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Comments are for the page: Are mystical experiences metaphysical evidence?
I think mystical experiences are all the same brain delusions. Some may be semi-lucid dreams, or maybe all those people are creating the experience out of shared desire for something to be true, or maybe all are suffering a similar type of brain lesion.
But certainly subjective experiences, even though similar across a wide range of people, does not mean it’s a real experience outside the human mind/imagination/delusion. We can all be fooled in the same way, and we can all fool ourselves similar based on belief and desire.
We must first be skeptical of our own experiences, just as we are of others.
This is really very tangled, with various pieces of language slipping around like wet cakes of soap. We need to step back a moment and sort a few things out. “Experience” is what happens to you; it is neither “true” nor “false”. Interpretive assertions about the experience are what are “true” or “false”. This is constantly confused in careless thinking because all we can really know about someone else’s experience is how they assertively interpret it. And, actually, all we can know even about our own experience is how we assertively interpret it to ourselves. All our “experience” in that sense is chronologically in the past, therefore gone, all interpretation is nominally in the present.
Nominally. And there is the crux of the problem. There is no possible way to describe anything that does not involve a priori assumptions about the world which are built into language and come from the surrounding culture. So most of the argumentation about the cultural conditioning of anyone’s “metaphysics” is a tautology. And the tautology applies equally to anyone’s “physics”.
When you can actually get somewhere to see it, the starry sky is [presumptively] the same for us as it was for Ptolemy, Pope Gregory the Great, the Buddha, or some nameless Neolithic hunter. All of these people had an explanation for it, none of the explanations can be asserted merely by looking at the stars themselves, free from cultural conditioning, and none of the explanations actually describe the experience of looking at the stars. None of them even come close. The only thing you can evaluate as “true” or “false” is the a priori structure of thought that these individuals bring to the problem. And the only way to make such an evaluation is from your own a priori structure of thought.
It is in this sense that experience is “ineffable”, even to the experiencer. All we have available to critique are the explanations. Your criticism of them is sound, but, with very little effort, it can be logically extended to critique any explanation of experience. Why? Because underneath them all is the a priori assumption that there exists some neutral and objective vantage point from which experience can be truly explained.
This is another way of describing the illusion of the self, whether it is “myself” or the True Self. It is why, in the absence of “direct realization” [ a technical term in the monastic exposition of Buddhism and an ineffable experience just like any other], the most important part of Buddhist thought is the Madyamika dialectic derived from the notion of the Avoidance of the Four Extremes, whose articulation, in brief, is attributed to Shakyamuni himself.
Nagarjuna is a pit bull. He never lets go of the fact that the problem is nominal, a problem of explanation and language and not of experience itself. And he reaches the conclusion [which I also believe] that the problem is explanation itself. Anyone’s explanation. All a priori points of view are inadequate.
First, the mystic can argue that these metaphysical revelations actually are all the same. For example, to discover that you have no true self is to discover your True Self. (Many modern Zen teachers claim that.) This makes no sense whatsoever. It is indefensible....
At least the Zen part of it is Nagarjuna without the arguments. Half the koans in the Blue Cliff Records involve this contradiction, which is inherent in discursive thought itself. So you shouldn’t let it bend you out of shape.
Much of this would be clearer if we could use the 20th Century philosophical notion of levels of language: the “language” under examination being discussed in the “metalanguage” of our analysis. But it doesn’t retroactively transfer well.
To communicate we cannot do much that does not involve discursive thought, but we don’t have to be trapped in it. Both “metaphysics” and “physics” are the same kind of trap. It is convenient to assume that there is a truly objective vantage point to evaluate any metaphysical claim or validate any conclusion of physics. It is also convenient [most of the time] to act as if we had a self. It might even be convenient [though I can’t see why] to act as if the world has a True Self by whatever name you want to call it.
Convenience, however, is really not enough, and the contradictions of the Four Extremes are inherent. They cannot be resolved, only abandoned.
I haven’t subjected the reasoning to a critical examination, but I think I follow it and find the argument interesting. I’m also interested in the similarities between descriptions of psychosis and insight.
I’ll repeat that “unification of the True Self with the Absolute Infinite” is Vedanta. True Self = ātman; Absolute Infinite = brahman. It got smuggled into Buddhism along with tathāgata-garbha theory, I think.
Re “metaphysics validates mystical experiences, rather than mystical experiences validating metaphysics!”
My gut feeling is that this is true. Observing people I find that most people believe ahead of their metaphysical experiences. On the other hand I know quite a few people who took acid in the 60s and 70s and had mystical experiences. They went looking for explanations. Some became Buddhists - not their culture, but a package deal. No all became my kind of Buddhist, some became Tibetan Buddhists. I assume that lots of 70s folk became Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus (George Harrison!) as a result. Others turned to counter culture (Tim Leary). So I don’t entirely buy the ‘cultural determines interpretation’ argument. Though of course you may argue that these people had a predisposition for whatever explanation, I think that’s getting a bit too hypothetical. However people were looking for a validation of their experience. They wanted to eff the ineffable, and so they looked for an interpretation that felt comfortable to them.
Part of what religions do is construct discourses for the ineffable.
I love these discussions for their making me think– and contemplate, which is somewhat different. What popped up for me last night when I read the original post was the possibility that, of course, words are inadequate to convey the ineffable [which has been rendered a comic word for me, like inscrutable: ‘to eff the ineffable, unscrew the inscrutable…’– but I digress]. So, by definition, the ineffable cannot be spoken.
That’s why we have 2500 years of ‘direct transmission, outside the scriptures’ [if Zen is your style] or ‘mind-to-mind transmission’ [as the Vajrayanists put it]. In short, transmission functions where words fail. Thus, the need for the teacher.
“unification of the True Self with the Absolute Infinite” is Vedanta. It got smuggled into Buddhism along with tathāgata-garbha theory, I think.
Yes and yes! I’m trying to point out (here and elsewhere) that this is not the mainstream Buddhist understanding. The popular understanding that “Buddhism is about becoming one with the universe” is wrong. Some Buddhisms might be that, but “Buddhism” in general isn’t.
It’s relevant that the American founders of “Consensus Buddhism” mostly had Hindu Vedanta teachers as well as Buddhist ones. (Jack Kornfield and Lama Surya Das come to mind.) They still acknowledge those teachers as major influences, and it shows in their own teaching. So there has been a second importation of Vedanta into Buddhism, dating from the 1960s and 70s. This is on-going, with many people actively muddying the distinction between the Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of non-duality.
On the other hand, I think there may be valid and important insights in tathāgatagarbha theory as well. And there’s almost 2000 years worth of smart people working to incorporate the good parts of tathāgatagarbha while preserving anatman and rejecting brahman. Unfortunately this discourse is quite obscure, and certainly not well-understood in the West.
I think it’s really important that this be made comprehensible, because the idea that all beings are already Buddhas is one of the most appealing in Buddhism. Most Western Buddhists are going to accept that, so getting clear about what the implications are (and aren’t) would be helpful.
So I don’t entirely buy the ‘cultural determines interpretation’ argument.
Agreed. Unlike Robert Sharf and Steven Katz, who dismiss mystical experience as culturally-determined delusion, I think there’s probably something real and important going on, which is (at minimum) partly biological and therefore transcends culture. And I think the evidential arrow can point both ways; metaphysics and experience can illuminate each other. (Or obscure each other, unfortunately.)
The conversation could be profitably informed by the work of David Loy. See “Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?” It’s available here:
Much of his work, including his dissertation (which was published as Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy), is on this topic.
Loy makes the case that at least a number of different reports of mystics in various Indian traditions describe the same thing, and that the constraints of language inevitably bias the description in one direction or another.
Thanks for this pointer! A copy of David Loy’s Nonduality has been sitting in the “read soon” pile on my desk for the past few months. I’ve moved it closer to the top, on your recommendation.
I’ve just read the paper you linked. I’m afraid I found it unconvincing. I disagree with the metaphysics, which derives from the Sanbokyodan school (in which Loy is ordained). This is a modernist version of Zen that appears to have replaced traditional Zen understandings with German Idealism (which is very close to Advaita Vedanta).
I also find no argument in his paper that the experience of moksha and nirvana are the same. He actually has nothing to say about the experience itself (falling back on ineffability). What he argues instead is that the metaphysical implications of moksha and nirvana are essentially the same, so the experience must be the same. That wouldn’t follow, even if the metaphysical implications were the same—which I believe they aren’t, at all.
I will read the book soon. I need to better understand exactly how modern Zen has gone wrong; and who knows—maybe I’ve misunderstood him, and the longer version will persuade me.
I don’t think one could really establish whether the experience of moksha and nirvana are the same with a reasoned argument. Your post seems predicated on an unspoken assumption that various traditions (or all traditions) value mystical experiences because they allow the tradition to formulate and then propagate a metaphysics. I don’t think that is correct at all. The traditional relation for both Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta is more along the lines of:
1) The metaphysics as articulated in words is a provisional device which facilitates experience, along with whatever disciplines may be prescribed.
2) The experience is inherently valuable because it facilitates (or constitutes) liberating wisdom.
Viewed in this light, the operative question becomes, can apparently contradictory metaphysical descriptions facilitate the same experience? And I don’t see any a priori reason to assert that they can’t, although it would also be impossible to establish that they can.
Oh, and I almost forgot - a must-read on this topic is “The Stages of Meditation in Crosscultural Perspective” by Daniel P. Brown, in Transformations of Consciousness by Wilbur, Engler, Brown.
I’ve posted it here: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=TSWL678Z
Here is the abstract:
Daniel Brown addresses the question by presenting an in-depth cartography of meditative stages drawn from three different traditions-the Tibetan Mahamudra, the Hindu Yogasutras, and the Theravada Vipassana (this cartography was subsequently cross-checked with other contemplative texts, Christian, Chinese, etc.). The results strongly suggest that the stages of meditation are in fact of cross-cultural and universal applicability (at a deep, not surface, analysis). Not only does this cartography tend to support the more literary claims of a “transcendent unity of religions,” it goes a long way towards helping to resolve some of the central conflicts between “theistic” and “nontheistic” approaches to contemplation (e.g., Hindu versus Buddhist). By cutting his analysis at a sufficiently deep level, Brown is able to demonstrate “how a Hindu and Buddhist meditator progress through the same eighteen stages of meditation and yet have different experiences along the stages because of the different perspectives which are taken. Since perspectivism is unavoidable in meditation, as in any other mode of inquiry, each of the descriptions of meditation experience in the respective traditions is valid, though different.” The perspective, however, has an influence on the outcome of the progression of experiences: while the path of meditation stages is similar across cultures, the experience of the outcome, enlightenment, is not. In this sense, Brown’s conclusion is the opposite of stereotypical notions of mystical experience that perennial philosophers have usually meant by the “transcendent unity of religions”: there are many paths to the same end. Brown’s in-depth analysis of meditation experiences suggests the opposite: there is one path which leads to different ends, different enlightenment experiences.
I don’t think one could really establish whether the experience of moksha and nirvana are the same with a reasoned argument.
I agree! But isn’t that exactly what Loy sets out to do, at the beginning of his paper? He writes:
This paper will consider one crucial aspect of Indian philosophy: what happens when one attains enlightenment. The experience of attaining enlightenment is not merely one of many aspects which could be examined; it is the most critical one... The issue is this: Since enlightenment itself transcends all conceptual understanding, are these different philosophies referring to the same experience?
The rest of the paper seems to me to fail to even attempt to address this question.
The paper is actually about an entirely different question: can we reconcile Buddhist and Advaita metaphysics by proving, with conventional deductive logic, that no-self and True Self are the same thing? To which his answer is “yes” and mine is “no”.
Your post seems predicated on an unspoken assumption that various traditions (or all traditions) value mystical experiences because they allow the tradition to formulate and then propagate a metaphysics.
I do think that’s one reason, in practice. I do agree with your point 2: liberation is the ultimate goal. Regarding 1, a caveat: Modernist Zen takes a non-ordinary experience to be enlightenment, or to be critical to enlightenment, but it is not at all clear that this was the traditional view. (Robert Sharf argues this at length, but he has an axe to grind and I’m not sure how much weight to put on his work.) Traditionally, enlightenment seems to have involved conduct and conceptual understanding at least as much as experience.
can apparently contradictory metaphysical descriptions facilitate the same experience? I don’t see any a priori reason to assert that they can’t, although it would also be impossible to establish that they can.
This is a really interesting point. I am going to argue, a few posts from now, that the “unity of True Self and Absolute” view is actively harmful because it points away from the kind of accomplishment that is actually possible. But, it may be that, even if it is a wrong metaphysics, it’s close enough that it can lead people to accomplishment anyway.
In the Tibetan tradition, it is said that Madhyamaka, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen all lead to precisely the same accomplishment, despite their having somewhat different metaphysics. This is said on the basis that individuals who have practiced each one separately, and accomplished each separately, came to the same end-point on each of the three paths, and so they would be in a position to know.
On the other hand, one might be skeptical about this, on the grounds that they may have wished only to create harmony among sects and were being diplomatic; and also that if one has come to a particular end-point on one path, one might mistakenly end at that same point when pursuing another path later.
I guess I should have clarified that I don’t necessarily agree with Loy, and I think you are correct that he doesn’t particularly address the assertion he makes initially. I too have his book but haven’t read it.
Regarding “Modernist Zen,” that isn’t my area of practice, but from what I’ve read over the years contemporary Zen seems to be so heterodox that you could point to any number of contradictory explanations given of what kensho/satori/full awakening are. I don’t doubt that there is a strain of the kind of Idealist/Neo-Advaita flavor you describe.
It seems to me that legions of people have been empowered as “Roshis” who seem to have only the most fleeting acquaintance with traditional perspectives. They tend to be the ones most likely to make ex cathedra pronouncements in Tricycle about what “Buddhism teaches.”
In this post, I see you simply making two assertions:
(1) Mystical Experiences are aren’t unified.
(2) Mystical Experiences may be interpreted incorrectly.
– Mystical experiences are described in contrary sensory ways.
– Mystical experiences are described in contrary metaphysical ways ways.
And I think you rightly conclude that any attempt to say “Mystical experiences across all religions are identical” is just plain wrong.
The rest of the post touches on your bigger project for which this, you tell us, this post is just the ground work:
To show that none of these experiences should be interpretted as a unification of the True Self (soul) with the Absolute (God, Universe …). Indeed, as you have told us in other posts, you think such thinking is harmful. And it seems this is the thinking imported in much of modern Zen and present in Yoga, Vedantism, Christian/Islamic/and Judaic Mysticism.
That is a big project and I don’t think this post really takes us much closer – those most comment seem to center on the bigger project which this post really is not addressing. Right?
I think you have shown clearly that:
(1) declaring “ineffableness” tells us nothing interesting.
(2) Mystics have lots of DIFFERENT experiences.
(3)You have shown that just because lots of folks have an experience does not mean their reports about it are accurate.
You have hinted that mystical feelings of unity may be delusional, but you let that one alone. And that is an important stance taken by many folks – but you just touched it.
I hope I have interpretted your post accurately. I don’t think you have told us anything yet that will help with your big project. Because even if all mystical experiences aren’t the same, the guys/gals experiencing unity are still there. I guess you are just trying to take away a piece of rhetoric that is make us believe there is tons of evidence for Unity since ALL mystics have the same experience, which they don’t.
By the way. As you know, I have had lots of mystical experiences (listed here) – some merging with the world, some feeling Unity, some hyper-realism, some illusory, some with visions, some with body shattering …
But I have not been drawn to think metaphysically about this – I just thought “Wow, look what the brain can do.” They were never something I jumped to conclusions about. But I have had lots of folks tell me how I should interpret them over the years.
Perhaps contrary to Dana’s suspicions, I did not “desire” these experiences or seek them, nor do I think I have a brain “lesion”. But that I may have a certain type of brain more susceptible to them than others, may be true.
I am interested where your bigger project goes – you are telling lots of religious folks that their theology is harmful.
I guess you are just trying to take away a piece of rhetoric that is make us believe there is tons of evidence for Unity since ALL mystics have the same experience, which they don’t.
Yup, that’s all this post does. It’s clearing the ground for the “wrong and harmful” story, by eliminating a possible objection ahead of time.
Here’s my current roadmap:
There is no agreement among Buddhists about who is enlightened, so we can’t rely on the opinions of supposedly-enlightened people. (Another obvious point, again just eliminating a possible objection ahead of time.)
The Quest for the True Self. A long post. The work here is to explain why the idea of a True Self is attractive. That there isn’t a True Self is pretty much self-evident, so it doesn’t need a lot of rebuttal. But simply pointing out that it doesn’t exist isn’t helpful, since people want to believe in it so badly. My hope is that pointing out the emotional psychology, and showing the way to a better alternative, may be useful.
The Quest for the Absolute. Analogously, why Buddhists want to believe in God by another name.
Meditation causes the problem meditators want to solve. For many people, connectedness and wholeness are the goals of meditation. However, the Buddhist meditation methods they use are explicitly designed to disconnect you and to disassemble you! There’s a severe conceptual confusion here. It comes from mis-applying the Hindu/German metaphysics (True Self, Absolute, All-Is-One) to Buddhism.
So what is going on here? What can meditation do for us if not unify us with the universe? Some straightforward, conventional Buddhist answers, which seem like they might be news to some Western Buddhists.
That’s it for the “problems with meditation” sub-series. After that, I’ll go on to ritual. Everyone hates ritual, but if what you want is connectedness and wholeness, it can deliver.
Then I’ll do tantra. Tantra was left out of Consensus Buddhism because it’s not nice. However, it might be a better starting point for Western Buddhism than renunciate Theravada has been.
Finally, after this somewhat lengthy diversion, I’ll get back to criticizing Consensus Buddhism directly.
Originally, I expected to write about three posts that boiled down to “Jack Kornfield is stuck in 1974, this is a problem, but fortunately it seems the problem is passing.” I’ve wound up explaining in gory detail exactly how he got stuck in 1974, all the different reasons that is a problem, and how we can extricate ourselves from 1974.
But so far I’m still only up to the 1950s—which is when D.T. Suzuki and Sanbokyodan were most influential in propagating the All-Is-One misunderstanding of meditation.
This is feeling a bit like Tristram Shandy! Maybe before I die I can finally at least get Jack Kornfield to Thailand…
Thanx David – fantastic roadmap. It helps me to keep looking at the map occasionally!
Adrian Piper’s work relating Vedanta to Kant’s “intellectual intuition” may be highly useful in considering these topics:
“Intellectual Intuition in Kant’s first Critique and Samkhya Philosophy”
“Why does Kant think intellectual intuition is impossible for human beings, and why are the philosophies of Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta so sure that it is? The answer lies in the contrasting conceptions of the self, objectivity, and methods of rational inquiry which each of these two perspectives ultimately presuppose. The Samkhyan conception recognizes our capacity for intellectual intuition, and so offers an account of the creative process involved in Conceptual art.”
@ Greg: Thanx for the upload.
@ David: I’m looking forward to all these posts.
@ David - I love the post but re: Everyone hates ritual - sorry to disappoint. I LOVE it. And in fact (and I might be pre-empting you here) everyone actually loves ritual. Some especially love the ritual of-no-ritual. They just don’t like to be caught loving it.
Take a bunch of Buddhists into a Catholic catherdral, and they’ll almost all go silent and respectful. Very few will shout at the tops of their voices ‘Well jigger me, it’s damned quiet in here, isn’t it? How about a quick chorus of ‘Whiskey in the jar’. . .?’
Host a BBQ, lay on a good spread, and still all the guests will bring a bottle of wine and ‘something for the Barby’ In fact often as not you’ll end up with more food and drink than you started with at the end. Do these people think you’re so terrible a host they have to compensate by bringing extra food and drink?
Hear of a friend who is sick in hospital, and often as not you’ll send a card and flowers (and the ever present grapes - which are clearly universally believed to cure TB, cancer, strokes, broken legs and MRSA).
‘tis all ritual. It’s just religious ritual that folk don’t like admitting to liking. . .
That was funny. Calling “ritual of-no-ritual” was over the top, but I get your point.
I had to read back to see where David said “Everyone hates ritual” and find it in his comment on up-coming posts. Then I tried to imagine his intent – as I agree with you, ritual is universal and there is good reason it is. And of course David knows this, so he must have meant something else – so I thought.
When I bring kids not raised in a tradition into a church or a Hindu temple, they are loud and disruptive – as they are anywhere. Rituals are learned. So when this happens I have to shush the girls (I coach a bunch of girls and we meet at a church and have been to a temple) and explain why. Later they may see adults being quiet and merely imitate.
Living in Asia for more than a decade, I had to make great effort to abide by much different social customs (which you include in the fuzzy word “ritual”) – learning these customs took effort. I saw many fellow foreigners who lived abroad and never bothered and always disrupted the social milieu.
Kids don’t like learning to be quiet. Last night at a car dealer (we were buying) my kids were running in and out of showroom cars opening, closing, clicking, and experimenting with everything. I had to teach them that this was not a playground – they were disappointed.
So people sometimes do not like learning ritual in the beginning or at all if it crowds their normal activities and they see no benefit. <– I think that may be part of what David meant.
I hope to visit your Barby some day – and "Grapes"?? that too must be a British thing, eh? :-)
You guys are writing my blog for me. I can retire…
So, right, “everyone hates ritual” is a jokey exaggeration. The point is that Consensus Buddhism mainly excludes ritual, and makes an ideological point of doing so. (In fact, it often declares that “Buddhism” is inherently free of ritual, which is an amazing falsehood.) Historically, this rejection is rooted in the rationalist thread and in Protestantism; but both those objections are bogus. There are, however, also some good reasons for rejecting ritual. (E.g., many religious rituals are boring, or have no significant religious content, or mainly serve to reinforce undesirable power structures.)
But humans need ritual. So what contemporary Western Buddhism needs is better rituals, not an absence of ritual.
I actually enjoy rituals also. But I don’t enjoy that people think there is some real magic in rituals. Sure, we can nit-pic about “magic” and “real”, but I think many folks know what I mean. The soft magic that works psychologically is part of the real magic of rituals that can make them “real” – that work on us a way discurvise stuff doesn’t.
I agree, better rituals would be nice – but I think revamping the thinking about it is important too. There is still much essentialistic thinking in rituals. And many people believe that, “the ancients did this for some reason and they were magic – that is the age of our heros. who are we to question.”
It is that thinking we need to transcend – even if we just happen to keep most of the ritual.
@ David - re: ‘Consensus Buddhism mainly excludes ritual, and makes an ideological point of doing so’ - that’s what I call the ‘ritual of no ritual’ (although you probably know that’s what I meant).
@ Sabio - re: Kids and being quiet - I had a hoot a few months ago when the local educational authority had a ‘religious education in schools day’. At the assembly with the kids at the start of the day there were a host of representatives of various faiths (not one under 50, bar myself) who were due to talk about their religion to the kids. They all did an introductory spiel to the kids, and I just said ‘well you might not know much about Buddhism, but unlike all the other adults here I’m not going to ask you to be quiet, I’m going to ask you to make a noise’. They cheered. We used Tibetan instruments as an introduction of bits of Buddhist thought and practice. They, predictably, loved it. And, yes, I’m entirely guilty of playing up to an audience - but hell education should be fun. So should religion if you ask me, and it looks like the thought here is, so should ritual.
“’tis all ritual. It’s just religious ritual that folk don’t like admitting to liking”
Not quite, I think. The ritual of the Mass is not the same sort of thing as commonplace habits like “removing your hat” in church. Neither is Buddhist ritual with Bell, Vajra, Damaru, and Phurba the same thing as being politely quiet when a group sit is in progress and you are not part of it. And certainly they are not the same thing as always bringing food to a party whether you really need to or not.
Why? Three reasons: content, teaching, and training. Religious rituals are non-verbal symbol systems. They have something to communicate and a point to make, sometimes several points to make. This goes beyond any components of “superstition” and “magic” in them that so bedevil Sabio.
A Catholic Mass is certainly about the Real Presence of God in the Host, but it is also about retelling the story of Christ at the Passover meal before his Crucifixion. And, in fact, the rituals of the Greek Mysteries are the source of the secular literary form we know as Theater.
A Hopi Pueblo ritual can be about things like praying to the Six-Point Cloud People to send rain but it is also a means of reminding all Hopi, and of teaching Hopi children, how to behave to be “peaceful”, or “Hopi” and not “Kahopi”, like white folks or like their neighbors the Navajo–how to be part of the tribe, one of the “peaceful people”.
And a Vajrayana group sadhana like the longer versions of Tangtong Gyalpo’s 4-armed Chenrezig terma can be about “accumulating immeasurable merit” by reciting the Seven Branch Prayer, but it is also a very detailed teaching about the sufferings of Samsara using the Abhidharma analysis of the Six Realms of Existence.
This is the sort of thing that constantly gets overlooked in discussions of ritual by people who seldom or never practice religious rituals themselves. The “need for ritual” is not merely a matter of needing to feel all warm and creamy inside, it is also a matter of needing to rehear or re-enact the stories and attitudes that are the backbone of your beliefs, and needing to hear them in the presence of your fellow believers.
This truly is something different than our ordinary patterns of correct social behavior, whether in content, form, or motivation.
Beyond this, the Buddhist ones at least, are methods of training the mind. You can achieve a state of one-pointed concentration by regularly watching your breath go through your nostrils, or by trying to keep the mind focused on the Hara, the lower abdomen. But you can also achieve it by focusing your mind on Paradise Realms centered around beautiful translucent Palaces which contain radiant and intangible deities with glowing letters inside them. Generally, to train this way you have to keep reciting the instructions, and most of the liturgies are largely composed of these instructions. You are, in a sense, your own religious “coach”.
The capacity for one-pointed concentration that you develop is exactly the same. Some people train better using their breath, others train better using their visual imagination prompted by chanting. Pragmatically, this works quite well and is neither “magic” or psychotheraputic “soft magic”, but a mental equivalent of working out at the gym.
If you encounter somebody elses ritual and don’t ask the questions: What does this behavior mean? What is it trying to communicate? and What is the point of communicating the meaning at all? any ritual appears to be either arbitrary social habit or merely aesthetic entertainment.
David is right to call such exaggerated denial of Buddhist ritual Protestant. It a rejection of ritual by missing or ignoring the point of ritual. And whatever the legitimacy, or lack of it, of this denial’s metaphysics, certainly it’s religious content is terminally impoverished.
Yeah, if you knew me, I am not the quiet, hush, hush type at all and very much love chaos. Loud, fun ceremony or rituals sound great.
I think you have illustrated some rituals that, to me, fulfill well what David said “So what contemporary Western Buddhism needs is better rituals, not an absence of ritual.” Whether it is:
(1) the longer versions of Tangtong Gyalpo’s 4-armed Chenrezig terma can be about “accumulating immeasurable merit” by reciting the Seven Branch Prayer
(2) focusing your mind on Paradise Realms centered around beautiful translucent Palaces which contain radiant and intangible deities with glowing letters inside them
In the West, those sort of things will continue to draw certain personality types and rightfully repulse all sorts of others. Not to mention, they might not be the smartest way to accomplish whatever they are meant to accomplish. Rituals can be like Legislature – they start out with some purpose but after everyone tags on their favorite thing, they get out of control.
I am curious to see how Buddhism (or whatever its inheritors are called) morphs as it stops marketing to New-Age Idealists, Asia-philes, Ancient-philes, vegetarians, political-tree-huggers and social misfits looking for a niche. How can a new, evidence-based, clever, superstition-free tradition use rituals without needing to apease the traditionalists. Boy, don’t I sound naive and modern. What baggage I carry, eh?
It’s perfectly possible that the formless practices of Dzogchen and Mahamudra will take better root here than form-based Tantric ritual. There is one caveat to this, I think. Zen got here first and is about as low ritual and formless a brand of Buddhism as you can get: sit and stare at the wall or at the other row of meditators for hours on end, struggling to penetrate an unintelligible or self-contradictory koan, keep doing this for weeks and weeks and weeks until you are at the end of your rope, and wait for insight in the form of Kensho to strike you like lightning.
But the interest in Zen has plateaued, and, other than the children of older students, I really don’t think it will grow much more. It’s a very rare person strong enough to be a mosquito trying to bite an iron ball for however long it takes.
I can’t speak for Dzogchen, but the practices that I went through to practice formless Mahamudra entailed plenty of ritual to “purify karma” and “accumulate merit”. I still have no personal and direct insight myself into what these terms really mean, but I am certain that the process worked. I can now do the shinay of Mahamudra with great ease and no inner conflict in a way in which I never could do the straight “watch the breath” of beginner’s sitting. This despite the fact that osteoarthritis has kept me permanently practicing flat-footed in a chair for almost a decade.
This does not mean that I have achieved any real insight, but that I simply can manage the mechanics of the practice without great stress, physical strain, or chronic emotional conflict. I don’t have to be a mosquito trying to bite an iron ball.
And this is not because of having gotten better at “watching the breath” through years of practice. I didn’t. I did 4-armed Chenrezig and the other rituals, and very little straight sitting. Their purpose, at least in part, is to prepare the ground for formless Mahamudra practice and, as far as I can judge, they do the job.
What purpose do you propose for the “evidence based” ritual practice that you seek? To be able to do Dzogchen without excessive conflict? Or something else? The point of Buddhist termas is to make contemporary practice easier. Nyingma has plenty of them and Aro seems to have an especially powerful one. Can they meet your evidence based standard? I don’t know. That’s something you would have to ask Lama Namgyal, since we conveniently have him available, or, if you are already an Aro apprentice, you could ask whatever ordained practicioner you are working with.
You certainly don’t need to appease me. But I’ll be darned if I can see what a ritual sufficiently evidence-based and superstition free enough to satisfy you would be like, what good it would do anyone, and where it would lead you after you have accomplished it.
And the only alternative that I know of is to go to the Zendo and bite the iron ball.
Again, that was one of your personal comments that rang more true for me. I think different practice can serve different benefits or traps for different folks. Thus, a teacher could be useful. Yet a teacher could also recommend poorly. No guarantees. That is why I fear hegemony – robbing us of variety of options. And I fear suppression of pragmatic questions – is this getting what is claims as its fruits?
To answer your questions: Rituals of combat, festival, song, sport or drama and much more can free us from the futility of biting an iron ball. Ah, that sounds like a well lived life or ritualized play.
mystics, philosophers, and mystic-philosophers had been debating this for millennia so I don’t think we’ll get anything out of this discussion of “true self”, “unification”, and metaphysical stuff. the root of this issue is phenomenology, and the “hard” problem of consciousness. in short, it’s all mental masturbation. the Buddhist teaching (at least the earliest one) is mainly about direct perception, the a four noble truths, and the “four seals”. the rest are commentary.
that said, I don’t care much about metaphysics. practice is the injunction.whatever we do or however we interpret the transcendent experience is up to us and our level of psychosocial development. what interests me the most is how neuroscience could help map the physical correlates of the transcendent experience and how we can use this knowledge to foster a better society that has more awareness of its place in the Kosmos and more compassion to all sentient beings.
my two cents.
Today I was reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s (BB) article: Dhamma and Non-Duality in which he says the Mahayana school’s view of non-duality “borders on the outrageous”.
I do here this “non-duality” used as a convenient discussion stopper a lot. I have always found it problematic. But Aro views both “duality” and “non-duality” as mistaken views, correct? Do some Mahayana schools rest in the non-duality position?
Anyway, the reason I see this as pertinent to this post, is that later BB says:
The Buddha's Dhamma does not point us toward an all-embracing absolute in which the tensions of daily existence dissolve in metaphysical oneness or inscrutable emptiness.
In contrast to the non-dualistic systems, the Buddha's approach does not aim at the discovery of a unifying principle behind or beneath our experience of the world.
Which I imagine agrees with your coming agenda. He claims that this mistaken aim at unification is due to “the mind’s yearning for a comprehensive unity”.
Your agenda has two positions:
(1) It is wrong to think that reality has a unifying principle (which I intuitively agree with)
(2) To hold #1 is harmful (which I am not sure I agree with)
But BB seems to agree with you about wrong views when he says in the beginning of the essay,
My first preliminary remark would be to insist that a system of meditative practice does not constitute a self-contained discipline. Any authentic system of spiritual practice is always found embedded within a conceptual matrix that defines the problems the practice is intended to solve and the goal toward which it is directed. Hence the merging of techniques grounded in incompatible conceptual frameworks is fraught with risk.
So my questions:
(a) Is BB inaccurately typifying Mahayana?
(b) Am I right that he is largely agreeing with your anti-Unification agenda (because there is nothing to unify with)?
(c) If (b) is true – is he doing with any significant difference from you?
(d) am I confusing things? :-)
I think different practice can serve different benefits or traps for different folks. Thus, a teacher could be useful. Yet a teacher could also recommend poorly. No guarantees. That is why I fear hegemony — robbing us of variety of options.
Well, one thing about contemporary life is that the virtual world offers far more information about available options than has ever been possible before, and far more access to them as well. We can be discriminating and pick and choose. But, in the end, if you’re going to go to Pittsburgh then you can’t go to Atlanta at the same time. And accumulating tour brochures of all the places you might go to, then skimming them all from time to time, is entertaining, but its really not going anywhere.
I have no vested interest in your path one way or another. But here is how I would describe your situation, looking at it from the outside. At the moment you have access in fairly decent depth to one of the options. Aro has bent over backwards to make information about themselves and what they offer available on your very own laptop screen. You can even do the beginning steps by a free e-mail correspondence course. No strings attached.
You, frankly, would have to do a lot more digging to get as clear a sense of the Karma Kagyud path I follow. Their websites are not nearly as well made or informative as Aro’s, though they have done a great deal of pioneering work presenting real teachings, in real time, by Podcast and YouTube.
You also have access, particularly on David’s sites, to a great deal of direct information about what Aro students are like. This is by far the best way to judge what teachers and their teachings have to offer. A set of students who are merely gullible goops are very likely to have a teacher who wants them to be gullible goops. You have made it quite clear that you don’t want to be one, so you can cross off that option right there. A good way to get a good look at a lot of Aro students at once would be one of Aro’s weekend retreats.
In any case, the only way you are going to find out more than what Aro has already offered you is to participate, to get the correspondence course and actually practice it regularly, or take a weekend flight to New York and sit in on their meditation group. Based on their current schedule, you could even do it as a fantastic family Christmas weekend in the city and check out the big tree in Rockefeller Center and Christmas Eve shopping in Midtown.
Or even take the family on a two-week vacation to Wales and look in on the people at Bristol and Cardiff. I’m sure they’d make you very welcome, and the kids could have a high old time learning to pronounce Welsh. And if you do it around the first of February, you could not only squeeze in a weekend with the Lineage Holders themselves, you would probably get the best look at as many Aro teachers and students as you will ever find in any one place at any one time. And all this with extraordinary ease compared with my own lineage and it’s Lineage Holders.
This is really not an infomercial with a paid endorsement for Aro, but when I remember what even just finding another Buddhist, or merely scrounging for Buddhist books in libraries, required 35 years ago, I am in awe of the good karma that has ripened for just about anyone in America and Europe, and how much more a birth there is a Precious Human Birth than it used to be.
It won’t be there forever. That’s what we Buddhists call Death and Impermanence.
You know, I must say I am very bewildered by people finding “emptiness” or “non-dualism” in the Mahayana to be ineffable or inscrutable. It is simply the answers to three basic questions: Do I exist independently as a neutral observer of a separate world? Do things in the world exist independently of each other and of me? Does believing that the answer to these two questions is “yes” create any problems for someone?
The Mahayana answers are No, No, and Yes. Believing that you exist independently from things, and that things exist independently of each other, causes unending suffering.
Now some of the reasoning that leads to these conclusions may be a little complex, but I can’t see where the conclusions are anything but clear and simple.
I’ve had almost no time to write in the past 1.5 months. It’s splendid to see you all continuing interesting, intelligent, courteous conversations mostly without me. Thank you!
@Karmakshanti — we have not always been on quite the same page, but I’ve particularly enjoyed several of your recent comments. Your explanations of the value of ritual are great.
@~C4Chaos — I agree that metaphysics is a dead end. What I hope to do here is to point out the ways in which metaphysical beliefs have distorted meditation practice. I will suggest that such beliefs have caused serious practical difficulties for Western Buddhists in the past few decades. My approach will be to explain the emotional psychology for why those beliefs are attractive, how they lead to failure in meditation, and how other actually Buddhist approaches may work better. [@Sabio, that’s an answer to your question (c).]
I share your enthusiasm for the forthcoming neuroscientific evidence. Without that, we’re still largely groping in the dark.
By the way, it was only a few weeks ago that I first listened to the early Buddhist Geeks podcasts and discovered that the awesome guitar riffs there were yours. I love those—thanks!
@Sabio — thank you very much for the link to Bikkhu Bodhi’s article.
I liked two things in it very much. One is a clear defense of the traditional Theravada view. I don’t share that view, but I respect it. The second is a clear rebuttal of Advaita Vedanta All-Is-One monism:
To know things as they are, wisdom must respect phenomena in their precise particularity. Wisdom leaves diversity and plurality untouched. It instead seeks to uncover the characteristics of phenomena, to gain insight into their qualities and structures.
That is a clear statement of the crux of the matter. Monism leads you to blur all distinctions, so you become more and more confused; and to pursue an impossible unification, which wastes time and produces, alternately, profound disappointment and psycho fantasies of achievement. [Answer to your question (b).]
Unfortunately, after pointing out that “non-duality” means several quite different things in different systems, Bikkhu Bodhi tends to muddle the Mahayana and Advaita Vedanta views. Not everything he says about Mahayana is accurate. [Answer to your question (a).]
Aro views both “duality” and “non-duality” as mistaken views, correct? Do some Mahayana schools rest in the non-duality position?
“Incomplete” rather than mistaken. The complete (Dzogchen) view is that duality and non-duality are inseparable but distinct.
When someone starts talking about “non-duality”, it’s good to ask:
(Clarity about these are how you get past the “conversation-stopping” use of the word. Although… asking those questions may stop some conversations by getting the non-dualist to realize he is spouting vague nonsense!)
The monist answers to those two questions are “everything” and “the same.”
Those are not the answers of any mainstream Buddhist school (with the possible exception of 20th century Westernized Zen).
Some Mahayanists might take “non-duality” as the highest truth, but it would be a different “non-duality” than that of Vedanta. Mahayana philosophy is diverse and difficult, so the answers to questions 1&2 may vary.
I am interested that what is emerging out of my own contemplation of these metaphysical matters, aided by the wide-ranging conversation on your sites, David– is a clear distinction between practice and experience, and simply thinking philosophically with the aim of forming conclusions [aka ‘beliefs’]. The former interests and engages me, like following a path not taken before and encountering creatures unknown before; the latter invokes my aversion to board games– even when I was a kid, ‘winning’ didn’t seem terribly preferable to ‘losing.’
This pull quote is brilliant: “To know things as they are, wisdom must respect phenomena in their precise particularity. Wisdom leaves diversity and plurality untouched. It instead seeks to uncover the characteristics of phenomena, to gain insight into their qualities and structures.” It highlights the function of the practice of insight, and how the pitfalls of reductionism are to be avoided.
@ Karmashanti re: ‘. . .Not quite, I think. The ritual of the Mass is not the same sort of thing as commonplace habits like “removing your hat” in church. Neither is Buddhist ritual with Bell, Vajra, Damaru, and Phurba the same thing as being politely quiet when a group sit is in progress and you are not part of it. . . ‘
I agree they are not the same thing - i.e. they are not identical. But, they are on a continuum. A continuum that involves learnt, symbolic behaviour and activity, with a predetermined aim in mind, all of which can be empty of meaning or accomplishment or value and just a mode of social conformity. My point is that when it comes to religion, people are more likely to scoff and say ‘this ritual and symbol is just a load of old tosh’ but they will, say, go to a party hosted by someone they perhaps don’t particularly like, to confirm with a social group and social behaviour, and even give that person a gift, because of some unchallenged habit. I was trying to point out the incongruity between challenging religious ritual, but observing societal ritual, which is often even more bizzare (go to a soccer match and watch the crowd. . .)
clearly you are a rationalist.
to me, whatever you are saying makes no sense. rules of rational thought is not universal, as well–even though to you it may appear so.
so you see, it can go both ways.
you should exactly like hte garbled mystics you are trying to describe.
i am wondering why you even bother to try and debunk mysticism.
thsi leads me to conclude something in it draws you to it.
perhaps the thing to do is not fight it.
wiht regards to schizophrenia-western science doens’t have the final word on it, you know. what passes for schizophrenia in the west can sometimes be divine wisdom somewhere else.
i meant to say: You SOUND exactly like the garbled mystics you are trying to describe
But, they are on a continuum. A continuum that involves learnt, symbolic behaviour and activity, with a predetermined aim in mind, all of which can be empty of meaning or accomplishment or value and just a mode of social conformity.
Well, perhaps. But I do think that this understates the degree to which religious ritual involves a matter of belief, emotional commitment, and choice. This may seem overly subtle, but it is the true distinction between the Human Realm and the Animal Realm–the quality and the consciousness of the choices, the mental space which we describe when we speak of “room for doubt”. Animals have no “room for doubt” because they have no possibility for certainty, which is more than being “certain” and is also being conscious of yourself being “certain” instead of being in doubt. But they also have strongly “ritualized” patterns of behavior.
It is this extra margin of self-awareness that makes it truly possible to hear the Dharma. If you imagine Shakyamuni teaching the Four Noble Truths first to his fellow ascetics, by the traditional accounts they thought something like, “Of course! That’s it!” and became Arhats on the spot. Then if you think of the Buddha teaching them to a more common and less well prepared audience, you can imagine some of them thinking, “Wait a minute! Is that really so? Why is he saying this? What should I do about it, if it’s true?” and you have the start of someone actually contemplating the Dharma and self consciously choosing to walk the Path, with the mental space of awareness that it is a choice between alternatives, in other words with “room for doubt”.
To be immersed in habit and unaware of the choices is something genuinely different from this in kind and quality, even if the “aim driven, learnt, symbolic behavior” is exactly the same.
Thinking about this a little further, consider how clearly, “This ritual and symbol is a bunch of old tosh,” and “empty of meaning or accomplishment or value and just a mode of social conformity,” imply that “meaning” [or the lack of it] is somehow inherent in objects or actions. This really isn’t true. Meaning is a function of our attitude toward objects and actions.
There is a glib assertion out there, “You are what you do.”
No, you are the attitude you take toward what you do, to the degree that you are anything at all, which you’re not.
@ Karmashanti re: ‘. . .this understates the degree to which religious ritual involves a matter of belief, emotional commitment, and choice. This may seem overly subtle, but it is the true distinction between the Human Realm and the Animal Realm. . .’ I greatly enjoyed the thoughts this provoked. Choice is indeed key - but you have to have the capacity, the insight, to be able to actually make a choice rather than to follow the choices of others.
In the Human Realm you have the capacity to see a ritual (any ritual, social, religious, whatever) for what it is. Buddhist ritual must involve the practice of View. In all respects other than the View that Form and Emptiness are non-dual, View is a practice - not a statement of truth. Ritual is acting out View; it is a process of trying to hardwire View to come to an understanding. If you’re Human you can see that - and ritual is fine. In the Animal Realm you follow the ritual because of some base instinct, some sense of following the herd. Or, you criticise the ritual because that is what your particular herd is doing. There is an Animal herd that follows the ritual of no-ritual - the ritual of attacking ritual. If it were a Human herd it would have the capacity to say we don’t follow that ritual because in our View that isn’t needed - but in that View it is critical - so for others that ritual is fine. It would allow space for other Views.
Buddhist ritual must involve the practice of View. In all respects other than the View that Form and Emptiness are non-dual, View is a practice – not a statement of truth. Ritual is acting out View; it is a process of trying to hardwire View to come to an understanding.
I must say, that’s very challenging. I’ve never quite heard it put that way. Measuring my own practice against it makes me feel a little wimpy, lazy, and undernourished. And, in addition, the overtones I felt in my bones even before opening this back up were certainly a real wake-up call.
Such ritual as I still do has never seemed to me to be quite that much of a struggle. In fact, I’ve found the predominant characteristic of my own practice to be pure, vivid pleasure that is at clearest when you hold it with the greatest delicacy of touch. Whether it is sadhana or formless shinay, it is calming to the mind and soothing to the heart, starting rather like a time-lapse film of an opening lotus, continuing in exuberance, and dissolving into non-complication. I don’t think it has given me a great insight into the non-duality of form and emptiness, but it’s sure been fun to do.
As far as I can see, there seems to be plenty of room, and even if my understanding of the View in it is a little shaky now and again, my visualization dim, or my mind cloudy, there just seems to me to be every reason to have confidence that the View is there, even when I don’t quite perceive it, and always fall far short of embodying it.
I also have never found the actions of Animals to be “base”, but merely fear-driven or comfort driven and without clarity about cause and effect, or past and future. And I have found that the human beings who unfairly criticize ritual are largely acting out unfocused fear and inexplicable discomfort, without all that much reference to how anybody else happens to feel. Like all of us, they tend to hang around with others that agree with them, but even if they didn’t, I think the fear and the discomfort would be the same.
“The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality, and hence in their emptiness all the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: “All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature.”
The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha’s discourses.”– from that Bikkhu Bodhi article linked above.
Yikes– is it the Pali-canon party line he’s setting out here? Do they think the Heart Sutra– to my eye, crudely misrepresented here– is not a legitimate part of the Buddha’s teaching? Maybe I’m a whole lot less Buddhish than I thought. By his criteria, anyway, I don’t make the cut.
The Heart Sutra is a Mahayana scripture. Like all Mahayana scriptures, it is regarded as non-canonical by Theravadins. It is not, in their view, the true words of the Buddha. Some Theravadins may accord some respect to some Mahayana scriptures anyway. But in general they regard them as unreliable, and wrong where they differ from the Pali Canon.
Some Theravadins regard Mahayana as not authentically Buddhist. [Vajrayana is far beyond the pale.] Others have a more liberal view.
Many Mahayanists, and many Theravadins, regard emptiness as a distinctively Mahayana teaching. Others point to the rare mentions of emptiness in the Pali Canon, and see it as a shared doctrine.
Western Buddhism has tended to sweep the large differences between Asian Buddhisms under the carpet. This is “nice” because it suppresses sectarian conflicts. However, much is also lost, at points where Asian traditions differ.
Although I do not find Theravada personally appealing in the least, I would much rather it were taught accurately, and defended vigorously, and its differences with Mahayana emphasized, than to have it melted into a uniform least-common-denominator Nice Buddhism—which is what has mostly happened in America. I salute Bikkhu Bodhi for standing up for a coherent, sharp-edged, full-blooded version of Theravada, even while I’d argue against most of what he upholds.
@ Karmashanti - With regards Humans and Animals - I’m endeavouring to approach the subject from the perspective that Trungpa Rinpoche elucidated - namely that the Realms can be viewed as psychological states. I find your last paragraph ‘I have also never found the actions of Animals to be base. . .’ accords with that entirely. Some of us engage in ritual because our herd mentality (Animal Realm) wants to fit in and feel comfortable in the cosy surroundings of the shrine room and incense burner; some challenge ritual because our herd mentality wants to copy the other cunning Animals that recognise cosy-comfort ritual as being a mistake - but in so doing we fail to notice we’re just following a different herd. Some Humans recognise the ritual for what it is, and can practice ritual or no-ritual with equal aplomb. Either way it should be fun - sounds like your practice is in a pretty good place to me.
The whole ‘fun’ thing is a good barometer for me. Some Consensus Buddhists seem so goddamned miserable about the whole thing. That’s got to be a bit suspicious.
Yes, that was my point in linking to the Bikkhu Bodhi’s article: I find it interesting that though David “would argue against most of what [Bikkhu Bodhi] upholds”, nonetheless they both agree that the Unification agenda is mistaken.
Also, I think many “Bed Stand Buddhists” have books from several traditions that contradict each other and are not even aware of it, So though we may debate positions on blogs, I think the average person does not aim at metaphysical consistency or tightness at all — nor, do I think, that most of the time that it really matters as much as some would suspect.
“Incomplete” rather than mistaken. The complete (Dzogchen) view is that duality and non-duality are inseparable but distinct. When someone starts talking about “non-duality”, it’s good to ask:
(Clarity about these are how you get past the “conversation-stopping” use of the word. Although… asking those questions may stop some conversations by getting the non-dualist to realize he is spouting vague nonsense!)
This was quite challenging. I think the muddle involved is largely a verbal one. The sloganish character of “non-duality”, “form is the same as emptiness”, “All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature”, stupifies thought and impedes understanding. We keep arguing about the words rather than what they are being used to talk about.
Your mention of “recent scientific evidence for the illusory or “virtual” nature of the self” is what points the way out of the tangle. The common Mahayana metaphors also speak of ordinary appearances as magical illusion, or of the reflection of the moon in water.
When Bikkhu Bodhi speaks of “The validity of conventional dualities is denied…” he points to his own misunderstanding of the Mahayana point of view. “Conventional” is exactly the point. Notions of duality are conventions we impute to appearances, not the appearances themselves. We can [and do] impute them just as easily to the images in the mirror or on the TV. The Mahayana point is that we don’t have to do this and when we stop doing it, appearance is “mere appearance” and nothing more, neither one thing nor many things, whether the appearance is in the mirror or standing in front of it.
Conventional dualities are just as “valid” in the mirror as they are in the rest of the world and Mahayana denies their validity in neither place. What Mahayana asserts is that this very validity in both places is compelling evidence that they have no “reality” independent of our minds in either place. Appearances are not only “mere appearances”, conventions are also “mere conventions” and when you put the two together you do not get anything “more real” than they each were separately.
But Mahayana is not only one analysis among many of what the world is like, it is also an analysis of why “life is suffering”. We don’t crave or get angry at appearances in the mirror, we do crave or get angry at appearances in front of the mirror. The notion that these two things are somehow different is the essential ignorance that drives our suffering. Without this understanding, the analysis of our suffering is incomplete and the means we use to try to end it are ultimately ineffective because the analysis is incomplete.
Has Theravadin teaching and practices made any Arhats lately?
Has Theravadin teaching and practices made any Arhats lately?
There is an emergence movement of people claiming arhathood, but they are somewhat outside the mainstream.
There is no agreement among Buddhists about who is enlightened, so we can’t rely on the opinions of supposedly-enlightened people. (Another obvious point, again just eliminating a possible objection ahead of time.)
-- David Chapman (in his "roadmap" for coming posts in the comments)
Have Teravadin, Mahayan or Secularist producted any Arhats? I await David to tell us either:
(a) These terms are all to fuzzy and manipulated to be useful.
(b) The real definition of enlightenment and how we can tell which team is winning.
There is an emergence movement of people claiming arhathood,
You didn’t happen to notice if any of them have bumps on the top of their head, did you?
Asking the questions, “Who do we know is enlightened?” or “What is it like to be enlightened?” are rather like asking, “What will we feel like when we finally fix the dishwasher?” It doesn’t tell us how to fix the dishwasher. And this is what we really need to know.
The truly important thing in Buddhism is suffering, not Enlightenment. Until you develop the heartfelt conviction that you are suffering, you want it to stop, and that you don’t know how to stop it, all other questions about form or emptiness or dualism are the kind of frivolous intellectuality that is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
I don’t know enough about Theravada to criticize it directly, and in detail, but I am convinced that any analysis of suffering must address the underlying conflicting emotions, frivolous intellectuality, and naive beliefs about both physics and metaphysics, and I think that the Mahayana as a whole does this quite convincingly.
One of the things that is constantly overlooked in these discussions are the detailed analyses in the Tibetan tradition, called Lam Rim, that fully articulate the Mahayana viewpoint, which is far more than slogans like “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” and buzzwords like “non-dualism”. Pull these things out of the total context of the Mahayana view and it is very easy to write them off as “fuzzy” and “manipulable”, because they are merely fragments of a total point of view and of a detailed analysis of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. The analysis itself might be right or wrong, but you can’t even address this question by exhaustively examining the potshards from it.
What is truly needed is a direct comparison of the Theravadin analysis of why we suffer and what are suffering’s consequences for our future lives, with the same analysis in the Mahayana. But we cannot get to this until we come to a consensus that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path are at least broadly right.
They do in fact address the various protuberances, literal and metaphoric, that the enlightened are purported to have. In a nutshell, on the basis of their own experiences they conclude that many of those things must be the result of the mythologizing tendencies in cultures. They define their own realizations in relatively modest terms. But they nevertheless feel that they have reduced their own suffering as much as is possible.
I think you have missed a perfectly valid question. I don’t think your analogy works, for the following reason - we can all verify that it is possible to fix a dishwasher. It is perfectly valid - even necessary - to ask, “has anyone actually become enlightened? Ever? In the last hundred years?”
One cannot say “the truly important thing in Buddhism is suffering, not Enlightenment” because by definition enlightenment entails the complete cessation of suffering, according to the traditional view. Cessation of suffering is the sine qua non of nirvana/samyaksambodhi.
Thanks for your elaboration, David.
I see, that having made a few Pali-referential online friends over the last couple of years, I have myself succumbed to the temptation to be all ecumenical and ‘nice’– despite that not being my usual inclination. For the life of me, I can’t really imagine why anyone would want Buddhism without the Heart Sutra.
@ David - Looks to me like Denying the Contradictions has a flavour of Monist Mysticism, and Cultural Interpretations has a flavour of Dualist Mysticism. Saying it is all rubbish is probably Nihilist Mysticism. . .
The only Brains I’ve ever studied is brewed in Cardiff and comes in pint glasses, but I don’t think it should be an enormous surprise that if people practice in a tradition strong on metaphysical imagery, every so often someone is going to have a dream or vision of something that is flavoured by that imagery.
The fact that visionary experience has similar qualities regardless of culture and tradition could be as banal as the fact that eating chocolate conjures similar response from human beings, regardless of culure and tradition. Chocolate isn’t inherrently virtuous, noble, or a symbol of great insight and accomplishment (although Cadbury’s Bournville comes pretty close, and if Bournville was a chuch I’d join the choir).
Isn’t the most important thing about mystical experience what the person experiencing it decides to do about it? In Buddhism, presumably most traditions just advise to fergetabowtit? When I was younger (so much younger than today) I - along with many others - received a transmission on a week long retreat that I’d travelled half way around the globe to attend. After a period of practice following the transmission, I fainted. Lama Rig’dzin was present on the same retreat and acted immediately. Profound mystical experience? Do that in an Evangelical Church service in Britain and it could have been considered as such. Well, Lama Rig’dzin - trainined in Vajrayana medicine - took one look at me and prescribed a large steak, and that seemed to settle everything. Were it not for that sage advice, I probably would have forgotten all about it - now I remember it for the advice.
Isn’t the most important thing about mystical experience what the person experiencing it decides to do about it?
Now, there’s something that’s worth the italics! Every permutation of it is tremendously important. What your religious tradition tells you about it is important, even if it tells you to ignore it. And even if it does tell you to ignore it, it is important for your religion to explain it sensibly [without just brushing it off] so you know which drawer to put it in. Particularly in Vajrayana Buddhism, what your teacher tells you about it is important, because of the trust you have to develop with a Spiritual Friend and Vajra Guru. And what responding to it in all dimensions teaches you about your Path is probably the most important of all.
Whatever examining brain scans may have to say about it, what Anthropology has to say about it is even more important. Visions are part of the package of being human. Almost everybody has them sometimes, some people have them quite a lot, and some of the quite normal things you can do as a human being can and do make them happen more frequently.
Why is this more important than just scanning the brain? There is “science” and there is science about these matters. The toys we use to scan the brain, and the particular “scientific” [actually covertly philosophical] training you get when you learn to use the toys always seems to lead to reductionism and a pile of “nothing buts”. It also always seems to lead to the medical model conclusion that anything unusual is also pathological.
Science [without the a priori and covert philosophy] is not just there to tell us which biochemical buttons to push to make visions happen, it is also there to examine why the capacity for visions is there at all–their meaning and function in an individual human life and in the collective activity of the human species as a whole. The mere fact that we can reduce a car to intelligible components has almost nothing to say about congestion on the roads. And if we’re even going to bother to break down the components, doing so ought to have some contextual relation to congestion on the roads.
In a great deal of “science”, the context is always somebody else’s problem.
Neither a religious response of just Fahgedaboudit nor a scientific response of merely studying where, how, and why visions light up in the brain will do. In order to do something sensible about your visions, you need a sensible explanation of how they function in anybody’s life as a whole, and a sensible explanation of how they relate to what important things [like your religious practice] that you are doing at the moment.
This article, and many of the comments above, remind one of the jock given LSD for the first time and, wondering just how he is supposed to answer the dorks in white coats asking their self-glorifying, inane questions.
Likewise, these inane commentaries speculating on how, why or what the experiences being described are caused by always seemed to be accompanied by a desperation, anger even. Since they can not understand what has piqued their interest they feel inclined to wrap it up in a neat little contextual framework that makes sense to them. Them Currently; I should say.
Why do that? Lazy, nincompoop thinking. Dana, David, grasping for anything whatsoever to cope with an interest, and lazily seeking only to placate yourself with rhetoric, and seeking comfort with others who likewise need an excuse to feel better.
On the other hand, you too can experience a high degree of enlightenment, with work, and time; or maybe even a shortcut by running into someone who already has experienced rapid brain change enlightenment. But how the actual even occurs, what the factor is that determines why one and not another may have the bout, that remains a mystery to almost all of those who have experienced it themselves. That’s probably why you’re all confused reading about it, because you’ve got a bunch of different individuals attempting to explain a personal experience that can not be conveyed to someone who has not experienced it. So you get a bunch of what sound like Sci-Fi, esoteric bullshit. But really that seems just language muddling things.
@ ijostl - I didn’t really comprehend your post, other than getting a general wave of disapproval about this whole discussion from you. However, I then read your post aloud, as beat poetry, and it had a splendid energy and rhythmn to it. I still don’t really comprehend your post, but I enjoyed it as poetry. Rapid brain change enlightenment. Cracking.
Years ago I had a life changing experience. I was spending a weekend at a Trappist monastery. A friend and I entered the church for the first time, We suddenly and simultaneously each had a marked spiritual experience. We stared at each other in shock and surprise. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit, fiery and enlivening. It lasted but a moment. What shocked me most was not the mere fact of experiencing “spirit” (I was used to that in my new age and eastern religious exposure) It simply wasn’t the same spirit as I had encountered in those arenas. I had been taught the cardinal principle that God or Spirit or the Absolute in every religion, despite different approaches and words, was the same in essence and taste. I could no longer think that, based on my experience and what I was reading in the Bible. I was undone. Unless I reinterpreted and redefined the words of the Bible in the light of systems alien to the Bible – making it say things it doesn’t. – I couldn’t blend Christ with Hinduism/Buddhism. I still had a way to go but eventually I left eastern and new age thought behind and became a Trinitarian/Nicene creed type as that understanding had the best fit to scripture and my own experience of the Three Persons of the Godhead.
A parable I wrote about this subject.
The coast of Namibia is the only place in Africa where elephants swim in the ocean. Two gnats went out to sea. One landed on an elephant; the other on a whale. Both returned to land and shared their experiences. While their respective accounts had differences both said something like this: “It was huge beyond understanding, wet, gray, and above all, alive!” Many gnat theologians decided the two gnats had experienced the same thing, while others disagreed. The discussion continues.
David, I’m curious as to how you would respond to Greg’s comments about Daniel Brown’s work. I will quote you something about Brown’s work from Wilber’s book Integral Spirituality:
“Perhaps the most sophisticated and careful study of any of the meditative traditions was that done by Daniel P. Brown. . . . Brown conducted an extensive study of the root texts and the central commentaries in three major meditative traditions–the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosha, and the Phyag chen zla ba’i ‘od zer (Moonbeams of Mahamudra) of Tashi Namgyal. These are, in a sense, the very pillars of both Hinduism and Buddhism.
“Brown found that the meditative path in all of them traversed the same basic contemplative stages, which were all variations on gross preliminaries and training, then subtle experiences of light and luminosity, then variations on the formless absorption or causal “black hear-attainment,” then breakthrough into nondual realization (and then possible further ‘post-enlightenment’ refinements). This meticulous care and research, including reading the texts in their original languages, has made Brown’s study an absolutely brilliant and enduring classic in meditative stages.” (p. 77)
I skimmed it and didn’t find it persuasive. A proper rejoinder would take a lot of work, so I can’t really say more than that now.
I should say that I find plausible the conclusion that similar meditation methods could lead you to very different places, depending on your metaphysical views. But, currently, we don’t have (in my opinion) any good way of finding out where any method leads. So this can’t go beyond “speculatively plausible”.
The three dimensions of synchronicity elucidated by cs jung provide enough direction to walk and work on for substantial learning, cynical approach won’t change the reality.
” It’s relevant that the American founders of “Consensus Buddhism” mostly had Hindu Vedanta teachers as well as Buddhist ones. (Jack Kornfield and Lama Surya Das come to mind.) They still acknowledge those teachers as major influences, and it shows in their own teaching. So there has been a second importation of Vedanta into Buddhism, dating from the 1960s and 70s. This is on-going, with many people actively muddying the distinction between the Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of non-duality.”
Muddying the distinction, or clarifying the similarity ....
Revisiting another of your essays :-)
I was struck this time around by your summary of how you understand schizophrenic thought processes
>“For schizophrenics, there seems to be a two step process:
>Unpleasant thoughts are experienced as “not mine.”
>If they aren’t mine, they must belong to someone else, who forces them into my head.”
Firstly I should say that you confuse the condition with the person. We don’t refer to someone with cancer as “a canceric”. A person who suffers from schizophrenia, is just a person who suffers from schizophrenia. They are still a person. We are not the labels that other people put on us, eh?
My understanding of the thought process is a little different. Hallucinations occur against our will. That is we cannot will them to happen or to stop. And since actions have agents, the hallucination must be the action of some ‘other’. This is not theorised, it is intuited unconsciously and in the moment. It rests on a Kantian ‘a priori judgement’. I know that Benjamin Lee Whorf disagreed with this and used examples from Indigenous American languages to show actions without agents, but the paradigm is quite pervasive in other cultures (across Eurasia for example).
Years ago I met a woman. Her sister heard voices in the woman’s voice. The sister blamed the woman because it was her voice - it was not a two step process it was simple recognition of a familiar voice. I think this is paradigmatic. The identification of not-mine-ness and otherness are simultaneous. Also I’m not sure that “putting thoughts into our heads” is adequate description. It doesn’t work for most descriptions of aural hallucinations. Even less so with visual hallucinations which are inevitably external to us and not perceived of as being “in our heads”. The natural conclusion is that something we see external to our body is not us. Again it’s not a two step process.
The vividness of the experience also over-rides any metaphysical reservations the person experiencing the hallucination might have. Thomas Metzinger makes this point about out-of-body experiences: if one has the kind of OBE that he had, then one almost cannot help but become a mind-body dualist. The OBE is compelling and over-rides cultural conventions. If I hear my sister’s voice and she is not present, or if I see something that no one else sees, then I have very few metaphysical options.
One difference I see is that hallucinations are generally made sense of ad hoc - while they are happening. Mystics rationalise and theorise post hoc. With some cross-over of course. Hallucinations, like voices, leave the rest of the mind functioning - they are a specific kind of sensory over-ride. Mystic states are more encompassing. One wouldn’t usually generalise from a hallucination to a worldview - even with aberrant reasoning. Mystics generalise from experience because the experiences they have invite it.
I would link the idea of a transcendent truth to the more fundamental idea of an ordered universe. Transcendent truth is only a manifestation of an ordered universe. Most people believe in an ordered universe, because the contra is unpalatable. If many different experiences point to an underlying (or over-riding = adhi√gam) order in the universe, then I imagine that most people have no trouble buying into that, though they dress it up in different ways. It is a confirmation that our worst fears are not true - the reason things happen can be understood by reference to a higher order of causality, orthogonal to the reality that life is nasty, brutish and short. I like to imagine that Pythagoras had an enormous sense of relief when he discovered that whole number ratios governed musical tones. Anyway this seems to me to be what most people are grasping at. In that sense all mystics provide the same kind of comfort.
I do agree that generalising from experience to ontology is almost always flawed. Unless one does so as part of a group all comparing experiences. As Sean Carroll says:”If the blind dudes just talked to each other, they would figure out it was an elephant before too long.”
Re schizophrenia, thanks; I expect you are right! I don’t know that much about it.
Re “the more fundamental idea of an ordered universe”: yes, I think this is important. It’s what I have been calling “eternalism” in the Meaningness book. (Something of an abuse of the Buddhist meaning of “eternalism,” perhaps misleadingly, although they are probably linked.)
Hi David - I felt it was a well thought out post but only half-informed, such that it is an almost complete misunderstanding of mysticism and its relation to metaphysics.
Mysticism normalises on nondualism, which is the rejection of all positive metaphysical positions. This entails the adoption of a neutral metaphysical position as proved and described by Nagarjuna for his ‘theory of emptiness’ and doctrine of ‘two truths’ or ‘two worlds’.
There is almost no dispute about this since only if the world is a unity can the knowledge claims of mysticism be justified. A literature survey will soon establish that the metaphysics of mysticism the world over converges on this position since it is very evident in the language that is used. Mysticism rejects dualism and this leaves us a straight choice between nondualism and a paradoxical universe (as Priest, Melhuish et al note). Wherever you see a strongly apophatic language or a language of paradox and contradiction you can bet nondualism is the cause. (‘True words seem paradoxical’ - Lao Tsu)
I feel you need to dig deeper, past all these apparent differences you are seeing, to get at the good stuff. If you reject all positive metaphysical positions you will then be exploring the metaphysics of mysticism, of advaita Vedanta, Middle Way Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism, the Christianity of Eckhart, St, John of the Cross and ‘A Course in Miracle’, ,Sufism, Rosicrucianism and so forth. If you do not reject then you are stuck in dualism.
The idea that mysticism does not converge on the same metaphysical scheme is a non-starter. It is simply too easy to prove otherwise. If it were otherwise then mysticism would be obvious nonsense.
A literature survey will soon establish
Are you doing this yourself? If you study the history of Perennialism, you can save most of the work. People have been arguing for your position for more than a century, and there are a huge number of literature surveys that purport to prove the point.
If it were otherwise then mysticism would be obvious nonsense.
Yes, I agree. It’s obvious nonsense.
Hmm. I don’t understand that reply. But as you think mysticism is nonsense your failure to understand its metaphysics is explained. I’ll leave you to it. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of relevant literature.
Why presume that non-mystical experience is a baseline true representation of anything real in the first place - that there is true perception as opposed to hallucination ? Doesn’t brain science claim that all our basic experiences are constructed, and the brain unreliably reports whatever external reality there may be out there (if you accept an “out there” to begin with) ? The prime thing mystical experience seems to do is make the notion of an isolated self an arbitrary assumption.
I’m sure you’ve seen Donald Hoffman’s work by now, going out on a limb on the subject of reliability of evolved brains to represent anything externally real ?
…and mundane experience suffers the same interpretation problems as mystical - did my garden shed collapse because it was a message from god ? The work of the devil ? Black shamanism ? Karma ? Rebalancing of Gaia ? Solid scientific reasons ?
I’m sure the analogy to perennialism would be that whatever the interpretation, we can be sure it was a collapsed shed which can be described as an phenomena independent of alleged causes.
“Why presume that non-mystical experience is a baseline true representation of anything real in the first place.”
Nobody does. The trick is to see past representations and experience. Do critics never read the literature?
“Doesn’t brain science claim that all our basic experiences are constructed, and the brain unreliably reports whatever external reality there may be out there (if you accept an “out there” to begin with) ?”
Exactly. This is what ‘mystical; practice will teach us.
“The prime thing mystical experience seems to do is make the notion of an isolated self an arbitrary assumption.”
Not quite. It cause one to drop the assumption of an isolated self as being false. It causes one to drop all assumptions in favour of the facts. . .
“I’m sure you’ve seen Donald Hoffman’s work by now, going out on a limb on the subject of reliability of evolved brains to represent anything externally real ?”
I note that you include no expert witnesses in your reading lists.
Not all psychology would lead to the claim that there is no self.
See here for example: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201311/does-your-self-exist
David - I’ve not read all the comments but would agree with the second comment by Karmakshanti, who clearly has a good understanding. I likewise found your article confused and off-track. It makes some very interesting points and raises some important questions but is evidence that some more study of mysticism would not be wasted. It is mere hubris to image that after thousands of years of failed attempts, including two thousand years of attempts by Western thinkers in the Platonic tradition, you have at last found a telling objection to the Perennial philosophy. It is more plausible that you have not quite grasped what the doctrine states. Indeed. you make it no secret that this is the case.
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