Saturday, November 24, 2007

Non-dualism and ideology

The following question was posed recently in an email:

In my readings I have learned of many teachers who espouse a
'non-dualist' angle. I would like to hear any comments and opinions you have about non-dualism from "Buddhism is non-dualist" to "Buddhism and non-dualism couldn't be further apart". To me the similarities are greater than any differences: while both point to the non-existence of the person, Buddhist practice at least provides a method while non-dualist teachings are weak on method in favor of sudden understanding and 'shifts' in consciousness.

This question elicited the following reflections:

As with all things Buddhist, the problem lies in positing dualistic vs non-dualistic perspectives, and in doing so, getting lost in yet another, albeit more subtle, contest of ideologies.

The aim of Buddhism is not dualism or non-dualism. Buddhism sees both positions as tools to an end, and the end is, depending on how you put it, compassion or the end of suffering.

Buddhism encourages the development of skill in life. As practice and experience deepen, one naturally sees that attachment to a sense of self prevents one from responding skillfully in many (perhaps most) situations. Thus, one lets go such attachment.

On the other hand, sometimes the expression of compassion or the ending of suffering will require an unambiguous stand, "There is a boundary here and here you have to meet me." Not exactly non-dual.

I find Musashi, the Japanese swordsman very helpful here and have adapted something he said about martial arts to Buddhism:

Buddhism is a way of freedom. Many people, when studying this way, may think that the skills one develops will not be useful in real situations. The true way of Buddha is to train so that these skills are useful at any time and to teach these skills so that they will be useful in all things.

Buddhism puts great emphasis on path, on the cultivation of willingness, know-how and ability. Insight or shifts in consciousness are not enough. The aim is to live, effectively and skillfully, in a way that ends suffering, in oneself and others.

Ideology of any kind is highly problematical as it usually evolves into preference and prejudice, with the inevitable results.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wash your own dishes

To teach, do not be a teacher.

As Stephen Batchelor brings out in Verses from the Center, a walker appears only when a person starts to walk. Similarly, a teacher appears only when two people interact in a certain way.

A person may sit in a room and talk about the most profound understandings and insights but there is no teaching (let alone a teacher) if there is no one else present (or no one is listening).

There is no "teacher" as such, but when conditions are right, teaching (and learning) take place. The same, of course, is true for "student".

To see oneself as a teacher is to create an imbalance in the world.

One has only what one experiences. As time passes and one accumulates more and more experience, there is a greater and greater tendency to see the person in the student role only in terms of that experience. Assumptions and projections proliferate, and the results are both inevitable and predictable.

In each encounter, put aside everything you think you know. It won't go away: it will be there if and when you need it. But in forgetting about it, you create the conditions for seeing, to use Uchiyama's phrase, "the direction of the present" and what is to unfold in each moment.

When people thank and tell you how much you've helped them, what they say has nothing to do with you. This is just their way of expressing joy in their own experience. Remember this, too, when people complain or criticize.

Rest deeply in your own experience: you will know, through your body and feelings, whether you respond to the direction of the present, or fall into projection and reaction.

Do not accept special treatment. There is a slippery slope here, because, when teaching, you will sometimes need quiet and space and assistance in routine affairs. Regard these only as things needed for teaching, not as things that are due to you because of a position. In other words, always wash your own dishes.

Some say that it is important to let students treat their teacher as special, as an expression of their devotion and appreciation. Here, the slippery slope becomes a cliff, for in accepting such special treatment, you are confirming an identity in the eyes of such students, instead of pointing them to their own knowing.

Consider carefully the question "Why do I teach?" In the end, it must, in some way, be part of your path—that is, when you teach, you wake up in some way.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

sociology of religious movements

Stephan Fuchs, in Against Essentialism (pg. 61), provides the following summary of Emile Durkheim's analysis of the evolution of religious groups. While the language is somewhat opaque, the essential points seem to shine through.

My interest in this kind of overview is to understand the various influences acting on or in a given individual or group and adapt teaching, advice, coaching, or training to meet the exigencies of that situation precisely and appropriately. A great deal of effort can be expended fruitlessly in resisting a tide of natural evolution, as King Canute of Denmark demonstrated. On the other hand, a clear understanding of the ebb and flow of tides can reveal areas and approaches where the right teaching or advice can open a new level of understanding or new possibilities to the individual.

Isolated groups with high social density and strong moral commitments to tradition tend to reify their sacred cultural tokens in totems and taboos. They do not allow for much internal diversity and dissent. Lacking contact with alternatives, the group's culture acquires logical and moral necessity, mapped onto the very fabric of the world itself. The group's way of life seems to realize the natural order of things.

Such groups have facts and universals, true in all possible worlds. The core cultural possessions are carefully protected and guarded against decay and dissent. Since the important truths are already known, innovators are prosectued as dangerous heretics straying from the righteous path.

As coupling loosens, density declines, and outside contacts increase, more contingency and alternative possibilities flow into the world. The group increases its tolerance for deviance and dissent. Some nonconformity is rewarded as innovation. Some facts become ambiguous, some universals turn out to be historic individuals, and some moral certainties become less sure of themselves. Criticism emerges and no longer indicates moral failure and irresponsibility. The future becomes more uncertain, not just an extension of the good traditions. Instead, the open future promises more innnovations and discoveries; it is a future that needs to be made, and might be made in different ways. More cosmopolitan and decentralized networks sustain more pluralism.

Under certain conditions, loose coupling might lead to decoupling, or fragmentation of communication and interaction. Self-sustaining subcultures emerge, with few or no overlaps. the group's attention space divides into multiple perspectives, who incommensurability increases with decreasing exchange frequency and density across borders and boundaries. Contingency turns into arbitrariness, the historical sesnse into relativism, and each perspective expresses only the idiosyncratic standpoint from which it emerges. Criticism exaggerates into global and foundational skepticism.

The first group condition produces realism about facts and universals. The second favors pragmatic innovation and discovery, while the third one leads to conversational and perspectival relativism.

This overview may help to understand why some groups fear paradigm shifts and others embrace them, why some groups have a hard time distinguishing discoveries and advances from fads and fashions. In particular, when density and isolation are high, one would expect rigid and exclusive cultural classifications and a decrease in doctrinal, moral, and ritual intensity as boundaries become more permeable. While this description was developed from observation of religious groups, the same phenomena and progressions can be observed in a wide variety of settings, from corporate cultures to scientific research communities to academic enclaves.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

being awake and healing

I am often asked about how to use meditation and Buddhist practice to heal old wounds. The question reflects a misunderstanding.

In Buddhism, our intention is to be present in what arises in experience. Healing is often a side-effect of that presence, or a side-effect of the practices we do in order to be present, but it's not the objective. You may think this is hair-splitting, but it's actually quite important. When we are focused on healing, we are inevitably concerned with a result, a goal, and the goal-orientation introduces an appraisal of experience that takes us out of direct experience.

Rather than working toward healing, our effort is to trust what we are. To echo Suzuki Roshi, "Our practice is about absolute confidence in our fundamental nature." I've come to appreciate the depth of this sentence more and more over the years. Absolute confidence in what we are! Then, as Uchiyama Roshi says, "we have neither a need to be swayed by someone or something we think exists outside ourselves nor do we long for things that we project as pbeing apart from ourselves."

From a practice point of view, the key is not to harden when difficult or painful experiences arise. The moment we harden, we have set "I" against "it" and are reinforcing whatever conditioning is generating the difficulty. Thus, Thich Naht Hanh's advice about holding difficult or painful feelings tenderly in attention. Sometimes, this feels like letting the feelings scream while you hold them in attention, not trying to remedy them, control them, make them go away, or change them.

Working with difficult feelings, I've found, is best done for short periods, so attention is active and awake. Too long an exposure and we inevitably fall into conditioning. Hence, the old meditation adage "Short sessions, but many of them". Touch into the feelings for a few moments, then relax, return to the breath, then touch into them again, staying with them awake and present rather than fighting with them.

None of this is easy. Simple and easy are not synonyms. We will fall down again and again, not trusting the open clear awareness that is what we are, not being able to just experience old wounds and pains. But we pick ourselves up, dust off our clothes, patch the skinned knees, and keep going. After all, this is what the word practice means. It's not a test, it's not a contest -- it's our life.

Friday, March 9, 2007

energy or blessing?

In the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the prayers often used in the practice "Guru Yoga" reads:

Treasured teacher, I pray to you.
Give me energy to let self-fixation go.
Give me energy to be free of need.
Give me energy to stop ordinary thinking.
Give me energy to know mind has no beginning.
Give me energy to let confusion subside on its own.
Give me energy to know all experience is pure being.

I've been asked a number of times why I translate "blessing" as "energy". There is a significant difference in emotional tone and "blessing" is the most common usage (and the one I used in my early days).

The word "blessing" has its roots in sacrifice: from the On-line Etymological Dictionary

O.E. bletsian, bledsian, Northumbrian bloedsian "to consecrate, make holy," from P.Gmc. *blothisojan "mark with blood," from *blotham "blood" (see blood). Originally a blood sprinkling on pagan altars.
This word was chosen in O.E. bibles to translate L. benedicere and Gek. eulogein, both of which have a ground sense of "to speak well of, to praise," but were used in Scripture to translate Heb. brk "to bend (the knee), worship, praise, invoke blessings." Meaning shifted in late O.E. toward "to confer happiness, well-being," by resemblance to unrelated bliss. No cognates in other languages. Blessing is O.E. bledsung.

These associations are all foreign to my experience of guru yoga or other forms of prayer in Buddhism. So, I started to hunt for an alternative.

My experience is one of a kind of energy, through devotion. An emotional energy. And the Tibetan byin.brlabs (pron. jin-lap) itself means "a wave of something given" or "to flood with something given". This does correspond with my experience.

Clearly, translation problems go back a long way, viz., the choice to use the word "blessing" to translate "benedicere", which has a completely different set of associations.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

a conversation with Warren Bennis

You may recall that we started to look at whether institutions inevitably betrayed their values. I put the thesis forward that all institutions are based on a lie, namely, "We'll take care of you." The subsequent discussion brought out the point that institutions are necessary and needed if humans are to live together in the large numbers that they currently do. I proposed the analogy of the body as an institution. It''s basic unit is the cell, but it manages to grow and flourish quite well and is a very robust institution. Somehow, all the cells, and the higher level organizational units, such as the various organs, and the still higher organizational units, the various systems (nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, etc.) seem to get along without too much conflict.

After our conversation, I continued to ruminate on why I find the emphasis on leadership so troubling.

At this point I have to beg your patience as the two of you have made leadership your chosen areas of study and expertise and my subsequent comments may seem naive or pretentious.

The conclusion that I came to was that an emphasis on leadership may divert attention away from another important question, namely, "How do each of us live and function in a healthy way in a world which is populated by institutions?"

In my limited exposure to leadership studies, one theme keeps coming up: how do leaders create healthy vibrant institutions? Implicit in this question is the fact that leaders of organizations may have to radically alter the size, structure, and direction of organizations to keep them viable, with all the human costs that such changes entail.

Now I'd like to return to the analogy of the body, for a moment. The body routinely kills off thousands, if not millions, of cells every day. This is for the well-functioning of the body. It would be presumptuous of any cell in the body to say that it knew what was needed for the well-being of the body. Indeed, it would be presumptuous of any organ, or any system in the body, to claim that they knew best what the body actually needed. Any group of cells that did so would likely create serious imbalances in the body. And if they monopolized the bodies resources to pursue their agenda, they would, in medical terms, be regarded as causing an illness, perhaps even a cancer.

I wondered, then, if, by putting emphasis on leadership, we are focusing attention (and resources) on a particular group of cells. The attention tends to create and reinforce a myth, namely, that these individuals and the organizations they lead can function in a way that is aligned with our own individual interests. This would be analogous to the body saying that it could function and take care of every cell at the same time. This possibility is, of course, counter to how the body actually functions.

I then moved to the question, "If I'm a cell in this world populated by organs and systems; how do I live my life?" Well, if I disrupt the organs too much, I kill myself. But if I follow the agenda and needs of the organ or system I'm in, then my fate is decided by the needs of the body. In a strange way, perhaps, I find this line of thinking returning to such old themes as free will, determination, responsibilty, etc.

When I look at my work with individuals, I see that much of my work is informed by this second question, "How do I live in a world populated by institutions?" This often leads to the development of leadership skills in the individuals with whom I work, not because they intend to become leaders, but because, by taking a larger and deeper view, they move into leadership positions naturally. Somewhat ironic in the end.