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?

Rebirth: A Buddhist Doctrine That Doesn’t Quite Make Sense

This is not what Buddhists are talking about.

When people are introduced to Buddhism, one of the first things they are told is that Buddhists believe in rebirth, which is that after death one will live again and again in countless, innumerable bodies (of various sorts, human, godly, and demonic).  Most people don’t really get any further than this but, should they ask more questions, they will have it explained to them that this is not the same thing as reincarnation – how so?  Buddhists, it will be recalled, accept the doctrine of anatta, or ‘no(t)-self’, that there is nothing anywhere in existence that can be pointed to or identified as ‘me’ or ‘mine’ – that is, there is no soul.  Now, reincarnation is the notion that oneself, the soul, moves from body to body and life to life, but since for Buddhists there is no soul, there cannot be anything literally moving from life to life – you cannot literally be reborn since you, properly speaking, don’t exist.  What to make of all this Buddhist talk about past lives, then?

The Buddhist notion of rebirth is bundled with the notion of karma.  Without going too deeply into details, the story is this.  Whenever we act intentionally, through those actions (karma) we are creating metaphysical causes that will have future results (vipaka).  However, since we act constantly and we only live for so long, by the time we die we will have created a bunch of causes that still have to manifest their results.  So what happens then is that these effects do come about by conditioning the psychology/life history of some yet to be born entity –  in a very important sense they are the causes of the existence of that being [1].  Rebirth is not of a person but of a causal process – what makes past lives mine is that they are the ones that directly conditioned the life I am now living.  Similarly, what will make future lives mine is that they are the results of the actions I take in this one.  But this account has some pretty big pitfalls (whatever one thinks about the metaphysical plausibility of the whole affair).

First off, there’s the problem of establishing diachronic identity conditions (which becomes even more complicated across lifetimes).  This is a very familiar problem to philosophy, especially when souls are abandoned – even if my actions cause a future being, in what meaningful sense is that being me if it is entirely different?  Say I am ‘reborn’ as a frog – what about the frog and its mind is similar enough to my own that we can be thought of as being the same in essence?  I should say nothing – the fact (if it is one) that I caused the frog and its mental states to come into being is irrelevant to identifying the frog and this human person as the same thing.  Consider that our parents also caused our existence but they are definitely not us [2].  I cannot see how being the source of the mental causation of some yet-to-exist entity qualifies me for identification with that being any more than its parents are so qualified for being the source of its physical causation.

It says it all.

Which brings me to the next trouble for the rebirth hypothesis – there are innumerable causes for features of my mental life that come from outside of myself.  Perhaps I watch an extremely sad film or I read a profound passage in a book that forever changes my life: in either case, my system of mental causation (and hence my future-life trajectory) will have been irrevocably altered by mental causation arising in other minds.  Similarly, my parents, genetics, and cultural environment all helped to mould my mental ecology.  Why should only one source of mental causation (i.e. ‘my’ past lives) be privileged over all the others in any analysis of future-life causation?  I can’t think of any non-tautological or non-overdetermined reasons to do so.

And looking to causation across lives, there are problems related to that just raised:

The first is that rebirths are presumed to be serial, never simultaneous.  This would, of course, be simple common sense were there a soul or self that travelled from life to life, body to body (“of course it can’t be more than one person at a time because it defines what it is to be a person and it is singular”).  Buddhists, however, deny that there is such a thing as a soul but still maintain that rebirth is serial.  I can see no reason for this – in the absence of a soul it is difficult to see why actions should produce results only within a single body-mind instead of several.  It would be like two billiard balls being struck simultaneously by the Cue Ball but only one of them reacting to the impact.  Surely everyone has committed enough intentional acts to build several future lives out of, so why shouldn’t they happen at the same time?

The second is that, having given reason to believe that multiple-source mental causation is active within one lifetime, there is no reason to rule it out across lifetimes either –  that is, perhaps I am not a consequence of just one individual’s actions, but of the actions of many.  Again, the soul hypothesis would preclude this possibility, but this is not a live option for Buddhists.  Similarly, future lives may in some sense be conditioned by one’s mental acts, and so in that sense are one’s own, but also be conditioned by other people’s mental acts, and so be theirs as well.  Again, I cannot think of any reason why this should not be the case.


[1] Indeed, whereas we consider the causes of pregnancy to be the presence and joining of the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm, Buddhists consider there to be three causes, the third being the existence of karma which must ripen.  Without such karma, mommy and daddy could try all they want but no pregnancy would result.

[2] At least, not at first – there is this utterly appalling tendency to ‘turn into’ one’s parents as one matures.

I considered tagging this piece under ‘travel’. 🙂

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!

Thinking About ‘Enlightenment’

A discussion has erupted over at David Chapman’s blog about that most important of Buddhist concepts – namely, enlightenment.  More specifically, he took as his subject matter the following set of questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

He also asks what do we want Buddhism for?

These are, naturally, very important questions for Buddhists to ask of themselves and their sanghas since the whole point of the Buddhist path is to take us from wherever it is that we are toward enlightenment (even if enlightenment wasn’t anywhere else to begin with). Buddhism without enlightenment seems a lot like coffee without caffeine – sure, it tastes sorta the same, but what’s the point? Unfortunately, it is a question that very few Buddhists actually pause to give much thought to.  I’ve been thinking about this myself and have concluded that people really are confusing/conflating enlightenment as epistemic event/state, as metaphysical event/state, and as worldly-pragmatic state.

Enlightenment as an epistemic event/state:

This version of enlightenment-as is constituted by some sort of knowledge-that/of or the moment of the acquisition of such knowledge. In Buddhist terms it is relatively straightforward what might count as ‘enlightened’ knowledge: emptiness, universality of the Three Characteristics, dependent origination, karma and its workings, rebirth, etc.  However, there are other possibilities here too – God-like omniscience is surprisingly frequently thought to be gained at enlightenment.  At bottom, any realistic idea about Buddhist enlightenment will necessarily include some epistemic aspects – non-enlightenment for Buddhism just is ignorance about not-self, etc. – but need not include all of these.  For example, Mahayana traditions maintain that arahantship (a sort of enlightenment) is possible without having fully comprehended the emptiness of all phenomena (a point which Theravada disputes).

Enlightenment as a metaphysical event/state:

Metaphysical enlightenments-as are characterized not by knowledge but by a change in the being of the enlightened person.  On such conceptions enlightened beings are freed from the birth-death-rebirth cycle, have gained magical powers, replaced their material bodies with immaterial ones (!), merged with God, etc.

Enlightenment as a worldly-pragmatic state:

Though not as colourful as metaphysical enlightenment-as, this is perhaps the most broadly inclusive category as it can include all sorts of different things.  There is the old Buddhist stand-by of enlightenment as freedom from suffering.  There is enlightenment as moral or ethical perfection.  Enlightenment can be imagined as the total absence of negative mental states and the continual presence of pleasant ones.  It has even been suggested that enlightened beings will have become the ultimate learners, able to learn new languages (or other such novel tasks) with great ease.

Any of these could comprise a reasonable definition of enlightenment (singly or in combination)[1] but one nevertheless has to be really clear with oneself about a few things.  First, one must be clear about when there is some mixing-and-matching happening between different enlightenments-as.  What is important here is that while any picture of enlightenment will likely cobble together different aspects of each of the categories given above, there will generally be something that is thought of as being the core ‘essence’ of enlightenment (say, it’s epistemic but emotional good times follow, or emotional stability is the aim but knowledge is a step on the path to that).  Second, it may be that in reality there is no connection whatsoever between these different enlightenments-as – for all we know, knowledge of the emptiness of external phenomena may be just as likely to lead to a complete lack of regard for others’ well-being as it is to lead to ethical perfection.  Third, one should not be under the impression that it will necessarily be the case that the methods that produce one sort of enlightenment will lead to the production of some other sort.

Based upon what I’ve seen in my investigations, it strikes me that Vajrayana Buddhism (in general?) tacitly acknowledges this – at least, this seems to me the most probably useful way to gloss the three-yana/nine-yana approaches to the path. It seems to me the instructions are to hit stream-entry, defined as epistemic insight into emptiness, as quickly as possible and then to move on to cultivating real-world usefulness and compassion, although not totally ignoring other stuff either [2] – full enlightenment, Buddhahood, being a blending of insight and worldly efficaciousness.  This is very different from, say, Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk’s brand of Theravada, where the point is to pound emptiness through the skull as completely and as quickly as possible and then worry about everything else after arahantship, which one will have to do since the method isn’t designed to produce e.g. compassion (this is cartoonish but good enough).  This sort of approach is based on enlightenment as purely epistemic (albeit, with the real-world consequence of suffering being eliminated).

Obviously, these paths are going to appeal to different types of people. Vajrayana (as it is presented to Western lay-folk) makes much hay about compassion and so those with an empathic or ‘real-world’ sort of bent are going to be strongly attracted to that sort of practice. Ingram and Folk are much more INTP in their orientation and so will naturally appeal to those like myself (pure episteme, “knowledge for its own sake”). But if one spends all his time doing compassion practices (e.g. tonglen, metta) he should not expect to ‘get’ emptiness, nor should someone who spends all her time breaking down reference points expect to become temperamentally different from before merely because she sees that her anger is dependently arisen. Of course, most Buddhist teachers either don’t know or won’t say what their brand of enlightenment is aiming at – so we enter Dharma centres and get talks about cutting through self-clinging but are given metta practices, or about cultivating compassion but are given vipasyana/vipassana practice. And since most students aren’t clear about the difference between these or even what they’re after, they can’t get whatever it is that they really need.


[1] Rather, some of these could present a reasonable definition of enlightenment – flying cross-legged across the universe is unlikely to be truly possible.  By “enlightenment” here I mean, of course, ENLIGHTENMENT!!!‘ – i.e. something that is suitably desirable and non-ordinary that it would be a satisfactory aim for a spiritual practise.

[2] Major caveat: I have a suspicion that in monastic settings the aim of Tibetan Buddhism is to produce arahants first and then move along to other things (hence the decades of training).


A Charnel Ground Mandala?

So I went to see Metallica play last night in Vancouver, which was super fun (re-living my adolesence a bit) and the stage show was quite spectacular (I’m not going to recount the entire thing here though, go google it if you’re interested).  But the show actually got me to thinking – which is not generally the sort of thing that one should be doing at a rock concert.

There were these prop coffins that lowered from the ceiling which had video screens on their ‘lids’ that showed ‘inside’ the coffins.  There were people who appeared to be RIP-ing but who woke up and appeared confused about where they were.  Naturally, when they discoovered that they were trapped, they started panicking (as one would upon waking up in a dark, confined space, not knowing how one got there).  Meanwhile, the stage beneath all this – which itself was a giant walk-on video screen – show images of maggots writhing.

Now, of course I may not be interpreting these images quite as the band intends them to be interpreted (although I don’t imagine that I’m wrong), but it struck me that the point was the horror at the inescapability of death – that it is we who are trapped in the coffins and that all of our struggles are just as panicked and fearful as those of the actors on the screens.  (The feeling of powerlessness and being trapped or cornered by death is a theme running through their entire oeuvre.)  And all this made me think of Buddhist charnel ground practices like Chod.  Perhaps Metallica’s stage show is a large-scale charnel ground mandala/practice of sorts, looking at death in the eye and not flinching – which would mean that there already is something like Tantric practices at work in the West.

It’s not too insane an idea – when the lights go down the whole world shrinks to the size of the room, all centred on the stage, which is itself a visual representation of meditation on death, as seen above.  And it’s certainly in the realm of possibility – Kirk Hammett is apparently some variety of Buddhist.  But that is enough for now, just a quick thought I had.  I now have to go help tidy the kitchen and deal with this weird neck pain that showed up this morning (can’t imagine how that might have happened).  But check it out, the stage is even shaped (sort of) like a vajra:

A vajra?!