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Archive for the tag “psychology of consciousness”

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

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution


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!


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

Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire (Part 4 of A 13-Part Series)

Mr. MacPherson has a whole lot more to say about the Second Noble Truth than he did about the First.  He makes a number of points which, taken together, add up to a kind of definition:

  1. “Suffering certainly comes from temporal desires” (though he doesn’t seem entirely certain this is sufficient, positing Original Sin as, perhaps, a more complete “explanation”);
  2. “We suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things” (after which statement he quotes part of the Sermon on the Mount);
  3. “The Second Noble Truth [of] Buddhism posits that the root cause of all suffering is pride, greed, lust, and the like” (and then asserts “This is Christianity”);
  4. “Pride, or boastful vanity, which always leads to suffering because it is an attachment to temporal material things” (which truth he relates while discussing how Lucifer became the Devil—“he could not get past the third step of Buddha’s Eightfold Path”). 

To sum up: Mr. MacPherson is saying that the Buddha is saying that desire (greed) for impermanent material things, connected with pride, lust, and vanity, is the source of suffering and that this constitutes the Second Noble Truth.  He then says “The Buddha was in fact right.”  Mr. MacPherson offers nothing from the suttas as textual support for his assertions, and this is unfortunate (for him) because he could easily have found a rich trove of evidence for his case.  He might also, in the act of consulting them, have learned there is much more to the Second Noble Truth than mere desire. 

Let us start again with a definition: “The Second Noble Truth is that of the arising or origin of dukkha (Dukkhasamudaya-ariyasacca)” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught [1974], p. 29), or Samudaya for short.  In his first sermon (S.56:11), the Buddha spoke of it as follows: 

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures (kamatanha), craving for existence (bhavatanha), craving for non-existence (vibhavatanha). 

This would certainly seem to support what Mr. MacPherson is saying, that greed (craving) is the source of suffering.  Indeed, it is clear that he is “right”—as far as he goes.  The trouble is he does not go far enough; he is like a man who has visited Four Corners, splayed his legs and arms, and then claims on this basis that he has seen the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.  (I did it and I haven’t seen squat in New Mexico!) 

Without going further than this, it is clear his definition is at best one-third complete.  The Buddha, after all, lists three specific types of craving, but Mr. MacPherson considers only one, i.e. kamatanha.  What about the other two?  A full discussion of these terms could lead us far afield, so for now I will only say that these represent two orientations toward experience, the first of wanting more of it, of wanting to preserve, continue, prolong and fortify it, the second the urge to escape it, end it, change it (from what it is to something else).  The first is typically born of experiences of pleasure and satisfaction, while the latter often results from world-weariness and dissatisfaction.  Notice how these emotional orientations naturally incline one toward specific views (ditthi) toward the world, namely eternalism (sassatavada) and nihilism (ucchedavada), respectively.  The Buddha, however, claimed to teach something quite different from either of these, specifically the Middle Way (majjhima patipada): 

This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence.  But for one who sees the origin [samudaya] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world.  And for one who sees the cessation [nirodha] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world (S.12:15).  

The “world,” therefore, is none other than that which arises and ceases, namely dukkha.  (And so we have the equation: dukkha = life = the world [of experience].  Those who have read my post “The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering,” will know also that these terms are identical with sakkaya, i.e. “personality,” or “identity,” as well.)   The Buddha is saying too that tanha (“craving,” “thirst,” “desire”) in at least these two senses is related to certain false modes of viewing the world, and that desire can end when the world is seen “with correct wisdom.”  What is that “correct wisdom”? 

This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence.  But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, that mental standpoint, adherence, and underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about “my self.”  He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising [i.e. he sees the second noble truth], what ceases is only suffering ceasing [he sees the third noble truth].  His knowledge about this is independent of others.  It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view. 

“All exists” [sassatavada]: Kaccana, this is one extreme.  “All does not exist” [ucchedavada]: this is the second extreme.  Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With ignorance as condition, volitional formations; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving (tanha); with craving as condition; clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be.  Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering” (S.12.15). 

This list of conditioned, dependent psychological phenomena is none other than the positive (anuloma) phase of Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda), and clearly indicates that “correct wisdom” is seeing Dependent Arising.  (Cf. M.28:28: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.”)  Thus by not adhering to ideologies of existence and non-existence, by seeing phenomena without bias, as conditioned and impermanent, the noble disciple sees the arising of dukkha and its cessation and so attains to Right View (sammaditthi).  His “Eye of Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu) opened, he attains the Path and becomes “independent of others” in the Teaching. 

Plainly then a proper understanding of the Second Noble Truth (and by extension the Third) entails a proper understanding of Dependent Arising.  The two are inseparable, for “the origin of this whole mass of suffering”—the illustration of which is the purpose of paticcasamuppāda’s positive phaseis exactly the point of the Second Noble Truth.  Greed, craving, lust—all are part of this, but tanha has its antecedents and they theirs, tracing back to beginningless avijja—“delusion”—which is non-knowledge of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of dukkha, its arising, its cessation, and the Path leading beyond it.

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience by Daniel Goleman.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1988.  214 pages.

First published in 1977 under the title The Varieties of Meditative Experience, Goleman’s book is a clear and straightforward presentation of various meditative disciplines organized around the map of consciousness explicated in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.  Part I details this map, describing the paths of serenity (samadhi) and insight (vipassana).  The various jhanas (meditative absorptions) are described, as are the insight knowledges.  The tone throughout is professional, understanding and clear, though lacking the feel of a first-hand account.  Two notable mistakes are made in this section, one being the consistent misspelling ofpañña as puñña (I get a little worried when an author misspells key terms), the second being the placement of nirodha-samapatti (“cessation of feeling and perception”) as above, or superior to, nibbana.  There is no justification for this given the evidence of the Pali Suttas, where n-s is described rather as a kind of “super jhana” attainable only by anagamis and arhats.  It is not, in itself, liberative.

Part II is a survey of meditation paths—Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and many things in between.  Even Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti show up here.  While at times illuminating—it’s certainly a good, quick cross-section of the many traditions available—the underlying assumption of the discussion is in line with the old saying that “all paths lead to the mountain top,” something this reader, at least, is not convinced of.  (This position is explicitly affirmed in part III, entitled “Meditation Paths: Their Essential Unity.”)

Why I am not convinced of this can perhaps be illustrated by a passage from the section on Jewish mysticism.  “The end of the Kabbalist’s path,” Goleman writes, “is devekut, in which the seeker’s soul cleaves to God” (p. 52).  And in the paragraph below that, in a passage quoted from Gershom Scholem, devekut is defined as a state of mind wherein “You constantly remember God and his love, nor do you remove your thought from Him…to the point when such a person speaks with someone else, his heart is not with them at all but is still before God.”  Now this is fine as far as it goes, but it in no way approximates the view of things that result from the attainment of nibbana as described by the Buddha and his disciples in the Pali Suttas, and which the Visuddhimagga seeks to elaborate.  Consider this from Samyutta Nikaya 22.58(6): “A bhikkhu liberated by wisdom, liberated by nonclinging through revulsion towards form [feeling, perception, volitional formations, consciousness], through its fading away and cessation, is called one liberated by wisdom” (from The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, pp. 900-1).  In other words, enlightenment consists not of being attached to something (to a god or gods real or imagined), but rather through the cessation of all attachments.

In other words, there is no reason to believe the Jewish holy man—the zaddik—or the Christian saint or the Muslim sufi attains what the Buddha attained.  In fact, the experiences of the Kabbalistic meditators are examples not of nibbana (nirvana) but of the higher jhanas—equivalent, according to Golem, to the Sufi fana—and Goleman seems to admit this much when on page 62 he says that Sufi practice “culminates in baqa, abiding in some degree of fana [jhana] consciousness while in the middle of ordinary activity.”  This is precisely what the Hindus call sahaj samadhi, “open eyed samadhi,” and though a high attainment, it is not the equivalent of the Buddhist nibbana.  In fact, as the suttas make clear time and again, contemplatives before the Buddha were prone to believing in their own enlightenment specifically as a result of their attainment of those sorts of states.  Goleman’s book, however, does nothing to illuminate this problem; it merely perpetuates the popular and fatuous notion that all religions are, at their heart, one and the same.

If I seem overly critical in the above passages, I don’t want to give the impression that the book is in any way a failure.  Its positives far outweigh its negatives, and even considering my critique of Part III, Goleman is right in asserting correspondences between meditative traditions.  They are certainly there, and they need to be understood and appreciated; there is much that contemplatives from different cultures can share with and learn from one another.

For many people, Part IV will prove the most interesting, where Goleman looks at the psychology of meditation.  Here he is in his element (he is, after all, a psychologist), and he offers a good introductory survey of the Western attempt to come to grips with issues of mind and consciousness.  A number of scientific studies of meditation are discussed, though one is left with the overwhelming feeling that so much more can—and should—be done.  However, if one remembers that the book is almost a quarter century old, one can rest assured that since its publication much has indeed been done.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


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