Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Buddhist Bible Thumpers

I would love to be a peaceful bodhisattva who has completely seen through delusion and overcome all conflicting emotions, but I have to admit I am not that guy. Among other things, I am irked by Buddhist fundamentalism. For example, yesterday evening, I read this in an article by a well-known Buddhist teacher: “Read up on what the Buddha had to say on the topic and don’t settle for books that put you at the end of a game of telephone. Go straight to the source, the words of the Buddha himself.”

This is silly and misleading. First of all, what are purported to be “the words of the Buddha himself” cannot possibly be his actual words. The Buddha’s words were not recorded or transcribed (See my post Books: Basic Teachings of the Buddha for details.) The sutras are not first-hand reports, like watching CNN, broadcasting live from Bodhgaya.

Second, where I come from, the source is the tathagatagarbha, or buddha nature. It is accessible to all of us. It is not words in ancient books. Buddhism is a living tradition that depends on a lineage of transmission for its vitality. Each generation of teachers must make a direct connection to the source, by realizing, in the words of the great Tibetan master Milarepa, “There is no other buddha apart from your own mind.”

The point of the path is to taste the truth of the Buddha’s words for ourselves, not just repeat them.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Materialist Metaphysics

Why Do Some People Resist Science?” illuminates the way we acquire many of our beliefs (see the previous post). It also puts forward one belief that needs to be challenged, which is that, “The strong intuitive pull of dualism makes it difficult for people to accept what Francis Crick called ‘the astonishing hypothesis.’ Dualism is mistaken — mental life emerges from physical processes.”

I have no problem with the first part of the statement about the intuitive pull of dualism. That makes sense. I also agree that, “Dualism is mistaken.” This has been a central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism for a couple of thousand years. It is the late Dr. Francis Crick’s hypothesis that “mental life emerges from physical processes” that needs to be debated.

This is not a scientific conclusion. It is a metaphysical assumption. Crick, who won the Noble Prize with Dr. James D. Watson for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, asserted this as though it were a fact. In his book The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul he wrote, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Asserting the nonexistence of mind, because it cannot be detected by the material methods of science is a logical error. It is like looking for your lost car keys under the street light, even though you dropped them around the corner, “because the light is better there.” To deny the mind contradicts our experience of subjectivity. Just by looking inwards we can refute this extreme position. From a Buddhist perspective, there is nothing more obvious and essential than the knowing mind. How can we even speak of joys and sorrows without it?

Brain and mind are observed through different modalities. Scientific methods make quantitative observations of the material world. Though science is limited to studying the natural world, knowledge is not limited to the realm of science. Here is a simple example: we can learn everything there is to know about the physical and chemical properties of a Snickers bar, the structure and functioning of the human gustatory system, and the neurophysiology of taste, without learning anything about the experience of tasting a Snickers bar. This experience is not material and is beyond the intellect. No matter how we describe the experience of eating a Snickers bar to someone who has never tasted one, they will not be able to know what the experience is like. Yet, when we eat the Snickers bar we know exactly.

A really astonishing hypothesis is that whatever we conceive to be outside of mind, is just that, a conception. If things truly existed beyond the mind, how could they enter into our experience?

David Chalmers is a professor of philosophy at the Australian National University who works on the philosophy of mind and related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. He wrote a nice introduction to the problems of consciousness from a Western scientific perspective in a Scientific American article called “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience.” Another paper, “Consciousness and its Place in Nature,” gives a more technical summary of the arguments against materialism, emphasizing the metaphysical issues (proceed with caution: this paper assumes a lot of philosophical background).

All this may sound academic and theoretical, but believing that matter is the only reality provides the philosophical basis for rejecting the reality of the experience of other beings. This provides a justification for all the harmful, self-centered actions people perform. It also closes the door to the path of liberation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Why People Don’t Believe in Egolessness

Ask yourself, How do you know that the earth revolves around the sun? That George Washington was the first president of the United States? That objects persist over time?

Well, everyone knows these things! Well then, you need to ask, How do they know?

In Buddhism knowing is a big deal, because ignorance is the root of samsara: the cause of all our suffering. Ignorance includes both not knowing, which is mental darkness, and delusion, which is believing things that are false, such as believing that the ego, or the self, truly exists.

I recently came across an interesting article called “Why Do Some People Resist Science?” It could easily be read as “Why Do People Resist Egolessness?” Written by two Yale psychologists, Paul Bloom and Dena Skolnick Weisberg, it sheds light on why we believe the things we do.

The main thrust of their argument is that through experience in our first year of life, we develop basic concepts about the physical and social world. We learn that objects are solid, persistent, fall if they are unsupported, unmoving unless they are acted upon. We learn that people react to events, act according to motivation, react emotionally to situations. As we grow up, we add uncontroversial, culture-specific beliefs that are “common knowledge” to these “instinctive” concepts. These include the names of objects, that the earth is round, matter is made of particles, electricity makes things work, and so on.

When we are presented information that conflicts with our instinctive beliefs and common knowledge, we tend to evaluate the information by judging the authority of the teacher rather than the logic of the information. In other words, most of our beliefs are not based on direct experience or reason.

Buddhism presents a hierarchy of the sources of valid knowledge that we need to lead us from ignorance to enlightenment. The least reliable type is knowledge that comes from trusted authorities, like the Buddha and other noble beings. It is least reliable, not because the Buddha isn’t trustworthy, but because we haven’t figured it out or experienced it for ourselves. More trustworthy is knowledge gained through valid reasoning (and the teachings present detailed discussions of what constitutes a valid reason). The most trustworthy knowledge is gained through direct, non-conceptual experience. In fact, it is the direct experience of egolessness, or selflessness, that produces liberation.

Some Buddhist traditions accept all three sources of knowledge, others accept only the two higher ones. Other than understanding coming from these sources, the rest of our ideas are considered to be just opinions. As these two Western psychologists point out, most of what we think we know is just opinion. Perhaps our most prominent opinions are that we exist, and we are important!

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Truth of Suffering

Buddhists talk a lot about suffering and dissatisfaction. These are the most common translations for the Sanskrit term duhkha, and the Pali dukkha. When the Buddha taught the first noble truth, he wasn’t saying that life is one uninterrupted agony. Clearly, that is not what most of us experience.

One of the possible etymologies for these terms provides a helpful insight into the Buddha’s intention. Duhkha means a bad fit and was used to describe a wheel that doesn’t properly fit on its axle. Sometimes the image is a potters wheel that doesn’t turn smoothly and screeches as it spins. Sometimes it is a cart with a slightly broken wheel that jolts the rider again and again as it turns. Does this sound a little more familiar?

Why is there duhkha? Because we don’t see things just as they are. We see our conceptual fabrications, our projections. This is the bad fit: the way things appear to us and the way they actually are don’t agree. We mistake our confusion for what actually is, and so we are constantly out of sync with our own experience. That is delusion.

The opposite of duhkha is suhkha, which is like a wheel that turns smoothly and noiselessly. We experience duhkha. Buddhas experience suhkha. In fact, it is said that they experience mahasuhkha—a great fit.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Books: Basic Teachings of the Buddha

My good friend, Barry Boyce, suggested reading Glenn Wallis’ new book, Basic Teachings of the Buddha over the holidays. Barry is an insightful, literate man, and senior editor and staff writer for the magazines Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. I take his suggestions seriously.

Despite Barry’s gusto, I approached the task with little enthusiasm. My previous attempts to read the sutras did not go well. For one thing, I just couldn’t imagine the Buddha speaking in such a formulaic and repetitive way. They don’t read like the voice of one of the great teachers of all time.

We now know that writing was not common in India until several centuries after Shakyamuni’s parinirvana. The stories of his life and teachings were transmitted orally by his followers. Eventually, the formulaic style developed and the stories were systematized. It seems obvious that what was written down, hundreds of years after the fact, didn’t capture the actual feeling of what the Teacher said, nor the full range of meaning of his teachings.

Another irritant was that the sutras are generally presented as either ancient historical documents with no relevance to the contemporary Buddhist practitioner, or chauvinistically, as the only “true” teachings. That kind of fundamentalism puts me off.

In the Tibetan tradition, the sutras are more often treated as objects of veneration than objects of study. That’s because the primary transmission is not the “book” or the “word” as it is in the Abrahamic religions, but the personal realization of the teachers of the lineage. In the image used by Trungpa Rinpoche, what is important is the fresh baked bread, rather than an ancient recipe.

Glenn Wallis is obviously sensitive to these issues. As I started reading his excellent introduction, my resistance dissolved. He provides extensive background and context for these scriptures, treating them both as literature, and as spiritual insights.

The sixteen sutras included in this volume really do cover most of the core themes of the dharma. (They are also mercifully short covering only sixty-five pages of the text.) Wallis’ own commentary on the sutras does a wonderful job of drawing out the themes, and he continually encourages us to apply these teachings to our own experience. I particularly appreciated his treatment of Sutta 7: Evidence of Selflessness (Anattalakkhana Sutta). It is hard to find investigations of personal selflessness that strike the vital point, and this one worked for me.

It’s great to have such a readable, accessible book of early Buddhist teachings. It is both a good introduction to what the Buddha taught, and helpful to be able to ground our understanding of contemporary dharma in its historical roots. Do give it a try.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Two Truths

All Buddhist traditions present two realities. Sometimes these are called samsara and nirvana. Sometimes they are called bondage and liberation. Sometimes they are referred to as suffering and its cessation.

Whatever they’re called, the problem is always the same: how do we get from point A to point B? How do we get from the crappy, uptight, confused reality that we currently experience, to the open, relaxed, brilliant reality of the buddhas? The funny thing about the Buddha’s answer to this question is that point A and point B are not two different locations, but one location viewed differently. Don’t you think that’s interesting?

This blog is about the process of transformation that gets us from point A to point B (which are really the same point) and some of the places of interest we might see along the way.