Consensus Buddhism: what’s left

When I started writing about Consensus Buddhism, four years ago, I pointed to signs that it was in crisis and on its way out. Now, its failed attempt to mount a coherent political response to secular mindfulness shows it’s over. Of course, the teachers are still teaching and the centers are still open; but as a cultural force, it’s spent.

This means specifically that it is no longer capable of suppressing modern Tantric Buddhism—one of my main motivations for writing about it. (There’s many other obstacles to that—but Consensus hostility had been the most daunting, and that’s no longer significant.)

So I’m probably done writing about Consensus Buddhism. There’s some loose ends, though.

Continue reading “Consensus Buddhism: what’s left”

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Degrees of naturalization

A naturalized Buddhist tantra would, by definition, have nothing supernatural about it.

That seems straightforward; but actually there are degrees of naturalization. Dropping claims of supernatural powers and beings and realms is just the start. For example, many “alternative healing” systems make no explicitly supernatural claims, but couldn’t work through natural causes.

Here’s a possible spectrum:

  1. Include explicitly supernatural claims
  2. Eliminate explicitly supernatural claims
  3. Eliminate elements for which no natural understanding seems feasible
  4. Eliminate elements for which there is inadequate empirical evidence
  5. Find specific, empirically justified explanations for the remaining elements
  6. Understand practices well enough to re-engineer them to be more reliable and effective

Continue reading “Degrees of naturalization”

Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism

“Revulsion for the world” and “renunciation of all pleasure” are not familiar topics for Western Buddhists. They sound like old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone Christianity. Not very nice; so probably they couldn’t have much to do with Buddhism?

But according to the table I presented recently, revulsion and renunciation are the prerequisite and essential method—the ignition key and engine—of non-tantric Buddhism.

If that is right, maybe there’s a problem. Consensus Buddhism—the current American Buddhist mainstream—rejects revulsion and renunciation. How is that supposed to work? If you pull out the engine, what makes the vehicle go?

Continue reading “Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism”

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.

Certainty

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.)

Afterword

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

The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken

The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken” is the most recent conversation on the often-interesting Buddhist Geeks site. It’s a design view of meditation culture.

Design is a way of seeing, and a way of knowing, and a way of doing; and it’s a huge part of what I do and how and why, so it’s natural that I found this to my taste. And it’s natural that I found Rohan Gunatillake, the interviewee, saying things I’ve been going on about for a while.

Here are some of them.

It’s not just for Boomers anymore

Buddhism and meditation are mostly a Baby Boom thing. If Buddhism is going to survive, and if 30-somethings are going to meditate, that’s going to have to change. Because the current packaging is generation-specific.

The problems is, Boomers don’t realize they are talking Boomerese. They are unaware that their experience and world-view are not universal, and that their reference points are irrelevant to many in younger generations. I’ve tried to explain this to some, and have so far failed. Change is urgent, and it looks like it has to come from younger teachers.

Lose the goddamn wind chimes

Meditation, and Buddhism, are positioned in the market as products for holistic airheads. In Gunatillake’s words, “it’s all purple patchouli and woo woo language.”

Perhaps meditation and Buddhism can be useful to holistic airheads, but they’re more useful to people willing to do hard work and to understand how the real world works.

To work, meditation has to be rooted in the place and time you live in. Pretending we are in rural medieval India or China or Tibet is an escapist fantasy.

So is pretending that we live—or ever could—in a 1960s hippie utopia.

Looks count

Gunatillake is a professional web designer, and his Buddhist meditation web site doesn’t look like a Buddhist meditation web site. (No wind chimes.) It has what he calls an “urban aesthetic”.

This is really important. Buddhism doesn’t have to look nice.

I worked hard on the visual design of my Buddhism for Vampires site. It really doesn’t look like a Buddhist web site. And that’s its point: Buddhism is for everyone, not just vegan aromatherapists.

User-centered design

I used to work in software design. To make insanely great software, you have to find out what prospective users actually do, what they actually need, what they actually want. This is hard.

Meditation centers too often offer what they think people ought to want, based on what they think people need and do. I suspect those ideas are often quite wrong. But meditation teachers are often quite sure of them anyway. The generational disconnect plays a part here. What meditation teachers offer is usually what they found useful in the 1970s.

To make insanely great software, you have to directly involve users in the design, from the beginning and throughout. Gunatillake suggests doing the same for the “delivery” of meditation instruction. I second the motion.

This does not mean giving users what they say they want. That’s a classic design error. Users aren’t designers, they don’t know what they need, and they don’t know what is possible. You have to co-design with users.

Buddhist teachers often object to taking student desires into account. “Telling people what they want to hear would water down the dharma, turning it into generic ‘spiritual’ pablum. They can’t know what’s good for them.” Alternatively, some teachers do give students what they say they want—and those do churn out generic spiritual platitudes.

So both these are are mistakes to avoid. And that’s hard. (Cue lecture on the First Noble Truth.)

But it’s worth a try.

Translating the meditation research

There isn’t nearly enough time in life for all the useful things you could do. I always have far more fantasy projects going than real ones. In moments of undirected creativity or sudden enthusiasm, I tinker with the fantasies. I take notes, draw sketches, rant about them to friends. Most stay fantasies;  after years of gestation, some burst into reality.

Naljorma gZa’tsal and I have a shared fantasy project: explaining current neuroscience research on meditation in a way that could be useful to meditators.

This research is wildly exciting because it confirms that meditation actually works the way it is supposed to. Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal… For example, I’ve been meditating for decades, and it has certainly seemed to me that it works as advertised.

The problem is, it’s extremely easy to fool yourself about things like this. Many of my friends have spend decades practicing “alternative therapies,” and are totally confident—based on experience—that they work. I’m totally confident that they don’t work. There are so many ways to convince yourself something is working that doesn’t—unless you can actually measure it.

Continue reading “Translating the meditation research”