Monday, July 15, 2013

Zen and the Vultures of Anxiety

Not enough is said, at least in the Buddhist blogosphere, at least as far as I can perceive, about the role of relaxation in Zen practice.

It's a very important part of a practice that is life itself.

I'll be having more to say about it in the very near future.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Sometimes I think some of these Buddhist teachers really don't get it.

Via Tricycle (I was bored ) I found a link to that David Loy and Ron Purser article decrying "McMindfulness."  (It was also the one mentioned by Justin Whitaker.)  I normally don't cite either Tricycle or the Huffington Post in my blog, but in this case I'll make an exception, and you'll see why as you read through this.

First, having had the time to read what Loy and Purser wrote I have to say they just don't get it.  Really. 

I'll explain.

I've been doing some math lately as part of my work.  I have to set up a problem in math to verify that an algorithm we're designing will work. If I run the output of my problem through the algorithm, the algorithm should identify the problem. 

The problem involves generating a type of "coin flipping" process.  Now you can't use just any coin flipping process because there are cases where different coin flipping processes are statistically the same.  But if you tweak the problem just a little and put in some "memory" into the process (future flips depend on past flips) the problem becomes quite easy to solve.

In other words, if you introduce just enough structure and complexity into a problem representing reality, reality becomes easy to represent.  But if you don't have enough structure and complexity,  you're stuck.

That's what David Loy and Ron Purser don't get.  They're worried about "mindfulness" being used to promote consumer capitalism,  commoditize something, blah blah blah. It can't happen, because mindfulness alone is self limiting in its effects, and thus won't in any way marginalize the rest of Buddhism.

This is because existence, being so densely interdependent as it is, needs the other parts of Buddhism to go along with it. While Purser and Loy indicate that this is the case, they don't seem to get the implications of it.  Mindful murderers will still be murderers AND will be all the more aware of their suffering.  Mindful minimally regulated production for profit will still be inherently unstable economically and disruptive to millions of people. 

And besides all that we've seen this before! And ironically  the "spiritual mentor" of the founder of the Huffington Post is a case in point for what we've seen before!

Remember the "human potential" movement? Esalen Institute and est and its derivatives? One of  them was I think called Insight Seminars, led by a rumpled looking guy who later founded something called MSIA who had meetings of a sort that were later attended by Arianna Huffington, who became a righty scold and now is some kind of a pseudo-progressive media baroness who doesn't pay her bloggers, at least as of the last time I checked.  The MSIA - Arianna Huffington thing was documented in something called "Life 102," by one Peter McWilliams, which led to what McWilliams might have termed a SLAPP suit by the founder of MSIA (who would have characterized it differently no doubt, probably with lawyers), ...but that's all history. 

Existence is pretty dense and it's difficult or nearly impossible and often useless to isolate one part of it from another (then again there's science but I digress). But I read "Gestalt Therapy" by Frederick Perls back in my teens, and I have to say it was that which led to my interest in Buddhism, via existentialism.

Point is, McMindfulness is probably a gateway to the real thing; its predecessors were too.   But I think it's sort of ironic that 2 guys are using the Huffington Post, in part enabled by Arianna Huffington, whose experiences were shaped by MSIA, which was informed by the Human Potential Movement, which is based on Zen Buddhism, to decry the secularization of Buddhism!

I wonder if they were paid by Huffington. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


What *is* American Buddhism anyway?

Justin Whitaker writes,

The story of Buddhism has always been one of adaptation and transformation. This month I am inviting a discussion about how Buddhism has adapted to and transformed America (that is, the Americas) with optional special attention to climate and climate change. 
Given the ongoing heatwave in the southwestern United States and the tragic consequences of a fire in Arizona yesterday, it only seems appropriate that as we reflect on our nations and Buddhism here, that we also consider how Buddhist principles and practices can go toward solving this growing crisis.

I'll be honest: I'm not sure what exactly is the discussion here.  Yeah, there's certain trendy things in psychology based on mindfulness bouncing around...that's a Western-besides-the-Americas thing, no? And regarding climate change and other political/environmental issues, I think American Buddhism is no less marginally useful per se in defining one political stance contra another.   Really, what do you think Edward Snowden's allegedly espoused Buddhism is why he's sort of stateless right now?  Isn't that a bit grandiose? How about Ted Kaczynski's brother's Buddhism? 

If I give you a testimonial about how "Buddhist practice helped me with X, and it can help the world with Y," I'll be doing a disservice to all concerned, despite the fact that yeah, it is a better path than the alternative, and worthy of dedicated practice.

I'm doing American Buddhism not-as-well-as-I'd-like in my own life, and those in my sangha are doing their own American Buddhism, and those in related sanghas are doing their own American Buddhism.

But maybe I ought to get to a comment that Thomas Armstrong wrote on my blog in response to the post on authenticity, because I think it bears examination, especially in regards to the above questions.   There's people in American Buddhism who are  nice.  They can be rather blissful.  There's also people in American Buddhism who aren't always nice.  Both groups of people though are certainly wounded, and perhaps like all of humanity, wounded deeply and condemned to be mortally wounded, whether it be through violence, sickness, or old age. 

I don't want bliss, or  nice in my practice.  It would be, um, nice, though,  in the midst of seeing into the nature of self that there was  just some authentic improvement relaxation and equanimity in the face of the inevitable.   And actually, "American" Buddhism didn't go there that much in that aspect (I had to learn some of that via other means that aren't strictly "Buddhist" at all, but not at all incompatible with it.) American or not, I, myself, had and have  to learn how to not give a hoot so much despite the Big Wound (whatever it is, and regardless of whether it merits the name, it's there).  But regardless of my degree of relaxation and equanimity or lack thereof, regarding practice, it is indeed what it is. 

But yet, yeah, that's American Buddhism.  One of many. Including "the Asians'" American Buddhism.

To return briefly to the climate change topic: humanity might or might not respond appropriately, and I'm not sure Buddhism has so much to do to with it potentially as the exercise of naked political power.   Japan, Buddhist and Shinto, reforested itself because it had a powerful aristocracy that could do so.  Spain did not, despite another powerful aristocracy.  Was it because Japan was Buddhist and Shinto and Spain was not? 

I doubt it, but what I don't doubt is that as the orders went out to reforest, the guys who transmitted the orders weren't nice and peaceful and blissful. I also don't think the orders to to deal decisively with Christian missionary imperialists were transmitted in a nice, peaceful and blisssful way either. 

Monday, July 01, 2013

Authenticity and Buddhism

Another article was recently published in the NY Times op-ed section on line that deserves an appropriate response, at least from a Zen Buddhist/existentialist perspective. This article is entitled "The Gospel According to Me," by two guys, on of which is a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and the other is a psychoanalyst.   That should kind of tell you the direction they're going in ...but  let me put some stuff in here to give some context:

The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being! 
Despite the frequent claim that we are living in a secular age defined by the death of God, many citizens in rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another — abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness. The latter does not make the exorbitant moral demands of traditional religions, which impose bad conscience, guilt, sin, sexual inhibition and the rest. 
Unlike the conversions that transfigure the born-again’s experience of the world in a lightning strike, this one occurred in stages: a postwar existentialist philosophy of personal liberation and “becoming who you are” fed into a 1960s counterculture that mutated into the most selfish conformism, disguising acquisitiveness under a patina of personal growth, mindfulness and compassion. Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with this New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith — and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work. 
Whereas the American dream used to be tied to external reality — say, America as the place where one can openly practice any religion, America as a safe haven from political oppression or America as the land of opportunity where one need not struggle as hard as one’s parents — now, the dream is one of pure psychological transformation. 
This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression. In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.

This seems to be written by two guys, two intellectuals, who are so detached from themselves that they don't even realize they are writing about themselves here! (Like much of this type of moral scold literature, it's written in the first person plural, but of course isn't meant to be understood to apply to the authors themselves.)  But yes, it applies obviously to them. I mean, they decry a drive towards authenticity as it leads to a breakdown of the "classical distinction between work and nonwork." Do they expect their readers to put in effort into trying to understand them,  with the hopes of profiting from their efforts? 

But that's not why I'm writing this; I'm not really writing this because these guys don't realize that this stuff applies to them. 

To the guys who wrote the article: I try to practice mindfulness and yes, to be authentic at work not because I expect to succeed as a result of that practice, but because the alternative tends to create greater despair, suffering, and intractability.  I may or may not succeed in what I do; "success" per se is not the issue, any more than mindful practice to help me deal with idiotically created traffic light patterns (or lack thereof) won't do anything to reset the traffic light patterns to give everyone all green lights.

So the rest of their argument to the extent it's coherent, falls apart from there. 

And it's not about a search for authenticity or "becoming who you are," it's about understanding  (悟り) who/what/X is authentically (or, less deeply, seeing one's True Nature)  and then appropriately acting and responding.

There are other critiques that can be made of this article, in particular, that it is absurdly indifferent to millions of underemployed Americans, it's absurdly indifferent to what are global trends in this regard, spanning the globe with the exception of Africa and some of the Islamic regions. 

It's really why media such as the Times seems to be falling on hard times.  Once this stuff could be done credibly; nowadays any ol' blogger who's read a smattering of Buddhist literature can see through this type of stuff.

Let me close with this: if you're not acting according to your conscience, acting authentically what then? You don't evade responsibility, that's for sure. People figured that out in the West kinda sorta after World War II.  You can't use the Nuremberg defense against acting according to your conscience, i.e., acting authentically.