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

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

34 thoughts on “Effing the ineffable”

  1. David – if you have ever had general anesthesia, then you have had the only ineffable experience that counts. There is no difference between general anesthesia and the condition of non-existence. The three or four hours on the operating table versus the billions of years that you did not exist: ‘zackly the same. One’s personal existence can no nothing to modulate that sameness. It does not take a lot of effort to conclude that the existence of the Universe (and everyone in it) is of no concern. Nirvana and Samsara are indeed the same.

  2. Very nice, David. In this next podcast later tonight I talk with a physicist about some of the presumptions folks make about “supernormal” experiences, and in a few weeks one on false memory creation.

    Enjoying your blog, very much!


  3. @ David – I’ve not read this book, but can you clarify for me with some more context. Is the writer clearly indicating that her Master is stating her ‘mystical experience’ *is* the enlightened state? I ask because in the excerpt above it could equally be read that the experience she describes was a post-meditation experience *as a result of* experiencing *something* (something which could quite possibly have been the enlightened state).

    It’s a bit like having shortness of breath, sweating, a concept free mind and having wobbly legs and thinking that’s is the experience of getting on a bus. It’s not – it’s a result – it’s the experience of being a slightly portly 38 year old who doesn’t exercise much, and having run for a bus because the next one wasn’t going to come for half an hour and you’re too lazy to walk home. (That’s my experience – and no, the bus driver did not tell me I was god – although he did let me on for free because he couldn’t change a tenner so I did feel like god, just for a moment).

    I pretty much am certain that the bus driver saw my ruddy cheaks and knew I’d run for the bus. Could this lady’s Master have not seen her post-meditation experience and recognised it as a sign that she had been practising – and that the practice had yielded some form of experience?

  4. “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.”

    This idea has a certain beauty to it. And I think many people, going back millennia, have had experiences for which this seems like a likely interpretation. And I note that very few people have a big experience that they are willing to leave uninterpreted! As you say the self/other barrier drops away and we experience no identification, but a universal presence. At the same time it is blissful. For many people around the world this is the interpretation which fits their experience. One thinks of Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk about her massive stroke – absolutely classic mystical experience, and when she finishes with the science she sounds like a mystic telling us we only live a half life.

    One of the oldest textual sources for this interpretation is the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. In BU one seeks for ātman in one’s heart (i.e. through intense meditation) and when one finds it, it becomes one’s whole world. For ātman is that fragment of universal being (brahman) which resides in all of us.

    But of course the Buddha famously rejects this interpretation. He was famously dissatisfied with the meditation states which suggested such an interpretation. He did not reject these techniques and states, but incorporated them into his system. But at the same time he was not satisfied by them. Many scholars believe that this very idea of the True Self is critiqued in the Pāli Canon – particularly in texts like the Alagaduppāma Sutta which appears to contain verbal echoes of BU and other Upaniṣads.

    The medieval Christian monks would also induce visions and mystical experiences through starvation, sleep deprivation, and other austerities. Sleep deprivation is particularly potent as a mind altering agent – just 2 or 3 days without sleep and one begins to hallucinate.

    I think as you say, there is a cultural overlay. We all have experiences that don’t find an easy explanation, especially if we go out of our way to have them through meditation or other techniques. But how we interpret them will depend on culture. We seldom simply come up with a story of our own – and these days if we did we’d likely be thought mentally ill. What little I know about St Francis of Assisi for instance makes me wonder whether he would have been a Swami in India, or a Bhikkhu in Burma, or a Lama in Tibet, or a shaman in Siberia. Did he directly experience God, or did he have an overwhelming mystical experience and only have God as an interpretation of it?

    I can’t prove it but I think that Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad, or that tradition anyway, is the source of the “all is one” teaching in Buddhism. I think it was incorporated into Buddhism around the time of the Gupta Empire, ruled by Hindu Kings. At the same time other elements of Hinduism were incorporated into Buddhism – as we see in the Golden Light Sutra for instance. This was well before the Tantric synthesis in the mid 600s. Influence flowed in both directions. Indian religion is not a tree always branching out; but a long slow braided river with many channels constantly separating and rejoining, and with many tributaries.

    I look forward to reading more in this vein.


  5. Fine post — effing wonderful! :-)

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

    In addition to ‘certainty’, I think ‘security’ is an even bigger draw (with certainty being a subset of it). And Western forms of Buddhism offers this in truck-loads to her followers albeit in perhaps more subtle ways than traditional folk-Buddhism of Asia.

    (2) Ineffability is supposed to make it impossible to argue against the Big Cosmic Theory, because arguments use words.

    I agree. I find many Buddhist bloggers run to “ineffability” as much as Christians run to “faith” when the going gets tough. The most common parachute clause is “the finger pointing at the moon” (that is, not confusing the finger for the moon). I don’t know the source of that saying though I suspect it is from Zen — but it is a nauseating mantra of many Western Buddhists.

    Bruce Lee despised the effing finger too:

  6. Hi,

    Did you read ‘The belief instinct’ by Jesse bering? A must-read! He argues that our ‘theory of mind’ makes us see intentionality all around us, also there where it is not, hence also religiosity (very very short resume).

  7. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…”* — because you can see how effed up the ineffable becomes when less skill is used in indicating it. Every religious tradition has its esoteric reaches, of which no description or doctrine is true. In Dzogchen, this is the series of Men-ngag-dé. At this level, there is no effing talking about it: there is the largely non-verbal pointing-out to the student who is prepared to see. Shakespeare had his aphorism about there being things philosophy doesn’t dream of; the Aro lamas describe Dzogchen’s increasingly demanding teachings thus:

    “Sem-dé, Long-dé, and Men-ngag-dé all have the same base, path and fruit, so in that way they cannot be hierarchic. But they appear to be hierarchic because they are increasingly non-explanatory in the way in which they are communicated. But they are simply different aspects of the same thing. They’re only sequential in the sense that they require stronger bases in terms of rigpa. Sem-dé requires flashes of rigpa. Long-dé requires moments of rigpa. Men-ngag-dé requires sustained moments of rigpa. However, they all require rigpa. They all require rigpa as the base experience for practice. ”


    * Emily Dickinson said that.

  8. @Kate
    Couple points:
    (1) Hierarchy
    In that aro quote, the phrase:

    Sem-dé requires flashes of rigpa. Long-dé requires moments of rigpa. Men-ngag-dé requires sustained moments of rigpa. However, they all require rigpa.

    captures the meaning and indeed does show hierarchy. The first part does not make sense [possibly because it is out of context] — for just because 3 things share basic properties, does not mean they can’t be put in a hierarchy.

    (2) “No Talking About It”
    This is the point of David’s essay:

    All experiences are ineffable. …. So, if mediation experiences have metaphysical implications, it is not because they are ineffable.

    That includes chocolate brownies or Men-ngag-dé.

    Being beyond description is nothing special. But your lamas do excellent work on describing guides to making brownies nurturing rigpa. Just because something is hard to describe, does not mean the description can’t be useful or confused or wrong.

    David, does that sound consistent with what you wrote? Kate, have I misunderstood you?

  9. @ Jayarava & David :
    I loved Jayarava’s analogy of a slow braided river. It works for evolution, politics, science, history and much more. Also like the info on the Upanishad source for “All is One” incorporation in the Gupta Empire (320-550 CE).

    But David, you are forthright both here and in earlier posts that you think that “All is One” thinking is: “ “both wrong and harmful.”

    We are still waiting for you to tell us why? Future post?

    And I can’t tell in Jayarava’s comment if he thinks the same. Do you agree with David, Jayarava?

  10. in·ef·fa·ble
    incapable of being expressed or described in words; inexpressible: ineffable joy.
    not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable: the ineffable name of the deity.

    Maybe what one ‘does’ about the ineffable depends on whether you’re referring to literal inexpressibility [1]; or if you’re in the mode of wanting to have a go at tipping over sacred cows [2].

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

    An excellent conceptual understanding, quite valuable for those studying these things, and as useless as anything else for realization.

    Direct experience of this, undercuts even this knowledge, revealing it to have no value whatsoever. All the other questions fall away.

    “How could anyone know?”

    No one can. The thing is to see this directly. Awaken and all doubts are gone, but there is no way to show anyone this, to show them what they already are. There is also no reason not to try. It’s the simplest thing, a recognition, almost a remembrance – as you’ve always been this…

    It presents in all forms, all matter or “experiences” described in countless ways, each “awakening” story unique. None able to express it, all expressions of it.

    “The Grand Obviousness” – infinitely astoundingly ordinary.

  12. @ Kristopher Grey
    Great flowery, comforting religious jargon but difficult to wade through for us mortals:
    (a) Are you saying that “knowledge is of “no value whatsoever”?
    (b) “Awaken and all doubts are gone” <– Have you really ever met anyone like that?
    (c) "None able to express it, all expressions of it." I think expressions of Chocolate cookies — though short of the experience can be very useful: what it tastes like, how to make them etc… Is not David's post sort of challenge your position here, or am I misunderstanding it?
    (d) In your life (I looked at your bio), do you ever feel you use Buddhist jargon to comfort yourself way beyond your level of realization? I know I have, using many different positions besides Buddhism.

  13. @ Namgyal

    Is the writer clearly indicating that her Master is stating her ‘mystical experience’ *is* the enlightened state?


    I ask because in the excerpt above it could equally be read that the experience she describes was a post-meditation experience *as a result of* experiencing *something* (something which could quite possibly have been the enlightened state).

    Yes; or also the experience she describes might have been a trigger that put her in an enlightened state. Unusual ordinary experiences—like the bottom dropping out of the bucket you are carrying—quite often trigger non-ordinary awareness. Fainting might do that.

    My objection is not to Go Roshi attributing enlightenment to her; he may have had excellent reasons for that. My objection is to his giving a metaphysical interpretation that doesn’t seem to have a basis in experience.

    @ Jayarava — Thank you for mentioning Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk! I had read about it, but hadn’t listened before. I just did. Wow, it’s great!

    The sequence where she’s handling a human brain reminded me of an incident. I used to faint quite often. I fainted the first time I saw a similar demonstration live, in a neuroscience class. Maybe it was the stink of formaldehyde, or maybe it was my tender emotional disposition. Anyway, a few seconds after the instructor brought the brain out, mine ceased functioning. As you return to consciousness after a faint, different parts of your brain turn on in sequence. In this case, I had an experience very much like her description—although only for a second or two.

    Thank you for the background on the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad! As usual, we start from opposite ends of Buddhist history… I have traced the True-Self-Uniting-With-The-Universe idea back to the Tathāgatagarbha Sutras. I haven’t looked much at their historical context. The Wikipedia quotes someone as saying they belong to the Īkṣvāku Dynasty, shortly before the Guptas. Anyway, sorting this out might clarify which strands of the river flowed into them and out from them. Clearly, Tathāgatagarbha does flow into Tantra, and into Yogācāra, and into Zen.

    I think there’s something importantly right about Tathāgatagarbha doctrine; the question is what its metaphysical and practice implications are. That is a key point of doctrinal dispute in Buddhism up to the present. In the Tibetan context, this corresponds to the Zhentong vs. Rangtong vs. Dzogchen debate, for instance. Śāntarakṣita developed an influential compromise; he was a founder of Tibetan Buddhism (and, as it happens, one of the main characters in my Buddhist vampire romance, although so far he has only been mentioned in passing). Ju Mipham, recovering Śāntarakṣita’s synthesis, also describes the Dzogchen view as the middle way between the mistaken extremes of Zhentong (eternalism) and Rangtong (nihilism).

    @ Sabio — Good point: it does seem that certainty is subordinate to security, as a motivation.

    Yes, later posts in this series will talk more about why I think All-Is-One metaphysics is both wrong and harmful. When I finish this series, I’ll return to writing my Meaningness book, and that’s the next topic I’ll pick up there. I’ll go deeper into it there than I can here. There’s a certain amount of conceptual machinery I need to build up before I can totally nail it.

    Specifically, we have to inquire into “what is a boundary, in general?” before it’s possible to ask rigorously “what is the meaning and implication of ‘no self/other boundary’?” “What is a boundary” is not actually a difficult question, but it is one that is rarely asked, so the answer may take a while to sink in.

    Quick answers: All-Is-One is wrong because absence of boundaries does not imply homogeneity. All-Is-One is harmful because it directs practice attention away from the diverse specifics of the real world toward an imaginary abstraction, The Absolute.

    Regarding the non-hierarchy of the three dé (categories) of Dzogchen. There’s two senses here. One is that they are not a sequence of practices; that is, you do not necessarily practice first semdé, then longdé, then menngakdé. In fact, that would be highly unusual, although it might work well. The other is that one is not better than another. This point is perhaps controversial, because modern Dzogchen (where “modern” means the last 700 years or so so) says that menngagkdé is better than longdé which is better than semdé. In fact, the scriptures of each dé disparage the previous one. The Aro gTér perspective is that this is an error. Each dé has a distinct value depending on where you are at.

    @ Joshua Jonathan — Thanks! I’ve read about The Belief Instinct, but not read the book itself. I’ve just now bought the Kindle edition on your recommendation.

  14. @ David,
    Great, thanx.
    (1) Concerning All-is-One
    You said:

    All-Is-One is wrong because absence of boundaries does not imply homogeneity.

    Shouldn’t this read:

    All-Is-One is wrong because absence of boundaries implies homogeneity

    (2) Concerning Hierarchy
    As I suspected, out of context — when discussing hierarchy of something, we must declare the characteristics we are trying to classify. Concerning those three mental practices, it is fun to hear the controversy even within Dzogchen. Again, I find the Aro position more sensible — albeit from my narrow perspective.

  15. Maybe the syntax is getting in the way… Monist (All-Is-One) metaphysics says that diversity is an illusion; the really real world is homogeneous. That is wrong, in my opinion; and it is contrary to the view of most Buddhist philosophies.

    The world genuinely is without objective boundaries. The processes of normal perception impose boundaries (because that is evolutionarily useful). When normal mental processing is disrupted, you can experience the world without boundaries (which is more accurate, as well as often blissful and transformative).

    The mistake monism makes is to go a further step and to say that because there are no hard edges, everything is the same. That’s not even an accurate description of the subjective experience, never mind of objective reality.

  16. I think there is a good deal of foreshortened context in this narrative as you present it that needs to be expanded. Was this the first experience of any such thing in her practice, or was it the penultimate one of a series of experiences over time?

    One of the things that still makes Phillip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen very valuable is a set of letters between Harada Roshi and a young woman student. The narrative makes it clear that a mere kensho is not “instant enlightenment”, that, in fact, it is a preliminary experience of something that must be developed into far more through continued zazen. Also in the book are descriptions of the first kensho experience of other students, and if you compare them to the young woman’s letters the difference in depth is quite apparent.

    In the Tibetan Lam Rims, Like Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, there is a pretty clear description, based on the Sutras, of this process of development. Of course, it does not have the context of Zen and its techniques, but it is certainly congruent with them.

    If this was one of a series of such experiences for O’Halloran, the criticism of it as a physiological result of exaggerated stress and poor diet loses a good deal of its force. Were the other experiences, if they existed, induced by these, as well? It seem to me that the removal of this story from context to criticise its “ineffability” very likely distorts the actual nature of O’Halloran’s Zen training, and, particularly, that it really is “training”, a process, and not a mere vaccination with the Heart of Perfect Wisdom. We have to know what prior experience she brought to the physiological changes, and we have to know whether it was more than a “religious point of view”.

    Now the Zen techniques involve a high level of physical and psychological stress. They are, if you will, Buddhist Boot Camp. As such, they are always open to skeptical criticism that the results are largely, if not purely, physiological. So the question to be asked is did this particular experience result in a permanent change in her mental and emotional life?

    This is the reason that the analogy to tasting chocolate brownies is false. Who would suggest that their outlook and attitude was massively transformed by their first encounter with brownies? Or even by their repeated yearly participation in the Betty Crocker Brownie Bake-Off? Unless, of course, they were the type of brownies that we used to bake, back in the day. They were pretty attitude transforming, though not quite for the same reasons.

    Zazen is another matter altogether. The claim is essentially that it allows a permanent reorientation of awareness and attitude to all aspects of life, including brownies. In that sense, the use of “ineffable”, particularly given the dictionary definitions brought to the table by Kate Gowan, is simply incorrect diction and not indefensible metaphysics.

    It is much closer to the difference between knowing and not knowing how to drive a car. If both you and I know how to drive, the experience we share is quite “effable” between us, but some who does not know how to drive cannot share it with us by merely listening to us talk about it.

    It is for this reason that, “For instance, there’s nothing in her account to suggest God was involved,” is also not correct because it is a too literal reading of Go Roshis actual statements. I’m perfectly certain Go Roshi did not mean, “You created the world in seven days and then You rested.”

    But we do have a hint, if only a hint, of what he did mean. He first says, “Until last night, you were a human trying to become God.” Here he is talking about O’Halloran’s prior experience with zazen practice, whether in total, or for that particular sesshin. Whatever that was, I’m also perfectly certain that she wasn’t trying to become the Person who made the world in seven days and then rested, either. Nor was she trying to discover the True Self, which is unified with The Absolute (alias God), which is the transcendent source of goodness and is the entire universe, all of which are One.

    I think it far more likely that she was either struggling to understand a specific Koan or doing the meditation of “simply sitting” without any particular Koan.

    In fact, we really don’t know what either she or Go Roshi is talking about, because we don’t know O’Halloran’s actual struggles on the cushion. She describes the gist of what happened as, “Something left me, some huge oppressive weight that I’d never known was there and only recognized in its lifting.” Go Roshi clearly knew what she meant. He replied, ““Until last night, you were a human trying to become God; now you’re God. I’m Buddha. We must help the others.” And she clearly knew what he was talking about, too.

    It was perfectly “effable” between them, but opaque to me, and I suspect opaque to most of the rest of us. Just like driving a car.

    Whatever foolish froth is talked of elsewhere of pointing at the moon, [and the notion of asking which finger is sublime] O’Halloran and Go Roshi are not talking about it to anyone, and based on the little we know of what they did say, I see no reason to extract a metaphysical stance about anything at all from it.

    Zen, unfortunately, is wide open to this kind of foolish froth mystagoguery because it concentrates so exclusively on its own meditative techniques, including the mentally ambiguous koan, without much reference to the rest of Buddhism and the collective effort that has gone into describing it.

    What my own teachers stress is that, speaking in broad terms, Buddhist meditation is a development process, and that what is developed is not a “thing”. A “thing” is something that can be labeled, and we can deceive ourselves into believing that labeling it is the same as understanding it. Buddha, I believe, means “awake” and unless we realize that we are asleep, we will never understand what he was talking about.

  17. @ David,
    Hmmm, yes, that is tricky:
    Monism (All-is-One): The world is homogenous
    A Dzogchen View: The world is without objective boundaries

    So, according to Dzogchen, there is no boundary, but things differ. That is tricky. Maybe a metaphor would be like a blurred spectrum perhaps. I have no clue — do accomplished mind-disruptors(meditators) say things actually look different or blurry in that state? Or, probably, it is just the way they feel things. I know LSD and others substance can short-circuit boundary making — melting into walls and such. But I imagine this is suppose to be different? It would be difficult to discuss because “boundary” is usually used in such a concrete sense.

    And another question: Isn’t the no-boundary mind only part of the picture? Doesn’t the “complete view” (your words) say that such a blissful perspective of a non-boundary view (blissful though it be) and a divided view (where we can do science and eat) are both equally meaningful and coexist? The world is neither and both — or something tricky like that?

  18. It seems to me that phraseology like “Great flowery, comforting religious jargon” is the edge of the slippery slope we’re endeavoring to avoid here, out of respect for David’s reminders about civility, and our own and one another’s better natures.

  19. @ Karmakshanti — Unfortunately, the book can’t answer some of your questions. She doesn’t seem to have written the diary for anyone other than herself, and key volumes are missing. It’s reasonable to assume (based on Zen generally) that her training involved a gradual path in addition to dramatic breakthroughs.

    To be clear, I am not questioning Go Roshi’s judgement about enlightenment. What I’m doing here is pointing out that his conception of enlightenment—as becoming God—does not seem to have any basis in Soshin’s experience (as she described it in her diary). I’ve made some small changes in the text which I hope will make that clearer.

    Yes, 20th Century Zen’s God is not the Biblical God. (It appears to be the 19th Century German Romantic God, imported by the Kyoto School philosophers.) It’s still a Big Metaphysical Theory, though…

    @ Sabio — To be clear, “the world is without objective boundaries” is my view, inspired by Dzogchen. I don’t recall that formulation appearing in Dzogchen texts. I think it’s consistent with Dzogchen, but others might disagree.

    Maybe a metaphor would be like a blurred spectrum perhaps.

    No need to blur it. Where exactly does red become orange? There’s no non-arbitrary place to draw the line.

    The metaphor I mainly use is clouds—hence “nebulosity“. Where is the boundary of a cloud?

    All boundaries are nebulous if you look at them with a sufficiently powerful microscope. Even the surface of a polished diamond; there will be electrons that are ambiguously part of / not part of the diamond. (This is a fact of pre-quantum physics—no Copenhagen woo involved!)

    do accomplished mind-disruptors(meditators) say things actually look different or blurry in that state?

    Different, yes. (Cf. Soshin’s “crystal palace” description.) I don’t think “blurry” would be used.

    Isn’t the no-boundary mind only part of the picture? Doesn’t the “complete view” (your words) say that such a blissful perspective of a non-boundary view (blissful though it be) and a divided view (where we can do science and eat) are both equally meaningful and coexist? The world is neither and both — or something tricky like that?

    Yes. And this is a matter of experience (apparently). In Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk, she says that she can switch at will between the two modes. That’s great—I sure wish I could do that—but it’s not the ideal end-point. Buddhahood (according to theory) means being able to see the world both ways simultaneously, at all times.

    So a Buddha, working at a chemistry bench, ought to be able to write perfectly coherent, cogent, correct observations in her lab notebook at the same time she sees the apparatus as pulsing swirls of objectless luminosity.

    This is expressed differently in different Buddhist schools. The Aro menngakdé describes it as “the non-duality of duality and non-duality.” That is, the dualistic view of self-and-other is not separate from the non-dual view of boundarilessness. (This is in sharp contrast with the mystical view, in which the non-dual realm is totally separate from the ordinary.) According to the Lama’i Naljor (Guru Yoga) of Khyungchen Aro Lingma, the final accomplishment is the complete integration of ordinary discursive thinking with non-dual awareness.

    In the Kagyü lineage, that is expressed as “the essence of thoughts is dharmakaya.” See the wonderful Karma Kagyud lineage supplication. That has a complete explanation of the path… slightly encoded, but easy enough to sort out if you recognize that each of the verses from “Revulsion is…” down to “the inseparability of samsara and nirvana” corresponds to a yana. “The inseparability of samsara and nirvana” is another way of expressing the same thing, actually…

  20. A haiku description of chocolate brownies for the unenlightened:

    moist, gooey, sweet love
    a party in my mouth–yum!
    you are invited

  21. Enlightenment does not mean going somewhere else or becoming someone else.~Gampopa

    Yes, the Dorje Chang lineage prayer is wonderful, isn’t it? A great many of the answers to questions about what meditation does and doesn’t do, including some of Sabio’s, are contained in it. You have quoted from the Nalanda Translation Committee version which uses the word “revulsion” as the “foot” or basis of meditation. When the Karma Kaguydpa teach the prayer the sense is much closer to “detachment” as in Michelle Martin’s version [which is used at KTD] with transliteration that is appended below the Nalanda version.

    The sense they give for it is something like this. Our ordinary view of the world stems from an emotional “vested interest” we have in how we already think things are. But both the question and the answers to “how things are” are a major part of our problem. “Detachment” is the understanding that “how things are” doesn’t really matter, they just are as they are, however they are, and meditation is not about either the question or the answer. Bothering about the issue intellectually or being bothered by it emotionally simply interferes with the “unwavering attention” that meditation requires. Here again the Nalanda version, “awareness”, is too imprecise.

    “Revulsion”, in that sense, is another manifestation of our emotional vested interest, in the form of aversion to “how things are” instead of attachment to them. If I may speak personally, the subtlest and the most difficult thing I have had to learn about meditation, as the Kagyu teach it, is to avoid the rejection of anything, including somebody else’s “wrong answers”. They don’t matter either. Somebody else thinking or saying something foolish is simply another phenomenon to pay attention to like sunrise or a rain shower.

    To address Sabio’s question about things being “blurry”, anything like that is a form of physical torpor interfering with “unwavering attention”. The very question of whether the world has boundaries or not is irrelevant to what we are doing, and if the question appears in our mind while on the cushion, we simply pay “unwavering attention” to the fact that a question has shown up, without bothering to answer it: “Whatever arises, is the fresh nature of thought”.

    In the actual practice of Mahamudra meditation, you can learn to hold this unwavering attention off the cushion as well as on it, and write anything in your scientific notebook, or do anything else, while practicing it. Everything that goes on in your mind and in the outside world already is the fresh nature of thought. We don’t have to flip some inner switch to shift modalities. All we have to do is keep paying attention, do what we have to do, and let things be as they are.

    My teachers stress that any exaggerated experiences that happen during meditation, blurriness, bliss, feelings of oneness with the universe, and so on, are simply byproducts of the effort to keep paying attention, and have no ultimate significance. What you do when they occur is to simply keep paying unwavering attention to them and through them until they pass, which they always do.

    It is very easy to get trapped by these. If you are a “spiritual person”, you have a vested emotional interest in these sort of things happening to you, and a vested interest in thinking that they mean something about the “real world”. If you are a “skeptical scientific person” you have a vested emotional interest in thinking that these are mere self-induced deceptions and there is nothing real about them.

    And, of course, it is possible to have both vested interests at once.

    As long as you keep holding tightly to any of these vested interests, you simply cannot accomplish unwavering attention. They are all interferences to the “unobstructed play of the mind.”

    The transformation through meditation is a transformation of your awareness and attitude, not a transformation of the world. The immediate goal is to be able to stay in the state of unwavering attention without distraction by things, by marvelous experiences, or by your own thoughts and feelings. Whatever shows up just shows up.

    All this is very difficult to do, and this is what the heart-drop of the Kagyu path addresses:

    “I pray to you, the Kagyü lamas…Grant your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within…Through all my births, may I not be separated from the perfect Lama and so enjoy the glory of the dharma.”

    “Grant your blessings” is not a mere verbal formula. Uncontrived devotion to the guru, a constant yearning to be in his or her presence and to be taught the dharma, is cultivated until you reach the point of real tears and beyond. The combination of your uncontrived devotion and the guru’s uncontrived wish to benefit all sentient beings, alters your attitude directly and unmistakably and the all the obstacles on your path of meditation diminish.

    I’ve not learned very much, really, about unwavering attention and and the fresh nature of thought. I pretty much have to take these on trust. But I have learned about devotion. It works–just like the Kagyu say it does, and once it starts working, you don’t have to work very hard on the “uncontrived” part, any more than you have to work hard at appreciating crisp, clear, pure water when coming in from laboring in the heat.

  22. @Sabio
    SN 35.48
    “How is it, Master Gotama: is all a unity [ekettaṃ]?”
    “‘All is a unity’: this, Brahmin, the 3rd cosmology”…
    “Without veering towards… these extremes, the Tathāgata reaches the Dhamma by the middle.”
    Bodhi, Connected Discourses, p.584-5.

    Perhaps I’ll come back to the theme on my blog. And Sabio, your comments on David’s stuff seem to be very different from the kind of thing you were writing in response to my blog (when you were).

  23. Jayarava, thank you very much indeed!

    There’s a longer extract, with useful commentary on the four extremes, at http://nichirenscoffeehouse.net/Ryuei/depen-orig.html .

    This is particularly helpful as the Aro gTér has the same formulation of the four extremes (eternalism, nihilism, monism, dualism). I had not been able to locate this in scripture, because I was looking in Madhyamaka, which has a different formulation, and I am entirely ignorant of the Pali Suttas. I shall have to update my page discussing the Aro treatment.

    I’ve structured my Meaningness book around this, so it’s very interesting to me to find that it traces back this far.

  24. Hi David

    Cool. I’m always fascinated to see what turns up later on. There is some synergy in our two approaches, eh? If I get a chance I’ll follow this up on my blog – might be interesting to see where else it occurs. Usually one just sees the first two extremes. Something between Pāli and Aro would help fill out the history.


  25. Yes, it would be great if you can locate a more detailed treatment of monism! It might be really helpful as a tool for countering monist (mis)interpretations of Dharma.

    I’ve located the full text of the Sutta online, in Thanissaro Bikkhu’s translation. It’s the Lokayatika Sutta. After rejecting the Extremes, the Buddha goes immediately into enumerating the nidanas. I guess his point is that understanding phenomena in terms of causation is a way to recognize that the Extremes are mistaken. And, indeed, that is so; but the explanation for how it is so is missing here.

    Hmm, he has SN12.48 rather than 35.48; are these slightly-different texts, or different numbering systems?


  26. @ Jayarava: You and David are very bright — but David tolerates the fool (me) much better than you did. Last time I tried, I was blocked from commenting on your site. I don’t visit sites where I can’t comment.

  27. Certainty is form, and uncertainty is emptiness. Buddhism does indeed offer emptiness (uncertainty) but that can itself not be separated from form (certainty). Sutra would appear to renounce our hopeless desire for certainty and rest in the emptiness of uncertainty. Tantra can take that basis of uncertainty and transform fleeting certainties that coarise within uncertainty into the realization of nonduality. So I think I would rather say that buddhism only offers uncertainty that is inseparable from certainty, and vice versa, not that buddhism merely doesn’t offer certainty at all (although I recognize that as a quite useful method that one might call Sutra . . .)

  28. So a Buddha, working at a chemistry bench, ought to be able to write perfectly coherent, cogent, correct observations in her lab notebook at the same time she sees the apparatus as pulsing swirls of objectless luminosity.

    This is exactly how it is, David. It can be slightly disorienting, in a sense it feels like seeing everything in three dimensions for the first time. Stereoscopic, if you will.

    It’s a psychological state, for sure, and it is self-reinforcing. Metaphysically it’s the only way Zen can be reconciled with our normal experience. All I did to find this state was zazen. No asceticism, no sangha, no rituals. I haven’t even read the sutras. In zazen I trained my mind, and meditated on the contents of the Shobogenzo.

    Tozan used a model of five “ranks” to describe the states of enlightenment, leading up to the unity of the objective and subjective. In each of the first four ranks, he cautions stopping once you’ve reached it. He even warns that the first three ranks can be unhealthy to stay in, if they form your complete view of the world and your place in it.

    The most interesting aspect of Tozan’s model is that in the final two stages, the focus shifts from enlightenment and other metaphysical ideas to a return to living in the world:

    “One ‘comes back to sit among the ashes/ living this life as a
    wayfarer, expressing one’s solidarity with the world in the vow to
    realize perfect Enlightenment with all beings.”

    That’s often overshadowed by the other, ironic Zen baggage that makes up the common understanding of it.

    Am I a buddhist? I don’t know. I sat down, meditated, woke up, and stood up again. That puts me in the best company, whether my experience is a delusion or not.

  29. What sort of God ? The god that made the universe and retreated to leave it ticking on it’s own ? Or the god that is in all things ? Your man Go needs to have defined his terms first. Maybe they’d had that conversation before, and he knew what her own definition of god. Maybe they’d been talking about Christian mystics the year before and now he’s saying “there you go, you know what they say this is, right ?”.

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