Sunday, July 26, 2009

More on Ken Wilber and Genp Merzel and "Western" Buddhism and Philosophy

I was refraining from posting more on this latest breathless ad on "Integral Life Practice" because it was being exhausted well at Warner's blog, but having seen The Zennist's evident evisceration of Wilber, Merzel et al. (without ever naming them), I figured it might be useful to expand on my comments from Warner's blog. You can read both of those blog entries and the comments therein to find the criticisms of Wilber, Merzel et al. I'll first summarize my position as:

Is it the Dharma that Wilber and Merzel are selling when they try to piggyback on Eckhart Tolle? One could attempt to be a fundamentalist and attempt to correlate what they market with what is written in the Sutras and the Dhammapada (that is, historically what Buddhists have said was Buddhism and I can't but recommend literacy in the Buddhist canon if you're a Buddhist). The Zennist argues well from that standpoint, there's a much simpler way to tell.

Do they teach the 4 Noble Truths for transcending suffering and dukkha? Does what they market increase wisdom, generosity and compassion? Are they committed to following The Noble Eightfold Path? Is what they write and say Right Speech?

I'm concerned as a "Western Buddhist" that Merzel, like Frederick Lenz (from whose estate he and others have been feeding) calls what they do a "Westernization" of Buddhism.

I wrote a book review on Amazon a ways back to the effect that the West (or the US - forgive me Europeans!) has not yet had its Dogen, its Lin Ji, its Yun Men, its Hakuin, or any other great "old teacher" yet. And we may not know if we had one until she died.

There have been some notable Buddhists in the West, to be sure, and I've known a few. But there hasn't been any - and won't be any I'd suspect for at least 100 years - that completely rewrite Zen Buddhism in their country the aforementioned have.

These great teachers don't merely throw out cultural forms from the countries from which they were inherited, but rather build on and extend the previous cultural forms.

So when a someone comes around and peddles something as "Western Buddhism" which is less about transcendence of dukkha than it is about "achieving the now" I shudder, because they're making it more difficult for whoever that great teacher is to propagate the real deal. This I think is kind of what The Zennist was getting at, though somewhat vague.

On a side note, to discard Asian cultural forms merely because you don't like the cultural forms reeks of provincialism, cultural ignorance, or something worse. There are no great reasons to throw out cultural forms merely to "Westernize" them, especially given the dissemination of global community and culture, and the fact that these forms, though alien to folks at first, do indeed have purposes at transcendence of dukkha and in the Mahayana tradition, were developed because they could be skillfully applied at helping others.

Take the Heart Sutra. Please. In "Chinese and Japanese" (they're not really Chinese and Japanese, but let's not go there right now) they really are "mellifluously useful" for the point of concentrating the mind. The translations of the this into English are good enough, but frankly (at least in "Japanese") the phonemic constraints of the Japanese language make it somewhat easier to focus the mind. The fact that grammar of the East Asian languages is "broken" in these sutras helps a great deal, in my opinion to achieve the goal of focusing the mind. The translation into English, naturally, can be used the same way, but, esthetically, to me, it seems a bit awkward.

This "desire for Westernization" relates also to my impression of Ken Wilber: it appears that he wants to "make something better than Buddhism," by claiming he's invented a philosophy which is a superset of it. Moreover, I'd recommend that anybody impressed by Wilber ought to read real philosophy as a comparison, or at least Russell's take on Hegel. Or read Dogen. Or the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. And one should read Dawkins on evolutionary biology to inoculate yourself against the bilge Wilber spouts about it. And while you're reading Russell, note Russell's literacy vis a vis Wilber. But I digress.

Dogen and Nagarjuna anticipated modern Western philosophy, and in my opinion, you're philosophically illiterate if you haven't read them. Wilber hasn't really added much that I see to them, or for that matter to Hegel except for jargon.

Professionally I'm an engineer, and much of the math that I've studied (probability, real analysis, stochastic theory) has at its core bumped up against Kurt Godel, and yes, I've read that book by Douglas R. Hofstadter. And Wang too. So I've been interested professionally as well as for personal reasons to read philosophy, both East and West. It was the intersection of problems in my life and thinking about the various types of infinities, I guess.

This is not to do an intellectual "Mine's bigger than yours," but to say that the difference between Wilber and real philosophers is like the difference between a Big Mac and Kobe beef. Please taste Kobe beef.

Your mileage may vary of course, but at least broaden your horizons!

Completely unrelated tangent except that it's related to knowledge of real professional philosphers: Daniel Pi, him of the "Oops I Did it Again Fugue," has read real philosophy. Damn some folks are so smart. Mr. Pi knows how to write a fugue, and no doubt would slaughter me in a chess game; moreover I have trouble writing two sentences on "My Day at the Zoo." OK, the last part I stole from Woody Allen, and I have read a whole bunch of real philosophers in various schools myself, But you get my drift. Anyhow, I disagree (vehemently) with Mr. Pi regarding deconstructionists (not to mention I'd be reluctant to cyber-label myself with such extreme words these days). However I just wanted to put him out there as somebody who's not famous but would be able to show what's wrong with Wiliberism (see his take on Continental Philosophy). And Daniel Pi, I'd bet would be dead wrong in discussing Zen, I'm sure, because he'd probably confuse Zen literature as a use of language that is expositive when it is performative. (I'm not talking about Zen of course.)

As Mother Jones said: "Educate yourselves!"

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