Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Materialist Metaphysics, Continued

The old DuPont slogan, “Better living through chemistry,” expressed the Twentieth Century’s faith in material progress. At one point, Prozac and other new antidepressant drugs seemed to be the crowning fulfillment of this dream. Why be depressed when you can take this little pill and feel better? I could tell that things were getting a little out of hand when I discovered that my sister was feeding chicken-flavored Prozac to her cats.

Faith that brain chemistry determines our mental experience is being challenged by new research that shows that antidepressants do not have more clinically significant effects than placebos. Both placebos and antidepressants have an effect on the mind. Antidepressants also effect the brain. These new studies show that only the mental effects are significant. Curiously, in both cases, the mental effects are produced by illusions—the illusion that the substance will cure your depression.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some way to work directly with the mind…. How about, “Better living through view, meditation, and conduct.”

Monday, February 18, 2008

“Training the Heart”

There is a nice article by the late Ajahn Chah in the current issue of Buddhadharma (Spring 2008) that reminds me of the famous Kadampa slogan, “All dharma agrees at one point.” Whether we call it mahamudra, ordinary mind, buddha nature, dharmadhatu, mind itself, prajnaparamita, empty cognizance, rigpa, or wisdom, that point is the heart-essence of all dharma paths, the guide to the ultimate goal.

Here is how Ajahn Chah describes it:
The Buddha taught that we should cultivate clear knowing for ourselves. Whatever arises, arises in this knowing. When that which knows, knows in accordance with the truth, then the mind and its psychological factors are recognized as not ours…. The mind is free, radiant, and unentangled with any problems or issues. The reason problems arise is because the mind is deluded by conditioned things, deluded by this misperception of self. So the Buddha taught us to observe this mind. In the beginning, what is there? There is truly nothing there. It doesn’t arise with conditioned things, and it doesn’t die with them. When the mind encounters something good, it doesn’t change to become good. When the mind encounters something bad, it doesn’t become bad. That’s how it is when there is clear insight into one’s nature.

There are countless Buddhist teachings, practices of meditation, and methods of training, but unless they lead to this vital point, the fruition will be a long way off. When you get this point, it is called receiving “buddhahood in the palm of your hand.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Books & Movies: Madman and Angry Monk

If you would like some profound insights into the meaning of the Middle Way, Tibetan political history, and the challenges of the traditional East meeting the modern West, look into the life and teachings of the remarkable Gendun Chopel.

Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s The Madman’s Middle Way includes a fascinating biographical sketch, an elegant translation of Chopel’s Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought, and an excellent commentary that draws out the key points and provides much needed background information on the doctrinal conflicts that the text addresses.

The Adornment deals with core questions about the validity of knowledge in an experiential way, using ordinary language. Here is an example from the beginning of the text:
All of our decisions about what is and is not are just decisions made in ac¬cordance with how it appears to our mind; they have no other basis whatsoever. Therefore, when we ask, “Does it exist or not?” and the other person answers, “It exists,” in fact, we are asking, “Does this appear to your mind to exist or not exist?” and the answer is simply, “It appears to my mind to exist.” In the same way, everything that one asks about—better or worse, good or bad, beautiful or ugly—is in fact merely asked about for the sake of understanding how the other person thinks. That the other person makes a decision and answers is in fact just a decision made in accordance with how it appears to his or her own mind; there is no other reason whatsoever. Therefore, as long as the ideas of two people are in disagreement with each other, they will argue. When they agree, the very thing that they agree upon will be placed in the class of what is, what exists, what can be known, and what is valid, and so on. Thus, the more people there are who agree, the more the point they agree upon becomes of great significance and importance. Contrary views are taken to be wrong views, mistaken perceptions, and so on….

Therefore, our statements about what does and does not exist are in fact classifications of what appears before our mind. Our statements that something does not exist or is impossible are classifications of what cannot appear before our mind. The reality [dharmata] that is neither existent nor nonexistent does not belong to the former class, it belongs to the latter.

There is also a great documentary about Gendun Chopel called Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet, that mostly describes political and social aspects of his life, and has some amazing interviews and archival footage of old Tibet. The film was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. You can watch the trailer on the film’s website, or order a copy of the DVD by writing to

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Cheerful New Year!

Best wishes to all of you, as Buddhists around the world celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year, the Chinese New Year, the Lunar New Year, and Shambhala Day (as it is known in the Shambhala community).

Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambhala, made a point of wishing people a cheerful New Year, and cheerful birthday, instead of a happy New Year and happy birthday. He explained that happiness depends on circumstances, while cheerfulness is unconditional—we can always tune into our inherent well-being even if our circumstances are not happy.

It is our alienation from this basic well-being, buddha nature, our true nature, that keeps samsara spinning. By tuning into our true nature we can cheer up on the spot.

So, Cheerful New Year to you!

Sunday, February 3, 2008


There’s an article about innovation in today’s New York Times that offers parallels to the process of progressing along the Buddhist path and provides important lessons for practitioners. It’s called “Eureka! It Really Takes Years of Hard Work.”

The point of the article is that the popular myth that innovation depends on “eureka moments,” great breakthroughs, is a fiction. Innovation depends on a slow process of hard work with many little improvements and small insights.

The same thing could be said about the Buddhist myths of sudden enlightenment and transcendental visions. Progress on the path is always gradual and almost imperceptible. It comes from a slow process of study, contemplation, and meditation, with small insights and a gradual decrease in delusion and kleshas.

Hoping for sudden enlightenment is as debilitating as trying to find the innovation “that will ‘revolutionize the industry,’ create a ‘billion-dollar business’ or ‘make one rich overnight.’” Many people find it difficult to sustain their practice because, either they doubt that they have the “special talent” it takes to make the “big breakthrough,” or they gave it a try and “nothing happened.”

As Suzuki Roshi says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, ‘Oh, this pace is terrible!’ But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself.”