Myth-busting the bodhisattvas

Adam Savage, star of TV’s popular Myth Busters, gave an impassioned speech at the recent Reason Rally in Washington, DC. At the conclusion of his talk he had the following to say:

I have concluded through careful, empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of.

I believe they know everything that I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me. (Source)

This is very much the take I have on the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana. (See “What is a Bodhisattva.“) Some people evidently regard Avalokiteshvara, Tara, etc., as actually existing entities, qnd in fact in Tibetan Buddhism they’ve been coming to blows over whether one of these figures is in fact a force of good or otherwise. But to me they are symbolic archetypes through which experiences of compassion, wisdom, etc., can manifest themselves to us.

To give a mild flavor of this, psychology experiments have shown that if someone is asked to thinking about a professor before they take a quiz, they perform better. The idea of a professor seems to help people get in touch with their own intelligence. Similarly, I believe, the archetypal bodhisattvas and Buddhas can help us get in touch with our own wisdom and compassion.

I’ve had bodhisattvas appear to me in my dreams, but I don’t take that as a “visitation” from a actually existing entity. I’ve even had “communication” from bodhisattvas, but again I take that as being one part of my brain communicating with another through an imagined image and voice.

As Roshi Bernie Glassman says, in Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, “Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is the manifestation, or embodiment, of both prajna wisdom and compassion. Who is this Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva? It is nothing other than us, it is nothing other than who we intrinsically are … We must realize that Avalokitesvara is not separate — it’s us!”

So I love Savage’s reframing of the language of theism, and of the notion of “someone looking out for us.” One reason for reflecting on, growing to love, and developing a devotional relationship to the bodhisattvas is that it makes it easer for us to hear from that part of us that is doing the looking out.

I’d recommend listening to the whole of Savage’s talk. It’s rather lovely.

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Can you have faith, but disbelieve the Buddha?

Women bowing to a Buddhist shrine

Facebook’s a funny place. You’ll post a link to a really brilliant, informative, insightful, and useful article on meditation and get no response, and then post a picture of a dog meditating and get swamped with thousands of “likes” and comments.

Recently when I idly shared a cartoon on reincarnation from In it, a young boy says to his grandfather, “Yeah, well, I didn’t believe in reincarnation when I was your age either.”

It’s funny. I liked it so much I bought a signed print from the artist.

Anyway, back to Facebook. Someone asked me what my own view on rebirth was, and I replied to the effect that on balance I’m not a believer. I made clear it’s not that I deny the possibility of rebirth — it just seems vanishingly unlikely that any kind of consciousness can exist outside of a brain, or be transferred from one brain to another. I guess you could say I’m an agnostic, and a skeptical one at that.

But this admission suddenly created a discussion in which it was suggested that I was lacking and downplaying faith, and had “modern rationalist prejudice” against the idea of rebirth.

I don’t really want to write too much about rebirth here — I’ll save that for another post — but I would like to say something about the nature of faith (saddha in Pali, or shraddha in Sanskrit) in Buddhism, and how having it doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything the Buddha said.

I’d also like to point out that saddha (faith) has very little to do, in the Buddhist tradition, with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience.

Early Buddhist texts tell us that when you attain the first level of spiritual awakening (stream entry) you have have unshakable faith in three things: the Buddha, his teaching (the Dhamma), and the spiritual community (the Sangha). But it’s important to examine how each of these things is described.

First, faith in the Buddha.

The disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’

The faith being advocated here is confidence that the Buddha is a realized teacher: that he has attained spiritual awakening and that he’s able to guide us to that same awakening.

Now, we can’t directly verify for ourselves that the Buddha was awakened. But we can read his words, and see the effects of Buddhist practice in others, and in our own lives, and on that basis develop confidence that there was something special about him — that he had some extraordinary insight. And we can have confidence that his teaching, in principle, can led to us having the same insight. This isn’t blind faith. It’s faith rooted in experience.

Second, faith in the Dhamma (teachings, path):

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’

I’m not going to parse this entire passage, but here, faith is confidence that the Buddha’s teaching is something that can be verified (“inviting verification … to be seen here and now … to be realized”).

The core of this confidence is recognition of the Dhamma as a verifiable process. We can’t — and this is important — verify the Dharma in its entirety right now. It has to be verified in our experience, and that takes time. Again, there’s no blind faith involved.

Third, faith in the Sangha, or spiritual community:

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well…who have practiced straight-forwardly…who have practiced methodically…who have practiced masterfully — [the various types of awakened individuals] — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’

This seems a straightforward kind of confidence: confidence that it’s a good thing to master the teachings and become spiritually awakened, that it’s a good thing to respect and honor people who have done so. This is an aspirational attitude, and also a devotional attitude, which is very important in Buddhist practice. It’s why you’ll see Buddhists bowing in front of Buddha statues (and to each other!). We need to respect and honor goodness and wisdom when we see it. But again, there’s no blind faith involved.

So this is the kind of faith that someone who is a stream entrant has, that someone who has reached the first level of awakening has. These types of faith are called “factors of stream entry” and they’re not only seen as characteristics of the stream entrant, but as means to gain stream entry itself. It has very little — nothing, really — to do with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience. It’s all “provisional trust” in something that you intend to, and can, verify.

I’d like to come back and talk a little about the teaching of rebirth. The scriptures are full of references to rebirth and to afterlives in heaven or hell. Although some have argued that the Buddha only taught rebirth as an accommodation to the culture he lived in, I see that in itself as a leap of faith! We know something of what the Buddha said, but we can never know what he was thinking if it was different from what he is recorded as having said. It seems reasonable to accept that the Buddha believed in rebirth.

Does that mean that I should, out of faith, believe in rebirth? I don’t think it does. For one thing, I can’t verify the existence of rebirth in my own experience. I don’t remember any previous lives, and there are always going to be questions hovering over the accounts of people who say they do. I can’t 100% verify their accounts. In fact I can’t verify their accounts at all, since all I’ve ever had to go on are other people’s accounts of their accounts.

For another thing, the Buddha said other things that we know to be incorrect — or at least he’s recorded as having said those things. There is no mountain hundreds of thousands of miles high, around which four continents are arranged. Those continents do not float on water, which in turn does not rest on air. Earthquakes therefore are not caused by the air which lies under the water which lies under the continents.

The Buddha’s area of expertise was spiritual psychology. Evidently, he didn’t know any more about geography, geology, and cosmology than any other educated Indian of his time. Although I recognize the Buddha as a sure guide to overcoming greed, hatred, and spiritual delusion, I’ve no reason to believe that he had any special insight into what happens after death.

Most importantly, though, it makes no difference to my practice to be skeptical of the reality of rebirth. I’m going to make the most of this life, whether or not I’ll be reborn. In fact, I’d argue that thinking it’s probable that this is the only life I’ll have gives me more of a sense of urgency about practicing. In fact the Buddha’s recorded as saying that his disciples can have the assurance that “if there is no fruit [in future lives] of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.”

If that was good enough for the Buddha, then that’s good enough for me.

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“The Novice,” by Stephen Schettini

"The Novice," by Stephen SchettiniVishvapani reviews Schettini’s heartfelt and vivid account of becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk and his valuable reflections on what it means for westerners to practice Buddhism

When I first encountered Buddhism in the UK around 1980 there was already a generation of established practitioners, most of whom shared a common background. They were hippies … or should that be ex-hippies? Their faces lit up as they recounted their adventures: how they set out from respectable homes to discover the excitements of London’s Kings Road, join the flower children in the Haight, or make exotic journeys to the East. There were stories of dope deals that went wrong, revelatory acid trips, close shaves with bandits in the Afghan mountains, and spiritual discoveries in India.

Title: The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned
Author: Stephen Schettini
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
ISBN: 978-1-60832-005-9
Available from: and

All that is in The Novice. Stephen Schettini grew up in London and Gloucester in an English-Italian family with at least its share of emotional repression and Catholic guilt. At the time, he just wanted to get away and felt increasingly estranged from his family’s petty bourgeois ambitions. With his philosophical leanings and alienation from society, Schettini was a natural recruit to the counter-culture and he eventually hitchhiked along the hippy trail that led stretched from Europe to India. His story was so familiar that it seemed clichéd until it struck me that I couldn’t think of another book that tells it, and that Schettini tells it well. His writing is lucid and vivid, at least once the story gets going, and he doesn’t let the impulse to reminisce get in the way of his tale.

In India, Schettini‘s path diverged from that of the Buddhists I had met, who had enjoyed their adventures and come home. He heard that the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees were living in Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills, and set off to find what they had to offer. The turning point came when Schettini met and studied with Lama Yeshe, “the hippy Lama,” who exuded warmth, taught in English and knew enough about the Western culture to pepper his teachings with humorous asides about supermarkets and consumerism. Something clicked for Schettini when he encountered Tibetan Buddhism: the promise of an inner peace that would resolve his emotional turmoil; a new identity that would end his isolation; a philosophy that answered his questions; and benign, seemingly all-knowing lamas upon whom he could rely.

Schettini soon became a monk and found himself in Switzerland studying with the famous scholar, Geshe Rabten, and sharing an intense existence with several other young monks. Two members of this tight-knit group have become prominent figures in western Buddhism. Alan Wallace is a leading figure in the dialogue between science and Buddhism, and Stephen Batchelor is a writer and teacher whose approach is amply expressed in the title of his latest book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (which is also part-autobiography and covers some of the same ground as The Novice).

The intellectual trajectories of Schettini’s fellow-monks suggest the struggles that awaited Schettini himself as he moved from immersing himself in Tibetan culture and religion and hoped to integrate it with the rest of his life. Geshe Rabten’s regime emphasized study, but this turned out to mean memorizing ancient texts and mastering traditional arguments. Debate was on the curriculum, but it involved deploying those arguments skillfully, rather than subjecting an issue to the kind of fundamental inquiry that is found in western philosophy. The monks developed a camaraderie mixed with competitiveness that stopped some way short of intimacy. But the wider community around Rabten included proprietorial lay-women, wealthy donors who were treated as favourites and, later, a younger monks with a starry-eyed faith in the infallibility of their teacher.

Wishing to get to know the Tibetans better, Schettini left Rabten and traveled to Sera monastery in southern India, where he was the only westerner. Living among Tibetans and speaking their the language, the sheen that had made them seem semi-mythic beings faded and Schettini saw their limitations. The monks were immersed in a dogmatic system that closed off the possibility of even posing certain questions, and some thoughts were literally unthinkable within the limitations of the Tibetan language. Meanwhile, they lived in insanitary conditions, and refused to take basic precautions against infection and disease. Schettini returned to Switzerland, skeptical of many aspects of the tradition and was astonished by the naivety of Rabten’s students, who seemed so “dazzled by exotic thinking and ritual” that they accept the Teacher’s decisions without question. Before long he quit.

The remaining 25 years of Schettini’s story are recounted briskly. Unlike Batchelor, whose time as a Tibetan monk takes up just a couple of chapters of his book, Schettini was too snagged by the self-doubt and insecurity underpinning his decision to become a monk to explore other philosophies or Buddhist traditions. In order to live happily in a way that was authentic he needed to uncover the buried emotions that had been with him all along. Schettini realized that the very difficulties he had once fled were, in fact, the keys to his happiness. He needed to face them, and face himself rather than fleeing or blaming the monastic establishment.

Schettini wrote and rewrote the book that became The Novice over many years as he wrestled with his past. But the product is far more than a therapy journal. In reflecting on his life and the religion he encountered Schettini tried to “pick out the gold from the dross.” The personal philosophy he arrives at is a kind of wary spiritually-aware humanism. He mistrusts institutions and dogmatically-held beliefs, holding that “the more deeply we are motivated by emotion, the more insistently we pass it off as reason” and that “denial is a force to be reckoned with and our principal obstacle.”

This is wise, but I read Schettini’s reflections with sadness. I am sad that the reality of Tibetan Buddhism fell so far short of the image that beguiled him and many others. And I am sad that his eventual stance is so circumspect. I believe there is more gold in Buddhism than Schettini acknowledges, however much dross may accompany it. Indeed, I think there are more possibilities in the human condition than he mentions, and that Buddhism speaks to many of them: possibilities of mental development, compassion, and moral excellence. Religious institutions may often be rigid, but that isn’t a reason to give up on creating better ones.

It is over forty years since westerners started to investigate Asian spiritual traditions in large numbers, and many of the institutions they created in their efforts to establish Buddhism in the West are likewise several decades old. It is high time to let go of illusions about both the mystical East or the glorious prospects for western Buddhism and reflect seriously and honestly on what has been learned. The Novice is a heart-felt, frank, informative and eloquent contribution.

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention

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Don’t believe everything you think

Calling BS on the mind’s stories

I was talking to a friend the other day who’d found that recently he just wasn’t interested in his meditation practice. He’d found that he was watching the breath, but his mind was constantly telling him there were other, more interesting, things that he could be doing — that the breath was boring. The mind is always doing things like this: making up plausible stories that “make sense” of our experience. But the trouble is that these stories often are neither true, nor helpful.

An illustration of how arbitrary and untrue our mind’s stories are can be found in some fascinating brain studies. In treating some epileptic patients, it was once common for doctors to sever the corpus callosum, or band of tissue connecting the left and right brains. This means that the two sides of the brain, which have different functions, cannot communicate with each other, and each functions independently. It’s possible to present words or images to the left visual field, and only that side of the brain will respond: the right brain quite literally sees nothing, and vice versa.

We’re often not aware of our motivations, and so we make up stories that “explain” why we feel the way we do

In one intriguing experiment, split-brain subjects were presented with two cognitive tests simultaneously — one to each side of the brain. They were presented with a picture and asked to point to an object that went with that picture. Both sides of the brain performed perfectly: when the left hemisphere is shown a chicken foot, the right hand pointed to a chicken, and the right hemisphere, shown a snow scene, led to the left hand pointing to a shovel. The subject now has to explain — using his left hemisphere — why he made his choice. The response — “I saw a claw and I picked the chicken, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel” — makes no sense at all and is in fact a fiction, because there was no causal connection at all between the actions of the left and right brains, which were acting in an uncoordinated way.

In other experiments the word “Laugh” was flashed to the left field of vision (the right hemisphere), and the subject laughed. When asked, “Why are you laughing?”, the subject said, “Oh…you guys are really something.” The right brain laughs because it’s seen the word “laugh”. The left brain hasn’t seen the word, but knows that the subject has in fact laughed. And the left brain comes up with a plausible-sounding reason for why the laughing occurred, not knowing the real reason.

Often we don’t recognize cause and effect in our own minds. Life is very complex, and so is the mind.

This may sound a long way from our day-to-day experience, but it’s not. We’re often not aware of our motivations, and so we make up stories that “explain” why we feel the way we do, and why we act the way we do. We also make up stories about why other act the way they do since we almost never know for sure what their motivations are. Other people are to ourselves as the left and right brains are in a split-brain patient. If fact often we are to ourselves as the left and right brains are in a split-brain patient.

Often we don’t recognize cause and effect in our own minds. Life is very complex, and so is the mind. Figuring out exactly why, for example, we’re in a bad mood can be beyond us. I remember once on a long and intensive meditation retreat, wondering exactly that; I was in an uncharacteristically (for a retreat) irritable mood and couldn’t figure out why. Eventually it occurred to me that this might be the result of having fantasized the day before about eating ice cream — I was in a remote place where such things weren’t available, and I’d been on retreat so long that small things like that could have a big effect on my mind. I don’t know if that was the actual cause, although the bad mood evaporated as soon as I made the connection. But until I’d figured out a likely cause I had plenty of stories rattling around in my brain, focusing on the faults (real or imagined) of myself, other people, and the retreat center. All of those stories were nothing more than fictions, but they seemed to make sense of that particular situation.

To adopt a skeptical attitude towards the stories we tell ourselves is the single most important skill in meditation

In the case of my friend, he was hearing the story over and over that his breath was simply not interesting, and that he should go off and do something more interesting. But interest is a state of mind, and not something that’s inherent in the object we’re paying attention to. It’s not, in other words, that the breath is either interesting or uninteresting, but that we’re either interested in it at some given time or not interested. And that’s something that’s in our control. I’ve found, for example, that when I’m a bit bored in my meditation practice I can simply say to myself, “That’s interesting…” and suddenly I find something in my experience that I’m fascinated by. If he just sticks with the practice he’ll almost certainly find that he finds ways to take an interest in the breath again. If he gives in to the thoughts he’s hearing he’ll miss out on a lot of personal growth.

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Another example I saw recently was someone who was convinced that another person had shown him disrespect. The action in question was incredibly minor and could have been explained in any number of ways, but he was convinced that he knew the other person’s thought processes and motivations. Of course he couldn’t possibly know, not being equipped with psychic powers. But a lot of us do this kind of “mindreading” and we cause ourselves and others a great deal of suffering when we do.

We can stand back from our stories and realize that they are stories

The important thing is to adopt a skeptical attitude towards the stories we tell ourselves. I see this, in fact, as being the single most important skill in meditation. Instead, for example, of being caught up in thinking angrily about something, or craving something, or doubting ourselves, we can stand back from the stories and realize that they are stories. It’s not always easy to do. For example in the middle of writing this article I suddenly thought “Hey, I must check my email” and then predictably I got distracted and wasted 20 minutes surfing the internet. I hadn’t been on the ball enough to realize that this was just another story and that I didn’t have to check my email — there was no reason it couldn’t wait. It’s all too easy to believe the BS that the mind throws our way, and it’s important to keep our BS-detectors at the ready so that we don’t create unnecessary problems for ourselves.

This isn’t to say that every thought it unhelpful and misleading. That’s far from being the case. So how do we tell which thoughts are BS and which are not? It can take a lot of practice. One key guideline is to look at the kind of emotion being expressed in the thought. If the thought is fueled by doubt, ill will, craving, or anxiety, there’s a good chance it’s neither a very accurate nor a very helpful one. Thoughts that are calmer and more compassionate are more likely to be useful.

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