Effing the ineffable

Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind

We were walking back towards the zendo when my legs gave way. I fainted. Galli-san laid me down in the entrance to Busshari-To and shouted to Jakuda-san. I only wanted a cup of tea. They brought me inside. Everyone was fussing. I couldn’t understand—just a cup of tea. I tried to calm them, tried to stand up, but collapsed twice. They were worried, massaging my feet, applying carbon, and discussing cures.

Something left me, some huge oppressive weight that I’d never known was there and only recognized in its lifting. I felt so light. I was laughing and crying. Euphoria.

They were alarmed. I assured them I’d never felt so wonderful in my life… My breathing was a kind of panting, as if mounting to some emotional climax. Galli-san told me to breath deeply, to do zazen.

I tried. My breathing stopped.

My mind never felt so clear or lucid. The voices were very far away. I was in a crystal paradise.

Galli was screaming at me to breathe. From somewhere I heard my voice softly answering, “Hai”… I’d have to show them I was OK. I snapped out of it, normal as hell. “You see, I kept telling you I was okay.” They were relieved, but I only wanted to do zazen. I stayed up doing zazen but I was too tired for it to be much good.

Next day, Go Roshi said “Until last night, you were a human trying to become God; now you’re God. I’m Buddha.” He shook my hand. “We must help the others.”

This is my favorite description of an enlightenment experience. It is from Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, the Zen diary of Maura Soshin O’Halloran. I find the book massively inspiring.

Some people, who know much more about Zen than I do, call it sentimental hagiography, and say this wasn’t really enlightenment.

The event occurred during a sesshin (intensive meditation retreat). Soshin had been living and training in the temple for a couple years. She was malnourished, had an enormous accumulated sleep deficit, and was physically and emotionally exhausted. Just before she fainted, she had come out of dokusan (a private interview), in which her beloved teacher Go Roshi ordered her to marry a man she hated.

The advice of any sane person would have been:

It’s no wonder you had a nervous collapse! You should spend a week in bed, and sleep as much as you can. Eat three square meals a day, with real food—plenty of roast beef and chocolate brownies. You’ll feel normal again soon.

You’re not God! That’s crazy talk. They lock up people who go around saying they’re God.

And, for goodness’ sake, don’t let your guru tell you who to marry!

Listen, dearie, this “Zen” thing sounds like an abusive cult. You should go home to Ireland, find a nice boy to marry, and get on with real life.

I would not have given quite that advice (so I’m probably not altogether sane). I have zero doubt that meditation can produce dramatic experiences, which sometimes result in large, lasting, positive psychological transformations. I hope hers was one of them.

Nevertheless, I think Buddhists ought to ask:

  • What actually did happen? Was she enlightened? How could anyone know?
  • Why did Go Roshi say “Now you’re God”?
  • What did he mean? Is this supposed to be literal, or metaphorical, or what?
  • Was it true? Did Maura O’Halloran become God?

In my next few posts, I am going to criticize a particular “mystical” understanding of enlightenment that is common among Western Buddhists. It is the idea that meditation is the examination of inner experience in order to discover your True Self, which is unified with The Absolute (alias God), which is the transcendant source of goodness and is the entire universe, all of which are One.

Go Roshi apparently taught this idea. I think it is both wrong and harmful. But, my skepticism is not about whether there are dramatic, valuable meditation experiences. It is about what they are, what they imply, and what role they should play on the Buddhist path.

In this post, I will start to ask what we can know on the basis of such experiences—whether other people’s, or our own.

Ineffability and chocolate brownies

The experience of discovering The Ultimate Truth is said to be ineffable: impossible to talk about. However, believers proceed to eff about it at great length. Is this not odd?

Their effing explains what the experience means. Invariably, what it “means” is some Big Cosmic Theory Of Life, The Universe, And Everything. The metaphysical stuff is supposedly proved by the experience. For example, we know you can become God, because Maura O’Halloran felt weird one day. (And other people have felt weird in exactly the same way back to Gautama Buddha!)

Mystics use ineffability to deflect objections to their Big Cosmic Theories two ways:

  1. Ineffability is supposed to make enlightenment experiences a very special and holy mystery.
  2. Ineffability is supposed to make it impossible to argue against the Big Cosmic Theory, because arguments use words.

Here I intend to strip away those defenses, as preparation for arguing (in my next few posts) against the mystical theory of enlightenment.

What is the experience of eating a chocolate brownie like? Can you describe it?

I believe it is ineffable. There is nothing you can say about chocolate that would mean anything to someone who has not tasted it.

Chocolate brownies are one of my favorite things—but I don’t think their ineffability is a big deal.

All experiences are ineffable. The best we can ever do is say “it’s like this other thing.”

There’s nothing that’s much like chocolate. Dramatic meditation experiences are also not much like anything else. But chocolate is not a special holy mystery. No one thinks the experience of chocolate implies anything about The Ultimate Nature of Reality.

So, if mediation experiences have metaphysical implications, it is not because they are ineffable. So much for mystical rhetorical strategy #1.


Many people are driven to religion by the need for certainty. In my view, Buddhism offers none. In fact, it undercuts all certainties.

According to the mystical view, the experience of enlightenment provides certainty: about Life, The Universe, And Everything. That would be reassuring.

Indeed, non-ordinary experiences often come with a strong felt sense of deep metaphysical knowledge. But is that feeling reliable?

Schizophrenics are often vocally certain about metaphysical ideas that are plainly false. So the feeling of certainty doesn’t mean anything.

For meditation experiences to have meaningful implications, there must be some additional reason to believe them.

I think this is true even when they are your own. I’ve had non-ordinary experiences that left me very sure about various things. Some of those things I no longer believe. Others I think were right—but only because I’ve found additional reasons to believe what first appeared in a flash of insight.

It’s an enlightened thing, you wouldn’t understand

“Mysticism begins in mist, has an I in the middle, and ends in schism.”
—Jean Houston

Immediately after declaring enlightenment ineffable, some folks eff about it until the cows have gone to bed. If you don’t accept their metaphysical claims, they may retreat to “it’s ineffable, and moreover you haven’t had the experience, so you’re not qualified to question it.” This is a shield against all possible inquiry.

They want to have their chocolate brownies and eat them too. They get to eff, because they are enlightened—or they know someone who was enlightened, or they read a book by someone who was enlightened. But you can’t object, because it’s ineffable.

This doesn’t work. If it’s ineffable, no one can eff it. If enlightenment experiences have effable metaphysical implications, the effing has to stand on its own two feet. “I had an amazing experience that I can’t say anything about, therefore God exists” is a non-starter.

Effing the ineffable

In the passage at the top of this page, Maura effs her experience a bit. She describes a sensation of lightness, altered auditory and visual perception (“voices far away… a crystal paradise”), and euphoria.

She draws no metaphysical conclusions. For instance, there’s nothing in her account to suggest God was involved. Also nothing about a True Self. She does not even mention the collapse of the self/other boundary, which is common in dramatic meditation experiences.

That means Go Roshi’s interpretation of O’Halloran’s experience—as her becoming God—has no basis in her description of it.

That does not necessarily mean he was wrong. It does mean that his basis for declaring her God must have been something other than the experience itself. We ought to ask what that basis was, to see if we believe it.

It seems to me that he overlaid a preconceived ideology on what happened. Go Roshi taught in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. That lineage has a metaphysics of enlightenment as discovering that your True Self is identical to Ultimate Reality, which is The Entire Universe. Alias: God.

(This is not the view of most forms of Buddhism. I suspect it owes more to the Western mystical tradition than to Buddhism. I sketched the history of this in “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy.”)

If someone who had never practiced Zen fainted on a train, and described their experience as O’Halloran did, would Go Roshi have declared them God? I suspect not.

I suspect Roshi’s reasoning was:

If someone has been practicing Zen full time for several years, and they have passed many koans, and they have some sort of dramatic experience during a sesshin—that must be enlightenment, which means becoming God.

His conclusion was based on his religious beliefs, not her experience.

(Was it an enlightenment experience? I’m entirely agnostic. Because I love her book, I want to believe so.)


Maura Soshin O’Halloran completed her Zen training a year later.

Roshi gave her permission to return to Ireland, her home country, to teach there.

On the way, the bus she was riding went off the road and crashed.

She entered parinirvana in October, 1982, aged 27.

Creaking to the post office
on my rusty bike
I saw one purple iris
wild in the wet green
of the rice field.
I wanted to send it to you.
I can only tell you
it was there.
—Maura O’Halloran


Geeks: help connect Buddhists with resources!

At the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference last weekend, a group of us brainstormed about innovations in ways to deliver dharma. [More conference context at the end of this post.]

To continue brainstorming, here are some suggestions and questions. Please comment!

Points of pain

At each stage in the “life cycle” of a Buddhist, finding necessary resources can be hard:

  • I think I want to learn to meditate. Where should I start? Why are there all these different kinds of meditation? How do I choose one?
  • I’ve learned basic mindfulness. I want to go further. I’ve heard that mindfulness comes from Buddhism, so I started to google that and got overwhelmed. Where’s the basic stuff?
  • I’ve read some books/web sites about Buddhism. They all seem kind of weird, and they all disagree with each other. How come? How do I know what to believe?
  • So many different brands of Buddhism. Which is the true one? [Better question, of course: which is best for me?]
  • I’ve listened to a bunch of podcasts, and now I’m inspired to start taking classes, or maybe go on a retreat. How do I choose a Buddhist organization to go with?
  • There’s no Buddhist organization where I live. I guess I’ll have to start a meditation group myself. How do I find people to sit with?
  • I’ve been meditating for a year. It went well until recently, when all this scary stuff started coming up! What do I do?
  • I think I need to find a personal teacher for one-on-one instruction. How?
  • I’ve been affiliated with a teacher/center/lineage for several years and put a lot of energy into that. But I’m starting to think its style is not working for me anymore. Should I switch?
  • My teacher told me I’m ready to start teaching, but can’t give me much guidance about what that means. I know how to meditate and the basic doctrines, but how do I relate to students? I’m not like him/her; I can’t do it that way.
  • I have a few students, who say they get a lot out of my teaching. I think I could be useful to many more, but I don’t know how to reach them. I don’t want to market myself; that’s gross. But how else are prospective students going to find me?
  • I have a dozen students. More people want to be my students, and I feel responsible to them, but teaching is already taking all my spare time. I want to quit my day job, but I don’t see how I can be a full-time Buddhist teacher and still support my family.
  • I have several dozen students. We’ve outgrown my living room. They want to open a center, but how are we going to pay the rent?
  • I have more students than I can handle personally. I want to empower some of my students as teachers, but I’m not sure they are ready. And even if I do, there’s more new people than even they could handle. How can we serve the newcomers without losing focus and quality?


Solutions to all these problems are available somewhere in the Buddhist world. But how to find them?

Existing social institutions are inadequate. For example, a recurring theme at both the Maha Teachers Conference and the Buddhist Geeks Conference was that young teachers are frustrated at not getting support from the Western Buddhist establishment; the establishment wants to give that support, but they have been unable to communicate effectively about “what” and “how.”

Existing technologies also inadequate. Google searches won’t give useful answers to any of the “points of pain” questions. The usually-reliable Wikipedia is worse than useless for researching Vajrayana Buddhism. (That’s the Buddhism I know best; maybe the Wiki is better on other brands.) StumbleUpon’s recommendations for Buddhism don’t work for me. Buddhist web forums are often nightmares of misinformation and social dysfunction.

Can we use Buddhism-specific technology to match Buddhists with the resources they need?

For instance, could we use recommendation engine technology (like Amazon’s) to help match guide beginners to web sites, books, organizations, and teachers? “Since you like Shinzen Young, maybe you’ll like Ken McLeod.” [They are both geeks who use math to explain dharma.]

Can we develop new social institutions to support teachers at each stage in their development? Is it possible that these could cross tradition lines, so that a Theravada teacher might mentor a Vajrayana teacher about pastoral care, or marketing, or financial structures?

Can we develop new economic models that make Buddhist teaching widely available at reasonable cost, while supporting teachers with reasonable incomes?

The Buddhism market has a “winner-take-all” structure. A handful of superstars wind up with huge numbers of students (whom they don’t have enough time for), and more money than they can use. At the same time, many excellent but little-known teachers are under-utilized. How could we disrupt that dynamic?

How many brilliant Buddhist teachers fail to reach students simply for lack of adequate marketing?

Is there a business opportunity in providing marketing services to less-known teachers? This might benefit both teachers and students. It might also help level the gap between charismatic stars with marketing machines and shy but competent and caring teachers. It might also generate income for either a non-profit or, as Rohan Gunatillake advocates, a “spiritual enterprise.”

Maps of the space of providers

Buddhist students need to choose a brand of Buddhism, an organization that provides the brand, and a teacher within the organization. (Or, they need to combine several.)

The traditional classifications may not be helpful. Consider:

  1. a traditional Chinese Ch’an teacher
  2. a traditional Theravada teacher
  3. a modern American Zen teacher
  4. a vipassana teacher from the Insight Mediation Society

#1 and #3 are from the same “brand,” as are #2 and #4. But #1 and #2 probably have more in common with each other, in both style and content. So do #3 and #4. In a recent interview, Reggie Ray says:

I recently went to the Garrison Institute [Maha Teachers Conference]. The [attendees] are people of my generation who are regarded as pioneers of Buddhism in the West. There were 20 of us there, the usual suspects: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Surya Das, and myself. What was interesting was that we had more in common with each other—we had the same questions, many of the same approaches, and insights. Across huge boundaries—Theravadin, Pure Land, Zen, and the Tibetan lineages—we had more in common with each other than we had with our Tibetan, Theravadin, or Japanese teachers.

So the traditional vs. modern axis may be much more relevant (especially for newcomers) than Zen vs. Theravada.

To help steer students to suitable providers, we may need better taxonomy. In what other ways do providers differ? In what ways do students differ? How do differences in providers relate to differences in students?

I suspect that provider “style” and “approach” and “personality” and “format” are often more important than the content of the teaching. (Again, especially for newer students.) You can’t learn from someone you don’t like and respect and understand.

How do we talk about those factors? Would it be possible to capture them in a database? What are the dimensions of variation?

I have a half-written page about factors to consider when choosing a Buddhist teacher. I hope to post it on Approaching Aro soon. (Geekily, it’s based partly on something I wrote long ago about how to choose a PhD thesis advisor in the MIT computer science department.)

Some examples:

  • What kinds of contact do they provide?
  • How much time can you get with them (one-on-one or in a group)?
  • How much do they talk about concrete life issues vs. more abstract theory?
  • How systematic (structured) is their presentation?
  • How much pressure do they exert on students?
  • How much emotional support do they give?
  • How do they expect students to relate to their sangha?

Would answers to questions like these help match students with suitable teachers?

Maps of the social path of Buddhism

Maps of the Buddhist path are typically individual. They describe stages of practice, conceptual understanding, and/or meditative accomplishment.

But Buddhism is an inherently social activity. Your progress through Buddhism critically involves a series of types of relationships. These include your relationship with teachers, peers, students, and organizations. These are not as well mapped.

Would advice about how to navigate these relationships help?

There are several books in relating to spiritual teachers, with much useful information. Still, I find them somewhat abstract. And I’ve found almost nothing about how to relate to peers, students, or Buddhist organizations.

Can we map the “life cycle” of Buddhist involvement? Stages of gradually increasing commitment and responsibility?

This will not be strictly linear, because there are multiple possible “career paths.” All involve service to the community in some way; but there are many ways to contribute. Senior figures may be scholars, center managers, inspiring yogis, popular mass teachers, publishers, or theoreticians. There are stages on the way to each. And of course many people pursue several such roles, simultaneously or successively.

What questions should you ask yourself at each stage? How do you know when to move on, into a different role, or to take that role to the next level? What resources do you need to assemble to take the next step? How to find them?

How do you avoid burnout (too common in Buddhist organizations)? How can you support peers in avoiding burnout without overloading yourself?

What social structures could support Buddhist “career development” in a non-sectarian framework?

Is there a role for technology here?

Crowd-sourcing the maps

Can crowd-sourcing provide answers to these questions?

For example, users could add metadata to a database of Buddhist resources. That might include descriptors (tags), ratings, and reviews. (What else?)

Would this be useful? It might, but I see several dangers.

A rating system might make the winner-take-all dynamic worse. (Geeky explanation here, with equations and stuff here.)

My view is that there aren’t good and bad Buddhist teachers, so much as teachers whose differences make them a good or bad fit for particular students. Displaying an average rating is probably counterproductive (as well as potentially demeaning). I would want to avoid any sort of popularity contest.

Rather, a recommendation engine might steer students to compatible teachers.

Such engines usually predict what you will like mainly based on how similar your ratings are to other people’s. In this case, I suspect that useful recommendations will require more detail about where you are at, what you are looking for, and the characteristics of the resources. So tags may count more than ratings. Their accuracy and predictive value might be crucial.

It would be important to avoid the Buddhist web flame war dynamic. Too many Buddhists are sure they have the authentic Buddhism, and you don’t. If you don’t believe X, you are not a real Buddhist (and probably deeply evil). If you do practice Y, you are not a real Buddhist, blah blah blah. How do we avoid this in tagging, rating, and reviews?

I suspect that user-generated tags (a free vocabulary) would produce a lot of heat (“fake” “cult” “New Age nonsense”). It also might not generate much light, because there is not much awareness of the dimensions of variation that matter.

This suggests that, initially at least, a database should define the axes of description. A well-thought-out ontology might be key to success. That could be modified, over time, with experience and community input, and eventually might become user-extensible/modifiable.

Of course, it might also be that there is no useful way of categorizing Buddhist resources. They are, after all, people (teachers), or groups of people (organizations), or produced by people (e.g. books). People never fit well into boxes.

Still, might this be worth trying?

Conference context

I accidentally ended up co-hosting an “Unplugged!” brainstorming session at the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference. (The person who mostly had the idea for the session wasn’t able to be at it.)

We were inspired by:

  • Rohan Gunatillake’s talk on bringing the tech startup model to Buddhism
  • His manifesto on Buddhist user experience design (which I discussed on this blog a couple months ago)
  • A panel discusion on the need for new economic models for Buddhism
  • A panel on the Buddhist generation gap, which pointed out the communication disconnect between young teachers who need resources (but don’t know how to ask) and the established teachers who are willing to provide them (but don’t understand what the young teachers need)

This post doesn’t try to summarize all the good ideas that were generated at the session. I hope other participants will post about them. Thanks to all of you—I have stolen your ideas shamelessly! Please take mine if they are of any use.

Eran Globen has posted his ideas, in wiki format so you can contribute. I’ve used some in this post.

Unfortunately I did not get everyone’s names/handles; some other participants were Rohan, Kyira Korrigan of D.I.Y. Dharma (which has some nifty features that fed into ideas here), Mark Miller, and co-host Hope Niblick.