Who’s Missing the Point?

Owen Flanagan is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who just published a book entitled, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized” (MIT, 2011). According to the publisher:

Atheistic when it comes to a creator god, Buddhism is otherwise opulently polytheistic, with spirits, protector deities, ghosts, and evil spirits. Its beliefs include karma, rebirth, nirvana, and nonphysical states of mind. What is a nonreligious, materially grounded spiritual seeker to do?”

I doubt that such a person will be helped much by Flanagan, who seems like a pretty confused guy to me. I have to wonder about someone who feels that the Mahayana concept of nirvana is “hocus pocus.” To me, concerns of this nature are literary in nature, a matter of understanding how the writers of the sutras used imagery and allegory. Just because they wrote about bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves doesn’t mean they intended it to be taken literally.

Now I haven’t read Flanagan’s book, but I’ve read about it and read the first pages on Amazon. That’s enough for me to get his general thesis and I find it a bit flawed. Buddhism is already naturalized. If you choose to view it that way.

I also read a piece Flanagan wrote for the Huffington Post. In “Bourgeois Buddhists: Do Americans Miss the Point of Buddhism?” he inflicts these astounding words upon the unsuspecting reading public:

Buddhism has about as little to do with meditation as Jesus’s message of love has to do with prayer, which is some, not entirely nothing; but almost nothing. Thinking that meditation is the essence of Buddhism would be akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking that real Catholics say Mass everyday because priests do.”

Acutally, thinking that meditation is not the essence of Buddhism, just because Asian Buddhists, at least in modern times, do not practice meditation as much as many Americans suppose, is akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking . . .

Granted, we in the West may be have our own misapprehension about Asian Buddhists, but by putting the focus back on meditation as the prime point, I think we are “naturalizing” Buddha-dharma. I see the problem as entirely the other way around: most Westerners tend to approach Buddhism from the philosophical angle first, and when it doesn’t make sense at first blush or match up to their preconceived notions, if there are a few T’s uncrossed and I’s undotted, they are quick to dismiss or start poking holes in it. I have described many times on this blog how such concepts as rebirth and karma can be viewed reasonably and non-supernaturally. It’s there, if you want it. It’s really up to you.

Flanagan says,

One wonders whether American Buddhists, especially those who think that Buddhism is largely about meditation, and the personal psychological goods, the self-satisfaction on offer from sitting in, what has become, a laughably bourgeois pose, aren’t missing something essential about Buddhism, about what Buddhist philosophy is mainly and mostly about, namely, wisdom and goodness.”

No, what’s laughable is a professor of philosophy and a non-Buddhist who thinks that spending a few hours with the Dalai Lama and reading some books and research papers (and who thinks that “mindfulness” meditation is “almost entirely self-centered”) qualifies him to point out how the rest of us have somehow missed the point.

I’ve done some looking around online and I’ve seen where Flanagan talks a lot about recent research on the brains of Buddhists, but I haven’t seen him talk about his own experience with Buddhism and meditation. Perhaps he does so in his book. But I have a whole slew of other books to read first. I did see where “Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones.” Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that he’s suggesting that the philosophical aspects are the main thing, and I can’t believe that anyone with a real grasp on dharma would think that.

I can’t help but feel that perhaps he’s missed the point. The philosophy is just there to support the practice. It’s the practice, that “bourgeois” practice of meditation, that is the prime point. That’s how we open our minds to wisdom and goodness on a deep, intuitive level.

Crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s is not as important as capturing the spirit of Buddha-dharma. That’s another point that many people seem to miss. If you want to read a good book about Buddhism, I recommend “Stopping and Seeing: A Comprehensive Course in Meditation“, Thomas Cleary’s partial translation of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan by T’ien-t’ai meditation master Chih-i.  It’s not the easiest book in the world to understand, but even if you get only a fraction of it, you will come far closer to capturing the spirit of Buddhism than you probably could reading a hundred books like Flanagan’s.

Here’s a quote from “Stopping and Seeing” that I’ve shared before. I’ll probably share it again many more times:

The second issue is explaining this stopping and seeing (Skt.: samatha-vipassana; Ch.: chih-kuan) so as to promote four kinds of concentration by which to enter the ranks of enlightening beings. One cannot ascend to the sublime states without practice; if you know how to churn, only then can you obtain ghee.

The Lotus Scripture says, “Aspirants to Buddhahood cultivate various practices, seeking enlightenment” There are many methods of practice . . . The general term concentration means tuning, aligning, and stabilizing.

The Great Treatise [Nagarjuna’s “Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise”] says, “Ability to keep the mind on one point without wavering is called concentration.” The realm of reality is one point; correct seeing [kuan] can stay on it without wavering . . .

This realm of reality is also called enlightenment, and it is also called the “inconceivable realm.” It is also called wisdom, and it is also called not being born and not passing away. Thus all phenomena are not other than the realm of reality; hearing of this nonduality and nondifference, do not give rise to doubt.

If you can see in this way, this is seeing the ten epithets of Buddhas. When seeing Buddha, one does not consider Buddha as Buddha; there is no Buddha to be Buddha, and there is no Buddha-knowledge to know Buddha. Buddha and Buddha-knowledge are nondualistic, unmoving, unfabricated, not in any location yet not unlocated, not in time yet not timeless, not dual yet not nondual, not defiled, not pure. This seeing Buddha is very rarefied; like space, it has no flaw, and it develops right mindfulness.

Seeing the embellishments of Buddha is like looking into a mirror and seeing one’s own features. First you see one Buddha, then the Buddhas of the ten directions. You do not use magical powers to go see Buddhas; you stay right here and see the Buddhas, hear the Buddhas’ teaching, and get the true meaning . . . You guide all beings toward nirvana, yet do not grasp the characteristics of nirvana . . .


Based on the True Story . . .

The Lady, a biopic on Aung San Suu Kyi starring Michelle Yeoh, is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on December 2. I haven’t read any reviews but I did read that the film has been banned in China. No surprise there, I suppose. And I also saw that the Lady herself told the Wall Street Journal on Monday, “I’m not really interested [in the film] and haven’t thought of looking it up on the Net or whatever.”

With her first born son, Alexander, in Nepal, 1973

Now, I did see the trailer on TV a few weeks ago. I got the sense that they’re marketing the movie as a love story. It’s a shame that filmmakers still feel the need, or are forced, to go in that direction. Yet, Aung San Suu Kyi’s true story is a great love story, and tremendously romantic. After all, this is a woman from Burma who fell in love with British scholar (born in Havana), got married, and was starting a family and living a sort of idyllic life in England, all of which she ended up having to sacrifice in order to stand up for democracy in her native land.

Suu Kyi and Michael Aris, 1973

I picked up Suu Kyi’s book Freedom from Fear, first published in 1991, today at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop. At a buck fifty, I couldn’t resist. The first thing I did of course was check out the photos in the middle of the book. Many of them of a very young Aung San Suu Kyi. Gazing at these pics, I could understand how Michael Aris could fall “instantly and madly in love with her” (according to a family friend). Not only did she posses a brilliant mind, she was cute as hell, too. Still is.

So far, I’ve just skimmed through the book, reading passages here and there. Like this from the essay ‘In Quest of Democracy”:

The Burmese people, who have had no access to sophisticated academic material, got the heart of the matter by turning to the words of the Buddha on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which had been lost, omission to repair that which had been damaged, disregard of the need for reasonable economy, and the elevation to leadership of men without morality or learning. “

That could be describing the situation here in the U.S. right now. We need to recover something that’s become lost in America. We need to go back to a time when business wasn’t only about greed, when companies would take their profits and reinvest in their businesses. We need to go back to when there were controls in place to check against rampant greed. It is obvious that some very powerful people are standing in the way of repairing the economy, and as well, opposing any attempt to make it reasonable and equitable. As far as our current crop of leaders go . . . well, less said about them the better.

Back to Freedom from Fear, this is from “Towards a True Refuge”, which according to the book “is the text of the Eighth Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture, composed by Aung San Suu Kyi in the fourth year of her house arrest, and delivered on her behalf by her husband Dr. Michael Aris on 19 May 1993”:

Loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, Buddhists see as ‘divine’ states of mind which help to alleviate suffering and to spread happiness among all beings. The greatest obstacle to these noble emotions is not so much hatred, anger or ill will as the rigid mental state that comes from a prolonged and unwavering concentration on narrow self-interest. Hatred, anger or ill will that arises from wrongs suffered, from misunderstanding or from fear and envy may yet be appeased if there is sufficient generosity of spirit to permit forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, but it would be impossible to maintain or restore harmony when contention is rooted in the visceral inability of protagonists to concede that the other party has an equal claim to justice, sympathy and consideration. Hardness, selfishness and narrowness belong with greed, just as kindness, understanding and vision belong with true generosity.

Mountain trip in Bhutan, 1971

Freedom from Fear, a collection of writings, speeches and interviews, is mostly about politics, with a few history lessons and some great little dharma talks here and there. So far, I’ve seen almost nothing of Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal story. I don’t know as much about it as I’d like, but as I indicated, I find it romantic, and tragic, and inspiring. I hope someday she can write the story herself.

But, I have a feeling that is an endeavor that doesn’t interest her much more than the biopic does. So I guess we’ll have to wait for the “definitive biography.” If I was writing it, or the author’s editor, I would tempted to called it Aung San Suu Kyi, A True Bodhisattva.


A Gift Pure in Thought like the Sky

Shantideva’s Sikshasamuccaya or “Compendium of Doctrine” is a veritable treasure house of passages from Buddhist sutras that are either no longer extant or have not yet been translated into English. Shantideva, in case the name is unfamiliar, was a Buddhist poet/scholar in the 8th century CE, thought to have spent most of his career at the famed Nalanda University.

His most famous work is of course the Bodhicaryavatara or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.” The Sikshasamuccaya is his only other work (that we know of) and it is described by Wikipedia as “a prose work in nineteen chapters. It is organized as a commentary on twenty-seven short mnemonic verses known as the Sikshasamuccaya Karika. It consists primarily of quotations (of varying length) from sutras, authoritative texts considered to be the word of the Buddha — generally those sutras associated with Mahayana tradition . . .”

The passage I’m sharing today is from the Gaganaganja Sutra. I don’t know anything about this sutra, however, Gaganaganja (Sanskrit: “sky-inhabitant”) is a Bodhisattva mentioned in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. Robert Thurman in his translation of the Vimalakirti notes that the word also refers to “a particular samadhi”.

From the chapter entitled “Purity in Enjoyment and Religious Action” (translated by Cecil Bendall), this poetic passage conveys the true spirit of giving, as well as the real meaning of renunciation:

Purification of religious action comes from behavior pervaded by sunyata [emptiness] and by compassion.

For it is said in the holy Gaganaganja Sutra: “He gives that gift, pure of the notion of I, pure of the notion of mine, pure of the notion of motive, of heresy, of reason, of kind, of expecting profit, a gift pure in thought like the sky, … as the sky is infinite, so is the thought with which he gives; as the sky is outspread over all, so that gift is applied unto wisdom; as the sky is immaterial, so that gift is dependent upon no matter; as the sky is without feeling, so that gift is detached from all feeling; so it is without consciousness, not composite, with the characteristic of manifesting nothing;  as the sky pervades all the Buddha’s field, so that gift is pervaded with compassion for all creatures;  . . . as the sky is always transparent, so his gift is clear of the nature of thought; as the sky illuminates all creatures, so his gift gives life to all creatures; … as one seeped in spiritual power gives to another, so he is without imagination and without reflection; without thought, mind, consciousness, not desiring anything; thus by the absence of duality, his gift is clear of the natural marks of illusion. When he has this renunciation in giving, renunciation of the passions of all creatures by knowledge of wisdom, non-abandonment of all creatures by knowledge of expedients, so, young sir, the Bodhisattva becomes self-sacrificing in heart, and his gifts are like the sky.”


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 14

In this section, there is mention of higher and lower rebirths. Some readers may not accept the idea of rebirth in the Buddhist context, or at least may have doubts about it. In those cases, the reader may wish to view to interpret the teachings in this way: lower rebirths correspond to having a low condition of life in the present time, a state of life dominated by suffering, and higher rebirths would correspond to higher conditions of life, a state of life where one experiences a certain amount of freedom from suffering and liberation from the destructive afflictions of the mind. The idea behind the doctrines discussed here work just as well with this sort of viewpoint.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part XIV

Let’s return to the text:

Having listened to this Dharma
that puts an end to suffering,
the undiscerning, afraid of the fearless state,
are terrified because they do not understand.

In this verse, The Precious Garland states that in actual fact emptiness is the state of fearlessness. Therefore, one should not develop a sense of fear towards it, rather a sense of joy. The reason why the childish feel terrified, sees emptiness as an object of fear, is because of their ignorance. When one doesn’t understand the nature of emptiness, it becomes a source of fear.

In the next verse, The Precious Garland is arguing with the Buddhist essentialists, particularly the Vaibhasika’s [a “Hinayana” school] who maintain that the attainment of nirvana, on one hand constitutes cessation of the continuum of consciousness. So The Precious Garland is arguing that if this is the understanding of nirvana or liberation, then since you do not fear the concept of total cessation of the individual in the continuum of consciousness, then how can you be afraid of the concept of emptiness? Emptiness, or nirvana, from the Madhyamaka standpoint is the state where all the negative afflictions of the mind are purified or calmed within the state of emptiness of the mind. Therefore, if the Vaibhaskika’s maintain that nirvana or liberation constitutes a total cessation, then why are they afraid of the notion of emptiness, where all the afflictions of the mind are eliminated?

In liberation there is neither Self nor aggregates:*
if you are intent upon that kind of liberation,
why are you not pleased with the teaching that
refutes Self and aggregates here as well?

*[Aggregates: Skt. Skandhas; lit. heap or bundle – the five aggregates that make up the individual: corporeal form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness.]

The point about liberation where there is no self or aggregates is that because according to the Madhyamaka understanding, nirvana constitutes the total elimination of all the delusions of the mind within the sphere of emptiness, so from this view of nirvana, no duality can be maintained. Therefore, no self or aggregates or perception can be maintained. All the dualities are calmed or dissolved into a state of emptiness. This is further developed in the next verse:

Nirvana is not even non-existent,
so how could it be existent?
Nirvana is said to be the cessation
of the notions of existence and non-existence.

So this develops the Mahayana understanding of the concept of Dharmakaya, which is the state where all the dualities dissolve into the sphere of emptiness. All forms of dualities, such are subject and object, such as aggregates, and also emptiness, itself, is dissolved here – so therefore, the Madhyamaka school talks about the emptiness of emptiness, as well.

In brief, a nihilistic view
is the belief that karma has no effect,
it is a nonmeritorious, and (it leads to)
low rebirth; it is said to be a false view.

In brief, a realist view
is the belief that karma has an effect.
it is meritorious, and (it leads to)
high rebirth; it is said that it is a proper view.

Through knowledge, one subdues the (notions of) existence
and non-existence, and one thus transcends sin and merit.
Hence, one is liberated from high and low rebirths –
this is what the holy one says.

Here, The Precious Garland is responding to a possible objection against the Madhyamaka concept of emptiness, because this concept rejects any independent existence or objective reality, it is possible for someone to understand it to entail [the rest of this sentence was lost when the tape was changed] . . . the rejection of independent existence does not imply the rejection of everything at the conventional level, therefore it is not a nihilistic view. A nihilistic view involves the total rejection, even in the conventional sense of things and events. Nihilism involves a rejection of the very principle of dependent origination and causation.

Then it [the text] states that sometimes it is possible, because of the principles of dependent origination and causation that someone may infer that there may be some intrinsic essence or some kind of objective reality.

Nagarjuna accepts the possibility that such absolutist interpretations of dependent origination can function as a basis to act in a positive way, thus creating karma for attaining a higher rebirth. Therefore even virtous actions can take place as a result in such a belief. However, if one understand these principles in terms of conditionality with no objective inherently real basis, then one will be able to not only undercut the commitment of negative actions, but also the very karma that gives rise to rebirth in the cyclic existence. Thus the understanding of emptiness acts as an antidote to undermine the process of rebirth in the cyclic existence. When dependent origination is viewed in the correct way, then that understanding can act as a counterforce against both the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.

Seeing that production has a cause,
one transcends (the notion) of non-existence.
Seeing that cessation has a cause,
one does not accept (the notion of) existence.

Because things come into being as a result of causes and conditions, one can transcend the nihilistic tendency to accept that they are non-existence. Because cessation comes into being as a result of causes and conditions, one transcends the possibility of a defined existence.

To be continued . . .


Living in the Spiritual World

George Harrison: Living in the Material World on HBO

I watched Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It’s excellent, as was the filmmaker’s previous documentary on Bob Dylan. Naturally it tells the story of the Beatles rise to fame, their phenomenal success and impact, breakup, and George Harrison’s solo career. The film shows that Harrison was perhaps the first of the Fab Four to question living in the material world. Long before he had even heard of the Maharishi, in 1965 George wrote to his mum,

I know that this isn’t it. I knew I was going to be famous, but now I know I can reach the real top of what man can achieve, which is self-realization.”

I was one of the 74 million Americans who tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 to see The Beatles for the first time. From the moment the show started, you knew this was not going to be your average Ed Sullivan variety program. You could feel the electricity all the way from New York City to where I was at, in Wichita, Kansas. Ed introduced the Beatles, they began to play, and nothing was ever the same again.

For me, it was like stepping out of a black and white world and into a Technicolor one.  After that first appearance, everything was different: the way we talked, walked, styled our hair, and dressed. It may sound superficial, but it was really as profound as change can possibly be. It changed how we thought, too.

Rishikesh, 1968 (l-r): Jenny Boyd, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, Donovan, Mia Farrow, George Harrison, the Maharishi, the Beach Boys' Mike Love, John Lennon & Pattie Boyd

The Beatles had a second significant impact on the world. In the fall of 1968, either Life Magazine or the Saturday Evening Post (I don’t remember which) ran a multi-page spread on the Beatles in India hanging out with that groovy guru, the Maharishi, with some great color photographs. It looked really cool.

Before you knew it, Eastern spirituality was all over the place. Love beads and Nehru jackets were in style. Every other song had a sitar in it, and every other band seemed to have a new religion and a guru. I don’t remember them all, just that The Rascals found the swami Satchinanda and for The Who, it was Meher Baba.

I am not too proud to admit that I was a dedicated follower of fashion. I set out then to find a new religion for myself. I had only one criteria: no God. I figured that if I wanted a religion with a god in it, I could just keep the one I had. Naturally, the first god-less thing I found was Buddhism, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Beatles were to abandon the Maharishi while in India (after he allegedly hit on Mia Farrow), just as eventually most of our rock gods abandoned their gurus and returned to more secular music. George Harrison, however, pretty much stayed on the path provided by Eastern spirituality for the rest of his life, which is certainly reflected in his post-Beatles music.

Martin Scorsese says,

George was making spiritually awake music. We all heard and felt it, and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives.”

The narration that moves George Harrison: Living in the Material World along is provided by friends and family, as well as letters the late singer wrote home; the film covers the Hamburg days quiet extensively, as well as other facets of Harrison’s life, including his relationship with Eric Clapton, and of course, the Beatles’ breakup. Scorsese, who made the film with the backing of George’s widow, Olivia, was given access to the singer’s own collection of photographs, films, recordings and documents, and he makes good use of them.

George Harrison’s interest in the sitar and Indian music opened him to new ways of thinking based on ancient spiritual traditions. He wasn’t the only influential person of that time keen to explore Eastern spirituality, but I think a case can be made that his influence, with his bandmates, was considerably greater.

These days, I tend to get sentimental when I think about The Beatles. For a time in our lives they were like angels, they were magical, and we, my generation, were magical too. The world was a brilliant tapestry we were trying to unravel and all its violence and darkness could not dim the brightness of our youthful hope and aspiration.

I don’t know if it is natural or silly, or both, to be nostalgic for your youth. I don’t really care. I like to feel sentimental from time to time. Makes me feel good.