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Archive for the category “Spirituality (general)”

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

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor.  Riverhead Books 1998, 127 pages.

This is my second reading of this book.  I can’t remember exactly when I read it the first time; the early ohs, probably.  But given some of the comments I’d made in the margins, I expected to disagree–perhaps violently–with a lot of it.  I was pleasantly surprised.

One thought that kept occurring to me as I read was to try to figure out if the book was appropriate for beginners to Buddhism, or strictly for more experienced sorts.  Honestly, I’m still not sure about that, because exactly how to classify Batchelor’s little tome even seems problematic.  To be frank, I’m not sure you can say it is about Buddhism.  It talks a lot about the Buddha and his teachings, no doubt, but the impression I get is that it is more of a meditation on the implications of dharma and dharma-practice for modern men and women than something about Buddhism as Buddhism.  For example, you get very little of the traditional points of doctrine, or even meditation practice, though a few exercises are discussed.  These are all in the background, though, like pieces of furniture, and the reader is expected to find his or her own familiar seat among them and listen while Batchelor discusses whatever’s on his mind.  So, on this account I think it must be for advanced dharma folks…

But perhaps not.  Many people, those “with little dust in their eyes,” will be startled and stimulated by Batchelor’s eloquent, often insightful ponderings.  He points out that the Buddha’s way of awakening did not begin as a religion–is not really a religion at all–but started out as an expression of one amazing man’s experience of freedom, of his putting an end to suffering–or, as Batchelor rather oddly terms it, “anguish.”  (I must confess, this translation of the word dukkha jarred me from beginning to end.  It’s rather too extreme and not general enough.)  Batchelor goes on to say–and here is where the controversy starts–that the proper attitude, the one in keeping with the Buddha’s own, is agnosticism, a critical, even desperate sense of not knowing, of being open to insight.

At times he explicates this position brilliantly.  Consider this passage, for me one of the highlights of the book:

Such unknowing is not the end of the track: the point beyond which thinking can proceed no further.  This unknowing is the basis of deep agnosticism.  When belief and opinion are suspended, the mind has nowhere to rest.  We are free to begin a radically other kind of questioning.

This questioning is present within unknowing itself.  As soon as awareness finds itself baffled and puzzled by rainfall, a chair, the breath, they present themselves as questions.  Habitual assumptions and descriptions suddenly fail and we hear our stammering voices cry out: “What is this?”  Or simply: “What?” or “Why?”  Or perhaps no words at all, just “?”

The sheer presence of things is startling.  They provoke awe, wonder, incomprehension, shock.  Not just the mind but the entire organism feels perplexed.  This can be unsettling…

The task of dharma practice is to sustain this perplexity within the context of calm, clear, and centered awareness… (pp. 97-8)

A few paragraphs below, Batchelor writes in paraphrase of Tsongkhapa: “Questioning is the track on which the centered person moves.”  Herein lies the heart of the book.

Immediately I was reminded of the author’s Korean Zen (Seon) roots and of the practice of the hwadu, better known by the Japanese term koan.  For me the passage hit home for in fact the first awakening experience I ever had resulted from just such a sense of deep questioning following upon a very stimulating conversation with a friend, and my life has never been the same since.

Alas, Batchelor overreaches and in places his agnosticism descends into Western materialist pontificating.  This occurs especially in the chapter entitled “Rebirth,” where he makes a number of groundless assertions.  For example, on page 34 he says “The Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth.”  The texts, however, make it clear that rebirth was a matter of experiential fact for the Buddha as well as many of his disciples.  (My own experience inclines me, rather strongly, to side with the textual accounts.  I intend to write considerably more on this at a later date.)  Batchelor goes on to say “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.”  But in fact the Buddha redifined the understanding of this process, from one involving a reincarnating soul (atman) to one of impersonal consciousness taking form dependent upon conditions.  Cf. the Mahatnhasankhaya Sutta (M.38) which begins “Now on that occasion a pernicious view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Sati… thus: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.'”  That “pernicious view” is none other than the ever popular reincarnation theory of Hinduism and Western New Age claptrap.  Batchelor then claims “The Buddha found the prevailing Indian view of rebirth sufficient as a basis for his ethical and liberating teaching” (p. 35).  But this is in direct contradiction to the quote from the Buddha on the opposite page: “But if there is no other world and there is no fruit and ripening of actions well done or ill done, then here and now in this life I shall be free from hostility, affliction, and anxieity, and I shall live happily…”  Quite plainly, the Buddha’s ethics did not derive from a “belief” in reincarnation of any sort.  Rather, it was something that possessed independent merits and purpose.  Batchelor’s incoherence on this point undermines his otherwise excellent thesis that the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching is not dogmatic or ideological, but practical, empirical and investigative.

It is quite fine though if someone, Batchelor or even you, dear reader, wish to remain agnostic on the question of rebirth.  That is not an unreasonable position.  But where Batchelor’s materialist agenda really rears its ugly head is on page 37, where he claims karma (kamma in Pali) is some kind of “ancient Indian metaphysical theory.”  Batchelor says “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  But as he himself notes, the word karma literally means “action” and in the Buddha’s psychology specifically conscious action or, to put it redundantly, “intentional intention.”  The notion that intentions and conscious actions have repercussions, that they condition the psyche and predispose it to certain influences and outcomes, is hardly a “metaphysical theory” but rather a fact seen in direct reflexive observation.  A good course of vipassana meditation will make this apparent to any who harbor lingering doubts, for there the impersonal flow of cause and effect in the states and contents of consciousness become palpably, indeed painfully, clear.

Batchelor–good materialist that he is–adopts the notion that consciousness is entirely explicable in terms of brain function–itself an article of faith as yet unverified by any experiment or data.  While no one will argue against the notion that changing brain structure or chemistry can alter conscious experience, it is also a fact that by thinking consistently in a certain way, or by determining to do something repetitively–both of which are acts of conscioussness–I can alter my brain structure and chemistry, thereby clearly demonstrating that consciousness and the brain are interdependent; it is not a one way street where the one strictly determines the other.  Batchelor, however, is too ideological too consider this point.

I have not yet read this book’s successor volume, Confessions of A Buddhist Atheist, which even Christopher Hitchens found palatable.  From what I’ve read though, Batchelor there really presses his brand of agnosticism to the limits, perhaps to the point of utter failure.  I’ll leave my considerations on that one for a future review, if I ever get around to it.  For now I would simply like to say that despite the above noted flaws, Buddhism Without Beliefs is a beautifully written, deeply thought and felt little book worthy of the attention it has received.  Batchelor is a wise voice and an excellent writer to boot and though his book deserves criticism it also deserves praise.  My final conclusion is that while beginners in Buddhism can benefit from the book, it will probably mean much more to those who have sufficient reading and practice under their belts.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber

One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber.  Shambhala 2000.  356 pages.

I have so much to say about this book–and Ken Wilber–I put off doing this review for as long as possible.  I decided in the end there was in fact too much to say, and so I will do the book review proper, and then in my “Whatever…” section will publish a separate, more in depth essay, addressing some of my deeper concerns about what KW has to say in this book.  So…on with the review.

Anyone familiar with recent literature on the spiritual life will have heard of Ken Wilber.  The so-called “Einstein of consciousness” (the title ascribed to him, quite self-servingly, by his then literary agent), is one of the few people in his field who can actually make a living on book sales alone.  With some two dozen tomes to his name–the first written at the tender age of twenty-four (and still in print)–he is pretty much the name in consciousness studies, maps of reality, and anything having to do with the so-called Perennial Philosophy.  One Taste is his only book organized in a day-to-day, journal format.

Wilber says in the intro that “as someone who has written extensively about the interior life, it seemed appropriate…to share mine” (p. vii).  But he goes on to say that the book’s contents will be “a philosophical more than personal journal…”  The text pretty much lives up to Wilber’s billing: it’s a mix of personal and philosophical reflections, perhaps one third the former and two-thirds the latter, organized by the passing months and days. The year covered is 1997, from January 2, until New Year’s day of ’98.   And, as you would expect from a Ken Wilber book, it is nothing if not stimulating.

Wilber’s essential thesis, not only for this book but characterizing his work in general, is found in a summary given on pages 14ff, originally written by Jack Crittenden in a forward to Wilber’s The Eye of Spirit.  Crittenden notes Wilber’s attempt to discover “orienting generalizations”–truths that can be agreed upon as fundamental by multiple worldviews–and which Wilber then uses to build into a unified system, the goal being to incorporate as many of these “truths” as possible.  The purpose of this system, this “integral vision” as KW would call it, is to describe the full spectrum of human spiritual and material consciousness.

It is a massively ambitious and bold undertaking, and for the newbie to Wilber’s world, One Taste represents an excellent starting point.  Following are a few of the subjects KW tackles, to varying depths, during the course of the book:

  • Christopher Isherwood’s role in introducing Eastern religion to Westerners;
  • the journey to publication of his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1999);
  • translative vs. transformational spirituality;
  • the Great Chain of Being;
  • feedback on his book Grace and Grit (1991);
  • discussions on One Taste, enlightenment, cosmic consciousness, etc;
  • the pre/trans fallacy;
  • his four quadrant “theory of everything”;
  • the cultural and developmental rise of consciousness, from sensory motor to mystical “nondual”;
  • UFO abductions and astrology;
  • sex and spirituality;
  • the kitchen sink.

In other words, quite a lot!

You have to remember though that this is in no way an attempt at a systematic discussion of any of these subjects; Wilber might go on for five pages on a single topic, then veer off on something totally unrelated.  Still, he almost always gives you enough to chew on so there’s really no excuse for any reader to go away feeling unsatisfied (meaning unstimulated), though this is not to say anyone is going to agree with everything he says.

Nor is it to say that KW, for all his prolificness, is always the best of writers.  At times I was tempted to choke or laugh outloud at his linguistic excesses.  Consider the following:

Let it start right here, right now, with us–with you and with me–and with our commitment to breathe into infinity until infinity alone is the only statement that the world will recognize.  Let a radical [Wilber loves this word] realization shine from our faces, and roar from our hearts, and thunder from our brains–this simple fact, this obvious fact: that you, in the very immediateness of your present awareness, are in fact the entire world, in all its frost and fever, in all its glories and its grace, in all its triumphs and its tears.  You do not see the sun, you are the sun; you do not hear the rain, you are the rain; you do not feel the earth, you are the earth… (p. 35)

Like it?  Want more?

Even the smallest glimmer of One Taste and you will never be the same.  You will inhale galaxies with every breath and sleep as the stars all night.  Suns and moons nd glorious novas will rush and rumble through your veins, your heart will pulse and beat in time with the entire loving universe.  And you will never move at all in this radiant display of your very own Self, for you will long ago have disappeared into the fullness of the night.

Friday, December 12

Tomorrow Marci gives her thesis presentation and defense.  Then there is a big celebration for the graduates.  This is the start of the party season (p. 320).


Wilber’s at times bombastic, magniloquent, ostentatious, aureate flights of rhetoric–for they are that, and full of ideological certainty–are (I suspect) symptomatic of an underlying narcissism, a narcisissism most painfully displayed in a letter to his  friend, Huston Smith (pp. 22ff).  This passage made me cringe.  Here the great theorist was, writing a letter to a cancer-afflicted friend, and yet somehow the letter became more about KW than about his friend.  Embarrassing!

What I’m trying to get at here is at the heart of the problem I have with Ken Wilber.  It’s not that I don’t applaud his endeavor–his project is worth every minute he’s poured into it–but ultimately a thought system can only be as good as its thinker.  And when you are trying to describe the summum bonum of the spiritual quest, Enlightenment–well, you better be a pretty damn good thinker.  You better know the terrain pretty well, and know it by experience.  Wilber seems to think he does–he goes on at length about his meditation experiences, and yet there is no sense of how these have changed him as a human being.  How have they made him better?  His humanity is strangely absent from the book’s pages; ideas abound, but what about the man himself?  We don’t get much that isn’t self-advertising, even self-congratulatory.

There is also a criticism I have as regards his understanding of Buddhism, which is very definitely prejudiced in favor of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, and against the Theravada.  But I do not get the sense he is acquainted with, much less understands, the Pali Suttas.  He talks about the historical Buddha, but in Wilber’s scheme the Theravadan teachings (the closest we can get to the Master himself) are identified with “formless mysticism,” or the “causal” as KW refers to it.  He even equates nirvana with nirvikalpa samadhi, a totally unjustifiable assessment, and a clear example of distorting the data to fit your theory–the classic fallacy of the pundit who has overreached himself.  This is an issue I wish to take up in greater detail, but a book review is not the place for it.

In the end, I can only say that Ken Wilber–and One Taste–is an exuberant, even over-abundant offering of ideas.  He/it is certainly worth the time and the frustration, the ah-hah moments and the gnashing of teeth.  You will get your money’s worth here, and certainly more.  As a final note, I highly recommend Scott London’s review of One Taste, published in the pages of Parabola in 2000.  You can read it here.  Mr. London has picked up on some of the same issues I have.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

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