On radical honesty and agnosticism concerning rebirth

Indo-Tibetan Wheel of Life (bhavacakra)

This morning I had an email from Sheila, one of our newsletter subscribers. She’d shared the article called “The Buddha’s Wager” with a Buddhist friend, and wasn’t sure how to address the points her friend had raised. So here’s what her friend had written:

i find it fascinating that ‘sceptics’ want to know how consciousness can survive the death of the brain – when we have no inkling of how consciousness arises in a living brain – to me it’s as much of a leap of faith to believe that other people are conscious as it is to believe that ‘my’ consciousness can survive the death of my body. we are all profoundly agnostic about almost everything…. i find a belief in rebirth gives a me a sense of meaning – of possible progress – i still don’t understand how anyone can profess to be seeking Enlightenment – in the Buddha’s sense of a release from suffering – and not believe in rebirth. if death is the end of suffering then what’s all the fuss about? let’s just die….

And here’s what I wrote to Sheila:

Thanks for writing with these questions. It’s always interesting for me to meet, even indirectly, someone like your friend who sees life and Dharma practice in very different ways.

To take things out of order, with regard to the whole idea that life is pointless unless you believe in rebirth, I’d quote the Kalama Sutta, and gently point out that the Buddha seems to have disagreed with your friend’s position. If he taught the Kalama sutta, then he clearly thought that Dharma practice made sense even if you don’t have a belief in rebirth.

[To quote from the Buddha’s wager, in that sutta the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his “noble disciples” acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are:

  1. If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.
  2. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.

So the Buddha is saying here that his disciples can practice the Dharma and benefit from that practice without believing in rebirth. What’s more, these disciples have mind “free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, and pure.” In other words, these are enlightened disciples of the Buddha, who have the assurance that their practice is worthwhile, even if they don’t know whether rebirth happens. You can go all the way to enlightenment and still not be convinced that rebirth is true!]*

Your friend gets her source of meaning from rebirth, but those of us who are skeptical about rebirth get our meaning elsewhere. Life to me doesn’t need any justification, so “let’s just die” would strike me as being a weird position to take, or even to imagine that people might take (unless, say, they were profoundly depressed). I don’t think it takes much empathy to recognize that people with differing views find life, and dharma practice, meaningful without the conviction that there is rebirth.

I hear similar arguments from Christians, who say that God is what gives life meaning, and if you don’t believe in God then you have no reason for living and might as well kill yourself. If your friend doesn’t believe in God then perhaps she might recognize that she’s adopting the same attitude in thinking that her source of meaning is the only possible source of meaning.

I wonder what she means by “let’s just die?” That without a belief in rebirth we should just kill ourselves? That’s absurd, since I don’t need a belief in rebirth to feel that my life is meaningful. That we should cease practice and just hang on until we die and then our suffering will all be over? That’s also absurd, since she’s suggesting that we should stop doing the things we find meaningful because we don’t get our sense of purpose and meaning in precisely the same way she does.

We all have different ways of finding purpose in life, and to me life is meaningful in and of itself. To be alive and conscious is a constant wonder and miracle. But in addition, seeing suffering in myself and others, and recognizing that most of that suffering is unnecessary, I find meaning in wanting to free myself and others from suffering. Now I can see how a Christian can think that serving god is a source of meaning or how the idea of pursuing enlightenment over many lives can give meaning, so I wonder why your friend can’t recognize that other things give my life meaning? I mean, hasn’t she ever *asked* someone with different beliefs what their source of meaning is? To just assume that they have none suggests some kind of lack of empathy or imagination.

To take your friend’s first point, I don’t think it takes much of a leap of faith to accept that other people are conscious. I am a human, and I am conscious. Other humans show the external signs, though facial expressions, words, etc., that they are experiencing the world in a similar way to me. So it would be bizarre, in my opinion, to assume that other people are not conscious. Assuming that consciousness survives death is an assumption of a completely different order from assuming that others are conscious.

As for agnosticism, I am profoundly agnostic when it comes to the teaching of rebirth. I have no evidence either way. It seems unlikely to me that consciousness can somehow function separate from a body (if we don’t need a body to be conscious, why does brain damage affect our ability to think?) and transfer itself to another body. There are on the other hand accounts of past-life memories, but few of us have had the opportunity to check those out first hand, and even if we did there’s no way we can rule out the possibility of the supposed memories having been acquired through some other route. I was advised to watch a video about a Scottish boy who apparently remembered a part life. I didn’t find it very convincing, and when much was made of his knowing that on the island of Barra, planes use the beach as a landing strip, it seemed quite possible to me that he’d seen this on TV. I try to keep a reasonably close eye on what my kids see on TV, but they’re always coming up with surprising things that they’ve picked up, and that I’d no idea they’d been exposed to. So most of the evidence that I’ve seen is rather shaky (plus there are some well-known instances of supposed memories having come from books people have read). On the other hand, we live in a very strange and wonderful universe, where there’s quantum entanglement. We don’t even know what 95% of the matter in the universe is made up of! So I’m not ruling anything out.

For me, being agnostic about rebirth is actually an ethical position. The Buddha promoted a sort of radical honesty (although of course we’re to be kind as well as honesty). The suttas describe truthful speech like this:

“There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”

If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Otherwise you’re practicing a form of untruthful speech. Now I don’t know that there is such a thing as rebirth, so no matter how many references there are to rebirth in the Pali canon, I’m not going to say that rebirth happens. Unless someone has some extraordinarily convincing and even irrefutable evidence for the existence of rebirth, I think the only honest answer is “I don’t know,” [along with, “Of course what the Buddhist scriptures say is…”]*

Also, practically speaking, not being convinced in the reality of rebirth gives me a sense of urgency. I want to gain full awakening in this very life, and not have the feeling that I can always get around to it later. Sangharakshita has, if I remember correctly, described laziness as the besetting sin of traditional Buddhism, and I believe that this is due to people thinking that they have all the time in the universe to get enlightened.


*This wasn’t in my original reply, but it’s something I meant to say and I added it here for completeness.

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Enlightenment meets Enlightenment: Finding the Buddha in the secular west

Dr. Arnie Kozak, beliefnet: I recently gave a talk at the University of Vermont College of Medicine called “Beyond Stress Reduction: Mindfulness as a Radical Technology. In this talk, I spoke about the indictment that the healthcare and corporate-related applications of mindfulness are tantamount to “McMindfulness.”

If you read my post on this issue, you know that I think the criticisms of secularized mindfulness go to far. In my talk, I made the point that secular dharma is a uniquely Western dharma.

Secular Buddhism, which seeks enlightenment, accords with the Enlightenment era values of rationality, empiricism, and skepticism…

Read the original article »

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Absolute cooperation with the inevitable

tara-brachThe modern-day mystic and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello once said: “Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable.” This statement struck a deep chord within me. It seems to me that what he meant was to be absolutely open to life as it is.

Think about the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean that flows from the tip of Florida up along the eastern seaboard. If you were to put a straw in the water, aligned with the Gulf Stream, it would move with the flow of water. The water moves through it and carries it along on the current. Everything is aligned; it’s total grace. Now, if it’s misaligned, and it’s not moving with the flow of water, it gets spun around and moves off course.

Aligning ourselves with the flow of aliveness is an essential part of our mindfulness practice. Like the straw, if we move out of alignment, we’re moving away, spinning about, in reaction…in some way unable to be one with the flow of grace. So we seek to stay aligned, letting the flow of life move through us.

What are some ways that we remove ourselves from the channel through which our life flows?

I noticed this happening the other day when I was driving home. I have my own accustomed speed, and the person in front of me was going much, much, much slower. You know what that is like, don’t you? Now, I wasn’t in a rush to get somewhere. I wasn’t on my way to the airport to catch a plane, but it didn’t matter. I was driving at a speed that felt really different from my preferred speed. I was experiencing impatience and anxiety, and it was building. Everything in me was leaning forward. I felt like I couldn’t be okay unless the situation changed.

So I paused, mentally. I recognized that I had a demand that something be different than it was at the moment, and I tried to let go of it. This example is a small thing, but this happens in many ways, some small and some much larger, in our human experience. We get caught in feeling that happiness is not possible unless things change. Consequently, we cause ourselves tremendous unhappiness, because we’re demanding that things be different.

It’s interesting to notice how this happens. I think it arises from our social conditioning about what brings happiness. We are led to believe that we need certain things to be happy: “If I can get this job,” “If I can earn this much money,” “If I can buy a house in that neighborhood,” then I will be happy. Or we might think, if only I were healthier, or thinner, or if my boss quit so I could have a different boss, or if I had a different spouse…and on and on.

We wait for things to be different in order to feel okay with life. As long as we keep attaching our happiness to the external events of our lives, which are ever changing, we’ll always be left waiting for it.

What if we were to pause and align ourselves with the current?
What if we moved with the flow of what is?
What would that mean for you in your life, right now?

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Aligning with what is here is a way of practicing presence. It allows us to respond to our world with creativity and compassion.

What is actually happening is that we’re opening to the universal intelligence, the universal love that can flow through us when we’re aligned. When the straw is aligned with the current, the Gulf Stream flows through it. When we’re aligned with the flow of our lives, there’s a universal wisdom and love that flows through us, which is our true nature.

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Four ways to shake up your meditation practice

4 ways to shake up your meditation practiceLast month I wrote about how sometimes your meditation practice may seem to be going nowhere, and how that’s OK. It’s the “seems” that’s important, because sometimes you just can’t see the change that’s taking place, slowly and gradually, in your brain and mind. Connections can be growing, or strengthening in the brain, and you can be completely unaware of that until perhaps some tipping point is reached and you notice that you act differently, or feel differently, or see things differently.

But there are also times that you might want to shake things up. Here are four things you can do to stop your practice becoming stale.

Go deeper
You probably get habitual in your meditation. When you’re doing the mindfulness of breathing you probably pay attention to pretty much the same set of sensations every time, and call that “the breathing” or “the breath.” But we can shake that up and go deeper. Ask yourself, what is the breathing? Where do the sensations of “breathing” end and the sensations of “not-breathing” begin (that is, parts of the body that are not involved in breathing)? Elsewhere I’ve suggested ways to go deeper in that practice.

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Similarly in lovingkindness practice you probably get habitual. Maybe it works for you and you get a warm glow of kindness. But perhaps you need to look more closely at what you do, and what you allow into awareness and exclude from awareness. Perhaps there are parts of yourself you leave out (parts of your body you don’t pay attention to) or perhaps there are aspects of other people that you haven’t considered (it’s life-changing to realize that everyone is basically seeking happiness, and finding happiness elusive, for example). So you can look for parts of the body that you’ve ignored, and pay attention to the feelings that arise there. You can let a fuller awareness of others enter your mind by cultivating a sense of curiosity about them. Or maybe you’re busy doing the practice, but you don’t pay much attention to the feeling tone of how you do the practice. Can you soften? Become kinder? If you do, everything else will change.

Find your “cutting edge”
Right now I’m paying particular attention to the factors that give rise to jhāna, which is a deeply enjoyable and focused state of “flow” in meditation. I’m paying attention to cultivating the factors that lead to this flow state, and I’m paying attention to different transitions in my experience once the flow state is established. At other times I’ve really paid attention to the impermanence of each sensation, and really focused, moment by moment, on my constantly changing experience. I like to have a “cutting edge” in my practice, something I’m specifically working on.

What are you working on? Do you have any goals in meditation? Having goals doesn’t mean grasping after results, or rejecting your present experience. It simply means having a sense of the direction which you’re gently heading. For many people this is hard to understand, because they habitually grasp after attaining goals, but the apparent paradox of having goals yet being in the moment is worth exploring.

See the big picture
What’s your overall purpose in meditating? Is it to de-stress? Is it to be happier? Is it to be a better person so that you cause less suffering to others? Those are all excellent purposes, but they’re not enough. If you want to de-stress you’re trying to reduce suffering, and there is, according to the Buddhist tradition, an end-point where suffering is eliminated. If you want to be happier, there’s an ultimate state of peace that can be attained, which makes every other state of happiness look unsatisfactory in comparison. That state of peace, that end of suffering, is called bodhi, awakening, or enlightenment. If you want to cause less suffering to others … well, you get my point.

There’s no point grasping after awakening. If you grasp, you’ll just suffer more. But how about if you entered every meditation with the sense that you’re heading, ultimately, toward a radical shift in consciousness in which there is no grasping, no hatred — in which there’s deep peace, clarity, and compassion. And the attainment of this state may be, for all you know, just at the end of the next breath. Awakening has a habit of appearing unexpectedly. Often it’s come to people when they’ve been profoundly depressed, even suicidal. So see if you can have a sense that something mysterious and amazing is just a hair’s-breadth away. Let there be a sense of openness and wonder in your practice of meditation.

Do more
Sometimes you need to just do a lot more meditation. You need to get on retreat. This can be challenging, but that’s the point! If your meditation practice is a bit boring, you can probably handle that if you’re sitting for 30 minutes a day. But if you’re sitting for six hours? Or eight hours? You’ll probably get to the point fairly soon where you realize that you have to make a change. It’s either that or go crazy. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice before you get to the stage of feeling like your head will explode (note: that has never actually happened to anyone in the entire 2,500 year history of Buddhist meditation), but sometimes you have to experience a crisis before you have that breakthrough. It’s tough to experience, but in the end it’s worth it.

Lastly, how do you know when you should just accept that your practice seems to be going nowhere, and when you should shake things up?

The things I’ve talked about above are things I think you’ve been doing all the time. I think if we all did these things — go for depth in our practice with an attitude of openness and curiosity; had a clear sense of something that we’re working on; keep in mind that enlightenment is what we’re working toward and that it may happen in any moment; and periodically do more intense periods of practice — then we wouldn’t have a sense of our meditation being stuck in a rut. Instead it would be a fresh and exciting thing to get on the cushion. So do these things first, and if you still feel stuck in a rut, then just be stuck. Accept your stuckness, and just keep doing the practice.

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Why meditation isn’t the main thing in my life

Given that I’m a meditation teacher and the author of a good number of books and audiobooks on meditation, you might think that meditation should be the central thing in my life. But — and this is something I only just realized — it’s not.

I’ve carried around, not very consciously, the idea that meditation should be the most important, the most central, thing in my life. And I suspect that this mostly unconscious idea has led to inner conflict and resistance. Certainly, when I realized just the other day that meditation wasn’t and shouldn’t be the central thing in my life, I felt unburdened. I felt lighter, freer, and clearer. The notion that meditation should be the central thing in my life was something that had been weighing me down.

It’s not that I don’t take meditation seriously. I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am. To use a common, but useful, analogy, brushing my teeth isn’t the most important part of my life, but I make sure I do it at least twice each day.

What is the most important thing in my life? What brings me the most happiness and gives me the sense that my life is being spent in a meaningful way is seeing people grow and become happier. Having a hand in that process is deeply fulfilling. So basically helping people is the central thing in my life.

But even that’s a bit of a simplification. I have a drive to become awakened, or enlightened. Or at least I have a drive to seek a meaningful way of living that maximizes my sense of happiness and peace and that minimizes the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience. That’s my quest. And it just so happens that the Buddhist goal of spiritual awakening and the Buddhist path to awakening match up with my own goal. That’s not surprising, since the whole Buddhist path is about ending suffering and finding peace.

I sometimes talk about my quest (and always think about it) as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha. Now that might sound a little selfish, or self-centered, but there’s another factor. It turns out that if I want to maximize my happiness, minimize the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience, experience more peace, and feel that I’m living life meaningfully, then I need to help others.

I can’t exactly explain why. You can call it “interconnectedness” if you want. You can talk about it in terms of non-duality. But fundamentally, helping others to move toward awakening (whether or not they’re aware that’s where they’re headed) seems to be inseparable from my own movement toward enlightenment. This is what the Mahāyāna called mahākaruṇā, or great compassion, in which we aim to guide all beings to the happiness of awakening. I believe this is what the earlier Buddhist tradition also called upekkhā, the fourth brahmavihāra. Everyone else is going to tell you that upekkhā is “equanimity,” but the root of the word upekkhā suggests that it originally meant “to watch over closely” and its place as the pinnacle of the brahmavihāras convinces me that upekkhā and mahākaruṇā are the same thing.

There’s another way you can express all this, which is to say that the Buddha (enlightenment, awakening, living an awakened life) is at the center of my life. And if I think of my life as a maṇṇḍ ala — a symbolic arrangement of values — then the Buddha is at the center of my maṇṇḍ ala.

Ideally, I’d like everything else in my life to relate to and be supportive of the center. That’s far from being the case: I have anger and craving and any number of bad habits that represent movements away from the center. But that’s what practice is about. It helps us to “want one thing.”

Meditation is just a support — albeit a crucial one — to the goal of getting myself and all beings to awakening: my “one thing.” It can never be, never has been, and never should be the most important thing in my life, even though it’s a crucial practice.

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“There Is No God and He Is Always with You,” by Brad Warner

There Is No God and He Is Always with You, Brad Warner

Brad Warner is an unconventional American Zen teacher, who seems sincerely to believe that he has found God, that God should be — or even is — an intrinsic part of Buddhist practice and realization, that others would benefit if they found God too, and who thinks that that believing in God might actually help us solve the world’s problems. He outlines all this in his latest book, There Is No God And He Is Always With You, in which he offers “straight talk about why this ‘godless religion’ [Zen Buddhism] has a lot to say about God.”

Some of the above will be as confounding for you as it was for me. After all, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. The Buddha was not God, his spiritual realization had nothing to do with finding God, and the teachings that Buddhists follow have nothing to do with God. Buddhism in fact is attractive to many of us because it’s a spiritual tradition that is non-theistic, but Warner stands this on its head:

…in my opinion it’s entirely wrong to say that Buddhism is a religion without a God. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.

The God that Warner believes in is not the anthropomorphic deity who, in popular imagination, sits in the sky making judgements about us and choosing, on Saturday afternoons, which college football team he will favor. Warner’s God is the entire universe, is us, is essentially indefinable, and is the supreme truth and ground of all being. For example:

Title: There Is No God And He Is Always With You
Author: Brad Warner
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-183-9
Available from: New World Library, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

  • “I believed that the nonmaterial aspects of our existence were real elements of the natural universe, and that we might call those aspects of the universe God.” (page 138)
  • “I’m not talking about God as the first cause of everything. I’m saying that our direct experience of life is God. Life is God experiencing God.” (page 81)
  • “God transcends any attributes we could imagine. Attributes, qualities, and characteristics all distinguish something from other things. But one of God’s attributes is that he is everything.” (page 122)
  • “…the Chinese word inmo … refers to the ineffable substratum of reality, the ground of all being and nonbeing. To me, this is just another way of saying God.” (page XIV)
  • “The supreme truth is, to me, another name for God.” (XIV)

Warner feels qualified to teach God as a part of Buddhism because he has, he believes, had an experience of God. One time when Warner was crossing a bridge in Tokyo (although he stresses that his experience was outside space and time) he experienced himself as being “spread throughout the universe and throughout all of time.” It sounds like a powerful altered state of perception, although it might seem odd that a Buddhist — someone practicing in a nontheistic religion, would interpret such an experience in theistic terms, which he does: “This was God. Is God. Will always be God,” and “I came away from the experience knowing certain things for absolute fact. I know now that God exists.”

Now, having an experience is one thing, but having had experiences we want to “explain” them in some way, often in terms of our previous beliefs and mindsets. In fact, Warner actually points out, in the context of how spiritual experiences such as this can be dangerous, “You need to work through a lot of your personal shit before you get into something like this, or you’ll only be able to experience it in terms of your own personal shit.”

So the question that arises for me, as a Buddhist who feels no need to interpret his own experiences in theistic terms, and with reluctance to be reductionist and psychological, is whether God is part of Warner’s “shit” that he has not worked through. Interestingly, it seems that he had been searching for God through his Zen practice. For example, “I got into [Zen] for a number of other reasons … but the biggest one was that I wanted to know if God really existed.” So, it does sound rather like Warner had a pre-existing notion of God — wanted to believe in the existence of God, in fact — went looking for God in Zen (an unlikely venue, I would have thought) and then ended up interpreting a powerful experience of nonduality in terms of God.

There are clues in the book suggesting why Warner felt the need to see his spiritual quest in terms of God. In discussing an early Christian theory that God is beyond concepts like existence and non-existence, Warner points out:

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

So we have a classic false dichotomy here: There is either a God, or we live in a dead universe in which consciousness is nothing more than meaningless “brain farts.” God or meaninglessness. Some of us don’t feel the need to be trapped in that dichotomy and in fact see the Dharma as a middle way — as providing a sense of the life and the universe as containing meaning without recourse to the terminology of “God.” Certainly the Buddha seemed to have no need of such concepts, and I think he knew a thing or two about his own realization.

Similarly we find (on page 188) “When we forget God we treat one another and the world we live in as objects.” This is a classic argument: if we don’t believe in God we can’t be good. God or meaninglessness. And yet many of us — Buddhists, atheists — find that we are perfectly capable of not treating others as objects. Lovingkindness and compassion are virtues that, in Buddhism, don’t rely on God. Morality in Buddhism does not rely on God. In fact morality, in Buddhism, arises from the very structure of the mind, in that our suffering or lack of suffering depend on our volitions, and the thoughts, words, and acts that spring from them. Thus, morality is intrinsic to the mind, and therefore to the universe.

Warner apparently cannot disengage life having meaning, a sense of the universe being alive, and morality from the concept of God. It’s not, therefore, surprising that he went searching for God, nor that he found Him.

On the whole I find Warner’s writing to be very interesting and endearingly honest. For example he’ll tell you something about quantum physics and then say he doesn’t understand it and so isn’t a good person to explain it. But often his talk strikes me as less than “straight,” and he repeatedly uses phrases suggesting that God is an established part of Buddhism. It’s fine when he says something like, “To me Buddhism is a way to approach and understand God without dealing with religion.” But then he’ll say something like “I think it expresses the Zen Buddhist approach to the matter of God very succinctly” (emphasis added). That Zen Buddhism has an approach to the matter of God is a surprise to me.


“There is no God and he is always with you” may sound like a simple non sequitur or a typical pointless Zen riddle. But it expresses the Zen point of view about God very succinctly. Even though what you think of as God can’t possibly exist, there is a real spiritual dimension to this world. There is something that can be called God. [Emphasis added.]

So again we have “the Zen point of view about God,” which seems to be suggesting that God is a part of Zen Buddhism. This Zen point of view, we’re told, is that “there is a real spiritual dimension to this world” (which few would argue with), but also that “there is something that can be called God.” That there is something that can be called God is not, to the best of my knowledge. a part of traditional Zen teaching, although Warner’s choice of words suggests that it is.

And again, he states that the book is an “attempt to make the Zen approach to the question of God comprehensible to a contemporary Western audience steeped in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.” Not “one Zen Buddhist’s approach to the question of God,” nor “my approach to the question of God,” but “the Zen approach to God.”

If this is a technique for trying to give the impression that Zen (or Buddhism generally) has a position that is favorable to God, then it’s one that I’m disturbed by. It strikes me as talk that is the opposite of straight.

A similar pattern is found in Warner’s discussion of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. At first we have clarity: “Dogen’s writing never mentions God specifically.” Then Warner states his contradictory opinion, making it clear that it is an opinion, “In spite of this, I believe that Dogen’s Buddhism directly addresses questions about the nature of God.” That’s Warner’s belief. That’s fine.

But then the slippery slope begins: “Whenever I read this chapter I tend to substitute the word God for inmo. I don’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about other than God.” I don’t know any Japanese, but “inmo” (in other places I’ve seen it as “immo”) seems to be the Chinese or Japanese translation of the Sanskrit “tāthatā,” which is usually rendered as “suchness” — an odd-sounding word meaning something like “the way things are” or “reality.” In a Buddhist context it never means anything like “God.”

Then the momentum of our slippery slope grows: “it’s useful to look at what Dogen wrote about his concept of God” (emphasis added). Now we’re being told that Dogen has a concept of God, although he wrote about no such thing; he wrote about tāthatā, which Warner imagines must be God because he doesn’t know what else Dogen could possibly be talking about. I guess if you have a hammer and are desperate to use it, then everything starts to look like a nail.


This is where [Dogen] starts to talk about God. He says that another name for “it” [i.e. “inmo/immo, or tathatha/suchness] is the “supreme truth of bodhi.” The word bodhi means “enlightenment” or “awakening.” Dogen says, “The situation of this supreme truth of bodhi is such that even the whole universe in ten directions is just a small part of the supreme truth of bodhi: it may be that the truth of bodhi abounds beyond the universe.”

“This is where he starts to talk about God.” I see no talk about God in that passage, or in anything else Warner quotes from Dogen. I see some deep and intriguing talk about tāthatā and about “the supreme truth of bodhi.” But there’s nothing about God.

And later, “the Buddhist view of things is that God is neither spirit nor matter.” I was unaware that Buddhism had such a view.

These statements seem to me to fly in the face of Warner’s claims to be delivering “straight talk.”

I’m not arguing, of course, that Buddhists, especially in modern times, have talked about God one way or another. Warner gives examples, such as Nishijima Roshi (“God is the universe, the universe is God”), who has taught a lot of westerners and thus has had to deal with questions about God. The expression “There is no God and he is always with you” comes ultimately from Sasaki Roshi, who has also spent a long time (in the US) teaching westerners. But these are responses to people trying to reconcile their existing belief in God with their explorations of the non-theism of Buddhism.

So I’m just saying that God is not an established part of Buddhist teaching — in fact is alien to Buddhist teaching — but that Warner’s choice of words suggest he’s trying to give the impression that Dogen and other traditional Buddhist teachers have a view of God. But even in discussing contemporary teachers, Warner again tends to insert God where he hasn’t been mentioned:

“In Kobun Chino’s words, ‘You are held by the hand of the absolute’: that is, God holds his own hand.” But Kobun’s statement had nothing at all to do with God. He was again talking about tāhtatā, or something similar.

Warner admits that his use of the term “God” is problematic. He says more than once that it’s “dangerous” (page 175) and that it’s also divisive:

I think it would be better for us as Westerners to start using that dangerous and divisive word God when we talk about what happened to Buddha all those centuries ago and what continues to happen to contemporary people who follow his way.

He also accepts that the term God is eternalistic (that is, it contradicts impermanence) and dualistic, but seems to see that — somehow — as a plus:

The fact that eternalism/dualism is enshrined by the word God is one of the many facets of it that makes the word so useful, I think. The nature of my practice has always been that whenever I believe I’ve finally figured out what things mean, there ’s always another aspect that I’ve missed. Just when I believed Buddhism was all about getting rid of eternalism and dualism, there it was in the very fabric of the universe itself, something eternal and dualistic.”

Why does Warner think that this problematic, dangerous, divisive, eternalistic, and dualistic language is useful? Partly because there’s too much talk about enlightenment being something easy to attain, in contrast to “seeing God,” which is not easy to attain:

This is one reason that I’m trying to introduce the word God into the Western Buddhist dialogue. The word enlightenment, or substitutes such as transformation, seems to suggest a psychological state that one might induce with some kind of seminar or fancy technique or drugs. If we start talking in terms of “seeing God,” it might become clearer to everyone that we’re talking about something much grander and much more difficult.

I think this is an insightful identification of a problem, combined with one of the worst conceivable suggestions for a solution. In traditional Christian terms, “seeing God” was indeed a task for spiritual heroes, who would have to go to extreme lengths (sometimes literally — they were often hermits) and commit to challenging and sometimes dangerous practices (some saints starved themselves almost to death in order to see God). And Buddhist teachers touting workshops that promise help you to “realize a deep experience of True Self” (In only two days! For $5000!) are clearly presenting a misleading account of what enlightenment is and how it is attained. But perhaps rather than introducing an alien and problematic concept to Buddhism we should be trying to promote a better understanding of enlightenment and of the difficulty of attaining it. My own equivalent of “seeing God” is my quest to “know the mind of the Buddha,” which is something I see as a lifelong quest, and not something that can be done in a two-day event at the Embassy Suites, LAX South (10:00 AM Monday to 6:00 PM Tuesday).

I’m actually sympathetic to what Warner is trying to achieve. As well as wanting to get away from the idea that enlightenment is easy to attain, he wants people to escape the notion that the universe is “dead” and meaningless. He wants people to see the world as alive, and to have personal connection with reality. He wants people to see themselves as being vaster than they can possibly imagine. These are all excellent aims. But you don’t need God for any of this. Buddhist teachings and practice already lead to these perspectives, and in fact it was presumably Warner’s Buddhist practice that provoked realization of connectedness, timelessness, and a profound sense of meaning. But he’s unfortunately interpreted that experience in terms of (to use his expression) the “shit” that he hasn’t worked through about God.

For an example of the universe as a loving, living presence, here’s one of my favorite quotes from Jan Chozen Bays’ book, How to Train a Wild Elephant:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out?

A sense of the world being imbued with a loving presence is not uncommon when we practice the brahmaviharas which, unfortunately, are an aspect of Buddhist practice that has been dropped by the Zen tradition.

Or in the Indo-Tibetan tradition we have the teaching of the universe as the manifestation of a primordial, living reality. Here’s the Dalai Lama:

I understand the Primordial Buddha, also known as Buddha Samantabhadra, to be the ultimate reality, the realm of the Dharmakaya — the space of emptiness — where all phenomena, pure and impure, are dissolved.

But His Holiness also clarifies: “It would be a grave error to conceive of [the Primordial Buddha] as an independent and autonomous existence from beginningless time.” In other words don’t think about this primordial reality as a separate God. Actually, that’s pretty similar to what Warner says, but without the problematic language. Which is my point; Buddhism already has it covered.

The Indo-Tibetan approach is subtle because it allows for us having a personal relationship with reality — a sense that the universe is imbued with compassion and wisdom — but at the same time it has a non-dualistic view. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “we do not visualize this source as a unique entity, but as the ultimate clear light of each being. We can also, on the basis of its pure essence, understand this clear light to be the Primordial Buddha.” We can even feel a strong sense of personal connection with the Dharmakaya (primordial reality) as it manifests through the Sambhogakaya — the forms we perceive as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, with whom we can have a personal connection, all while not seeing them as separate from the nature of our own mind.

This may need some unpacking, or even some struggle, for many peple to understand it, but it seems clear to me that Buddhism already has, in non-theistic terms, what Warner sees as God, but without using the term God.

I think real problems emerge when you try to force God language into Buddhism. Warner at one point says that God is a good term to use for what Zen is about because “shoving the word God into a tidy intellectual container would be like trying to shove a live octopus into a Kleenex box.” But shoving the word “God” into Buddhism is equally problematic.

One practical problem is that many people are in fact looking for a religious tradition that doesn’t hinge on belief in a God, and will be put off by God-talk.

Another is that there’s a serious danger that once you force God into Buddhism, you no longer have Buddhism, but some kind of New Age quasi-Hinduism, or even something barely distinguishable from some of the nicer forms of Christianity.

And the very term “God,” as Warner points out, is divisive, dualistic, and dangerous. He thinks this is a good thing for Buddhism; I don’t. And once you start thinking of your spiritual quest in terms of wanting to know “what God wants from you” (the title of one of the chapters) you’ve opened the way to some dangerous delusions.

Despite my many reservations, there were things I liked about this book. I could write a lot about themes he raised, but I’ve already gone on longer than I’d intended. Short version: Brad Warner is a funny and interesting teacher. He’s endearingly self-deprecating. There are some great discussions about the nature of faith, about the need to be ready for awakening, about the nature of time, and about the problems of translation. Having read his book I definitely want to hang out with Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

But on the whole, the last thing I think Western Buddhism needs is the intrusion of God.

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“May all beings dwell in peace”: A guided meditation (Day 91)

handThis meditation is a recording of a Hangout I did on Google+ with members of Wildmind’s community. It’s an upekkha bhavana meditation, which is not really the “cultivation of equanimity” at all — or at least so I believe. To me, upekkhā is not equanimity. It doesn’t even mean equanimity in its etymological root, but something more like “closely watching.” Upekkhā is when we wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening through accepting impermanence, or the arising and passing of things, or that everything changes (the exact words don’t matter much).

We are of course seeking the peace of awakening ourselves, and so at the beginning of this sit I encourage you to notice the constantly changing nature of your experience. We notice and accept that everything is changing, and this can lead to a profound sense of letting go in which we realize that there is nothing to hold on to, and in fact no one to do any holding on.

And this change is experienced in a loving and compassionate way, since this is, after all, an extension of the mettā (lovingkindness) practice.

I suggested then dropping in the following phrases:

  • May I accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May I find awakening.
  • May I dwell in peace.

These phrases are optional, but they can sharpen and clarify our desire for the peace of awakening, or bodhi.

And then we with the peace of awakening for all beings, starting with a neutral person (someone we don’t have a friendship or conflict with), then a friend, and then someone we do have difficulty with. Lastly, we extend our upekkha to all beings:

  • May all beings accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

In the discussion at the end of the sit I discuss how upekkhā is not equanimity, but is the desire that all beings be liberated, and is exactly the same as the mahākaruṇā (great compassion) of the Mahāyāna. I suspect that the Mahāyāna may have used the term mahākaruṇā to distinguish this desire that all beings be liberated from karuṇā as a brahmavihāra, which is a simpler desire that all beings be free from suffering.


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Noah Shachtman, Wired: Chade-Meng Tan is perched on a chair, his lanky body folded into a half-lotus position. “Close your eyes,” he says. His voice is a hypnotic baritone, slow and rhythmic, seductive and gentle. “Allow your attention to rest on your breath: The in-breath, the out-breath, and the spaces in between.” We feel our lungs fill and release. As we focus on the smallest details of our respiration, other thoughts—of work, of family, of money—begin to recede, leaving us alone with the rise and fall of our chests. For thousands of years, these techniques have helped put practitioners into meditative states…

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Inner truth: Gender equality in Buddhism

Daisaku Ikeda, India.com: The Lotus Sutra teaches that all living beings possess the world of Buddhahood. There is not even a hint of discrimination toward women.

The Lotus Sutra teaches that all living beings possess the world of Buddhahood. There is not even a hint of discrimination toward women. To discriminate against others–in any way–is to discriminate against your own life.

In a fiercely discriminatory society, Gautama Buddha staunchly refused to allow his actions to be coloured by distinctions of class, gender and birth, or of lay practitioner and monk or nun. Whether male or female, being noble…

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“For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” (Day 9)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Yesterday I discussed what “well” means when we say “May you be well.” It’s not as straightforward as “physical health.” Today I’d like to talk about what “happy” means when we say “May you be happy.” Again this isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

I was prompted to think about this because of questions people had about the recent bombings at the Boston marathon, and what it means to cultivate lovingkindness for the bomber or bombers. But this applies to many of the people we find difficult, and whom we bring into the fourth stage of the metta bhavana practice.

One person commented that some of the people he finds difficult are destructive and “cause problems for those around them, and inflict pain on others, in family or work contexts.”

So naturally we wouldn’t want them to go around wreaking destruction in this way, but being happier as they did so! And in fact he spelled that out:

I have no difficulty wishing that they be physically healthy and safe. But I imagine their “happiness” or “living with ease” as very probably involving the detriment of others – if they do not change their behaviour.

It’s the last part — “if they do not change their behaviour” — that’s the key. Because from a Buddhist point of view, real happiness isn’t an add-on extra that you can simply bolt onto an existing life that’s deeply unskillful. Real happiness is actually the outcome of a life lived skillfully, and so in wishing that the difficult person be happy, we’re wishing that they be the kind of person who is kind, and mindful, and who creates happiness.

There are different kinds of happiness, according to Buddhist teachings. For example there is, according to one sutta, worldly happiness, unworldly happiness, and a still greater unworldly happiness.

I won’t go into these in detail, but the point is clear that there is a hierarchy of types of happiness, from the worldly (which includes the pleasure people get from being unkind), to the unworldly (which includes the happiness we get from meditation, although this would include all happiness that we get from acting with mindfulness and kindness), to the “still greater unworldly happiness” which arises in the mind that is freed of greed, hatred, and delusion.

So when you’re wishing that someone who normally acts destructively be “happy” you’re wishing them at least the “unworldly” happiness that comes from being an aware, empathic, ethically responsible human being, and maybe even the “still greater unworldly happiness” that comes from being enlightened.

And actually, this is a tough thing to wish on anyone! When we move from acting unskillfully to becoming more mindful and loving, there’s a time when we look back at our lives and have to accept responsibility for the harm we’ve done. And this is a very painful thing. In thinking of the true happiness of awakening, I’m reminded of Rilke’s words, “For here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” The mind of compassion that develops within us, becomes the place where we are seen, and so our lives must change — sometimes painfully.

Now I’m not suggesting that we wish pain on anyone, but just pointing out that to wish someone real happiness is not to wish that they be given a free pass that absolves them of the harm they’ve caused. It’s to wish that they be seen by their own conscience, and that they do the hard work that this “being seen” demands.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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