Posts by William Harryman

Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality

Mind and Life - Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality

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The Mind and Life Conference (ML), a production of the Mind and Life Institute, is an almost yearly gathering of Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists, led by the His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso). Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality is a product of the 2002 conference, the tenth (X) in the series.

The Mind and Life Institute emerged as “a bold experiment” in 1987 from the efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Adam Engle, and Francisco Varela. Between ML IX and X, co-founder and visionary scholar Francisco Varela passed away, a tremendous loss for all of us who seek knowledge in the realm of consciousness studies. Varela has been ably replaced by Richard Davidson (author, most recently, of The Emotional Life of Your Brain).

Among the luminaries attending past conversations are neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio, philosopher Owen Flanagan, psychologist Daniel Goleman, anthropologist and Zen priest Roshi Joan Halifax, psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Cistercian monk and founder of the Centering Prayer movement Father Thomas Keating, cellular geneticist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, and philosopher Evan Thompson, among many, many others.

The Scientific Coordinator at ML X was:

  • Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College

Participants were:

  • Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet
  • Michel Bitbol, M.D., Ph.D., Directeur de recherché at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, France
  • Steven Chu, Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford University
  • Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at Washington University
  • Eric Lander, Ph.D., geneticist, molecular biologist, mathematician, and the founder and director of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research
  • Prof. Dr. Pier Luigi Luisi, Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
  • Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D., Author and Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu and French interpreter since 1989 for His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  • Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics at Amherst College

The interpreters were:

  • Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., President and chief editor for The Classics of Tibet Series produced by the Institute of Tibetan Classics in Montreal, Canada.
  • B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Visiting Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

When I began reading this book, my expectations, based on watching videos of the last several Mind and Life Conferences, no doubt skewed my experience of the book at first. Having seen those videos of recent conferences, I kept waiting for the book to get into the dharma, but that is not the book’s purpose, although there is certainly some Buddhist philosophy later in the book.

As one might guess from the list of Western scientists present at ML X, the topic was the “nature of reality,” and the book is essentially a condensed summary of how Western science makes sense of life, consciousness, and the universe. The first chapter looks at the elementary particles from which matter emerges, then moves through complexity theory (2), the complexity of life (3), how life unfolds (4), the human genome (5), and then consciousness to ethics (6). Along the way, there are interviews with Matthieu Ricard, Richard Gere, and His Holiness the Karmapa.

Readers interested in a crash course in the fields of physics, biology, and psychology will receive a solid grounding in the areas where theory is well-established and a sense for the open questions with which researchers still grapple. The conference structure allows that each day features a morning session of scientific explication and an afternoon discussion session. Pier Luigi Luisi does a good job of presenting this flow of the five days, although there are a couple of adjustments in the timeline in the interest of literary coherence.

Through the first half of the book, the Tibetan contingent offers little opposition to the Western model of physics and biology. However, when the topic eventually shifts to consciousness in the latter part of the book, the different perspectives on consciousness fully emerge. Western science, or at least the more forward-thinking version presented in these conferences, theorizes that consciousness is an adaptive, complex, and emergent property of the brain, making it clear that not all consciousness researchers believe it is fully reducible to the physical brain. The Tibetans, however, strongly disagree, holding that consciousness consists of gross and subtle consciousness, with the gross level based in the body and its sensations/perceptions and the subtle level shaped by the brain, but not subordinate to it. In fact, many authors who work in the interplay between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science believe consciousness exists independent with or possibly from – and ontologically prior to – matter and life (such B. Alan Wallace).

Here is the Dalai Lama’s explanation of the Buddhist view:

[W]e ask what consciousness actually arises from. What is it that turns into consciousness? According to Buddhist principles, consciousness can arise only from a continuum of phenomena similar to itself, in the same way that formations of mass-energy give rise to formations of mass-energy. It is a similar continuum. Subtle consciousness is a radically different type of phenomenon; therefore it can arise only from phenomena similar to itself. Matter, configurations of mass-energy, is radically dissimilar to consciousness. … Matter cannot transform into or become consciousness. (p. 181)

The Dalai Lama admits that this view is a form of dualism, and suggests that Western science has its own dualisms, such organic and inorganic matter. But he also argues that dualisms are inherent any time there are two things and not one, and “Dualism makes sense only in relation to a very specific context.”

Eric Lander tried to challenge the Dalai Lama on the rather esoteric nature of the gross/subtle distinction, asking if this doctrine is not simply an unproven but accepted assumption in the absence of any evidence, logic, or proof. His Holiness countered, however, with an argument based in the scientific method he learned from his Western teachers.

First of all, it’s not true that this is merely an assumption. There’s an empirical basis that is repeatable. There is a systematic training that can lead to the empirical conclusion that a continuity of consciousness transcends the limitations of one body, one life. This is not something unique to Buddhism; it preceded Buddhism, and it is not embedded in one ideology or one belief system. There are different modes of meditation within Tibetan Buddhism, different avenues to that experience. (p. 182)

What the Dalai Lama presents here is the essential nature of scientific inquiry. There are three steps: (1) Instrumental injunction, to know this, do this practice or experiment; (2) Direct apprehension, an immediate experience of the data generated by the injunction; and (3) Communal confirmation, comparing your results with others who have performed the same injunction (Wilber, 1998). His Holiness argues that other monks in other disciplines have replicated the reality of subtle consciousness in their own experiments, so there is a communal confirmation.

Where this leads, of course, is into the ongoing conflict between subjective, introspective knowledge (first-person) and objective, observational knowledge (third-person). Western science and, indeed, Western philosophy still struggle with admitting that first-person experience has any scientific validity. In fact, Massimo Pigliucci, in his rant against a review of this book by Michael Bond in Nature magazine (13 November 2008), argues that “‘a science of introspection’ is an oxymoron.” In fact, he states that introspection “is not and cannot be ‘science’ because science is based on the idea of independent verification of empirical findings” (para. 7).

Fortunately, the scientists and philosophers who engage in these dialogues with the Dalai Lama are more open-minded. While several of the Western scientists admit lacking the meditative experience necessary to make sense of the Tibetan worldview, they are nonetheless curious and seek some form of understanding that fits within their own worldviews. For now, however, both sides are somewhat entrenched in their own perspectives, but we benefit from their efforts to hold their own views more lightly.

Pigliucci, M. (2008, Dec 6). “Consciousness, Meditation, and The Dalai Lama.”
Wilber, K. (1998). The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

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The Best Buddhist Writing 2011

Another year passes and it’s time for another issue of The Best Buddhist Writing, 2011, from Shambhala Publications. This is the seventh edition of what has become an annual treat of good writing for those who do not — or cannot — subscribe to the many Buddhist magazines or buy the many Buddhist books published each year.

The editor of the series, Melvin Mcleod, who is also the editor of The Shambhala Sun, does his typically nice job, with the assistance of his fellow editors at the Sun, of selecting a representative sampling of writing from many well-known and lesser-known writers and teachers. The usual names are here, the names that sell each year’s edition, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Lin Jensen (an editor at Tricycle), Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, and Pico Iyer, to name only a few.

Title: The Best Buddhist Writing 2011
Author: Edited by Melvin McLeod
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-933-9
Available from: Shambhala,, and

Interestingly, there is nothing from Pema Chodron this year, nor is there anything from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (leader of the Shambhala lineage) — two figures closely associated with Shambhala Sun. There also is nothing from B. Alan Wallace or Robert Thurman, two prolific authors who bring a more academic flavor to these collections.

As a reader, the absence of some of the big names makes room for newer writers — such as Susan Piver, Joanna Macy, and others — who are a pleasure to read and who bring a distinctly Western flavor to this year’s edition.

Many of the pieces in this volume are about real life, about finding the lessons in the mundane and the unexpected. The first article, “Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller, recounts her meeting of her future husband in a restaurant in Florence, Italy. But the piece is really about dishes, a dishwasher, and how a couple learns that “marriage is a lot like a silent meditation retreat.” Both marriage and the retreat can bring us “face-to-face with the most unlovable aspects” of ourselves, all the ways we are unpleasant, selfish, and want to run when things get tough.

Near the end of the volume, a piece called, “This Is Getting Old,” by Susan Moon, deals with the mother-daughter relationship, when the daughter is already sixty-three years of age. Even while the elder woman introduces the author to her friends as “my Buddhist daughter from California,” the author still is learning from her mother about being in the present, “because that’s important in old age.”

I am drawn to these teachings more than the traditional dharma teachings—probably because much of my practice is in being mindful in the moment, whatever moment that is. But there are some good articles in the traditional teaching model as well.

Kathleen McDonald’s “Awakening the Kind Heart” is an excellent introduction to loving-kindness meditations, from a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Likewise, “Taming the Mind,” by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, offers a clear, short teaching on how we might tame the mind, but for this reader it feels like a view from 30,000 feet, not as down in the muck of everyday life as the first two articles I mentioned.

Another example may be Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Child Within,” which is an excellent article (especially for a new psychotherapist such as myself), because it presents a Buddhist slant on a topic that is central to a lot of trauma work: that we have wounded child parts who need love and attention. Still, as important as this article is, the feeling one gets is that it is more removed from everyday living, more abstract.

On the other hand, the article that precedes it, Susan Piver’s “The Wisdom of a Broken Heart,” starts with the immediacy of loss, triggered by a basket of jalapeño cheddar-cheese cornbread. The ex-boyfriend loved that food, and the author is immediately plunged back into the grief that follows a break-up, crying in a bathroom stall and trying not to be heard, which only “leads to a bulbous nose and Mount Rushmore-sized headache.” She learns not to fight the loss, but to befriend it (much as Pema Chodron might teach). More importantly, however, she speaks directly to the reader about the embodied experience of loss, how it feels in the right-now.

Reading the volume, there is a sense that Western Buddhism, whatever that may or may not be, is developing a different set of teachings than the traditional Eastern teachers, and even different from those first pioneers who brought Buddhist teachings to West in the 1950s and 1960s.

The current generation of authors who are writing about Buddhism do so from the lived experience of daily life, raising a family, navigating relationships, earning a living, and so on. Theirs is not a Buddhism acquired in monastic life, in pilgrimage to study with Tibetan lamas, or from some other context removed from what was once known as being a householder. This emerging Western Buddhism feels like an embodied Buddhism, a way to live the teachings in the context of a postmodern technological society.

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“The Best Buddhist Writing 2010,” edited by Melvin McCloud

The Best Buddhist Writing 2010

When I began reading mainstream Buddhist writings and familiarized myself with the prominent Buddhist teachers in the United States, I regularly bought Shambhala Sun, Tricycle, Turning Wheel, and eventually Buddhadharma. In 2004 the first of the yearly Best Buddhist Writing collection came out and I read it cover to cover. At that point I was simply grateful for the resource, and I didn’t even mind rereading the articles I had already seen in the magazines. Besides, the anthology included many book excerpts that inspired me to run out to my local bookstore.

Title: The Best Buddhist Writing 2010
Author: Melvin McCloud (Ed.)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-826-4
Available from: Shambhala,, and

Little has changed since then (I still have the 2004 and 2005 editions) for the Best Buddhist Writing series, except that now there are fewer excerpts from books (mostly published by Shambhala Publications) and a lot more magazine articles (primarily Shambhala Sun). Several of the same well-known teachers from the 2004 edition are in the 2010 edition: Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Norman Fischer, and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Many more are names I recognize from the Shambhala Sun’s pages: Sylvia Boorstein, Carolyn Rose Gimian, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, John Tarrant, and Andrew Olendzki, to name some of the most well-known.

Frankly, I was prepared not to like much of what I was about to read. I had already worked out a title in my mind having to do with the reincarnation of old editions. For the most part, I was wrong—very wrong.

There are some wonderful, exceptional, moving essays in this collection. As is often the case, I am not moved or even stimulated any more by general teachings, although there are still a few authors I enjoy. The pieces that really grabbed me in this collection are the first-person stories, the ones where the author reveals dharma in the minutia of daily life—and does not tell us what we are supposed to learn from the tale.

The book begins with just such a story by Stan Goldberg—“Lessons for the Living”—on volunteering in a hospice shortly after beginning treatment for his own prostate cancer. The essay centers on Stan’s relationship with Jim, one of the residents. In reading about Jim, I relived some of the pain of my mother’s death from cancer, also in a hospice. And like Jim, my mother asked for ice cream.

Another early essay that touched me was “That Bird Has My Wings,” by Jarvis Jay Masters. The author is serving life in San Quentin (a maximum security prison)—it’s a sentence his supporters say is unjust. When the day does not go as Masters expects, he is opened to a whole new world, with equal parts regret and realization of impermanence. There is also a sense of seeking forgiveness, echoing the essay by Goldberg.

Daniel Asa Rose’s “Seth and Willie” is another fine essay, a short, quiet story with considerable depth—and one that reminded me of friends who are single fathers.

An exception to my (admittedly subjective) preference for first-person stories comes along with Diane Ackerman’s “Dawn Light.” She is one of our best nature writers, and an outstanding writer in general. Some writers can see beneath the surface of things and reveal new perspectives on a familiar world (thinking also of Annie Dillard or Loren Eisley)—Ackerman, as is often the case, does so in this fine essay.

In their essays, John Tarrant and Mary Pipher deal with grief and loss in different ways, but both do so with grace and determination. Both are therapists and as a result they bring a slightly different angle to their writings.

Pipher’s essay was particularly interesting because she offers a first-person subjective account of her meditation experience (she calls herself the worst Buddhist in the world in the book from which this excerpt is taken), but there is also a detached quality to it that comes from not “biting the hook,” as Pema Chodron might say.

Tarrant’s essay revolves around his father’s time in hospice and the complexity that always exists between a father and son—as well as the rhizome of family history and its interconnections. Many men never have a chance to ease into their father’s death—Tarrant was given the gift of time in which they found a space in which to meet and rest.

There are several other excellent essays of this type that I will leave for the reader to discover.

For those who enjoy less personal dharma teachings, Pema Chodron’s “Taking the Leap” offers her customary fierce gentleness, as well as a wise humility. I read the book from which this excerpt was taken, and I highly recommend the book if you enjoy this essay.

There are also good teachings from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (“Joyful Wsidom”), Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (“How Will I Use This Day?”), Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (“Do Nothing”), Carolyn Rose Gimian on the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s advice to “smile at fear,” the late John Daido Loori, Roshi (“The Way of Mountains and Rivers:), and Gaylon Ferguson (“Natural Wakefulness”), among many others.

As is often the case in an anthology, there is a little something here for almost everyone. I was pleased to have been so wrong in my initial approach to the book. I found many quality essays that will provide fodder for many future meditation sessions.

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The Invisible Presence, by Michael Gurian

The Invisible Presence

Although it’s not clear until you begin reading the book, this is a new edition of a book published in 1994 as Mothers, Sons, and Lovers, and it includes a new preface and study questions. Michael Gurian has published twenty five books over the years, establishing his reputation as a leader in the world of gender studies, as well as founding the Gurian Institute, which conducts research and provides training and education for other professionals.

You may be asking yourselves, as I certainly did, why Shambhala Publications has put out a book on men’s studies and Jungian psychology. This esteemed press is best known for its Buddhism books, especially Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, among many, many others. It turns out that Shambhala published the original edition, back in an era where they did a lot more psychology and philosophy books, including most of Ken Wilber’s books.

* * * * *

Title: The Invisible Presence: How a Man’s Relationship with His Mother Affects All His Relationships with Women
Author: Michael Gurian
Publisher: Shambhala Books
ISBN: 978-1-59030-807-3
Available from: Shambhala,,

One of Gurian’s essential points in the book, and where he begins, is the lack of initiation for boys as they enter manhood. In tribal cultures, and even in the modern world until the previous century, boys were not intimately tied to their mothers the way they are now. Child-rearing was different, and separation from the mother and the family was not only expected, it was enforced. Primal cultures often had a series of initiation ceremonies that progressively removed the son from the family of origin and signaled his emergence as an adult. Sometimes this process even included a new name.

Until the last century or so, with the advent of much-needed child labor laws, boys from “middle class” families often were sent to work or to apprentice with a craftsman — a carpenter, a blacksmith, an accountant (if they were really well-off), and so on. This apprenticeship process, which often took years, was a form of initiation (separation from family, initiation into a trade guild, and his return as an adult — the classic model outlined by van Gennep more than a century ago), even though Gurian doesn’t mention it in the book.

Now boys live at home until college, and often they return when school is finished until they can find a job and their own apartment. Mothers make this separation process even more difficult in trying to maintain their early attachment to their child, which is the opposite of what a young man needs. An adolescent boy is beginning the individuation process, moving away from the mother and into the world of men, and going to college should finalize this separation. Yet this is not happening for a lot of young men.

So what happens to the son when the mother has been dismissing the role of the father, or dismissing the roles of men in general — or worse, disparaging the father with put-downs or insults? How is a boy to find his place in the male world when his mother has negated what he is destined to become, an adult man?

As Gurian demonstrates, that boy does not become an adult man — he remains stuck in an in-between place where he needs the approval of women and men to feel of value, in essence, because there has not been any internalized male ideal (since men are bad, abusive, or useless: “all men are pigs,” “men suck!” “all men want is sex,” or “men have ruined the world”). While this does not happen in the majority of young men’s lives, it does happen much more than we would like to believe.

The other possibility for this individuation failure is an absent father, either through abandonment, divorce, or death. My father died of a heart attack when I was 13-years-old — and there was no good male role models in my life. I was dismayed to see myself in one of Gurian’s lists of characteristics of uninitiated men (p. 38-39). While I have spent years working on this aspect of my life, it seems I still carry some of the scars.

* * * * *

In the third chapter, Gurian looks at how this initiation failure and the impingement relationship with the mother shapes a man’s adult romantic relationships. By impingement (a reference to the work of D.W. Winnicott, a pioneer in parent-child attachment theory) Gurian is referring to the ways that parents fill their own emotional needs through their children. This is a difficult thing to monitor in ourselves — Dr. Dan Siegel spends a whole book on how we can development this skill (Parenting from the Inside Out, 2003) — but we need to be aware of it because it puts the infant or child in the impossible position of taking care of the parent.

For boys, growing up in this environment — which can continue into adulthood, especially when the father is absent due to emotional distancing, work, abandonment, or death, and shows up in comments such as, “Don’t ever leave me,” or “Be my little man” — symbolically forces him to be a surrogate “lover” or partner for his mother. And what little boy does not want to please his mother?

But this sets up the young man to remain more loyal to his mother than to his romantic partner when he begins that element of his life. This was classically known as the mother complex, and although it’s a near cliché, it’s also an accurate assessment of what can happen. The girlfriend or wife ends up feeling she comes second to the mother, and she is correct.

Other elements of this pattern can manifest as a need for approval from the romantic partner. A boy-man who grew up with a “smothering” mother (which is how I look at my own childhood with my mother) has no sense of self outside of that external approval. This man is “spineless” or “weak” or “hen-pecked” — all clichés that pathologize something the man had no control over in his life. He did not choose to be parented in that way.

In this respect, I would recommend this book for women as much as for men. Understanding how the man you love was raised will help you understand those aspects of his personality that you might find challenging. (Gurian offers study questions for women at the end of the book.)

* * * * *

In the second half of the book, which is more like two-thirds, Gurian offers a way out of this liminal space between boyhood and manhood, a series of initiation tasks that can help us toward a mature individuation.

In offering his outline and exercises for experiencing our own initiation, Gurian is men identify and move from the adolescent hero (seeking adventure and power, the traditional hero seeking his place in the world) into the mature, masculine hero (who seeks wholeness and wisdom, not ego trinkets). He actually makes this distinction early in the book:

The mature counterpart of the adolescent hero, the Mature Hero, gains his maturity when he makes the journey out of the survival mode, stepping out of the need for ego fixes and ego approval. (p. 37)

He presents the “Heroic Quest” in the second half of the book as a “search for information, understanding, inspiration, and recovery” (p. 119). He asks us to take the tasks he will present very seriously, as ritual, which includes creating a ritual space, some sacred objects, a notebook, and even a special pen devoted to just this project.

Wisely, he also suggests that some men will want to seek support from a therapist or a men’s group, and I would generally agree with this, especially the therapist part. I have found that working with a good, spiritually-inclined therapist is very helpful in sorting out family of origin issues.

Finally, I want to present abbreviated versions of the seven affirmations he presents in the introduction to Part II of the book, which I found supportive for men beginning such a journey:

  1. A man is a loving, wise, and powerful male adult.
  2. The human unconscious is a mythological story.
  3. My outward behavior and inward yearnings are guided by countless personal and family myths I rarely articulate.
  4. My personal myths are not written in stone, just as wounds are not permanently damaging.
  5. Not all damaging personal myths and wounds respond to personal odyssey work.
  6. There is no such thing as a perfect man.
  7. Because our culture has turned away from the magic of the inner story toward the radiant distractions of external stimulation, I must look inward toward the dark center of my being, where my sacred self lives. (p. 128-129)

* * * * *

While I can easily recommend this book with only minor reservations, I did find myself questioning several things as I read the book.

Gurian begins with his acknowledgments, a standard move, but I immediately became skeptical in seeing Carlos Castaneda in the list, a well-known fiction writer still sometimes thought of as an anthropologist. Also on the list are many authors who have made the complexity of Jungian psychology seem little more than the misappropriation of another culture’s mythology.

R.W. Connell, in Masculinities (2nd edition, 2005), is very critical of the archetypal move in mainstream Jungian psychology, by which he refers to the impulse to find archetypes nearly everywhere. In his later work, Jung did this as well, and his followers picked up where he left off.

This results in deeply confused texts such as Marshall Bethal’s The Mythic Male, an errant hunt through Greco-Roman myths, taken utterly out of context…. Iron John is a Jungian work in exactly this vein, except that Robert Bly finds his archetypes in a folk tale recast by the Brothers Grimm…. (p. 13)

I bring this up because Gurian also does this in his book. There are several instances that I marked early in the book, before I gave up due to the sheer number of them. At one point (page 74), he rattles off a series of examples of the devouring Goddess myth from various cultures. But what he does not mention is that these are all pre-rational (or pre-personal) myths, meaning that they come from a time in human history before we developed much of a rational sense of self, a time when humans showed very little compassion or empathy in raising their children (see Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, Chapter Four). Those myths were appropriate to those times, but they bear little relevance to how we live now.

On the other hand, Gurian also makes reference to literature, poetry, and film, and in these instances, his point is carried more clearly and makes more sense to the educated contemporary reader. For example, in one short section of the book, he references Hamlet, Don Juan, and a poem by Robert Duncan. When he makes these references, he is giving the reader a modern, accessible correlate to the point his is trying to make and it works better.

Gurian is not alone in this issue — it’s endemic in popular Jungian psychology, as Connell pointed out. In this respect, Jungian psychology fails as a useful tool for men’s studies. And yet, as I also pointed out, when the author avoids primitive myths and uses modern literature and film, he offers us a mirror of our own struggles raised to the level of art, which is both instructive and comforting (we are not alone).

Later in the book, when he is outlining his initiation program, I found myself referring to some of the things Gurian suggests (as I often do when I see them in New Age books) as “woo.” If you are less rational than I am, it probably won’t bother you.

If you come to this book as a Buddhist, you might also be put off by all the talk about the self. On the other hand, what he is seeking in men is openness to experience and a reduction of ego drives. Both of these allow men to experience and express greater love and compassion — and that can only be a good thing.

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“Hidden Dimensions” by B. Alan Wallace

Hidden Dimensions, B. Alan Wallace

A new book by Buddhist practitioner and writer B. Alan Wallace aims to bridge the gap between the worlds of science and of spirituality, but positing an adventurous new “Special Theory of Ontological Relativity.” Reviewer William Harryman expresses ambivalence about Wallace’s bold endeavor.

I like Alan Wallace. He is one of my favorite Buddhist scholars. In fact, I recently reviewed his newest book — Mind in the Balancevery favorably. When he is talking about Buddhism, he is in his element. There are few people writing today with a better understanding of Buddhist history and tradition, especially Tibetan Buddhism, than Wallace. When he gets into the field of science, however, he is less knowledgeable, and it shows.

At the beginning of Hidden Dimensions, his 2007 book attempting to unify physics and consciousness (from a Buddhist perspective, of course), he falls immediately into one of the common errors in trying to make sense of physics, namely the idea that consciousness — human consciousness — is an essential part of the measurement problem. Quoting his “Preface” to the book, “So quantum mechanics implies that consciousness may play a crucial role in the formation and evolution of the universe as we know it” (pg. viii). He goes on to say, in the final chapter of the book:

The notion of an observer necessarily implies the presence of consciousness, without which no observation ever takes place, and … consciousness, far from being an insignificant by-product of brain activity, plays a crucial role in the formation and evolution of the universe. (109)

Aside from the fact that the universe existed quite well without human consciousness, or any consciousness, for about 14.5 billion years, the essential flaw here is that it does not require consciousness, human or otherwise, to impact the outcome of a measurement. It simply requires the act of measurement, which only requires another electron, and contrary to popular understanding, that measurement effect is fully reversible.

Despite this fundamental flaw in his thinking, this is still a useful volume, although many readers may have a hard time staying with the abstract nature of the arguments. One of his central premises is that the mind sciences need to get beyond the notion that all subjective experience is a by-product of neuro-chemical activity in the brain. This is the same argument that people such as Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and others have been making for years. The idea is still foreign to many neuroscientists, or simply rejected.

And this is where Buddhism has something important to contribute as he gets into some of the finer points of neuroscience. For example, the notion that

[E]verything we observe extrospectively and introspectively consists of qualia, or appearances, and they are illusory in the sense that they seem to exist either in the external world or inside our heads, whereas in reality there is no compelling evidence that they are located anywhere in physical space. (pg. 51)

It’s a basic tenet of Buddhism that if we try to take apart our perceptions of self (the five aggregates), looking for the substance behind each aspect, we will eventually discover there is no self there to look at — it’s all illusory. This is what perceptual neuroscience is also coming to terms with in recent years.

Wallace does a good job of dismantling our consensus reality with his Special Theory of Ontological Reality (chapter 5). I’m not sure I buy his conclusions here — that all mental and physical processes arise from “another dimension” that exists prior to the separation of mind and matter. His conclusion seems to rest on the work of Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli and their synchronicity hypothesis. I like the theory, but I also want to see some way to test it and verify it. Wallace then cites Roger Penrose and his archetypal mathematics (“independent of the existence and culture of human beings” [pg. 56]), but George Lakoff would counter that mathematics is metaphoric language and, as such, is grounded in our physical being, not in some abstract archetypal space.

Chapter six offers some intriguing experiments to test the hypothesis of an “archetypal realm of pure ideas,” many or most of which are based on early Buddhist practices that have fallen away over the last 1,500 years. Wallace is honest to admit that without prior training, and I’m guessing he means here monastic training in the Tibetan tradition, it could take 5,000 to 15,000 hours to complete his proposed experiments testing the archetypal qualities of the five basic elements (earth, water, fire, air, space). You might see why the scientific community wouldn’t support such a project. And again, I take issue with the notion of a realm of pure archetypal ideas or forms — it’s too anthropocentric to be valid on a cosmological scale.

Wallace’s next theory, A General Theory of Ontological Relativity, borrows from Einstein both in name and in spirit. He is proposing that

[T]here is no theory or mode of observation — no infallible method of inquiry, scientific or otherwise — that provides an absolute frame of reference within which to test all other perceptions or ideas. (70)

This is useful in that what he is really referring to here is the ability to take multiple perspectives (one person’s background theory may be someone else’s foreground theory”). His conclusion, in part, is that there is no way to “separate the universe we know from the information we have about it” (72). From here he brings up the idea of seeing the universe as a giant computer (a favorite — and flawed — metaphor for some physicists). He relies on information theory — all things are information — to support this metaphor. But Wallace rejects this idea and then proposes something even more anthropocentric, that the universe is a giant brain. And here he brings back my initial complaint about his book:

But whether that information exists in a computer, a brain, or a cosmos, we inevitably come back to the same point: meaningful information exists only relative to the act of informing and a conscious being that is informed. (74)

There is no convincing evidence that the universe is information, first of all, and secondly, if this is untrue then there is no need for a conscious being to be informed by it. The universe existed pretty well for 14.5 billion years without any conscious beings that we know about (unless you accept the idea of a “God” of some sort). It’s in this objectivity that theories such as these collapse.

Wallace then proposes another option to the measurement problem with the many worlds theory of physics. Beginning with the notion that when a measurement or an observation causes the collapse of the quantum wave function — one possible reality is split off from all the possible realities (this is known as the Copenhagen interpretation) — the many worlds hypothesis claims that the wave function collapse is a subjective experience, and that objectively, all the possible worlds continue to exist. According to Wallace, “This hypothesis raises the possibility that individuals may alter the course of events by their choices, aspirations, faith, and prayers” (83). This line of thought is very close to magical thinking. It might be more realistic to say that individuals may alter their perception of events, but not the events themselves.

The remainder of the book is equally challenging, including a chapter on the semi-annual meeting of the Dalai Lama with distinguished scientists, especially physicists, and a final chapter on the concept of symmetry in physics (the idea that there is a perfect or absolute reality — the “Great Perfection” — that exists independently of the material universe).

While Wallace is arguing for a first-person science throughout the book, he never offers the studies supporting such an approach (for example, Tibetan monks changing their brain patterns depending on the form of meditation they use) — granted, he has made those arguments in other books. But if you want to convince scientists to take up that approach, more detailed arguments in support of it might be useful. In the end, this is a short but challenging book. It requires an ability to think in abstractions, mostly because that is where Wallace is working with this book. If you can suspend your disbelief about some of these anthropocentric ideas — which I could not — then you might enjoy the ride he takes us on as readers. Or, on the other hand, you might just enjoy watching a great mind tackle some of the toughest questions about life, the mind, consciousness, and the universe.

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“The Essential Sangharakshita” by Urgyen Sangharakshita, edited by Karen Stout

The Essential SangharakshitaBuddhism has always adapted its presentation as it has taken root in new cultures, finding new idioms and new forms that resonate with the host culture.

For the last fifty years, Sangharakshita has been one of the teachers most involved in helping Buddhist to find expression in the west. William Harryman takes a look at Wisdom’s new survey of 50 years of teaching.

Discussing the movement of Buddhism to the West seems to be a hot topic in the Buddhist magazines, blogs, and online communities. There seems to be a lot of concern as to how Buddhism will survive the translation from Eastern culture to Western culture. Many traditional Eastern teachers, especially Theravadin, and even some Tibetan, do not want to see Buddhism adapted in any way for its Western audience. From their perspective, Buddhism has survived just fine for more than 2,500 years.

However, there are many more who believe that in order for Buddhism to take root in the West, it must adapt itself to the Western mind. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was among the first teachers to really embody this perspective. Many Americans and Europeans went to India, Nepal, Japan, and other Buddhist nations during the sixties and seventies and returned as teachers. Lama Surya Das, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg are among the best known teachers in America. (My comments here are generalizations, so interested readers are invited to check out Western Buddhist Teachers by Andrew Rawlinson for a more in-depth look at Buddhist teachers in the West.) Stephen Batchelor (in Buddhism Without Beliefs) has gone so far as to suggest a Buddhism without karma and rebirth, two seemingly “pre-modern” ideas closely associated with Buddhism.

Title: The Essential Sangharakshita: A Half-Century of Writings from the Founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order
Author: Urgyen Sangharakshita (Edited by Karen Stout).
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, 2009.
ISBN: 0-86171-585-3
Available from: Wisdom and

Dennis Lingwood went to India (posted there in the British military following WWII) and stayed when his enlistment ended. Having read The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei Lang as a teenager, he realized he was and had always been a Buddhist. Following his discharge from service, he set off with a friend to find a teacher and was eventually ordained in the Theravada tradition, where he was given the name Sangharakshita (“protected by the spiritual community”). Over the following years he continued to seek the dharma from a variety of Buddhist teachers, including Tibetan refugees, among them Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. It was one of his other Tibetan teachers, Kachu Rimpoche, who gave Sangharakshita the name “Urgyen,” when Rimpoche was conferring the Padmasambhava initiation. Sangharakshita also read widely in the various Buddhist traditions, seeking an understanding of the universal truths that unite the diverse Buddhist community.

This broad education in Buddhist traditions eventually led Sangharakshita to return to England and found in 1967 the first Western ecumenical Buddhist sangha, The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (Triratna Buddhist Community). Its goal was to make Buddhism accessible to the West in ways compatible with the modern world. In doing so, Sangharakshita references Western philosophy, psychology, and art, in addition to the central Buddhist teachings. Over the years, Sangharakshita has written extensively on Buddhist practices from the perspective of the Triratna Buddhist Community, and those writings are finally collected in The Essential Sangharakshita (Wisdom Publications), edited by Karen Stout (known in the Triratna Buddhist Community community as Vidyadevi).


The book is a substantial 792 pages, including material from 38 of Sangharakshita’s books, his poetry, early writings, sutra commentaries, spoken word, and autobiography. The book is organized into sections that help give some coherence to the massive amount of text (Stout has done an amazing job organizing the material). The five broad sections include The Essentials (introductory Buddhist teachings), Buddhism and the Mind (teachings on Buddhist psychology, death, karma, rebirth and other deeper topics), Art, Beauty, and Myth in the Buddhist Tradition (several great sections combining Western psychology, dream study, art, and myth), Buddhism and the Heart (dealing with emotions, meditation, ritual, gurus, and nature), and Buddhism and the World (Bodhisattvas, compassion, ethics, discipline, right livelihood). Within each main section are several smaller sections containing individual articles, poems, excerpts, and assorted writings.

Creating this collection was no small task. Sangharakshita still has more than fifty books in print, so making the selections and organizing them needed an approach that could serve to structure the book. In Stout’s own words:

All my attempts to organize them seemed just to shift the heap into another heap; and the words, taken from their contexts, kept losing their luster. I decided to try organizing the collection according to a symbolic pattern to which Sangharakshita has returned many times in the course of his teaching: the mandala of the five Buddhas, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. (Editor’s Preface)

The center Buddha is Vairocana, also known as the Illuminator (The Essentials). To the east is Aksobhya, the Imperturbable (Buddhism and the Mind). To the south, is the realm of Ratnasambhava, the golden Buddha of beauty (Art, Beauty, and Myth in the Buddhist Tradition). In the west, Amitabha is the Buddha of infinite light (Buddhism and the Heart). And in the north, is Amoghasiddhi, whose name means “unobstructed success” (Buddhism and the World). The use of this symbolic structure is quite useful to the reader and adds layers of meaning to the readings.

The Writings

One thing to note at the outset of this section is that those looking to this book for information about the Western Buddhist Order (WBO) or Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (Triratna Buddhist Community) will be disappointed. There is not a single reference (that I noticed) by Sangharakshita to his worldly projects within the text, and only the briefest of mentions in the introduction and in an end matter blurb. As a Buddhist who is not familiar with the Triratna Buddhist Community, I would have liked a chapter or so of explanation about the sangha, especially considering some of the information about controversies (true or otherwise) available on the web. But I can also see not including anything about the Order in order to focus on the material itself.

One thing that, for this reader, highly recommends this text is Sangharakshita’s reliance on the Pali texts when he refers to the Sutras. He is not advocating a purely Theravadin approach either, so the ecumenical nature of the writings with a reliance on the oldest available texts makes a great deal of sense. I also appreciated that he emphasizes mindfulness of breathing and work with developing loving-kindness as the two recommended forms of meditation. This may seem “old school” to some Buddhists, but the reliance on these simple practices for Westerners makes a great deal of sense.

Further, as a Westerner who has sampled from many different traditions, I also appreciate Sangharakshita’s acknowledgment of the Path of Irregular Steps:

We are in the transcendental sweet shop of Buddhism, with all these spiritual goodies around us, and so we grab this and that: Zen, Tantra, Theravada, ethics, meditation of one sort or another. But nonetheless, we do make some progress. The Path of Irregular Steps is a path, and it does give us some experience of Buddhism. (p. 169)

But this only works as a path for a short time. Sooner or later our practice will stagnate or stop altogether. So while he acknowledges that many of us, especially in the West, will attempt this buffet style of Buddhism (a little of this, a little of that), he also knows that a consistent approach is needed, the Path of Regular Steps:

This is the basic principle. If we want to experience the higher stage, or higher level, with any intensity of any permanence, we must first perfect the lower stage, on the basis of which, alone, the higher stage is to be established. This is why, sooner or later, we have to make the transition from the Path of Irregular Steps to the Path of Regular Steps. (p. 174)

Sometimes, in order to make this transition, we need to go backwards–back to the basics we may have skipped over in order to try the more exciting or esoteric practices. Point taken.

This book may be a great introduction to a distinctly Western Buddhist practice for some people, and for others already familiar with Sangharakshita’s work or already a part of the Triratna Buddhist Community, the book is a nice collection of the primary teachings. With a book of this size, there is way more content that a brief review can cover, so pick up a copy and spend a few hours with this uniquely Western approach to Buddhist practice.

William HarrymanWilliam Harryman is a freelance writer, a personal trainer, nutritional coach, and integral life coach living in Tucson, Arizona. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1998, at first sampling among many traditions before settling into the Shambhala tradition of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

William blogs at Integral Options Café, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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