Alan Watts, Buddha and Religion

One of the perks of having a blog is that from time to time publishers contact you offering a free book for a review or mention.  I’ve turned down quite a few of these offers because I had no interest in the book being proffered.  Recently, though, New World Library asked if I would be interested in reviewing a reprint of Alan Watt’s Psychotherapy East and West, and it’s hard to turn down something by Alan Watts.

Watts was one of the most influential interpreters of Eastern philosophy.  During the 60s and 70s, untold numbers of spiritual seekers were first turned on to Buddhism through his books and audio tapes.  That influence continues today.  Psychotherapy East and West was first published in 1961.  I will have a more detailed review in a future post but today I want to make a few remarks about the first sentence in the book, and in doing so I have incorporated some material from one of the first posts I wrote for this blog back in April 2010.

“If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West.”

Watts was the first person (that I know of) to state that Buddhism is not a religion.  In this and in other writings, he described Buddha-dharma as a way of life, a view of life.  I would add, a state of mind.

The question of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy is a continuing discussion.  Is it important how we define Buddhism? I believe it is, because here in the West in the 21st century, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are busy re-defining Buddhism, looking at how it may or may not be compatible with other religions, exploring how it may or may not be consistent with modern science, and so on.  For many, the inclusion or absence of religious elements is crucial in making a decision about engaging in Buddhist practice.

When they don’t get in the way, the religious elements are fine.  They provide a container for the different aspects of Buddha-dharma such as ethics and wisdom.  However, Buddhism sans religious elements seems to me to be broader and more accessible, especially to those in this 21st century who reject the idea of religion or who consider themselves “spiritual-but-not-religious.”  Religious elements can, at times, get in the way or muddle the essential message and practice of dharma.

Since the Buddha is the founder and central figure in this dharma, I think it is helpful to look back at the historical Buddha and see if we can glean his original intent, which can serve as a guide for us going forward.  Admittedly, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the historical Buddha.  His time is remote to us and there were no biographies of his life produced until centuries after his passing when the myths about him were already set in stone.  Nonetheless, modern scholars have been able to provide us with a rough sketch of Siddhartha Gautama, a man who was not a superhuman being, a performer of miracles, founder of a religion, or a monk.

One thing I think it is clear is that the Buddha had no intention of starting a ‘religion.’  He was familiar the religion of his day, the Brahman priests and rituals and prayers and the pantheon of gods, and he was critical of them, doubting their efficacy.

He did not come from what we would describe as a religious tradition.  Throughout the Indian sub-continent during the Buddha’s time, there was an established tradition of wandering ascetics, “homeless ones”, spiritual seekers, men, and sometimes women, who had “dropped out”, as we used to say.  They, too, were critical of Vedic social culture and religious practice.

Siddhartha became a shramana, literally “one who strives.”  There were basically three kinds of sharamanas: ascetics, meditation practitioners, and philosophers.  The Buddha was an itinerant philosopher who taught meditation.  Not a ‘preacher,’ or a man of ‘religion.’

The teaching the Buddha offered were not built upon the idea of a supreme being.  The Buddha did not teach his followers to worship, but rather to use meditation to analyze the human condition.  Belief and faith were not important, but what was crucial was one’s behavior, for the true sphere of action for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is daily life, where the insights gained through meditation are put into practice.

In his book, The Buddha, Prof. Trevor Ling wrote:

“[The Buddha] was not regarded by the earliest generation of Buddhists as a superhuman figure of any kind.  He had no religious role, such as that of the chosen revealer of divine truth, nor was he regarded by the early Buddhists as in any sense a superhuman saviour.”

Again, the Buddha was essentially a meditation teacher.  His message was simple: everyone has problems, and if you want to learn how to better cope with your problems, and perhaps even overcome the sufferings they bring, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still, and calm your mind.

Disciples of shramana teachers would literally follow them, forming small wandering communities.  They called these groups sangha, meaning “republic”, named and styled after the republican governments that were slowly giving way to monarchies.

J.P. Sharma, in “Republics of Ancient India” says that in the tribal sanghas (republics) “each member of the assembly was called a ‘raja’ (ruler), but none had the individual power to mold the decisions of the assembly.”  It would appear that the Buddha applied this same principle to the Buddhist Sangha, and he repeatedly told his disciples that “It is not I who leads the brotherhood” and that “the community is not dependent upon me.”

The individual members of the Sangha were known as bhikkhus or “sharesmen.”  They shared in a communal life.  The bhikkhu was not a monk, a recluse or religious hermit.  This was not a cloistered community, but a wandering band, always staying on the edge of towns and cities, and interacting daily with people of all castes. Although they wore robes of a certain color to distinguish them from other homeless seekers, it is doubtful that they shaved their heads or that the Sangha established many of the religious trappings we now associate with Buddhism.  The monastic bhikkhus came much later.

The Buddhist Sangha had little formalism to their activities or organization.  Becoming a bhikkhu was a fairly simple matter.  You’d ask, and the reply was simply “ehi bhikkhu” (“come, bhikkhu”).  The idea of “ordination” is problematic because it raises the question, what was the Buddha ordaining them to?  He, himself was not ordained, and once again, it was not his aim to create a religion that would require ordained leaders.

The Buddha may have been interested in forming a new society, a counter-culture.  David Loy, Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, states, “the Buddha wasn’t just forming a small group of monastics to support their own realization, but that he was modeling a broader, transformative vision for how society should function.”

More importantly, I think the Buddha was focused on modeling a better human being.  It is said that the purpose of the Buddha’s appearance in this world lies in his behavior as a human being. This suggests that if one person, an ordinary mortal, can acquire great wisdom and overcome problems by practicing self-reflection and compassion, any other person can, too.  For us, this is what the Buddha should represent, the potential for awakening, the possibilities for transcending suffering.

Returning to Alan Watts, the second sentence in the book reads “We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.”  So, if Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy as we know those terms, is it then psychotherapy?  Well, Watts is not exactly saying that either.  He’s saying that it is closer to psychotherapy than anything else in the West.  Watts saw Western ‘psychotherapy’ as more efficacious than Western religion but, as he states in the introduction to the book, “out of touch.”  Unfortunately, there are those who have tried to turn Buddha-dharma into a form of psychology (one of my beefs with the modern mindfulness industry or revolution) and I’m not sure that was what Watts was endorsing.  However, it is a subject I’ll discuss in a future post concerning Psychotherapy East and West.

Later in the opening paragraph, Alan Watts says

“Yet the basic aim of these ways of life is something of quite astonishing simplicity, beside which all the complications of reincarnation and psychic powers, of superhuman mahatmas, and of schools of occult technology, are a smoke screen in which the credulous inquirer can lose himself indefinitely.”

And further on in the book:

“[One] of the consequences of taking Buddhism… out of its cultural context is, as we have seen, the supposition it is a religion in the same sense as Christianity and with the same social function.”

To Alan Watts in 1961 this comparison was already “ceasing to be intellectually respectable.”  Perhaps it is unavoidable that we apply Western definitions to Eastern philosophies, but it seems a mistake.  This is important because one of our goals is to perceive the true aspect of reality and if we approach Buddhism and view it as something it is not, we are handicapped from the beginning.

Buddhism is a path, a Tao or Way.  We have no category for it in the West.  If describing it as a path or a way does not satisfy and people feel a need to call it something else, then let’s just call it “something else.”

“That ‘something else’ was this thing that I will call the religion of no-religion.”

– Alan Watts, Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion, 1999

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“Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance”

A few weeks after 9/11, The Onion (“America’s Finest New Source”) ran this headline:  “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.”  It wasn’t fake news but satire, humor, and there was probably some truth to it.  The Onion could use that headline again now and it would be at least partly true.

The election in November and the inauguration in January has left many of us really bummed out.  We have a new term for it:  Post Election Stress Disorder.  PESD.  Evidently, it hits people on both sides.  The American Psychological Association’s recent survey, “Stress in America,” shows that 49 percent of Americans remain concerned about the election, 66 percent are concerned about the future of the nation, and 57 percent were worried about the current political climate.  The election is still stressing people out, while the inauguration is still creeping them out.

Over the weekend, Huffington Post ran an article titled “A Zen Master’s Advice on Coping with Trump,” the Zen master being Thich Nhat Hanh.  The piece includes some quotes from Thay’s new book, At Home in the World.  The HP also asked a nun and a monk from Plum Village in France for some guidance on how to survive in Trumpland.

Brother Phap Dung stated,

“We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other. So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”

The article also quoted James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, who wrote in The Guardian,

“Trump’s grand and vulgar self-absorption is inviting all of us to examine our own selfishness. His ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots.  The fears that he stokes and the isolation he promotes goad us to be braver, more generous.”

The Trump Presidency is almost unbearable to me.  It is an outrage and a national embarrassment.  My fear of and loathing for the man is wide, and deep.  But deeper still is a place within where I know that Phap Dung and James Gordon are right:  Trump is a reflection of ourselves.

The enemy always is.

In 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, I wrote:

“As a way of developing abundant compassion, prayers for a monster can be powerful. When we practice loving-kindness meditation, one of the four types of persons we develop compassion toward is a “hostile” person.  Someone with whom we are at odds, have difficulties about, who provokes our anger…” 

Trump is certainly in that category.  I added that “sometimes practicing compassion should be a real challenge.”  Part of the challenge is looking inside and seeing the reflection of our enemy within.  It is going to be difficult for me to summon up warm thoughts of loving-kindness for the monster in the White House.  It is much easier to despise him.  But that is not the Bodhisattva Way.

Compassion does not mean we stop our resistance, or that we cease calling the enemy out for his frequent lies, or stop mocking his alternative reality.  The way I look at it, resistance is compassion, too.  We resist for the sake of ourselves and others.

There is no doubt in my mind the nation, and the world, would be better off if Agent Orange had never run for president, let alone gotten himself elected.  But the enemy is here, and for us, his presence is not a reason for despair; it is an opportunity, a cause for compassion, a test of our capacity for tolerance.

“For a practitioner of love and compassion, an enemy is one of the most important teachers.  Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance, and without tolerance you cannon build a sound basis of compassion.  So in order to practice compassion, you should have an enemy.

When you face your enemy who is going to hurt you, that is the real time to practice tolerance. Therefore, an enemy is the cause of the practice of tolerance; tolerance is the effect or result of an enemy.  So those are cause and effect.  As is said, ‘Once something has the relationship of arising from that thing, one cannot consider that thing from which it arises as a harmer; rather it assists the production of the effect’.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life*

– – – – – – – – – –

As quoted in How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by Dalai Lama XIV

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Biocentrism and the Continuum of Consciousness

There’s a guy named Robert Lanza, who is Chief Scientific Officer at Ocata Therapeutics (formerly Advanced Cell Technology), and Adjunct Professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who is supposed to be one of the most respected scientists in the world.

Lanza has a theory called biocentrism.  It is not about ethics but rather deals with the idea of a ‘biocentric’ universe.  He calls it a “Theory of Everything.”  (I thought it was Stephen Hawking who had The Theory of Everything?)

On Lanza’s website, he says,

“According to biocentrism, space and time are simply the tools our mind uses to weave information together into a coherent experience — they are the language of consciousness…”

In other words, the universe could be merely a thought construction.  Perhaps consciousness even has a role in the creation of matter.  Certainly, Lanza maintains, an understanding of consciousness is crucial to understanding the universe.  He’s not the only scientist who is beginning to see things in that way.  However, this interesting theory is a bit off topic for this post.

What I find intriguing today is that Lanza (and others) view consciousness as a “linear stream” that does not end at physical death.  Death is merely a break in this stream and consciousness goes on.

According to what I’ve read, in Lanza’s theory if the body is the generator of consciousness, then consciousness passes away when the body dies.  But if consciousness is received in the same way that a cable box receives satellite signals, that’s a different story – then consciousness would not end with physical death.  Apparently, you can understand this easily if you understand about the quantum double slit experiment, which is, frankly, way over my head. 

In any case, all this is interesting because it coincides with the Buddhist idea of a continuum of consciousness, and if consciousness moving on after death could be verified in some way, it would be possible to attach some credence to notions such as karma and rebirth

Now, here is what the Dalai Lama had to say on the subject of consciousness at UCLA in 1997 during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland:

“[If] you are able to isolate your mind [from] object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.

If you approach in this manner, I feel that there is a tremendous scope for discovery.  I feel that at a certain point you will get, through your own experience, a sense of what conscious really is.

According to the Buddhist explanation, consciousness or mind is said to be non-obstructive – there’s no physical properties, there’s no shape, it’s colorless, and it is in the nature of mere experience.  And it is the form of knowing and awareness.  Also we find in Buddhism that there is an appreciation of the existence of different levels of reality.  First of all, in Buddhism, whether or not that object or phenomena exists or not is considered from the point of view of whether the perception of an object or phenomena is a valid experience.

Considering this, it is possible that you can get a glimpse of emptiness, given that consciousness is a phenomena that is dynamic, that is in the form of a process.  Consciousness is transient, it goes through various stages of changes and that, in itself, is an indication that it is a product of causes and conditions. In the case of human consciousness, or mind, if we trace the path of causation we find that within the category of causes there are certain types of causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes.  It is these factors that actually turn into the phenomena.  There are other types of causes which are more corporative or contributing conditions.  In terms of consciousness or mind, since it must posses a substantial cause, one could argue that the continuum, in terms of it’s origin, the continuum of the substantial cause must remain.  Therefore, the substantial cause of any sense of consciousness must necessarily be consciousness, either in a manifest form or in potential.”

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Walls

When I was in high school, I saw an ad in Time Magazine that I’ve never forgotten.  Well, actually I’ve forgotten what the ad was for, but not the headline:

When you put up a wall who are you really shutting out?

I’ve not forgotten the Berlin Wall either.  Officially, it was the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall.  Remember Reagan’s line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”?

Gorbachev did not tear the wall down.  The people did.  It started with 13,000 East German tourists who escaped to Hungary by way of Austria.  It started with some people wanting to leave oppression and go somewhere else.  Like ripples in a pond, it spread and in the end, the East German government had to open the borders and the wall came down.

Walls can be useful.  For instance, a good firewall for your computer is a smart thing to have.  I don’t know about you but my computer is an extension of me.  So the firewall protects me.

I’ve always needed protection.  I’ve always needed walls.

But the challenge of life is to tear down walls, remove the barriers that shut us out from each other.

“For when those walls come down, then love takes over, and it no longer matters what is possible or impossible…”

– Paulo Coelho, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

In tearing down walls, it is necessary to understand the meaning of empathy, to recognize and appreciate another person’s suffering.  Then, do something about it.  Empathy and action are the two components that produce compassion.

I have mentioned before that the Japanese Buddhist term for compassion, jihi, means “to care, to cry” and “to remove the cause for suffering.”

Around the world, people feel isolated.  Instead of building walls, we should be trying to recover our sense of unity with other people.  Buddhism teaches that not only must we have respect for others, a sense of responsibility toward others is also required.

Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche says,

“Others, who feel compassion for human beings, feel compassion for the human beings of their own country but not for the human beings of other countries.  Then, some feel compassion for their friends but not for anyone else.  Thus, it seems that we draw a line somewhere.  We feel compassion for those on one side of the line but not for those on the other side of the line.  We feel compassion for one group but not for another.  That is where our compassion is flawed.  What did the Buddha say about that?  It is not necessary to draw that line.  Nor is it suitable.  Everyone wants compassion, and we can extend our compassion to everyone.”

In this sense, we can add that it is not necessary to build the wall.

We don’t need more separation.

We don’t need more thought control.

We don’t to be just more bricks in the wall.

It is up to us, the people, to tear down the wall, or prevent it from being built.

(apologies to Pink Floyd)

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Morning Will Come (It’s Cooooold Out There)

Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.

No doubt you recognize that line from the 1993 movie Groundhog Day.

It is cold out there.  And in here.  I live in an old building and my apartment is difficult to heat.  There’s a wall heater but it’s expensive to run and doesn’t warm up the entire apartment.  Ditto for my parabolic heater, although using it is more affordable.  Chances are, where you are it’s much colder than it is here in California.  But things are relative, you know.

I used to live in Nebraska where it can get very cold in the wintertime, especially when that frigid north wind is blowing.  One year the temperature did not rise above zero for over sixty days, and again I was living in a old place.  I was extremely tired of shivering and decided to use some psychology.  I thought if I read about people who were colder than me, I might develop some obliviousness to glacial air.

I read some Jack London stories, and some other books I can’t remember now but the one that worked best was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Anytime you feel like moaning about cold weather, read about some guy stuck in a work camp in Siberia and you’ll soon be thanking you’re lucky stars that you’re where you’re at.

Reveille was sounded, as always, at 5 a.m.–a hammer pounding on a rail outside camp HQ. The ringing noise came faintly on and off through the windowpanes covered with ice more than an inch thick, and died away fast. It was cold and the warder didn’t feel like going on banging… and he just couldn’t manage to keep warm that night. In his sleep he’d felt very sick and then again a little better.  All the time he dreaded the morning. 

But the morning came, as it always did.

Anyway, how could anyone get warm here, what with the ice piled up on the window and a white cobweb of frost running along the whole barracks where the walls joined the ceiling?

At Ivan Denisovich’s camp, the only days the prisoners do not work outside are the days when the temperature falls below -42F (41C), otherwise…  I’ve never been there but I’m pretty sure that Siberia beats the heck out of Nebraska for cold and misery.

Years later, I found a much better method for alleviating the cold, and the heat.  This method is illustrated in an old Zen parable involving Dongshan, the ninth century Buddhist teacher who founded the Caodong (Soto) school.  I have changed a few of the words, but not its essential meaning:

A novice monk once asked Dongshan, “How can I escape the heat and cold?”

Dongshan said, “Why don’t you go where there is no heat or cold?”

“Where is this place?  Is it far from here?”

Dongshan replied, “It is right here.  When it is hot, become one with the heat; when it is cold, become one with the cold.  This is the place of no heat or cold.”

Becoming one with the present moment can make us feel better about our circumstances, even if the circumstances we find ourselves in at that moment are miserable.   It frees us from our preoccupation with “if only” thinking.  If only it was warmer.  If only the pain would go away.  If only this, if only that…

I see the present moment as something like morning, and I never dread the morning.  Each morning is different, no two are alike, and in the same way, the present moment is ever changing, so we should not try to seize and cling to it as though it was something static.  Neither should we try to escape into it, as we would with a book or movie.  However, if we adjust our minds and embrace the reality of now, understanding that now is all there is and then we cherish it’s preciousness, some relief from cold, heat, and pain is possible.

The present moment is here.  Inside my mind, there is no cold.  I feel no pain from the bursitis and lymphedema in my leg.  Morning will come.

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