is happening inside you and around you. 2) Much of what you consider “my self”—such as thoughts and memories—is automatic and conditioned, carrying on without apparent control or supervision. 3) The entity/center/ego you refer to as “my self” is actually a very difficult “thing” to find or pin down, which begs the question: “What exactly is it?”

Now, I am going to make a proposition: The reason you “suffer” (and you can interpret that word in the narrowest or widest sense, however you wish), is because you are fundamentally confused/ignorant/unaware of the real nature of your experience/self/consciousness.  In other words, not only is ignorance not bliss, it is in fact hell.  The more acutely you become aware of this, the more you will want the situation to end or resolve.  (Which is why I go on these retreats!)

Exercise 2, “Attempting to focus attention”

Put this paper down.  Close your eyes.  Adopt a restful posture.  Be aware of your experience, whether of thoughts or sensations or whatever.  Don’t try to do anything special.  After a minute or so, direct your attention to your breathing, whether in the chest, the abdomen, or in the nostrils.  Do not follow the breath.  Just be aware of the sensations, of the fact of breathing.  You can even label the in-breaths “in”, the out-breaths “out.”  Do this for five minutes.  (It might help if you set an alarm watch for this.)  Now reflect on what you’ve just experienced.

Probably you had to struggle to stay focused on the breathing.  Thoughts, sensations, sounds, whatever, intruded.  Your attention chased after them, then you had to bring it back to the breath.  This continued until the end of the period.  Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal.

I am going to make a second proposition: This state of affairs—of having a mind that jumps and wanders and scrambles every which way—is not optimal.  In fact, it is the cause of immense human stress, sickness, negligence and foolishness, even great evil.  In other words, it is a prime symptom of human suffering.  (This assertion is massively supported by scientific research as regards the causes and conditions of mental health and illness.)

My third proposition is as follows: This state of affairs is not fixed; it can be changed.  You can train your mind to more optimal states.  That is what meditation is.  Note, this is not easy.  It requires work, just like toning your muscles or developing your lungs.  In fact, it is really not so different from these things with which you are very familiar.  The big difference, however, lies in that body training of that sort will never fundamentally alter your mode of experience in the world, how you exist consciously, moment to moment.  Meditation can do this.

There is of course much more I could say on this topic; as I said on the phone, whole libraries have been filled with books about it—it is inexhaustible.

As is always the case, after I send something off I think of other incredible things I could have, should have written.  So, I append these here for your reading pleasure.

From Nisargadatta, the Indian nondual teacher par excellence (after Ramana Maharshi):

Question: All teachers advise to meditate. What is the purpose of meditation?

Answer: We know the outer world of sensations and actions. But of our inner world of thoughts and feelings we know very little. The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness. Incidentally, practice of meditation affects deeply our character. We are slaves to what we do not know. Whatever vice or weakness in ourselves we discover and understand its causes and its workings, we overcome it by the very knowing; the unconscious dissolves when brought into the conscious. The dissolution of the unconscious release energy; the mind feels adequate and becomes quiet.

Finally, see here this wonderful article from Gary Weber’s blog on nondual teachings.

Now you know what meditation is and why you should do it.  What are you waiting for?

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

 

The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Hohm Press 2008 (third edition), 510 pages.

Georg Feuerstein’s magnum opus is easily the richest outpouring of yogic knowledge and insight I have ever encountered between two covers.  It is an intimidating work.  Intimidating because of its length, its size (like a textbook), and the sheer mass of terminology, topics and texts it covers (and even translates–a few for the first time!).  At times I felt like I was swallowing a pill that just wouldn’t fit down my gullet–though I knew the pill was good for me, so I kept gulping until I got it down.

There is no easy way to review this book, so I’m going to simply flip open the contents and talk here and there about pieces that particularly intrigued, puzzled, offended or delighted me.  (Actually, very little offended me–I’m just being theatrical….)  The first chapter, “Building Blocks,” is perhaps not so aptly named.  It reads like something written for those who already have a bit of the yogic worldview under their belt and subscribe to its way of thinking.  For this reason I would recommend newcomers read Feuerstein’s other, more introductory books before this one.  I have already reviewed two–The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Path of Yoga.  I think the other thing that comes to light from reading these opening pages (this includes the introduction proper) is that Feuerstein is definitely a “believer,” and to an extent that is probably not kosher in scholarly circles, writes as one too.  There is of course nothing wrong with this, except people who want more “objective” texts may be put off by it. 

Feuerstein is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet as regards the yoga tradition, but still I have to wonder about some of the ideas he ascribes to.  For example, his timeline of India in chapters 3 and 4 is certainly not orthodox as regards most contemporary reckonings of Indian history.  He grants an age to the Vedic civilization (4500-2500 BC) considerably in excess of ancient Egypt (3500-500 BC) and this based on pretty slim facts I think.  (It seems to me his enthusiasm sometimes get the better of him.)  That said, it should be admitted that early Indian history is a messy and muddled subject, with few (if any) points of certainty.  To give you an idea, the most important Indian of them all, the Buddha, was for a long time considered to have lived from 563-483 BC, but recently has been “relocated” to something more like 490-410.  Imagine scholars suddenly announcing that Pericles really lived a hundred years later and you get my drift.  So if Feuerstein is speculating, or even wrong in his speculations (and how will we ever know for sure?), he can at least be forgiven.

From chapter four on the text follows a pretty historically linear timeline.  The Vedas are discussed and then the Upanishads, with translations of several texts sprinkled throughout.  In every case the relation of the texts to yoga, its ideas and practices, is elaborated upon.  What is clear is that yoga has definitely progressed through stages of development, beginning with earlier “shamanic” practices focusing on tapas (austerities), magic and visions, and this eventually gave way to the more self-transcending orientation of the Upanishads and later texts.  Chapters six and seven generously treat of yoga’s place in the heterodox traditions of Jainism and Buddhism, though readers particularly interested in these fields should consult the extensive bibliography at the back of the book if they wish to follow further these lines of inquiry.  I, for one, was sad to learn that there is very little surviving of Jainism’s early textual corpus.  Though Mahavira, the religion’s founder, gets a bad rap in the early Buddhist texts, my suspicion has always been that he was certainly an extraordinary man, in some ways perhaps the equal of the Buddha.  I just wish we knew more about what he really taught.  (This is not to say I think he was the equal of the Buddha.  It’s pretty clear to me that while his attainment must indeed have been great, he was in no way comparable to Siddhartha as an intellectual or communicator.  Greatness of insight is not always accompanied by equal development of all other parts of the personality.  The Buddha was a rarity–perhaps unsurpassed–on account of his high development in so many aspects.  IMHO, of course…)

Chapter eight plunges back into Hindu yoga, specifically the Epics and, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.  (I have just finished up Feuerstein’s translation of this seminal text, and let me tell you, it is a doozy!)  Again, there are generous passages from important texts included here; you can certainly get a sense for what this kind of literature is like.  Chapters nine and ten exhaustively treat classical yoga (i.e. Patanjali’s), and even include a complete translation of the Yoga Sutras!  The historical and intellectual place of this little book within the edifice of yoga is made clear–it has proven more an inspiration to practice than to philosophy. 

The philosophy of yoga, or what began in the Upanishads, finds its consummation in the nondualist schools, which Feuerstein treats in the next four chapters.  Nondualism is, of course, the philosophical heart of Hinduism, though it is clearly overlaid with an exuberant wealth of gods and goddesses, rituals and esoterica.  These Feuerstein treats extensively, even delving into obscure little groups like the Aghoris (who still exist, btw!).  By chapter fifteen we’re getting into my favorite stuff–the yoga upanishads, wherein the subject of kundalini comes up.  Sikh yoga is briefly touched on, and then it’s full steam into tantra and hatha yoga.  The book ends in the late medieval/early modern period, looking at the extensive literature of hatha yoga.

I would certainly not recommend this as a first book on the subject.  That said, if someone has gotten their feet wet and finds they want to get the Big Picture, this then is the book I would recommend.  The immense service it provides is to give the reader a morsel, a taste, of so many of the exquisite delights of the yogic tradition that he (or she) may then meaningfully pursue further any of them as he pleases.  It is a book meant to lead on, to invite, to incite curiosity.  I hope it does this and more for you, and thereby leads you to greener, broader pastures of knowledge and awakening…

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

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram.  Aeon Books 2008.  406 pages.

This is not your daddy’s Dharma book!  (Your mommy’s neither.)

The differences start with the cover, and no, I’m not talking about the flaming dude with a chakra wheel for his heart.  I’m talking about the author’s title: Arahat.  Now, Ingram does have a regular title–he’s a medical doctor (M.D.) specializing in emergency medicine–“Everything from hangnails to heart attacks” he told me in a phone conversation.  As you ought to know by now (if you read this blog regularly), an arhat (there are variant spellings) is one who has completed the Buddhist path as laid out in the Pali Suttas.  “Done is what had to be done and there is no more of this to come!” goes the standard refrain by those who have attained such.  Clearly Ingram is, as the suttas say, ready to “roar his lion’s roar” in the spiritual marketplace.  He spells the differences out further in the “Forward and Warning,” wherein he puts you on notice he does not intend to write a “nice and friendly dharma book”; you know you’re in for it when an author tells you he hails from a lineage of “dharma cowboys, mavericks, rogues and outsiders” (16).

That said, the books proceeds normally enough through part one.  Ingram begins his discussion of dharma in terms of the traditional “three trainings”: morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (paññā).  I especially found his discussion of morality illuminating.  Going considerably beyond the standard list of things we shouldn’t do (the five precepts etc), he says

Training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world.  When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality.  When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training morality…  Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training (24-5).

He goes on to point out that while absolute mastery of concentration and wisdom (insight) is possible, total mastery in the worldly sphere of ethics is not.  And so he calls it, rightly, the “first and last training.”

Chapter 4 (oddly, the chapters are not numbered, only the parts) lays significant emphasis on seeing the three characteristics (tilakkhana) of phenomena–impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta); indeed, this is a fundamental tenet of Ingram’s approach to meditation, derivable in part from his experiences in the Mahasi tradition which has a similar emphasis.  His discussion of anatta is clarifying: it means, simply, that when phenomena are investigated closely (as in vipassana), no agent, controller, or subject can be discovered; the things of the world are, in effect, ownerless.  This, too, is a significant part of Ingram’s dharma discussion, and comes up repeatedly later in the book.   Ingram also discusses the spiritual faculties, the factors of enlightenment, and the four truths.

Most of the above can be found in other dharma books.  Where things really start to get interesting is in the section entitled “Practical Meditation Considerations.”  Here Ingram’s wealth of experience in formal retreat centers comes to the fore and makes for extremely informative, even entertaining, reading.  For example, he lists the things retreatants tend to get neurotic about, such as wake-up bells (“too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all”), roommates (“those that snore, smell, are noisy or messy, etc.”), as well as “issues of corruption, romances, cults of personality, affairs, crushes, miscommunications, vendettas, scandals, drug use, money issues, and all the other things that can sometimes show up anywhere there are people” (94)–meaning everything and anything!

Daniel Ingram

This is a section that demands multiple readings.  Not because it’s in any way difficult, just because the nuts and bolts of doing a retreat, of daily practice, are often the very things that defeat us.  I repeatedly found Ingram’s advice to be forthright, informed, and practical.  Many people, for example, get obsessed over posture, but Ingram says simply “we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves” (96).   He notes, for example, how “Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting paricularly macho or picky about such things” (97)–making me recall my experience in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He writes how the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, reclining each have plusses and minuses, the principle differences being in the energy level and effects on concentration.  He further discusses issues such as meditation objects, the critical role of resolve, and offers some very illuminating remarks on teachers.  One clearly gets the sense Ingram knows what he says from firsthand experience.

The fireworks start in Part II, “Light and Shadows.”  Little lightning bolts–the sign of something controversial ahead–adorn several chapters.  This is where Ingram gets up on his soapbox.  Usually, I would say that in a bad way, meaning someone was just spouting.  But here, I think, what Ingram does, even if you want to call it spouting, is all to a very good point, and that is to draw attention to some of the unconstructive shadow sides of Buddhist spirituality in America.  For example, in the section entitled “Buddhism vs. the Buddha,” he criticizes the religious trappings the Buddha’s teaching–in its original form an applied psychology–has been buried under, and how Americans have contributed to rendering the master’s technology of awakening into dogma or comfort food.

However, Ingram’s purpose here is not controversy.  He speaks also about having a clear goal, and encourages asking oneself questions like “Why would I want to sit cross-legged for hours with my eyes closed, anyway?”  It’s important you know what you’re seeking, after all, and Ingram hammers this point throughout the book.  (It was also one of the first questions he asked me in our phone conversation!)  This section also describes the critical difference between dealing with one’s “stuff”–i.e. the content of your life–and seeing the true nature of the phenomena that constitute that stuff.  For example, if you’re depressed because your significant other dumped you, trying to figure out why he/she did that to you is reflection on your “stuff,” but patiently observing the emotions of anger or depression as they arise and pass away–i.e. trying to see the fundamental characteristics of those experiences–is insight.  The difference here, as Ingram makes clear, is night and day.

Part III, “Mastery,” forms the heart of the book, and this is where Ingram’s starkly non-dogmatic, critical, and pragmatic intellect shows its best.  This is also the part most likely to offend and where it becomes clear that if you’re after spiritual pabulum, you’ve come to the wrong man.  Ingram is all about “states and stages,” about achieving exactly what the old dead masters achieved.  We each have our purposes in our spiritual lives–and he acknowledges this–but he is not looking to comfort or console anyone, or make things seem easier than they are.  Ingram’s vision of the Dhamma is, rather, very goal oriented and effort driven.  It is a path of achievement, of distinct and discernible attainments.  If your mentality does not incline toward this way of thinking and acting, now is the time to bail out!

This section reviews in great, perhaps unprecedented detail, three distinct subjects: the concentration jhanas (1-8), the progress of insight, and the multiplicity of models and definitions of enlightenment.  There is plenty here to make for argument, but also to educate, warn, coax and cajole.  In short, this is some of the most stimulating, revealing and educational dharma reading I’ve ever done.  You could read a hundred dharma books and still not come up with this stuff.  And while Ingram is not a particularly great (or even good) writer (more on this below), he is at times eminently quotable.  I can’t resist offering a few snippets here.  These give you a good idea of what you’re getting into with this book.

You may have heard, for example, about those teachers who say “there is nothing to attain, nowhere to go, no one to get enlightened, your seeking is the problem.”  Or, even more intriguingly, that “you are already enlightened.”  You find these teachings in some Buddhist schools, J. Krishnamurti, Adi Da, and others.  Here’s Ingram’s take on this take on enlightenment:

[It’s] like saying: you are already a concert pianist, you just have to realize it, or you already are a nuclear physicist, you just have to realize it…  [It’s] like saying to a severe paranoid schizophrenic: you already are as sane as anyone and do not need to take your medicines and should just follow the voices that tell you to kill people, or to a person with heart disease: just keep smoking and eating fried pork skins and you will be healthy…or saying to a greedy, corrupt, corporate-raiding, white-collar criminal, Fascist, alcoholic wife-beater: hey, Dude, you are a like, beautiful perfect flower of the Now Moment, already enlightened (insert toke here), you are doing and not-doing just fine, like wow, so keep up the good work, Man (360).

I read this while on the train to work and enjoyed an unrestrained guffaw–several times!

However…to double back to my criticism of Ingram’s writing: he’s badly in need of an editor, and the people at Aeon Books let him down.  Ingram grossly overuses the word “that”–it’s one of the most overused words in the language, so he is not alone in the bad habit of thatting this and thatting that–and after a while it started grating on my sensitive literary nerves.  He also does not seem to know the difference between “phenomena” and “phenomenon,” and, on a different note,  sometimes comes off sounding rather immature.  There were occasions, too, where he went on unnecessarily about whatever, and a little more self-control would have helped the text out a lot.  Again…where were his editors?

But this is minor stuff, mere bitching on my part.  Ingram is actually a pretty fun read, and the book is outstanding and unique in so many ways, I/we can and should forgive him.  He has much wisdom to offer and we should be grateful for all the hard work he’s done on and off the cushion.  I leave you with one nugget of insight that stood out for me:

      When I think about what it would take to achieve freedom from all psychological stuff, the response that comes is this: life is about stuff.  Stuff is part of being alive.  There is no way out of this while you are still living.  There will be confusion, pain, miscommunication, misinterpretation, maladaptive patterns of behavior, unhelpful emotional reactions, weird personality traits, neurosis and possibly much worse.  There will be power plays, twisted psychological games, people with major personality disorders (which may include you), and craziness.  The injuries continue right along with the healing and eventually the injuries win and we die.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha.  I wish the whole Western Buddhist World would just get over this notion that these practices are all about getting to our Happy Place where nothing can ever hurt us or make us neurotic and move on to actually mastering real Buddhist practice rather than chasing some ideal that will never appear (330).

You have your marching orders.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

P.S. I highly recommend the following three videos of Daniel Ingram speaking at Brown University’s “Cheetah House”

Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade

Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade.  Princeton University Press 2009.  536 pages.

Long the standard work in the field, Eliade’s big book on yoga still displays its author’s dazzling erudition, while at the same time suffering from a dated style, poor organization, and like so many other scholarly tomes on the exotic field of “Eastern” spirituality, demonstrates the limits of a purely academic approach divorced from serious practice.

I’ve actually lost track of how many times I’ve read this book (or at least portions of it).  In college I was a huge Eliade fan—my advisor was a student of his, after all—and indeed, when it comes to the analysis of mythology across cultures, he is the giant in whose shadow everyone labors.  This is one of the strengths as well as weaknesses of the book.  For the armchair theologian or philosopher, constant allusions to yogic parallels in other cultures—for example, among Inuit shamans—can provide illumination, but it is likely to distract or tire someone who wants to learn something useful from yoga.  (Downward dog, anyone?)  Eliade is clearly most interested in yoga as an exemplary phenomenon of homo religiosus rather than as a practice he or anyone else might seriously take up in their spare time, and this fact has to be borne in mind when venturing into the text.

First the strong points.  Eliade’s seminal volume is one of the first from a Westerner to attempt a comprehensive overview of the gigantic subject that is yoga.  When one considers the paucity of Western materials he had to work with (this back in the thirties and forties), the accomplishment is all the more stunning.  A review of the bibliography, for example, shows how reliant he was on texts produced by Indians.  He went the extra mile too, traveling to India to study under Surendranath Dasgupta, one of the great scholars of Indian philosophy of the twentieth century.  Eliade mastered Sanskrit and so was able to read and interpret source materials first hand.  He also spent six months in an ashram (much of that time in tantric dalliance with a South African dakini), and this no doubt helped him with some insight into the yogic life.  Eliade was, however, not so much a yogin as a scholar of vast erudition, and that erudition is everywhere on display, especially in his marshalling of enormous quantities of facts and insights on yoga, Hinduism, mythology, and the meaning of spirituality.

This really is why someone today should read Eliade.  If you have the time and patience you will learn innumerable things you never expected to learn, about so many obscure texts and cults, about the mishmash of ideologies and practices that somehow became Hinduism.  As the preeminent scholar of comparative religion, he is able to relate all these seemingly disparate phenomena to others around the globe, thereby offering a broad picture of his subject as an example of human spirituality as opposed to simply some weird Indian cultural product.  In this way, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom stands firmly in the line of other great Eliade books such as Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return.  It is simply rare than anyone can actually master such a significant body of material and present it coherently and with insight.  For understanding yoga in its larger, human context, this book is still one that should be read.

As noted, though, it has its drawbacks.  Eliade’s writing style is often ponderous and heavily formal—he even refers to himself in the royal “we”!  He also has an irritating propensity for obscure words and neologisms like homology, enstasis, hierophany, as well as an excessive fondness for Greco-Latin phrases.  Eliade himself acknowledged this shortcoming in his autobiography:

The writing went hard at first, requiring more effort than I had anticipated, and I wondered what was wrong with me.  Why was I making such slow progress, and why was I writing such strident prose, studded with unnecessary neologisms, with a pretentious, artificial, aggressive syntax? (Journey East, Journey West (vol. 1), pp. 254-5).

As I said: Patience!

Style aside, there are other problems.  The book, which stands as something of a general history of yoga in Hinduism, is arranged in a decidedly non-chronological fashion.  It starts with an overview of “The Doctrines of Yoga”—specifically the Samykha and classical yoga of Patanjali—then goes back in time to “Yoga and Brahmanism.”  Then it’s forward a millennium to the Gita and Epics, back a millennium to Buddhism and forward again fifteen hundred years to tantrism.  The book formally ends (if you don’t include the nearly one hundred pages of “Additional Notes”) with “Yoga and Aboriginal India”—i.e. pre-Aryan, Dravidian, and Harappan cultures.  Why?  Well, I don’t know why, unless the book can be more accurately characterized as a series of essays as opposed to a unified work.  Needless to say, I don’t think this arrangement will help anyone.

Finally, my chronic complaint about scholars rears its ugly head once again—the difference between textual insights and insights born of practice.  I’ll limit my critique of Eliade to his discussion of Buddhism, as that is what most people reading this blog are here for anyway.

The relevant chapter is “Yoga Techniques in Buddhism.”  The very first sentence caught me by surprise: “During his period of study and asceticism, Shakyamuni had come to know both the doctrines of Samkhya and the practices of Yoga” (p. 162).  I scrawled a question mark next to this, but here I’ll be more decisive: To the best of my knowledge, there is no indication of an acquaintance with Samkhya philosophy in the Buddha’s teachings.  Note I’m not saying he didn’t encounter it, or argue with proponents of like-minded philosophies, only that to specifically associate the Buddha with Samkhya seems to me to go too far.

However, the passage that sets the tone for Eliade’s discussion of Buddhism is undoubtedly found on page 163.  There he writes:

If [the Buddha] took over the pitiless analysis to which preclassic Samkyha and Yoga submitted the notion of “person” and of psychomental life, it was because the “Self” had nothing to do with that illusory entity, the human “soul.”  But the Buddha went even further than Samkhya and Yoga, for he declined to postulate the existence of a purusha or an atman.  Indeed, he denied the possibility of having an even approximate experience of the true Self, so long as man was not “awakened.”  The Buddha likewise rejected the conclusions of Upanishadic speculation—the postulate of a brahman, a pure, absolute, immortal, eternal spirit identical with the atman—but he did so because this dogma might satisfy the intellect and thus prevent man from awakening (p. 163).

Oh, how I could wax poetic on the misunderstandings embodied in this passage!

Let us say first that there is no indication the Buddha’s analysis of consciousness owed anything to yoga as Eliade would define it.  In fact, it was on account of his rejection of the yoga of his teachers that he ultimately struck out on his own and thereby became the most renowned—and revered—heterodox teacher in India’s long history.  More importantly, he “declined to postulate the existence of a purusha or atman” not because such dogmatic concepts might interfere with the process of awakening to the Self, but because when one sees with fully clarified and unobstructed vision (vipassana), such things are not to be found.  Sabbe dhamma anatta.

Perhaps we can blame Eliade’s suspicion that the Buddha never denied the Self on his teachers, or maybe we can blame it on the pernicious tendency of human beings to cling to notions of identity and permanence.  Either way, it is simply one more cautionary note to carry into this important and worthy book.  It is also a reminder of how difficult the Dhamma really is, how “against the stream.”

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

 

Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation (Part 13 of a 13-Part Series)

I have now written more than twenty thousand words on why Christian-Buddhism is a bad idea.  More to the point, I’ve rebutted—quite successfully, I think—any notion that you can derive the Buddha’s teaching from the Bible.  Notice, however, that I’ve limited my argument all along to the Bible—that is, I’ve stuck to the Old and New Testaments and made no attempt to draw in the Christian contemplative tradition.  There is a good reason for that. 

As noted, Christian-Buddhists are invariably mystical in orientation, even if they’ve never practiced meditation for even fifteen minutes.  This is inevitable because the mystical experience transcends orthodoxy; all contemplative schools share certain characteristics and practices—e.g., their focus on solitude, silence, ethical purity, development of concentration and the like.  The human brain, being what it is, responds to like stimuli in like ways, and so you would expect that practices pursued in, say, a convent in France, would give similar results when tried in a cave in the Himalayas.  And indeed, it is so.  

I would like now to offer some suggestions for the exploration of common traits between Christian and Buddhist contemplative traditions.  These suggestions are offered especially to those who come from a Christian background, and so may not feel inclined to dispense with Christianity even though genuinely interested in Buddhism—in other words, to self-described Christian Buddhists. 

First, if you’re going to study Buddhism, take it for what it is, not for what you want it to be.  In other words, start with as few assumptions as possible and never assume you understand.  You probably don’t. 

Second: don’t mix the various Buddhist schools.  They are very different, have different aims, methods, and views.  This is not to say they are necessarily at odds with each other all the time, but you need to know their differences and why those differences exist. 

Third: a good understanding of Buddhist history is important.  Try to understand origins, and how things developed.  For example, the only texts that can possibly lay claim to representing the historical Buddha’s teachings are the Pali Suttas and Vinaya, though every school claims legitimacy as a matter of course.  In this day, with education and scholarship what they are, nobody has any business pretending the Lotus Sutra represents the historical Buddha’s teaching.  It doesn’t. 

Fourth: practice meditation.  If you’ve not done at least several retreats you are ill placed to make any kind of a judgment about anything.  The Buddha’s teaching is not a belief system, it is an applied psychology.  So do your best to apply it. 

Finally, if you want to understand how all this relates to Christianity, and discover whether there really is any overlap between your tradition and the Buddha’s, don’t bother with the Bible or even Jesus.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Bible is not useful as a guide to contemplative practice, and Jesus, whatever he was, has not left much behind that is contemplative either.  This may not be his fault; perhaps the early Church worked it this way through the suppression of more revealing texts (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas).  I don’t know.  That’s for Christians to ponder.  

Christianity though, to repeat myself yet again, has an extremely rich contemplative tradition, and it seems to me a study of the methods and attainments of its practitioners would be a very worthwhile endeavor.  Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox tradition is actually more open to the mystical elements of the religious life than is the Catholic or Protestant, though the names of its saints will not be as familiar to most readers.  Explorers of this terrain would do well to become familiar with notable texts of the various saints and mystics—not so much with their theology, but with their methods and results, specifically their meditation practices and the states obtained thereby.  In other words, an empirical and phenomenological bias is called for if a comparison with other traditions—in this case Buddhism—is going to be made. 

What I’m suggesting here is hardly novel or original.  There are many classic texts comparing traditions, for example Mysticism East and West by Rudolph Otto, who compared Meister Eckhart with the Hindu sage Shankara.  Also, D.T. Suzuki, the famous Zen proponent, wrote Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist.  Of course, Ken Wilber has created a veritable cottage industry out of comparing mystical traditions, though his approach is extremely ideological—he clearly subscribes to the Hindu Advaita Vedanta tradition (Atman=Brahman) over everything else, and completely misconstrues Theravadan Buddhism.  Still, his remarks on Christian contemplatives may help illuminate the path for some.  

A far better approach is that taken by Jeffery Martin of Harvard whose research is in the area of spiritual transformation.  He directs the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, which has interviewed hundreds of people who claim to have undergone significant changes in their everyday experience of consciousness and its relationship to thought and self.  This is an exciting line of research, one I’m following closely.  See here and here for his interview on Buddhist Geeks.  Finally, I would also recommend Dharma Overground, where people from all traditions share their meditative experiences and discuss practices for spiritual development.  The approach taken on the site is via empirical reportage, and is strictly non-ideological.  

So if one is going to pursue this comparison of traditions, Christian and Buddhist, it is important to recognize where the “gold” is—in the first hand accounts of contemplatives, not in the writings of the Biblical Prophets and Apostles—and then to dig deeply.  Get to know that material very well, then do the same for the Buddhist tradition.  I’d say you have at least five to ten years of reading ahead of you, depending on how fast you are.  Happy trails!

THE END

P.S. If you’d like an edited pdf of this series of posts, it is now available here.

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