Friday, October 30, 2015

It's not about morality

A lot has been written and said about Buddhist ethics, but David Chapman, Charles Goodman and a number of other thoughtful people make a strong case that Buddhist ethics is largely a Western invention. Chapman, in a deliberately provocative series of writings, goes quite a bit further and advances the thesis that Buddhist ethics in the West has now largely become a way to solidify a sense of self and signal that one is a good person.

A differentiation I want to offer is between morality and ethics on the one hand and the behavior one chooses to support practice on the other. 

Morality can be seen as the tacit understandings and behavioral principles that provide cohesion for a group of people, i.e., a society. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk sees morality as part of the immune system of a society, i.e., how a society determines whether you belong or not. Jonathan Haidt points out the intimate relationship between morality and reputation. He also notes that in most cases the stricter the morality of the group, the more cohesive it is and the longer it is likely to maintain its identity and effectiveness as a group.

Many people (myself included) interpreted the disciplines of the monastic code, the bodhisattva vow and vajrayana commitments as moral systems. But they are not moral systems in the Western sense. They are more descriptions of possible behavior than prescriptions, and their primary function is to support the efforts we are making in practice. There is a term that refers to all these disciplines and it is tempting to translate that term as life-style. That seemed to casual, so I eventually opted for chosen behavior.

The point is that we choose to live in ways that support our practice. When we don’t follow those choices, then we are undermining our practice efforts, but we are not acting immorally, with all the weight that that term has in Western culture. These chosen behaviors are not offered as universal prescriptions but as individual efforts. Many Tibetan teachers wrote poems or songs about how they aspired to live and you will find three examples that I’ve translated on Unfettered Mind’s website: Mind Training in Eight Verses, The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva and 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice. Rather that interpret traditional guidelines for behavior in a way that made them easy to follow, these teachers often pushed the guidelines further so that they bit deeply into the patterns of distraction, conceptualization and self-cherishing. In Mind Training in Eight Verses, Langri Tangpa, for instance, says:

When scorn and insult become my lot,
Expressions of some jealousy,
I alone accept defeat
And award the other victory.

And Longchenpa, in 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice, offers such gems as:

Although you think you’re serving the welfare of beings
By acting as a guarantor, witness or advocate to help settle others’ disputes,
Your own opinions will inevitably assert themselves.
Don’t be concerned – that’s my sincere advice.


Your political power, wealth, connections, good fortune and reputation
May spread all over the world.
When you die, these things will not help you at all.
Work at your practice – that’s my sincere advice.

These are not moral principles — ways to live that bring cohesion and order to society. These are practice efforts — ways to live that bring us right up against the reactive patterns that keep us in confusion. That, in essence, is the differentiation that I want you to consider. In practice, we are less concerned with how we live in society and more concerned with the habits and patterns of reactivity that prevent us from being present in the mystery of life.

These poems were written as forms of self-encouragement, much like Montaigne’s essays or the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. My own teacher wrote similar poems, both for himself when he was young and for others when he was older. Spiritual practice can only be undertaken voluntarily. Similarly, the behavioral guidelines are taken up voluntarily. Just as it is up to each of us to find the path of practice that works for us, so it is up to each of us to find the way of life that supports our practice. The danger here is that our path becomes on of self-indulgence. But that is always a danger. Adherence to a notion of a higher truth and attachment to a pure morality are also forms of self-indulgence. Much can be learned from the examples of the great masters who practiced personal privation privately. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Mind-killing 3: marginalization and framing

Mind-killing refers to a set of techniques by which an entity or a system manipulates people to act in its own interests. It does this by killing their ability to act in their own interests. The entity may be a pattern that operates in you, or it could be a family member or your family system. It could be an institution (educational, medical, professional or religious). It could be a corporation, or the advertisers and marketers and public relations people that serve its interests. Or it could be a politician, a government agency, society or the culture at large. 

In two previous newsletters, I discussed alignment and seduction, both of which subvert your own desires, and polarization and reduction, both of which incite your anger or aversion to serve the system’s interests.

Marginalization and framing are methods that play on the reactive pattern of ignoring.

In framing, topics and issues are presented in such a way that key questions cannot be asked, or cannot even be raised. George Lakoff, in Don’t Think of An Elephant, analyzes the different frames used in the politics of this country. Framing induces ignorance in you, that is, you are led to ignore aspects of the issue that may be vitally important to your own interests but are contrary to the interests of the person or entity that is seeking to make you act in their interests. For instance, as soon as Corbyn was elected to the leadership of the Labour party in England, the Tories released an ad that presented Corbyn as a threat to national security — an attempt to reframe the popular interest in him by converting concern over wages and inequality into fear of being unsafe. On the other hand, financial and economic issues are typically framed as being too difficult or too complex for most people to understand, even though large numbers of sports fans in this country have proven very capable of analyzing and understanding the complexities of whole sports, from play on the field to the intricacies of coaching, managing and the draft process, etc.

Marginalization goes further. In marginalization, you are made to feel that your own interests (or interests that run counter to the interests of the other) are inconsequential, are not worth thinking about, are not worth any consideration. Black Lives Matter is a movement that is attempting to counteract the legacy of the marginalization of the value of black lives in America society. Environmental concerns are consistently marginalized in favor of profit, and this is typically done by arousing fear about losing your job or your livelihood. 

In order to recognize the operation of mind-killing, you have to have to be able to actively question what is being presented to you. From this perspective, the auto-anesthesia induced by almost any media technology (books, newspapers, magazines, television, computers, video-games, etc.) makes us susceptible to manipulation by those who know how to use those media. All these technologies bring extraordinary benefits in terms of access to information and richness of life, but they also make us vulnerable to manipulation and control precisely because they induce a kind of sleep.

It is small wonder that mindfulness has attracted so much attention, but the mindfulness movement itself has been criticized for marginalizing the inequities and cruelties of the modern work environment and framing problems in the workplace as a problem with the individual, not with the system.

Two methods that are often effective countermeasures to marginalization and framing are: 
  • knowing what is vitally important to you and 
  • exploring connections.

When it comes to what is important, many people have already been conditioned to think primarily in terms of their own individual welfare and supposed indicators of well-being that are easily measured, i.e., income. Actual quality of life, particularly the quality of relationships and the time to pursue personal interests outside of work, etc., have been effectively marginalized. Thus, from time to time, ask yourself, what is vitally important to me? When you do, you may notice a tide of uncertainty or fear. That fear, that tide, is the inertia of conditioning that is resident in you. To question what is vitally important in the face of that conditioning is no trivial matter, but, at least in my own experience, it is the only way to step into our own lives.

When you explore connections, you break down the artificial restrictions that marginalization and framing have imposed on your thinking. You see for yourself, for instance, how you contribute to and influence the world in which you live. You step out of the world projected by your reactive emotions, fear, anger, need or instinct, and come to appreciate the complexity of interactions that make up every aspect of our lives. You may find the plethora of interconnections overwhelming at first, and not know where to start. Those feelings are, I think, residues of the conditioning that all of us have been exposed to. If we keep exploring and questioning, however, we find more and more freedom and possibilities, internally and externally.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mind-killing 2: reduction and polarization

In my last post, I discussed two methods, seduction and alignment. In this post, I discuss two more methods of mind-killing, reduction and polarization.

Reduction refers to someone (or a system, including your own reactive patterns) reducing a complex situation to a single emotionally charged issue. The result of reduction is that you are locked into one and only one way of seeing the world. When someone tells you that all the problems in the Middle East are due to ISIS or that money is the only thing that matters, you are being subjected to reduction. Any nuance, any other perspective, is not taken into consideration.

We see this time and again In the political arena in single-issue and identity politics. Climate change, for instance, is regularly reduced to a matter of economics. The reduction has prevented governments at every level, municipal to international, from taking effective action. Reduction is often used to rationalize the inequalities of the status quo. A favorite trope is that people get what they deserve and those who are poor deserve to be poor and those who are wealthy deserve to be wealthy. This reductionist fantasy is used to eliminate public services with the specious argument that they provide help to people who do not deserve help.

Closely associated with reduction is polarization. Polarization eliminates complexity and nuance by presenting issues in black and white terms—this or that, for or against, right or wrong. It is regularly employed by political leaders, for instance, to solidify support and isolate those who disagree with them. “If you are not with us, you are against us.” In polarization, you feel that you being forced to choose sides. You are told that any dialogue between different perspectives is suspect, dangerous or simply not permissible. 

Where seduction and alignment are based in attraction, reduction and polarization are based in aversion. They are instruments of aggression, and they rely on evoking anger and hatred in you. Both polarization and reduction play on pre-established prejudices and fears. Those fears are invoked to get you to act not in your interests, but in the interests of the person or system invoking them. Reduction and polarization often rely on reason and supposedly rational arguments, but, as I have written elsewhere, reason can be a weapon used by those who do not want their anger to be evident or identified. By leading you to feel the “rightness” of what they are saying, they can appear utterly reasonable while they get you to destroy your world and the world of those around you.

If you step back and open to what you are experiencing when faced with either reduction or polarization, you notice that you feel stripped, naked and exposed. You feel stripped because considerations that are important to you or to those you care about have been stripped away. You feel naked because you are not able to rely on your usual frames of reference and the ways you usually relate to others or to the world. And you feel exposed because you do not know how  to maintain your own integrity in the face of the reductionist or polarizing rhetoric.

Direct opposition to reduction and polarization is rarely effective. The person or system has defined the field of engagement and if you engage them directly, you are fighting on their territory and with their weapons. Instead, step right out of the world of anger and hatred that they are projecting and seeking to elicit in you. Compassion is probably the most potent practice, because anger and compassion are mutually incompatible—in the same way that heat and cold are. In the world that anger projects, you seek to avoid your own pain by making someone else experience it. In the world that compassion projects, you know and understand the struggles that every person, including yourself, experience and the pain generated by those struggles. Compassion dissolves the sense of “I” vs “other” because, with compassion, you see the other is a human being just as you are.

As for the polarizing and reducing tendencies in your own reactive patterns, open to the anger and fear that drive their operation. You may try to use insight (what is angry? what is the anger?). Even though this approach is recommended in many texts, I have rarely found it to be effective because it is easy to employ insight without engaging the reactive emotional material in you. Instead, I recommend compassion-based methods, such as taking and sending, that involve engaging the pain and struggles in yourself, and, from there, the pain and struggles in others. When you can stand in your own pain, you are no longer driven by fear. When you know your own struggles, you know the struggles of others.

Mind-killing 1: seduction and alignment

What is mind-killing? It is the use of your own patterns of emotional reaction to lead you to do what another person, a system, or even your own patterns of reaction want you to do. The techniques of mind-killing have been carefully honed in politics, advertising, marketing, public relations and many other areas of modern life. They also operate internally. The genius of mind-killing is that most people do not know they are being manipulated. They feel they are doing what is in their interests and, in effect, destroy themselves.

To be awake and aware requires that you have enough free attention to recognize and counteract mind-killing, whether it comes in the form of personal interactions, of the social conditioning that we are subjected to through the media, or of the voices that your patterns use to preserve and maintain their operation. In the next few newsletters, I am going to discuss six methods of mind-killing. Although he does not use the term mind-killing, Naom Chomsky describes precisely these six methods in the documentaryManufacturing Consent (available on YouTube). 

Today, I look at the first two: seduction and alignment.

Both these methods use attraction, which, along with aversion and indifference comprise the three fundamental emotional reactions known as the three poisons.

In seduction, you are led to feel that the fulfillment of your dreams depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is encouraging you to do. In mind-killing, there is always an implicit threat, and it is the fear evoked by that threat that is used to coerce or manipulate you. In the case of seduction, the threat is that your dreams will never be realized unless you do what is being asked of you. The threat is rarely made explicit. To do so would make it possible to examine it objectively and it would lose its power. But the threat is there and acts on you through your own fears. In effect, the fulfillment of your dreams acts as a lure and the implicit threat pushes you to take the bait.

In alignment, you are led to feel that your survival, your viability in society and/or your very identity depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is requiring of you. You are being offered a way of life, a position in the world and/or recognition, and the threat here is barely concealed: if you don't do this, you don't belong in the world.

One method of counteracting mind-killing is to use a set of four questions originally developed by Byron Katie:
  • Is this true?
  • How do I know it is true?
  • How do I feel when I believe this?
  • Who would I be if I let this go?
The key in employing such a method is to be willing to stand in the storm of emotional reactions that these questions elicit. The storm is inevitable because the mind-killing has already provoked emotional reactions, particularly desire, longing and wanting in all their different forms. In effect, you are making your own patterns of attraction and desire the object of your attention. There is little, if any, need to analyze. It is sufficient to stand in the experience of the physical, emotional and cognitive sensations that arise when you ask these questions. When you do so, the energy of the emotional reactions is transformed into attention. You are able to experience attraction as an experience, not a compulsion. You step out of the world of projected desire. The mind-killing loses its power. You wake up from the spell that the seduction has cast on you. You break out of the jail that alignment has confined you to. And you taste the fresh air of freedom.

Practice tip: random thoughts on power and relationship

Persona A has power over person B only if A can make life difficult for the B. Power operates only in situations when there is a contract (voluntary or involuntary, explicit or implicit, social or individual) which allows or enables person A to make life difficult for person B.

Power usually runs in both directions. If A can make life difficult for B, B can make life difficult for A.

When either party can do without the other, no power relationship exists. Yet people often continue to behave as if a power relationship is still operating, that is, they can coerce or can be coerced. Person A may employ coercive methods even when it is clear that they have no effect on B. In such cases, A will often escalate coercive actions out of all proportion to the issue at hand in a destructive yet futile effort to maintain their illusion of connection. Conversely, Person B may feel and act as if coerced even when there is nothing that Person A can do to make life difficult for B, again to maintain the illusion of connection.

two people sitting at long tableTo question whether A can do without B, or B can do without A, usually threatens fundamental assumptions about the relationship. 

Anger is frequently employed as a defense against such questioning. It reduces the questioning to a single emotionally charged issue while polarizing the relationship so that the questioner backs down. Another defense is to marginalize the questions ("That's not important" or "That doesn't count" ) or to reframe the situation so that the questions cannot even be thought, let alone asked. Still another approach is to get the questioner to believe that their own interests will be secured or enhanced if they drop the questioning and threatened if they don't.
All these are forms of mind-killing, methods in which person A uses person B's emotional reactions (pride, greed, desire, anger, jealousy, fear, guilt, etc.) to get B to act in person A's interests. The polite word for this is social engineering, a term that glosses over the coercion and power dynamics that are operating.

  • Stand in your own experience and touch what is vitally important for you. Everything else can be let go.
  • Do not pick up what isn't yours except as an intentional decision on your part.
  • Authority or obligation is something that you choose to give to others -- for your own reasons. They are not imposed from outside. When you recall those reasons, you reconnect with your own agency and any feeling of coercion or powerlessness disappears.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Five kinds of transmission: permission and energy wave

This week, I discuss very briefly the last two forms of transmission, energy wave (བྱིན་བརླབས་) and permission (རྗེས་གནང་).

For the first, there seems to be very little distinction between an energy wave transmission and a great empowerment. Both are for major deities and involve the same basic elements. The energy wave transmission is a less elaborate ritual and may have developed when original Indian tantras were unavailable.

The second, permission, is by far the most common form of transmission. Most of what are called empowerments fall into this category and formal permission is a central part of both energy wave and great empowerment transmissions.

In permission transmission, you are formally introduced to the deity.

Perfection of Wisdom
Why the formal introduction? Take Chenrezi, the embodiment of awakened compassion, for instance. Anybody who has had any contact with Tibetan Buddhism will have some contact with the four-armed form of Chenrezi and his mantra om mani padme hung. There is no reason why someone who is inspired by the ideal of universal compassion shouldn’t imagine him- or herself as Chenrezi and recite the mantra. And it is quite possible that such a practice will be profoundly beneficial in terms of that person’s spiritual development. People in all ages have discovered the possibility of such compassion in themselves, a phenomenon that calls into question one of the core assumptions of the insistence on transmission, namely, that what was once discovered can never be discovered again.

However, transmission can and does make a difference. The purpose of transmission is to plant a seed of experience in the student. In the case of the permission ceremonies, in addition to the energetic transmission that may take place when teacher and student practice together, transmission also takes place in the formal introduction. As my teacher explained to me, it is one thing to meet a person on your own, introduce yourself and get to know him or her one way or another on your own. It’s another for a person who knows that person well to introduce you, explain who the person is, what he or she is capable of, and how the two of you might interact fruitfully. The formal introduction not only establishes a different level of confidence, it also establishes the basis of the relationship and how it works. 

Remember, in vajrayana, the deity is not the form of the deity. It is the principle of awakening that the deity embodies. For Chenrezi, the principle is awakened compassion; for Hevajra, awakened wrath; for Vajrapani, awakened power, etc. 

The seed of experience planted in the empowerment ritual is then nurtured through regular practice. In turn, individual practice is made possible by two other transmissions, spoken transmission (ལུང་), which consists of the transmission of the texts associated with that practice that I discussed in an earlier newsletter, and instruction (ཁྲིད་), which consists of the actual practice instructions. In Tibetan, there is a saying which summarizes the roles of the various transmissions: the empowerment that matures, the spoken transmission that supports and the instructions that free. 

As this saying makes clear, empowerment is simply the beginning of the process. What frees us from the vicissitudes of ordinary existence is the growth and blossoming of the seed planted in us. Where the empowerment ceremony is the seed empowerment and the practice ritual the path empowerment, the true empowerment takes place in the fruition of practice, when we experience the four mysteries directly:

  • the mystery of sensory sensations arising as emptiness- appearance,
  • the mystery of communication arising as emptiness-clarity,
  • the mystery of thought and emotion arising as emptiness-awareness
  • the great mystery of awareness itself, the utter groundlessness of all experience.

Five kinds of transmission: great empowerment

In the last two newsletters, I discussed command transmission (བཀའ་) and spoken transmission (ལུང་) and I've posted these comments on my blog musings. These are the first two of the five kinds of transmission in Tibetan Buddhism. This week I'm going to jump to the other end of the spectrum and talk a bit about empowerment or initiation.
In tribal societies, initiation is a rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. The initiate usually goes through a ritualized death process in which the comfort-seeking child is killed. The young adult is born and by going through the trials of the initiation ritual, demonstrates that he or she is worthy of being an adult. He or she is then invested with the privileges of life as an adult and assumes the corresponding responsibilities.

dakiniThe great empowerments (དབང་ཆེན་) in the Tibetan tradition contain many of these elements. In the empowerment ceremony, you are lead through a process of ritual death. You leave behind the life of society and are reborn as a deity, a being of timeless awareness. Your body is an expression of timeless awareness. Your new home is a palace (the mandala of the deity) in which every architectural feature and decoration is an aspect of awareness. Through various symbols, you are empowered with the understandings, powers and capabilities of the deity. Everything you are given or shown introduces you to some aspect of timeless awareness. While there are numerous divisions and subdivisions of the empowerment ritual, broadly speaking you are initiated into four mysteries: 
  • the mystery of how sensory sensations are experienced as emptiness-appearance, 
  • the mystery of how emotional reactions are transformed into awareness,
  • the mystery of how the generation and transformation of bliss and other high energy states open up possibilities of direct awareness, and 
  • the great mystery of awareness itself, the utter groundlessness of all experience.
During the empowerment ritual, you practice under the guidance of your teacher. Ideally, the field of energy that he or she generates and your own efforts in practice combine to create the conditions that bring about at least a sense of what it is to be the deity - what form-emptiness, sound-emptiness, awareness-emptiness mean experientially. This is the essence of transmission. The seeds of experience planted during the empowerment are then nurtured through your subsequent practice until they blossom in your own experience.
How does this transmission take place? For this, I find two analogies helpful. The first is resonance. When you have two tuning forks that vibrate at the same frequency, if you sound one of the tuning forks, the other will start to vibrate. The master who is giving the empowerment is like the first tuning fork. You, as the student, are like the second turning fork. By following the instructions given during the empowerment ceremony, you attune to the field created by the master and a seed of experience may arise in you. The second analogy is lighting one candle with another. The heat of the lit candle melts the wax in the wick of the unlit candle. As the wax heats up, it breaks down into lighter and lighter molecules until it bursts into flame. Now the second candle is lit and burns on its own. In either case, there is a transmission, but what exactly is transmitted is a mystery itself.Much changes when you receive an empowerment of this kind: 
  • Your life as a person in society and convention is over. That person has died. You have been born into the life of a practitioner, one who lives awareness. 
  • You have been shown a world of new possibilities, a world that is different from the conventional understanding of what it means to be human. Nothing will ever be the same. 
  • You have taken on the responsibilities of this new life and all that that means in terms of developing understanding and abilities you need to engage it. 
  • You have committed to living a new life in new body in a new world.
Unlike tribal initiations, the empowerments in vajryana are not about your role in society. These empowerments take you out of a life based in society, out of the horizontal dimension, and introduce you into a life based in awareness, the vertical dimension. Your priorities change and with those changes in priorities, your commitments change. Many people think that commitment means doing the practice every day, however cursorily, along with a certain number of mantra repetitions. However, these assignments are just means to an end, the ongoing cultivation of the abilities the deity represents. Vajrayana is essentially a path of faith and devotion. Thus, commitment in this context is really a matter of loyalty -- loyalty to awareness itself and loyalty to the teacher or master who introduces you to that awareness. 

Loyalty here does not mean blind belief or abnegation of personal responsibility. Quite the contrary. Loyalty is present all through Buddhist practice, particularly the bodhisattva vow and vajrayana practice. Without it you have no path and you run the risk of following nothing but your own projections. But this is a separate topic and I'll take it up in a subsequent newsletter.