Thursday, April 28, 2011
Monday, April 25, 2011
What I find most fascinating about Engler’s treatment of the subject of anatman (no self) is his systematic deconstruction of the stages leading from our ordinary self to the experience of no self. According to him, the jhana states represent ascending levels of reality construction that our minds perform on a pre-conscious level. So as meditators proceed upwards through the jhanas, they are in fact retracing how their minds create this dualistic world, where subject and object appear to be divorced. The final state resembles a quantum experiment, where reality is experienced in its rawest form—as flashes of discontinuous, impersonal quanta (for lack of a better word). Impermanence, emptiness, and interdependence, while only words, are the ones best suited to describe the realm of anatman. Engler draws upon the voluminous, painstaking detail of the Abhidharma (and I believe, though am not certain, upon his own personal experience) as evidence. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you agree with him or not.
Another fascinating topic that Engler tackles is why we experience the self in the first place. If, after all, the self has no ontological reality (as opposed to a psychological reality, which Engler agrees does exist) Engler suggests that the reason we rely on this representational construct called a self is because our minds' emptiness terrifies us. In fear of our own emptiness, we try to reify the representational "I" into a separate, concrete, unchanging entity with a core or essence. This, according to Buddhism—the false belief in a substantial “I”—is the root of our suffering. So it’s not, as some might assume, the fear of death that prompts the “I” delusion, as much as it is fear of our own emptiness. For why fear death if, as Barry Magid puts it later in this same book "[t]here is no essential self to defend"?
Overall, Psychoanalysis and Buddhism is a bit of a mixed bag. Some essays are better than others, or at least more suited to my tastes. Barry Magid’s essay “Orindary Mind” rocks. But what else would you expect someone in the Ordinary Mind school to say? More about that in future posts.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Whenever a "Zen master" falls from grace, a series of questions naturally arise. (Since all of these scandals involved male teachers, I'll use the masculine pronoun.) "Was he enlightened?" "How could someone abuse his power like that?" "What does it mean to be a Zen master?"
What Barry Magid points out in his article is the human pitfall to think that there's some essence, not only to being a Zen master, but to the Dharma itself. And if there's one thing that Buddhism teaches us, it's that everything is empty of an essence. Why should the Dharma be an exception?
So what makes someone a Zen master?--enlightenment? And if so, how could someone who is "enlightened" act so unethically? All these questions, while important, beg another larger one, namely: doesn't this presuppose that there's some "essence" to enlightenment, Buddhism, the Dharma?
The beauty of the teaching of emptiness is that it's self-reflexive. And so emptiness itself is empty.
To ask the Zen master question is to assume that there's some "thing" that makes someone a Zen master, or enlightened. To extend this idea to Buddhism itself, the Dharma is just as empty as any other social or mental construct, which explains why Tibetan Buddhism appears so much differently than Japanese of Thai Buddhism. Like everything else in the world, Buddhism changes because it's empty. Often times we hear someone say, "But the heart of the Buddha's teaching is the same" in all these schools.
But, again, doesn't that presuppose some essence or core to Buddhism?
And if so, what is that essence--the Four Noble truths, emptiness, dependent arising/interdependence? All of these are ideas designed to reflect the nature of reality; but the more we try to pinpoint the "heart" of Buddhism, the more we are seduced by the idea that there's some "essence" to it.
In his article, Magid challenges the bedrock of these assumptions by asserting that there is no Zen, only Zen teachers. He uses art as an example:
"Art, ultimately, is simply what the artists of a certain time and placeAfter all, where else can the Dharma be found but in the living embodiment of Buddhist practitioners? To idealize the Dharma is to reify it and assume that there's some "essence" to it, which runs contrary to the Buddhist teaching of emptiness.
create. Artists, musicians, priests, teachers all occupy their respective
cultural niches and the products of their activity are inseparable from the
lives they lead in the making of it. There is no Platonic essence of
capital A “Art” that one generation of artists transmits to the next. Artists
learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the art of their contemporaries and
"Dharma teachers likewise learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the
teaching of their teachers. The nature, the meaning of, the Dharma in any
generation is nothing but the teaching, the behavior, the lives of those who are
teaching and living it at any given time. The Buddhism of America both is and is
not the Buddhism of Shakyamuni, and our Chinese and Japanese ancestors. The is
no Zen, only Zen teachers."
So when we say that someone is a Zen master, what does that actually mean? Isn't such a title just another form of grasping (and I'm not immune to it; I find myself asking similar questions all the time)?
I think that the questions we ask can help us in our practice. For after all, why do we feel the need to define Zen or the Dharma in the first place? Are we simply grasping at a subtle sense of self by trying to define Buddhism, and by proxy, ourselves?
Emptiness is a tricky thing. The human mind craves something solid to hold onto, to dig its teeth into, and if we're not careful, as Magid reminds us, we'll find ourselves reifying Buddhism itself.
Monday, April 18, 2011
With Easter fast approaching, I find myself in an awkward position as a parent trying to raise my kids Buddhist. My four-year-old daughter is old enough to understand why we celebrate holidays, so I wondered, Do I tell her about Jesus? And if so, what about him? As a Buddhist, I obviously don't subscribe to whole the son of God thing.
As it stands, she will probably be the only kid in kindergarten who doesn't know who or what God is. My wife and I joke that some kid in class will mention God and our daughter will say, "God? What's God?" It's just not a conversation that comes up in our house. I'm a practicing Buddhist and my wife is a practicing scientist. She's was raised Catholic and...well, we all know how that turns out.
So this morning I tried to have the "Jesus talk" with my daughter, avoiding using the G-word, lest I confuse her more than I needed to.
It went something like this: "Well, you know how we follow the teachings of the Buddha?" She nodded, pronouncing a garbled "Yeah" through her mouthful of cheese sandwich. I figured I'd sneak attack her while her mouth was full, to avoid unnecessary questions.
"Well some people follow the teachings of a man called Jesus." She thought as she chewed.
Then: "So he's like the Buddha?"
"Pretty much," I said. Now I know there are some Christians reading this who are fuming--How dare he compare the Buddha to JESUS! But give me a break; I'm not about to get into messiah-hood with a four-year-old who has never even heard the word "God" before.
Then she asked me a question I was completely unprepared for: "Is he dead?" Where did that come from? Talk about a clincher. Call me unprepared, but I was planning on mentioning Jesus, relating him to Easter, and then splitting--but now she was asking if Jesus was alive. In our house, we try to spell out the words "Die" and "Kill" so the kids don't understand. So how do you explain crucifixion without the gory details?
Thinking fast, I said, "Yes, he's dead. He...ahhh...died to save other people."
Well, that didn't come out too bad. And most Christians would even agree with my explanation.
"Oh," she said, returning to her cheese sandwich.
And that's why people celebrate Easter," I added, "because he died for other people. Because he was so kind and generous, like a Bodhisattva."
And I don't think the comparison was a stretch. Bodhisattvas are beings who dedicate their lives, over limitless time, to saving all beings.
That sounds like Jesus to me--he gave everything he had to save others.
At first I was just trying to make a connection that she would understand--Bodhisattvas are a term she was familiar with. But then it clicked for me too. Suddenly I felt closer to my Christian heritage than I had in years. Viewing Jesus through the Bodhisattva lens made me truly appreciate his sacrifice. He was a true Bodhisattva.
Again, I know that that comparison would boil some people's blood, but it can't be any more offensive than the damn Easter bunny. I mean, come on, a bunny that delivers eggs, what's up with that?
Thankfully my daughter didn't ask me to make the connection. She just kept on chewing. Hopefully the whole sex conversation will run this smoothly.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: thivierr
Thursday, April 14, 2011
For instance, I heard a rumor (so please don't quote me on this) that after An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's global warming documentary, came out, an interviewer asked Gore, "If you're so interested in protecting the environment, why don't you make the biggest impact that an individual can by becoming vegetarian?" (On a purely environmental level, animal rights issues aside, the argument goes that sustaining livestock is an extremely inefficient use of resources, which could be devoted to feeding humans instead.)
Mr. Gore didn't have an answer to that, or so the rumor goes.
This shows that it's easier to get people to recycle or drive a hybrid car than it is to get them to change their day-to-day to choices like what they eat.