Finding One’s Own Past Blameworthy

There are times when life is busy, lived forwards with a view to the future that drives out any consciousness of the past. Sometimes it is just the opposite and things slow down and we live in quiet days that give us space to reflect. In such moments, if there is no imagined, sought-after future ready to fascinate our attention, then the mind is free to cast backwards through our personal histories and we can relive the past. This is often thought a bad thing, perhaps unconsciously regarded as suitable only for the elderly and the severely ill – that is, for those who haven’t any future to look forward to. That way lies only nostalgia, that unseemly retreat into what may never have been and which, in any case, certainly never may be again. Why, after all, would someone with more road left ahead than behind concern herself with what has been left behind?

It is an inevitability, of course, that thoughts of the past will arise in the present. We should try our best not to torture ourselves with them, but they come naturally and, just as naturally, they go. And while it is true the retreat to nostalgia can drain life of something in the present, it can also provide much comfort if the present moment is one of misfortune. Really, this is not better or worse than living with one’s mind fixed to the future, it is only cultural biases that make it seem so. After all, both hope and despair are future-oriented emotions, reactions to merely imagined circumstances – the least that may be said of rumination upon the past is that it is, ostensibly, about what has actually happened.

This is to understate the value of contemplating our own journeys, however. For when we imagine the future we always do so on our terms: “I will be as I am, but better, richer, stronger, wittier, more beautiful, charming, and intelligent, of more subtle and refined tastes, my every project will come to fruition…” Or, alternatively, “every possible misfortune will be visited upon me: I shall lose my youthful beauty, my mind will decline, my body will go to fat, I will lose my home, business, and family…” Both versions project our assessments of ourselves and our lives as we find them into an imaginal realm that reality does not and cannot push back against. But when we look back upon the past, we also do so on our terms – and sometimes what we can see is ugly.

(I am, of course, thinking about myself here.)

We should be glad if we look back and see misbehaviour – e.g. that our dissembling was transparent, our sense of entitlement delusional, our manipulations odious. It’s not that we are or ought to be glad that we behaved poorly or that we hurt people and lost friends, rather, we are glad because we now know that such behaviour is bad and that we should not act in such a way. We should be glad because we see that, although we didn’t meet our current standards for behaviour, those standards are there now and better than they were.

Despite My Previous Anti-Christian Assertions…

A Google search on christian buddhism brought me to this and this and this.  There’s both a lot of relief and negativity in evidence in the comments to these articles.  Personally, I understand both sides of the equation.

I don’t think it’s possible actually to be a 50/50 Christian-Buddhist or Buddhist-Christian, even if you are one of the mystical sorts of Christians.  Fundamentally, Buddhists and Christians differ pretty strongly in respect to that which is of transcendental concern and the differences between the two families of views cannot really be papered over.  Buddhism generally denies a metaphysical ground or source, which denial marks a huge non-starter for anything that reasonably could be categorized as ‘Christian’.  Having said that, however, there are some Buddhist sects that view the ultimate reality as being Mind (huge contentious discussion, I know, but let’s not get into it now) and so actually approximate something like the theism that they are doctrinally required to reject – even so, their ultimate reality of Mind is worlds apart from the God of Christianity, even in His more mystical articulations.  For instance, the Buddhists’ ubiquitous Mind/Awareness/etc. remains decidedly impersonal, while even the mystical Christians’ God has elements of volition, personality, etc. (granted, of distinctly different kind than those of humans).  These are particularly sticky problems and cannot simply be brushed under the rug.

Stained glass Padmasambhava (click to embiggen).

Moreover, there is obviously a lot of hurt that motivates the negative comments on these posts.  People who perhaps had bad experiences with Christianity or its representatives but who retained their spiritual hunger (which is being fed by Buddhism) would, quite naturally, view the entire religion with a jaundiced eye (indeed, most atheists are of this sort too).  Then there are those who simply have great distaste for what is familiar or a mild-to-extreme valuing of what is foreign, whatever the genesis of these feelings (see la wik: cultural cringe, oikophobiaxenophily, xenocentrism).  To such people, any attempt to forge a synthesis or bring Jesus into Buddhism pushes all the wrong buttons – Buddhism was supposed to be their escape from all that.

And then, of course, there are fervent, fundamentalist convert Buddhists as well (Namdrol of E-Sangha comes to mind).

Tibetan-ish Jesus in Gethsemane (click to embiggen).

But the negative comments seemed also to be missing the point of what the author was getting at, which really wasn’t that Christianity and Buddhism ought to merge into some perfect synthesis of the two.  Rather, his point (which I thought was fairly obvious) is that as Westerners we will have some degree of resonance with the morals, myths, and cultural containers (e.g. art, architecture, music) of our heritage and that this is something that Buddhism will have to accommodate itself to if it is truly to become rooted in Western soil.  I fully agree with that thesis even though I, raised in an atheist household, do not and never did believe Jesus to be God or any of the other stuff that goes with Christian belief.  Still, as an archetype of forgiveness and compassion, Jesus speaks far more powerfully to me than Tara and John the Baptist may speak to some Westerners as a more appropriate meditational figure for purification than Vajrasattva.  Nor does the process necessarily need be entirely about Christianity, either.  I have elsewhere expressed some interest in buddhizing Halloween (which I have been meaning to do a follow-up on).  And the Grim Reaper surely must be capable of being put to meditational use?

I love this so much, my print looks awesome on the wall (click to embiggen).

The ironic thing about this is that both certain Western xenophiles and Asian cultural conservatives will fight tooth and nail against such a process taking place, even though it is exactly the same process (insofar as history does not repeat, it rhymes) as the synthesis of pre-Buddhist Tibetan folk-religion with Buddhism or of Kwan-Yin’s transformation from goddess to Bodhisattva.

My Conversation With Kenneth Folk

Today I had the good fortune of spending several hours shooting the breeze with Kenneth Folk. He just happened to be in town and was game to have lunch with me and a fellow dharma geek (though lunch got long). If I had had the presence of mind to think ahead, I probably would’ve made a point of taking mental notes, but (alas and alack) I did not!  But it was a most fascinating and enlightening (ha!) conversation, ranging from fMRI studies of meditators’ brains, to meta-models of enlightenment, to our individual practices (thanks for the advice, Kenneth!) and much else besides.  It’s not every day that an opportunity like that crops up.  I haven’t much to say about it right now – I need to give time to my subconscious to grind away until something good comes out of it – but I think this will provide fodder for this space, in any case.


EDIT: I posted this before I was finished, so I added a little more.

Anatta and Sunyata: Substantially Different Concepts?

(Did you get the joke?)

Perhaps someone out there with deeper knowledge of the doctrinal subtleties of this can help clear this up for me, but I have to admit that I’m hard pressed to find a big, hairy difference between the two.

Anatta can be interpreted strictly to mean that there is nothing whatsoever that arises in perception that is or is a property of a self, soul, me, etc.  This would be a completely accurate interpretation.  This is also exactly identical to the emptiness of ‘the self’.  So far, so good.  But if we allow a somewhat greater degree of freedom in interpretation, we could say that anatta also applies to all phenomena, not simply the putative self – all things are without their own self-nature (that is, there is nothing that is or is a property of a self of those objects).  How do we know this?  Anicca: if things had their own self-nature, they would not change, now would they?  Which is precisely the evidence brought out to support the supposedly different (and putatively superior) Mahayana doctrine of emptiness.

Now, of course, anatta is (almost?) always used in Theravada parlance to refer to one’s own self, soul, me, ‘I’ (etc.) as a matter of training.  Theravada theory and practice aims to  produce arahants through the clear perception of the emptiness of their own selves – it is not entirely clear whether it follows from this that arahants must therefore have overcome the misperception of inherent existence (or self) in external objects as well.  Regardless, this seems much less different than the sectarian cheerleaders for ‘higher’ yanas seem to suggest – it seems as though Theravadins do not talk about emptiness much because it’s not really relevant to their aims.  Does it boil down to this, or is there a real distinction that I’m missing here?

Was David Hume Enlightened?!

Hume needed all that fat to fuel his ginormous brain.

So, I’ve been sitting meditation for a long while.  It’s an interesting pursuit – the more one tries to just stay with whatever is here now, the more strange things seem to pop up.  Anyway, I was thinking about Hume today because of something that made itself so blindingly obvious during my meditation practice that I couldn’t help but make the connection.  Basically, whenever you have a sensory input (say, a fly passes through your field of vision), that input will be followed extremely shortly thereafter by an involuntary mental reproduction of that sight-event.  This comes almost immediately after the original sensory input and is noticeably different in ‘feel’ than a memory of the same event after the fact.

Now, you can’t force yourself to notice this – indeed, trying to force it will either entirely prevent it from occurring or will cause too much mental noise to allow you to notice it (I’m not sure which it is) – but it definitely happens.  And now I think I understand where Hume got his notion about ideas.  Or at least I think I do – my suspicion is that he was up to some sort of what today would be recognized to be meditation (granted, he probably didn’t sit full-lotus).  Which makes me wonder – where in God’s name did he get the idea to do that from?  For goodness sake, he even appears to have figured out anatta!

And so I’m seriously freaked – was David Hume… enlightened?

Buddhizing Halloween

As Buddhism left India it came into contact with other, sometimes remarkably different cultures.  The result is that there is a religion that incorporates and expresses itself through images (and the concepts they represent) as colourful, complicated, and symbolically laden as this:

Now that’s busy! (Click to embiggen some)

… but also as simple as this:

Enso. (Go ahead and embiggen if you want to, but I’m not sure what the point would be)

The point here being, of course, that as Buddhism has moved into new cultural spaces it has adopted the forms of those cultures, using them to express peculiarly Buddhist themes and sometimes supplanting their original meanings entirely [1].  Naturally, as Buddhism becomes rooted in the West we should expect the same treatment to be applied to Western cultural forms, even though by all accounts it appears to be appalling to many culturally conservative Buddhists that Westerners should want to practice and celebrate Buddhadharma in ways that resonate for their own cultures.  But, speaking for myself, I see this as a good thing – I am not Tibetan/Japanese/Chinese/Thai/etc. and I do not wish to be [2].

Which brings me to an upcoming and super-fun holiday: Halloween [3]!  If there is any holiday that I want/is a good candidate for being Buddhized, this is it.  There are several reasons why this is so:

  • Although the broad outlines of the origins and meaning of Halloween are known, they are not believed in.  The holiday is widely celebrated by Western (at least, North American) society, but is largely devoid of meaning.  Indeed, the actual meaning of “trick or treat” never occurred to me until I was an adult – it had always just been a phrase that got you candy (which was good enough).
  • More specifically, Halloween has no Christian content, which makes Buddhization much easier for two reasons.  First and most importantly, to Buddhize Halloween will not cause outrage among/backlash from the Christian community.  Secondly, there’s no metaphysics that will need abandonment or difficult reworking in order to fit with Buddhist thought.
  • The West needs to take the dark side of life more seriously.
  • There are tantalizing hints of existing traditions that could, by mere suggestion, be transformed from simple fun into meaningful ritual.
  • It’s so so so fun.

I can think of a few obvious ways this could be done:

  • Teachings about hungry ghosts/hell realms.
  • Pointing out the emptiness of ‘external’ perceptions (what’s behind the mask?).
  • Transforming emotional reactions, demonstrating purity of the world (the old peeled grapes as eyeballs, spaghetti as brains, etc.).
  • Chod practice!
  • Death and rebirth teachings/meditations.

I know that I’m not the only Buddhist to be thinking about this holiday specifically or about similar themes, so what does everyone think?  Western Buddhists, what are your ideas and suggestions?!

Getting in the *spirit* of things (har)!

Update:  The pic of the grim reaper on the lotus comes from here.  I wanted to give the artist any traffic that might flow through, ’cause I think that’s a pretty awesome pic (but sorry everyone, I bought the last print!).


[1] Buddhism is not the only religion to have done so – Christianity has done so for Christmas and many of its saints.

[2] Which has just now inspired a thought vis-a-vis the Christianizing of old Pagan traditions throughout Europe.  Modern historians generally talk about this in negative terms (since there is a palpable anti-Christian bias in academia) but I wonder how much of this really was imposed by the Church.  If I as a Westerner want Halloween Buddhized, couldn’t former Pagans have wanted their festivals Christianized?  Food for thought.

[3] I know it’s a little early yet, but I’m thinking about it because I’m thinking about costumes!

Blog Direction Question & BDSM and Politics

First, I have to apologize for having gone AWOL for the past while.  I was both busy with work and tied up in the evenings such that writing slipped down the list of priorities.  Also, my mind has mostly been a vacant expanse of uninterestingness and unoriginality.  I only post thoughts that, while not necessarily being the first instance of their having-been-thought in the history of the whole universe, nevertheless are made chez moi.  I haven’t had (m)any of those lately and those I have I can’t decide whether to post or not – they are mostly of a political nature and I more-or-less want to avoid politics on this blog.  Should I set up a different site for those, expand this blog’s mandate, or just let them be?

But here’s a cute one that occurred to me the other day.  I was thinking about the nature of sexual fetishes and BDSM came up (natch).  Anyway, it occurred to me that there are people in this world who actually prefer to be subordinate to others.  Similarly, there are those that prefer to be dominant.  We have all met people of both types.  So the question is: where does this leave egalitarianism?  Presumably, those who would like to follow want to be led (and so shall be led) but egalitarianism requires that people become self-led.  Isn’t this sort of harmful to would-be sheep (also, would-be shepherds)?  Doesn’t taking their interests into account sort of necessitate creating structures of dominance?