Sunday, December 19, 2010

Authentication, Education, and My Continued Concerns about the "Academization" of Contemplative Practices

Communication devices often today have "authentication" algorithms encoded into them in order to prevent a "malicious" node from doing damage to the system.  It's not perfect of course (though there are measures of practical perfection, in case you didn't know), and that's why spam filters still let spam through, why hackers were able to hack into those corporate entities that had tried to squelch Wikileaks, and so forth. 

I mention that at the outset - that there are not only such mutual authentication methods but also methods for quantifying the degree to which these authentication methods may be relied upon - to point out that no authentication algorithm is perfect, even those which can be created for machines. 

Sometime late in the last century a philosopher named Ivan Illich wrote an essay called "The Right to Useful Unemployment and Its Professional Enemies," which decried the increasing number activities once reserved to non-professional training to be licensed or admitted only to be practiced by those with professional training. I was always and continue to be ambivalent about this viewpoint - I'm sorry but we just can't have Glenn Beck doing brain surgery, and likewise you need to know what kind of steel is going into a certain structure if you want to be sure it will not rust after X number of years.

But I think there's a line.  And, as I wrote in the comments below on this post, in reply to the Won Buddhist folks who took umbrage at my inclusion of them and critique,  I think there are issues with formally certifying meditation methods that fall into these categories, and at the same time, I think there are pitfalls that can arise in either direction here - either any Frederick Lenz  can come along and claim any kind of nonsense, or the certification process becomes so stultified and rigid that certain people's realizations might be excluded due to its lack of certification.  It is perhaps why the certification process might be better done as a master/apprentice kind of relationship than in a more academic relationship.   That said, I am starting to get a grasp of why one might want to teach meditation methods as part of a curriculum in Buddhist studies.

I can understand that.  I also think Buddhist studies per se obviously qualifies as an academic discipline.    But when it comes to the contemplative practices, there are problems with mutual authentication that are of issue to me.  I've often said the teacher and the student, in the Buddhist meaning of the relationship authenticate each other.   If one is going to a therapist for some problem, and they are "doing Big MindTM"  does that qualify? Should the fact that "Big MindTM" is promulgated by a lineage holder and decried by lineage holders encourage or discourage those from seeking out therapies dispensed by therapists with "Big MindTM" training?  Me, I'm a critic of "Big MindTM," but also, I'll admit, not certified by anyone to say anything at least on behalf of my lineage and training. I suppose if the Won Buddhist Institute stands behind their meditation training it's worth whatever that is, just as it's worth whatever it is that the State of Washington and the Evergreen School District certify my son's 4th grade teacher.   On the other hand, I must still remonstrate that neither the State of Washington nor the Won Buddhist Institute have certified my teacher.  have, as have his authenticators.  And I have not certified the State of Washington nor the Won Buddhist Institute - not that either of them might care that much about it (though I am very grateful for their comments in response to my post).

But if I was hurting, I'd still ask about such things if a therapist were to recommend such treatments.  When it comes to medical advice  or anything related, I think there is a responsibility of the client to obtain a maximum amount of  learning in regard to such things.   If I was in that position I would attempt to authenticate the treatment provider and the treatment.  Again, maybe it's my professional deformation, but I harken back to my informally authenticated engineer father: professionally we don't do religion - we don't take things on faith or gut feeling.


Jordan said...

I'll admit, not certified by anyone to say anything at least on behalf of my lineage and training.

Neither was Hakuin.

Jomon said...

Hey Mumon,

It was good to see you at the Dharma Center. I am finally *officially* following your blog now!

Take care,

Anonymous said...

I thought that various forms of authentication of teachers were essential to Buddhist life from the beginning--including (particularly) with people like Hakunin. Maybe those forms of "certification" look different from modern day academic, etc., ones, but the principle is the same. Am I mistaken?

Mumon said...


Right. Doesn't seem to have stopped either of us. :-)


It was good seeing you, too. I really appreciate meeting people who've actually read what I write here. Thanks!

How was the Buddha authenticated? I'm thinking of the woman whose child had died, to whom the Buddha said to gather seeds from the homes of 5 families that had never known death. The woman's practice was what ultimately authenticated the Buddha. That of course, is a different kettle of fish from the authentication of the practice of care-givers, which has grown so specialized that only care givers can really authenticate another. And even then, though, sometimes what they don't know, despite their authentication, causes me great concern.