Monday, March 24, 2014

Motivated Reasoning: Implications For Contemporary Buddhists

Tartullian, the Christian apologist, in the year 208, could actually write: “the Son of God died; precisely because it is absurd, it is to be believed. And that he was buried and rose again, it is certain because it is impossible.” Nowadays, post-scientific revolution, we tend not to hear people making such claims. Today, even the wildest woo-miesters, as well as conventional religious believers, attempt to apply at least a veneer of rational justification and what they believe to be evidential support. Even Mormons and Scientologists! And even those who adhere to the myriad versions of quantum-woo. As Ian Hayward Robinson writes in “Exploring the Limits of Christian Rationality” (Free Inquiry; Feb/Mar 2014): “We can’t believe in just anything that takes our fancy if we are to demand intellectual respectability.”

Robinson bases his assertion on the very interesting and provocative research of Ziva Kunda, whose seminal 1990 paper, “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” established that “People do not seem to be at liberty to conclude whatever they want to conclude merely because they want to. Rather…people motivated to arrive at a particular conclusion attempt to be rational and to construct a justification of their desired conclusion that would persuade a dispassionate observer. They draw the desired conclusion only if they can muster up the evidence necessary to support it. In other words, they maintain an ‘illusion of objectivity.’”

The main point of Kunda’s paper is that there are two distinct orientations that people can take toward examining and analyzing evidence that depend upon one’s motivation. If your motivation is to be accurate, you will be more likely to use analytical cognitive tools (critical thinking) that are most appropriate to the context, regardless of the possible outcome. It requires not a commitment to a particular outcome, but rather a commitment to the process of determining the most accurate outcome regardless of any preferences one may hold. It is, as Gil Grissom often reminds his C.S.I. team, the commitment to “follow the evidence” and to not let personal beliefs waylay you.

Studies have shown that those who are motivated by “accuracy-driven reasoning” expend more cognitive effort on issue-related reasoning, attend to the relevant information more closely, and engage in deeper processing of the information, often using more complex rules. As may be evident by now, this is the orientation of science.

The research suggests that, on the other hand, if your motivation is to arrive at a particular, preferred conclusion, you will be prone to account only for those beliefs, and to follow those investigative strategies that you may consider most likely to yield the pre-determined conclusion. People so committed will mold the path to the desired conclusion through the way they frame the question they are “investigating;” in the type of evidence they take into account and find acceptable; and in the amount of evidence they settle for.

Obviously, religious adherents, especially theologians and apologists, are by definition engaged in a process of arriving at a particular set of conclusions determined by their particular religious dogma. Such an orientation begins with how the investigation is framed: they do not start the investigation and reasoning in order to see if their religious dogma is true, but to demonstrate that it is! The important point to consider here is that they do this not necessarily motivated by any desire to convince unbelievers, but to prove to themselves that their beliefs can be intellectually accepted. When I was studying the philosophy of religion in college, this was made vividly clear in Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways” to establish the existence of god. He wasn’t out to convince anyone that god existed; he was writing to reassure his followers that their belief was not irrational and that it could find intellectual justification.

Of course, we see the same dynamic at work with committed buddhist and yoga true-believers, as well as those in the new-age movement, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and those who rile against science-based medicine and technology – even while, ironically, posting their diatribes on the internet that is made possible by science and technology.

Stephen Batchelor writes about his experience as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and the “debates” he was taught to engage in. He notes that it soon became evident that the debates were actually training grounds for cleverly coming up with ways to come to the pre-ordained conclusion the particular school of Tibetan Buddhism held as true. Genuine doubt and questioning was not encouraged, nor welcome. I too experienced a similar dynamic, though my teacher was more open to my critiques then Batchelor’s Tibetan lamas. In zen, we are often told to keep questioning: “Great doubt, great enlightenment.” And yet, as my training progressed, I began to see that there were some areas where questioning was not actually appreciated by the tradition, and that if you came to any conclusion not in line with doctrine, your position was marginalized and rejected out-of-hand as simply “wrong.” It was suggested that you had not practiced deeply enough or correctly, that your understanding was still unripe, or otherwise you would surely have come to the same conclusion held by the zen schools.

One issue where this comes up again and again is that of karma and rebirth. Those who believe in rebirth set out to find ways to rationally justify their belief. Those who have rejected rebirth, most often come to that conclusion – often reluctantly – because they have engaged in accuracy-motivated reasoning. Over the nearly 40-years I have been practicing, I have had to let go of quite a few beliefs I’d have preferred to hold as true and accurate, but I cannot honestly do so without jettisoning my commitment to “follow the evidence” regardless of where it may lead. I am quick to add that because I've had to change my beliefs several times over the years, I am under no illusion that my understanding is fully formed and settled. If anything, I know I can expect further study, practice and investigation to force me to reconsider my beliefs and I find great value in this.

Glenn Wallis details categories of buddhist believers: the following are examples of those who often use reason to justify their faith commitments, but are not really engaged with a no-holds-barred investigation. What they have in common is the tendency to flinch in the face of the truly radical implications of the buddha “event”:

                Apologists. For whatever reasons, these figures seek to have x-buddhist teachings, theories, practices, etc., come out on top—always. Thus, they act in defense of x-buddhism. Quite often, they must resort to logical contortions and, more seriously, omission of contrary evidence. But not always, of course; sometimes they do indeed correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
                Conservatives. They are disposed toward the status quo—of whatever school/text/practice/community/ institution/teacher, etc., they hold sacred.  And they do tend to hold it all sacred. Everything in the universe changes except, of course, whatever the conservative x-buddhist holds dear.
                Fundamentalists. They are the gardes suisses at x-buddhism’s holy vallation. Their reasoning for, say, the truth of rebirth, is hyper-precise. They are master exemplifiers. Scripture, after all, is always on their side, even when it isn’t. And how they know their scripture! Thumpers here to put Stomp! to shame. Sutta-thumpers, sutra-thumpers, Shobogenzo-thumpers, Lotus-sutra-thumpers–thumpin’ their way to certainty—messy reality be damned!
                Interpreters. They explain, clarify, expound on the teachings of the literary conceit known as “the Buddha.” They make it all make sense, even when it doesn’t. They tend to be benign. They value description over analysis, since the latter, done well, veers toward the dark depths of critique.
                Post-traditionalists. Like traditionalists, they uphold the values gleaned from the Asian dispensation of x-buddhism. However, they seek a renovation of the archaisms and (certain) superstitions favored by their Asian patriarchs. They do not want a new house, only a freshly painted one with, perhaps, a modern kitchen.
                Secularists. They claim the values of modern scientific methodology, such as evidence-based claims, critical thinking, rigorous debate, and the light of reason. But they hesitate to test their cherished beliefs against these values. They do do so; but not too robustly, lest the house collapse. While respecting tradition, they seek a contemporary application. Yet, what they have produced is just the same old thing. Nothing new here.
                Traditionalists. They are committed to the forms—doctrines, practices, beliefs, etc.— that are preserved in Asian institutional structures. Some of these structures are of ancient or medieval origin, some are modern. They espouse pre-scientific worldviews. They axiomatically adhere to archaic cosmologies. They often believe in a world animated by spirits and hidden forces. They know no other possibility.
                True Believers. They raise the (western) x-buddhist banner. They heart Buddhism, though “Buddhism” is always proscribed by their particular school. Some true believers, of course, literally love all things Buddhists. This person, I think, is a peculiarly recent, North American type. They subscribe to some version of “One Dharma,” and are desirous of finding unity in diversity.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Contemplating Impermanence

There are many passages where “the buddha” encourages the contemplation of the inexorable reality of change: impermanence. One such practice is the contemplation on the decomposition of a corpse while reflecting on the fact that this too will be the fate of your body. Another is called “the five remembrances.” The first three, briefly, are that you, I, and all beings are of the nature to age, experience illness, and die and that there is no way to avoid these realities. The fourth reminds us that everything we treasure and all whom we love are of the nature to change and there is no way to avoid being separated from them. And the fifth states that we are the heirs of our actions and there is no way to avoid the consequences of our actions.

One practice that the Tibetan tradition offers, "the four reminders," also called "the four reversals" as in the four thoughts that turn the mind, are often presented in such a way that the world-denying and escapist metaphysical tenets of some Tibetan Buddhisms become clear. As Andrew Holecek writes in his article on the four reminders in the Winter, 2013 Tricycle: “These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out the their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification – which can only be found within.”

Among other things, this notion that awareness might “prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects” posits awareness as yet another subtle atman despite the rejection of atman by “the buddha.” Awareness arises in relation to some phenomena; positing an awareness independent of all causes and conditions is no different than positing a soul/self/atman! I find it striking that so many contemporary buddhists have such a difficult time seeing this! Also, common to some forms of Tibetan Buddhism is an idealism that can become a form of solipsism that seems to be rearing it’s ugly face here in the disparagement of “outwardly appearing objects.” Research on happiness seems to suggest that happiness comes from both within and without and that learning the proper balanced ratio is what is necessary; not to discount one or the other.

That this life only has value in terms of the “afterlife” is made overtly clear when he adds: “Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room; what’s the point?” This emphasis on “reincarnation” which is only seen in Tibetan Buddhism (yes other forms of buddhism teach rebirth, not the same thing and equally wrong when taken as the rebirth of some atomistic entity, one even as nebulous as a specific ‘stream of consciousness’) is another aspect of this life-denying tendency and is very selfish. Taken literally, this statement equating life to time spent in a hotel, and thus there being no point in redecorating it, could lead one to wonder why we should bother to confront structural forms of oppression, catastrophic climate change, or systemic economic inequities; if this life is no more than a hotel, what’s the point? 

Holecek quotes B. Alan Wallace: “In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires are for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

Now, I practice the five remembrances regularly, and emphasize to my students that we should never forget impermanence. The “gatha of encouragement,” which begins our daily practice, reminds us: “Great is the matter of birth and death. Impermanence permeates us. Be awake each moment. Do not squander your life.” But as a naturalist, this isn’t a practice designed to create revulsion for this life, it isn’t a mere “investment in future lives” (other than the metaphorical “lives” we live throughout this one life that we know exists and the equally important lives of those who will come after, as our actions now will definitely impact them) but it’s a practice to awaken us from our complacency; indeed it can be seen as a fierce compassionate shattering of the placid denial we too easily fall prey to, taking this life for granted. And no mistake, that can be a brutal awakening!

To me, though I agree desire for "wealth, luxury and praise" hold little value and may derail our attention from what is of real value, it’s sad that Wallace feels affection and the human need for relationship is “ultimately worthless,” literally “worth nothing” just because we all die! It is the fact that we will die, that we will be separated from all we love that makes my time with my loved ones so very precious; so precious that I don’t want to take one moment with them for granted. Ideally. And through this contemplation, who "loved ones" are becomes vast and ever more inclusive. And that’s why constant contemplation and remembrance of impermanence is important and can be so thoroughly a “turning of the mind,” because the default seems to lull me – us – into a kind of somnolent, zombie-like walking through life. Beyond this, I think it’s intellectually and morally dishonest because I somewhat doubt Wallace, and those who teach this life-denying perspective actually live with the full implications of what they are saying.

So yes, contemplate the fact of impermanence in order to live life fully, intimately, to come to see its absolute value in its ephemeral nature. Practice in order to avoid living this precious human life grasping at impermanent objects or experiences, and not ignoring them either, but savoring the good, and working to change what you can that is harmful to yourself and other real living beings who are also precious because also mortal. Don’t waste this life as if it were some dress rehearsal for future lives or some transcendent state of being. Immerse yourself in the world because you really are of it!

Here’s something I've written about the five remembrances if you’re interested…

Ignorance, or avidya, is a root cause of suffering, according to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra (II.5). But the ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge than an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today we call it denial. For instance, we may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth; a denial that leads to anxiety, fear, and confusion.
At a past lecture, I led a group of interfaith seminarians in the contemplation of the five remembrances, "the buddha's" teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change, and death. Afterward, one of the students asked, "Isn't this just negative thinking?" On the contrary, I would argue that the five remembrances is what "the buddha" offers to awaken you from denial, to cultivate an appreciation for living, and to teach you about nonattachment and equanimity.
If you think of it this way, the meditation is not a bleak, depressing list of things you'll lose, but a reminder of the existential situation of the human. When you accept impermanence as more than merely a philosophical concept, you can see the truth of it as it manifests itself in your mind, your body, your environment, and your relationships, and you no longer take anything for granted.
Once you accept the reality of impermanence, you begin to realize that grasping and clinging are suffering, as well as the causes of suffering, and with that realization you can relax and celebrate life. The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don't.
To work with the five remembrances below, it helps to memorize and repeat them daily. Say them slowly and let the words seep in, without immediately analyzing or interpreting them or your experience; that can and should come later. Just notice your reactions. Let them rest until they shift and pass away—as all things do, being impermanent. Stay with your breath and observe the sensations under all your thinking. You may experience dread at the thought of any or all of these realities.  You may experience huge relief as the energy you've spent denying and hiding from the truth is liberated to move freely through your body. Who knows what you'll experience until you try it?
Some remembrances are easier to accept than others. For me, it was easier to consider that I'm aging and will die, than it was that I have the potential for ill health. I have a strong constitution and am rarely ill; I had believed that if my practice were "good" enough, I wouldn't get sick. So, on those rare days when I was ill, I often reproached myself for being sick and was a pretty cranky person to be around. But with the help of the second remembrance, I've grown more accepting of illness and can now feel a profound sense of ease even while ill so that I don’t needlessly suffer my illness. What this has shown me is that there is indeed a difference between disease and dis-ease.
Another way of practicing the five remembrances in relationship is through  hugging meditation. When your partner or children leave for work or school, hug each other for three full breaths, and remind yourself of the fourth remembrance: "All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them." If you're having a disagreement with someone, remind yourself, before getting swept away by heated emotions, of the fifth remembrance: "I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions." None of this means you should be passive or reluctant to advocate your views. Instead the meditation helps you respond more skillfully with awareness rather than simply from conditioned reactivity.
You can also get used to the concept of impermanence by listing things that have changed in your life over the past month or two. Perhaps a difficult posture has become easier, or an easy posture has become challenging. Perhaps a problem with a family member has resolved or grown more complicated. You'll be hard-pressed to find something that hasn't changed! As I post this today, I look back over the month and review my mom’s illness and death; a teaching engagement that took me to Los Angeles; and a political fight to influence Arizona’s governor to veto an immoral, discriminatory bill that the state legislature had passed!
Again, facing the truth of impermanence shouldn't depress you; it should free you to be fully present. It should help you realize that the peace and ease you seek are available in the midst of changing circumstances. When you really see that all things change, your grasping and clinging fade under the bright light of awareness, like the stains in a white cloth bleached by the sun.

If nonattachment sounds cold and unappealing, you may be mistaking it for indifference. It's the experience of attachment, based on the denial of ceaseless change, that is lifeless. Life without change is a contradiction in terms. When you're attached to something, you want it to stay the same forever. This attempt to "freeze-dry" elements of your life squeezes the vitality out of life. The practice of nonattachment allows you to enjoy life wholeheartedly in its very passing.

Through your attachments you create mental manacles that bind you to the limited view that life is your life, your body, your lover, your family, your possessions. As your insight into impermanence deepens you start to see the truth of "not-self." When you can extend beyond the limits you've created you see that your life is not really "yours" but ultimately simply one manifestation of life.

As “the buddha” tells us: "When one perceives impermanence, the perception of not-self is established. With the perception of not-self, the conceit of 'I' is eliminated, and this is nirvana here and now."

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to age. There is no way to escape aging.

I am of the nature to experience illness. There is no way to escape illness.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Monday, January 6, 2014

There Is No Brad Warner and He Writes A Lot Of Books

Brad Warner’s new book has the clever and catchy title, There Is No God and He Is Always With You. And with this book as well as in a recent essay for Tricycle, titled “How To Practice With God” he shows himself to be the traditionalist, conservative, safe zen practitioner and teacher that he actually is: “hard-core” be damned.

In a blog posting earlier this year, Warner wrote:

“God does not exist, says Eriugena, because he is beyond existence. To say that he exists is to place him in contradistinction with that which does not exist. But if God is really God, then he cannot be bound by such categories as existence and nonexistence.

"This is a nice piece of logic, and I happen to like it quite a bit. But in the end that’s all it is. Because in order to agree with the logic, you have to first accept that there is something called God who is infinite and omniscient and transcendent and so on. But what if you don’t believe in that in the first place? What if you’re coming to this discussion from the standpoint that all matter is essentially dead and that consciousness is just an accident arising from the movement of electricity in the cerebral cells of animals who think far too highly of their own random brain farts?

"Pseudo Dionysus has an answer: “Find out for yourself.” You cannot answer the question of God’s existence or lack thereof through reasoned analysis. So rather than just stopping at a logical explanation of God he goes further. He says, ‘In the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge.’ These instructions sound very much like the ones the Japanese monk Dogen gave seven hundred years later and five thousand miles away for sitting zazen meditation. Dogen said, ‘Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections.’"

The problem is, as neural beings, we cannot “leave behind the senses” and to posit something, or some realm, that “transcends all being and knowledge” already assumes that which you are trying to prove. As a naturalist, I argue that such a transcendent realm doesn’t even exist, but if it did, by definition we could not know it (or ‘un-know’ it) because we are thoroughly natural animals. And, by the way, Warner and all zennies spout on endlessly about nonduality but seem to be confused about the idea because positing some transcendent realm beyond all being (or non-being) is exactly what dualism posits!

In his Tricycle essay, Warner writes: “I think the ultimate object of inquiry in Buddhist practice can be called God if we choose to call it God. Dogen Zenji, the founder of the order of Buddhism that I belong to, preferred not to name it at all. He just called it “it.” He said this “it” was infinite and intelligent, that “it” sees and knows all, that “it” is the source of compassion and truth, and that we are intimately connected to “it.” Medieval Japan had no other name for “it.” But we do. And that name is God.”

Whew! This may be what Dogen and Soto Zen believe, but it has little to do with what the buddha seems to have taught! This is more in line with Vedanta and Daoism. Repeatedly throughout his work, Warner shows he is in line with standard zen doctrine (deeply influenced by monistic Daoism) that reifies mind (as Mind) and speaks of “the Way” and now “it” as a substratum – a “source” of compassion and truth. The problem is, the buddha rejected any such substratum. Warner's description of the attributes of his "it" are no different from those posited by Vedantins about brahman, which the buddha criticized.

What zen has done – as well as many other forms of mahayana buddhism – is to reify the description of phenomena as being empty of any unchanging, independent and persistent essence into “emptiness,” described as essence, a “source” of phenomena! When adjectives such as shunya (empty) are made into nouns such as shunyata (emptiness) this is the kind of lax thinking we find.

But of course, thinking itself is seen as an obstacle to some “ineffable” understanding or “vision of reality” (more often written as “Reality” – and note the reifying symbolized by capitalizing such words as truth, reality and mind that is quite common among contemporary buddhists). This anti-thinking stance pervades much of contemporary buddhism, but it can be found in much traditional east Asian buddhism, despite the rich and varied intellectual tradition of early Indian buddhism.

Witness the following random quotes collected by Glen Wallis at his blog:

Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know. (Hsin Hsin Ming)
No thinking, no mind. No mind, no problem.  (Seung Sahn)
Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don’t know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you.  (Seung Sahn)
Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis. [Sutras are] mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more. (D.T. Suzuki)
Mindfulness is not thinking. This is one of the reasons it is so powerful. (Trevor Leggett)
It’s like this. If you start really paying attention to your own thought process, you’ll notice that the thoughts themselves don’t go on continuously. . . . Most of us habitually fill these spaces with more thoughts as fast as we can. . . . Try to look at the natural spaces between your thoughts. Learn what it feels like to stop generating more and more stuff for your brain to chew on. Now see if you can do that for longer and longer periods. A couple of seconds is fine. VoilĂ ! (Brad Warner)
And of course, that quote from Dogen that Warner shares! “Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections.”

In other words, become a vegetable (though recent research seems to point to the ability for plants to form memories!).
As such commonly repeated statements demonstrate, a particularly despicable aspect of much buddhist propaganda is a disdain of thinking. Yet despite these common pronouncements, the early buddhist understanding rejects such monist notions as promulgated by Seung Sahn above (it’s not merely that we are not in fact all one substance, there is no substance – and here, make no mistake, the word “substance” is a stand-in for “essence”). And Warner’s latching on to the “space between thoughts” as something more real (more essential) like “pure awareness” or “pure consciousness” (terms often bandied about by contemporary buddhist teachers) simply reifies awareness into a stand-in for atman.
This kind of thinking about the need to stop thinking (kind of ironic, ain't it?) or somehow “go beyond thinking” is currently favored in the mainstream mindfulness movement as well. Mindfulness is often described as “bare attention” which entails cultivating and maintaining a “non-discursive, non-judgmental, non-reactive attending to the present moment” and is, in fact, a relatively recent understanding, dating from the early 20th century. Historically, buddhist philosophical thought more generally rejected the idea of an awareness outside of all cultural and cognitive conditions. Indeed, many schools of buddhist thought would understand such bare awareness to be impossible, just as contemporary neural science shows.
Cognitive science shows us how awareness is constructed at every level. Since we are neural beings, our experience is categorized (constructed or conceptualized) from the cellular level. Categories are part of our experience from the first stage of contact, “the simultaneous coming together of a sense organ, a sense object, and a moment of consciousness that cognizes one by means of the other,” as the buddha is reported to have taught. The assertion that basic awareness carries no content or qualities of its own goes a bit further than the evidence provides and is more a Vedantin idea than anything the buddha seems to have said. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, a book I believe every practitioner should read – if for no reason other then to be challenged to look deeper into their own concepts – “Categorization is not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond” our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.”
This is important to bring to attention because there are definite effects of placing one’s faith in the possibility of such awareness. As Tom Pepper writes: “Certainly, as a social practice, convincing oneself that one has reached a state of “non-conceptual consciousness” can function as a kind of support for the ego, cathecting mental energy and helping to reify and naturalize one’s socially constructed construal of the world.  In a word, so long as one is convinced of the dual ancient and scientific power of this practice, and participates in the social institution of mindfulness, it is possible that it can serve to more fully interpellate the individual into the dominant ideology, of which empiricism and belief in a transcendent soul are powerful components…”
Read those quotes above again and you can see how such thinking has led to a generally quietistic, accommodation to oppressive social structures thoughout buddhism’s history in Asia and in many contemporary sanghas where dharma and political and social action are seen as separate realms. Even in most so-called “engaged buddhist” sanghas, the engagement is rarely of a radical critique of institutionalized structures of oppression, but more often 'band-aid' types of activity that, while perhaps helpful in the short-term, with the lack of deeper critical activity, simply serves to prop up the very structures at the root of social inequities.
Pepper continues:
“Simply put, to be able to achieve “bare awareness” assumes that there is some kind of mind or consciousness that is uncreated by, not dependent upon, the phenomenal world, and which can therefore become aware of this world “as it really is,” separate from this radically dualistic mind that does not affect and is not affected by it.  On this understanding, all of our cognitions are part of this phenomenal world, but our “pure consciousness” is not.  (Sharf refers to this as the “filter theory,” in which language and cultural conditioning “filter” or obscure the eternal mind’s direct access to the reality separate from it.)  Locke seems to have believed in such a pure consciousness (he suggests that the soul “thinks” outside of language, for instance), but it is antithetical to much of Buddhist thought, which assumes that consciousness and object arise dependent upon one another (as well as upon other conditions)."
It is a deeper engagement with, and understanding of, dependent origination, and the support and encouragement of critical thinking (thinking better), not some escape into non-thinking, non-conceptual, blissful, “pure awareness” (a pipe dream in any case) that is needed in contemporary buddhist practice if we have any hope for deconstructing the structures and ideology that are at the root of oppression and the creation of new ideologies and structures supporting greater liberation and equality for all.

Glenn Wallis' list can be found somewhere on this interesting and entertaining blog:

Tom Pepper's writing can be found both at the Speculative Non-Buddhism blog and here.

I've written more about the distorted contemporary view of mindfulness here.

And this talk by Robert Sharf is an even better critique of the contemporary view of mindfulness.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Ten)

Previously, I’ve put forward the argument that while taking responsibility has been shown to be generally good and psychologically healthy, it is not moral responsibility that is actually taken. Despite the intuitive feeling and tendency to strongly identify with one’s “character traits” as one’s “authentic self,” claims of moral responsibility that open one to punishment or reward cannot be founded upon such “feeling.” And yet, not only do some advocates of moral responsibility say we take moral responsibility for the character you happen to have, some say you gain moral responsibility because you literally “make yourself.” It is to that claim, I wish to now turn attention.

The Renaissance philosopher, Pico della Mirandola, in “The Dignity of Man” says that god has granted “man” a supernatural power of unlimited self-making. He writes: “Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have places thee, shall ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature…. thou mayest fashion theyself in whatever shape thou shall prefer.” Such positing of acausal free will requires the belief in a supernatural soul. Buddhists, allegedly rejecting such an essence, must face the implications of the anatta teaching and reject such a belief.

While rejecting god, Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, also settles onto a miraculous assertion when, insisting that our existence precedes our essence goes on to assert that we are “self-conscious, self-creating ‘being-for-itself’ with the free power – indeed, the necessity – to make ourselves; we are different in kind from entities with their own given natures, the unfree ‘being-in-itself.’” (2011, 115) Sartre argues that humans alone are uniquely self-creating, and that we make ourselves unconstrained by natural causes and natural processes.

To this, the buddhist and naturalist must ask: “who is doing the making?” The positing of “self-making” infers that there is already a self that is doing the making. Infinite regress follows! Or, if it’s a miraculous process (as with della Mirandola) or if it defies natural understanding (as with Sartre) then there is nothing that can be said about it and it by definition cannot fit into a naturalist system of thought or worldview.

And yet, there are avowed naturalists, like Daniel Dennett, who argue that one does indeed create and unleashes an agent who is oneself, and therefore should be held morally accountable. Not denying that  there is indeed a sense in which we do indeed make ourselves, it is also undeniable that we start with different resources and abilities which we neither chose nor created for ourselves!  If you have a loving and supportive early family life, an excellent education, good genetic dispositions and financial security, you are likely to create a superior character; someone starting with the opposite extreme is likely to fashion a ‘self’ with serious deficiencies and flaws. It remains unclear that you deserve reward and the other deserves blame.

Others say while we may not be “self-made,” we “choose ourselves” through the various choices we make. But even here, to speak of choices free of influences and conditions makes no sense in a naturalistic worldview. Yes, we all make choices, but we come to make those choices with differing capacities of rationality, self-efficacy, different temperaments and experience. It remains unclear how one becomes morally responsible for choices that have been conditioned by conditions out of one’s control.

Once again, Bruce Waller puts it succinctly and clearly: “… when I make my own choice – a choice that shapes my further character development – that choice is not made in a vacuum, nor is it the product of some miraculous power that transcends my causal and social and genetic history (at least naturalists cannot claim such transcendent choices). For the issue of moral responsibility, the key self-making question is whether it is fair to punish or reward for the results of choices that are themselves the product of vastly different conditions that ultimately were not the product of choice.” Some may argue that it is fair, but they must them offer convincing reasons to accept this, which I’ve not heard, yet. In fact, I believe that the weight of evidence shows that it is not fair.

The Dhammapada is replete with verses that extol “self-cultivation.” Many distinguish between “the foolish” and “the wise.” Verse 85 reminds us:

Few are the people
Who reach the other shore.
Many are the people
Who run about on this shore.

It should be clear to any practitioner that we do shape ourselves “as a fletcher shapes arrows; as carpenters fashion wood; as irrigators guide water.” In important ways my practice has shaped my life and has led to me being who I am today. But it should be equally clear to every practitioner that the “shaping” never transcends the causal history that set us on the trajectory we have followed. Zen Naturalism is not fatalism: our decisions, evaluations, and actions play a hugely important role in shaping who we become. We, and our practice, are part of the shaping process, not simply pawns or automatons. But this “self-shaping process” (including our own values and choices) among individuals proceeds upon differences in capacities, opportunities, circumstances and situations that were not created by the individuals. Thus, if one practitioner shapes the character of an arahant, and another remains tethered to "foolishness"; if one yogi shows fortitude and commitment to her practice and another falls into “laziness,” these differences are based upon differences in resources and capacities that were not created or chosen by the individuals. How then, does the one morally deserve praise and the other blame?

I end the current post by arguing that the system that asserts moral responsibility is unfair in another, perhaps more pernicious way. It is a system that blocks and forestalls any deeper inquiry into the causes that shape our values, our choices and our behavior. As soon as we say someone is morally responsible, we stop investigating the factors that underlie their behavior: from the “personal” factors such as cognitive capacities, differences in self-efficacy, and locus-of-control to “external” factors including specific circumstances, as well as cultural, social, economic, and political influences. The status-quo goes unquestioned. 

Waller, Bruce, 2011: Against Moral Responsibility. Cambride, MA: MIT Press

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Nine)

It’s been a while since I last posted to my series, “All Beings Are Without Blame.” If you haven’t followed the argument laid out so far over eight previous posts, I invite you to do so. If you have followed my argument, you may wish to refresh your memory as to what is meant by “taken responsibility” as opposed to “moral responsibility."

Those who believe that it is moral responsibility that is taken argue that people must therefore be coerced into taking such responsibility, as Daniel Dennett does, because he says, “… there will always be strong temptations to make yourself small, to externalize the causes of your actions and deny responsibility…” Therefore, he adds, “If you want to be free, you must take responsibility.”

But the only real responsibility that  can be “taken” is “take-charge responsibility” and no coercion is required. As Bruce Waller says, “Take-charge responsibility is not the price we pay for freedom, but is instead a vital element of living freely and exercising free control. It is very satisfying to take responsibility for my own life, my own decisions, my own projects, my own health care choices.”

Yes, it is very satisfying to do so – much of the time. However, it is often enough not very satisfying at all! It can be distressing and burdensome. When there is knowledge and confidence to act efficiently and skillfully, exercising control feels quite satisfying. It has been shown that patients with such knowledge and confidence who exercise take-charge responsibility for their own health care decisions recover faster and are more compliant with following their health-care regimens. I think it safe to say that this plays into the success many people have when they undertake some “alternative” medical regimen even if it’s been shown that the so-called therapy is objectively ineffective!

The benefits of “take-charge responsibility” have also been studied in long-term care situations (such as nursing homes) when patients have been asked to care for plants or kittens. Such patients exhibit greater resistance to infection, less depression and greater participation in community activities. And factory workers who have more control over their environment, and are given the opportunity to have greater involvement in the company show greater job satisfaction, are less likely to suffer depression and have fewer days lost to illness. But… if one is placed in a position of having to make a big decision without the appropriate knowledge and ability to make such a decision, then such control and responsibility becomes a stressful burden.

Those who have a strong sense of what Alfred Bandura calls “self-efficacy” find great satisfaction in exercising take-charge responsibility in making decisions and carrying on projects. They do not need to be forced to take responsibility; they welcome it! Better than thinking people need to be forced to take responsibility would be to create the conditions of solid, grounded knowledge, self-confidence, sense of self-efficacy in which people happily embrace and enjoy taking responsibility. Any parent knows that when children are young, they seek taking on responsibility – sometimes to the consternation of their parents for activities they are not developmentally ready to perform! My three-year old daughter loves to make her own eggs in the morning. Her mother and I have helped create the conditions where she knows what to do, understands what she can do (now, she can do every part of the operation but light the stove), and feels confident that she can do it, and so she embraces the opportunity. And to be sure, if she drops an egg, that doesn’t make her morally responsible! What she has taken upon herself is “take-charge responsibility.”

And this is important to distinguish and point out because when take-charge responsibility is confused with moral responsibility the conditions that favor the effective taking of take-charge responsibility are actively denied! When we hold people morally responsible and blame them as individuals for their bad acts or character, we are willfully blinding ourselves to the forces that shaped them. If we look closely – as did the buddha – it becomes quite clear that we are blaming and punishing people for acting as they do but such behavior is in fact the product of their unfortunate conditioning. And again, make no mistake, this is quite the willful avidya or ignoring and not seeing. Dennett again: “Instead of investigating, endlessly, in an attempt to discover whether or not a particular trait is of someone’s making – instead of trying to assay exactly to what degree a particular self is self-made – we simply hold people responsible for their conduct (within limits we take are not to examine too closely.”

Whew! Dennett, and those who argue alongside his form of compatibilism are literally telling us not to investigate how one’s character was formed, and to take care not to examine how responsibility actually functions. And our whole society does this quite well! For our punitive, retributive form of “justice” that holds people morally responsible and possessing free will, we must not look too closely. But it is imperative that we – as a society – begin to look seriously and deeply into the cultural, social, political and psychological conditions that foster and impede the exercise take-charge responsibility.

There is plenty of evidence that even those handicapped by conditions can learn, with the proper support, to make more skillful decisions, act less uncritically impulsive and develop a greater sense of self-efficacy. But certainly, nothing at all is gained by forcing someone to accept responsibility if they are not able to effectively; in fact, we are contributing to their suffering by doing so. The better response is to offer restorative and rehabilitative opportunities for such a person to grow in self-efficacy and the desire to exercise skillful control.

Bruce Waller strongly condemns the conditions that lead so many in our society to lack the sense of ‘self-efficacy’ and freedom: “We aren’t born free, but must develop the capacity for freedom. And we are in chains, but they are the chains of substandard education, hierarchical authoritative religions, standardized jobs that require obedience rather than thought, and a consumer culture that encourages and rewards mindless conformity.”

Not seeing the causes of duhkha is duhkha. Seeing the causes of duhkha, we see the path to ending duhkha. The buddha argued against those who said duhkha was a matter of fate, the will of the gods or random. There are causes and conditions. Recognize and understand the causes and conditions, and then change them. That is the way to “freedom” and the challenge, as we’ve come to see, is that this is by necessity a collective movement. The very reason we must act as a collective is the same reason all beings are without blame: there are no atomistic selves independent of causes and conditions that can be deserving of blame or praise.

Dennett, Daniel, 1984: Elbow Room. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Dennett, Daniel, 2003: Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking

Waller, Bruce, 2011: Against Moral Responsibility. Cambride, MA: MIT Press

Friday, June 28, 2013

On the "Gen X Dharma Teacher Gathering"

For those unfamiliar with the Gen X Dharma Teacher Gathering that took place earlier this month at Deer Park Monastery, please read the summary here.

On the surface, such a gathering seems simply and only positive: what could be better than teachers from the various buddhisms gathering to dialogue with one another? But there are so many questions and issues that simply remain transparent for such participants, too many unquestioned assumptions that the “shadow” appears in the very light the conference was meant to shine.

First: the opening paragraph states that the conference was for “Western teachers – of any recognized Buddhist lineage that offers refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha…” As a Gen X conference, the invitations were limited to said teachers from “recognized Buddhist lineages” “for whom teaching is a major life direction” born between the years 1960 and 1980. Someone born in 1960 would be 53! Seems a bit old to be considered "Gen X!" That's still well within the "Baby Boomer Generation."

This question of "lineage" and being "recognized" or "authorized" is one that gets little superficial attention. I would hope younger teachers would be questioning this very notion rather than seemingly unquestioning the very structure of "lineage." I recently had a personal experience around this when a few months back, Michael Stone passed along in an email to me that he was being asked by some elder zen teachers who had only just heard of me, “Why wasn't Frank nominated to come to the Gen X meeting?” (I am so outside the radar of contemporary mainstream, ‘consensus buddhism’ that the fact I’m too old to be invited had they even  known about me made me laugh when I read that question). The other questions asked bear some relevance to the first point I wish to raise: “Who has the right to “recognize” whom or what is “legitimate?”  How is such "right" granted? And by whom?

These zen teachers – rather than reaching out and asking me directly their questions – went through Michael, which at best seems a breech of their holy “right speech” ethic! Michael, as a friend of mine, was put on the spot by these zen elders, and forwarded their questions to me. What prompted their questions was their having become aware of a dharma training program I am offering two-dozen students that had only just begun! Keep in mind, this is a multi-year program requiring a commitment that will be for over five years, and this was only in its first week! You’d never know from the urgency of their questioning!

Their questions: “Who is he? Can he empower dharma teachers? Why not a mentorship program? Why dharma teacher? It's a 2000 year old lineage that isn't perfect but... What lineage exactly? Does he have a teacher now? Do you know the students? Are they ready? Why is this the first I have heard of Frank? How come the lay Zen teachers associations have not heard about this? Are these going to be Zen teachers?”

Can you hear the mixture of proprietary investment and status preservation? So, who determines whom is “recognized?” Who determines what “lineages” are recognized? When zen started out, it was a bunch of upstarts not recognized by the mainstream contemporaneous buddhist schools in China. The fact that they made up a lineage going back to the buddha was clearly an attempt to create a sense of legitimacy, and over time the zen school became rather powerful and dominant.

The story of Hui-neng’s dharma transmission in a “secret” meeting with his teacher one night (for me, such “family secrets” are a red flag alert) was created by Shen-hui, a student of Hui-neng in yet another upstart movement designed to wrestle institutional power from an established lineage holder, Shen-hsiu. Shen-hsiu was acknowledged as one of the great Ch’an masters, honored by court and populace alike. He was the great leader of the Lankavatara School, which later came to be known as the Northern Ch’an and was, according to all contemporary records, one of the most eminent priests of his time.

The first mention we have of Hui-neng is found in the Leng-chia jen-fa chih where he is simply listed as one of the eleven principle disciples of Hung-jen along with Shen-hsiu, Fa-ju, Chih-hsien and seven others. This same text states that Shen-hsiu transmitted the Patriarchate to P’u-chi, and that along with P’u-chi, Shen-hsiu had three other principle heirs: Ching-hsien, I-fu, and Hui-fu. While this Ch’an of Shen-hsiu and his disciples was enjoying great popularity and prestige, a then unknown priest from Nan-yang, Shen-hui, intent upon promulgating a new school of his own launched an attack upon the Ch’an of Shen-hsiu, and after years of struggle, eventually carried the day. One of his methods was the disparagement and undermining of Shen-hsiu. The Platform Sutra is a wonderful example of propaganda, even if it contains some cool teachings.

Despite the self-congratulatory nonsense about the “different views” expressed at the Gen X conference, there is a ringing hollowness in the proclamation that “No one voice was dominant. No one tried to take over and make it their show.” This hollowness is the shadow peaking out over this movement to create and maintain a hegemonic monopoly on what they might refer to as the “true dharma.” The “one voice” that dominates is the “one voice” of contemporary mainstream, ‘consensus buddhism.’ Where are the current “upstarts” looking to create truly new expressions of the dharma – maybe even a new dharma? The real questions are being asked outside the accepted, “recognized” lineages as it has been true throughout buddhism’s history. 

I don’t know if I can find the words to express the dismay I felt when I read “And so it seems that a kind of template has been set…there are already several groups and projects forming from the retreat that will in some way shape the direction the dharma takes going forward.” Can they not hear the egoic, self-inflating tone of this statement? Of course not, because real dialogue would include questioning the decisions made before the conversation even began. All the differences in opinion and perspective expressed in such gatherings take more for granted than they acknowledge and are nothing compared to what a real dialogue would require. While I don’t agree with every argument they make, the only real "dangerous"  and vigorous questioning that dares to investigate what "goes without saying" that I see regarding buddhist teachings and practices is at speculative non-buddhism.

The second point I’d like to raise is the blindness evident in the following:

“Gone are the days of the culty and isolated rockstar dharma teacher beyond question — or at least the Gathering’s participants hope them to be gone. Those who would assert that they or their lineage alone hold the sole keys to the Buddha’s truth would have been very out of place in the midst of those of us who gathered at Deer Park Monastery for our sessions of conversation and interaction.”

Are they insane???? The contemporary commodified buddhist “marketplace”  couldn’t be any more obvious to me if it hit me in the face! Oh, they “hope” such days are gone! Good one, that! From the cult of personality around Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama to the newest ones being created around Lodro Rinzler, Brad Warner and Noah Levine, (among others) I see “dharma rockstar” trappings in the packaging, in the way they brand themselves, and how they market their image to a degree not possible before social media and the ubiquity of advertising and public relations. It’s actually hard to resist this momentum!

That this statement could be expressed in the same year we became aware of four scandals (Geshe Roach, Eido Shimano Roshi, Genpo Roshi, Sasaki Roshi) alone in the buddhist world strikes me as avidya (ignore-ance) plain and simple. And, do I need to point out these were “authenticated, recognized” teachers? 

Laying my cards on the table, not that it matters or is in any way necessarily relevant to the discussion, but for the record, I was ordained as a dharma teacher by Samu Sunim on July 4th, 2007, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. By 2008, I declared myself independent of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, the order established by my teacher. There were no secret dharma transmissions or empowerments. I'm a nobody, that way. In 2009, I established the Empty Mountain Sangha in Tucson, Arizona. I cannot foresee us ever being "recognized" or accepted by the growing cultural institutionalized western buddhism as evidenced in this and other conferences such as  the one held by Buddhist Geeks. If you find yourself passing through Tucson, please feel free to come and sit with us.