Saturday, August 31, 2013

On Buddhist Geekery, Gravitas and Ageism

Barbara, of all people, seems to have initiated a  bit of an animated conversation in the Buddhist blogosphere of late, with a post on the Buddhist Geeks conference, and  noting Arun's expected response to its cultural homogeneity.  Barabara thought that the people involved didn't really have that much to say, because of the fact that there wasn't a lot of age and experience. Maybe it's age, maybe it's ageism, but it seems to be something deeper.

Vince Horn remonstrated to Barbara, as you can see in the comments.

I then had a rather lengthy Twitter discussion with him.

Anyway, I think a point of difference exists at least between myself and Mr. Horn, on the point raised here:

Image will appear as a link

Before I begin, I'd like to point out that Mr. Horn's exchange with Genpo Merzel a few years ago was extremely valuable, as it unintentionally exhibited those aspects of Mr. Merzel that showed who he was.  Western Buddhism actually owes Mr. Horn a debt of gratitude for that.

If I had a place called Buddhist Geeks, I'd endeavor to use it as a vehicle to rightly communicate Buddhism, including its practice in day to day life, in the Mahayana flavor in which I practice.

If I understand Mr. Horn correctly he doesn't know how Buddhism needs to be practiced, and moreover an attempt to pointedly endeavor to practice the Boddhisattva vows, to cultivate it into the marrow of one's bones is grandiose and potentially arrogant.

I think this is indeed the point of difference between at least he and I, and it speaks as well to Barbara's, and probably Arun's points made before.

Not that it really matters that much.  But there really is a significant cultural difference here. And it's not, I submit, due to any kind of "literalism" or fundamentalism.

Way back in college I had a professor, Professor Y.  He was almost unique in my school's faculty in that he was one of the few faculty members who lacked a Ph.D.; it was said when asked he would say "Who would teach me?" It was also said that he once did try to do a Ph.D., but he wound up telling his advisor to go f*ck himself. (Nobody knew for sure if that was true. I doubt it, but wouldn't be surprised if it was true.) His manner of teaching was to manically fill up the two long blackboards in the classrooms with equations, completely from memory. None of that Powerpoint stuff they do nowadays.  His manner of expression was pure Brooklyn gangster, albeit with a knowledge of mathematics you could only aspire to have one day.  He never used the faculty recommended textbook,  and instead always handed out Xeroxed notes, written in beautiful cursive handwriting.  He wasn't above saying (literally) "I'll kill you" to someone who might have been in a position to be cheating (but wasn't).

If you didn't know him well, he came across as arrogant, and pretentiously authoritative to the point of being somewhat insane.  You'd think that, except he was the  goddamned smartest, most exacting, most thorough, most fair (in his own failing 2/3 of the class way) professor I had in all my years of schooling, and that was true of anyone who had him and passed his class as well.  My own thesis advisor was less pressure-inducing,  but even he knew, for example those "pictures" of white noise processes in books were not, and detracted from the beauty of what the process was.  Oh yeah, Professor Y. wrote several - only several - fundamental papers in communication systems theory. He wrote no other papers.   But those he did write were fundamental; they revolutionized the areas about which they were written. He didn't cultivate many graduate students, and those he had were better than I am.  And those of his undergraduate students who got C's knew the material better than other professors' students who got A's.   Professor Y. told me a few years ago that he had more respect for someone that took his class and failed in than someone who deliberately avoided trying to take his class. Professor Y's was well known as a very difficult teacher, but regardless of your grade, if you passed his class you knew the material well.

I go on that little diversion to mention one other aspect of Professor Y.: His exactingness and his attention to getting it right made a profound impression on me.   "It's got to be in your blood!!!" he used to say, because people's livelihoods (and in many cases, lives) depended on your ability to come forward with the right answer.

Now do you see why I'm mentioning Professor Y.?  In some ways he was kind of my first Zen teacher, except that he taught Electrical Engineering courses, and his EE Zen still informs my engineering and zen. He taught me the spirit with which you have to approach an engineering problem,  which was the spirit of a ferocious Beginner's Mind, in fact.  You gotta question everything to make sure it's right, for right livelihood.

That, I submit is the convergence of Buddhism and technology.  It really freakin' is.  Thanks to Professor Y., I got to be around to do a few fundamental things that enabled the wireless internet to take off.  It might be why I often get the feeling that Mr. Horn, and some of the other folks re: Buddhist Geeks,  just don't get it.

Mr. Horn, in his reply to Barbara was mentioning there was nothing about the actual content of the Buddhist Geeks conference. Well, as one of those folks who was otherwise engaged during the time that conference went on (limited to 300 folks as it were), I wasn't there. 

But thanks to Mr. Horn, there's content galore related from Buddhist Geeks from which to comment.

Here's an episode called Meditating to Get Ahead.  I will wait for the transcript, since I generally don't have time to sit through an entire podcast.   Let me point out that as a technologist manager (yep, a real flesh and blood one, with about 50 patents to his name),  I need an elevator speech to devote my time to something. I really am a busy man.   MEDITATING TO GET AHEAD?????  Why would one even ask that question, because going in a direction of a "Yes, and it does because..." answer from a Buddhist perspective it's about as Buddhist as Frederick Lenz.

OK, maybe there was substance in that podcast I missed.   Maybe there might have been stuff in there with which I agreed at some level.  But I still don't have time to listen to an entire podcast.  Especially since I've seen the Way conveyed with a gesture.  Well, let's consider a transcript.  But after I consider this elevator pitch: "Truth is a Red Herring."

I'll just say about that, nobody needs a Mr. Ken McLeod to tell you that  "truth" in the context of "true practice" means  you've got to live your life. You sign on the dotted line.  Your practice truly practiced is carried out, it is your "project" as Sartre would say. There's no good words in English for the right verb, but 行なうis a pretty good word in Japanese for what's meant here. To not try to keep the question of whether one is practicing or not...well...Mr. Ken McLeod might not be teaching a Dharma that should be cultivated in the marrow of one's bones, I guess.  I don't know, I saw his site, and there's lots of theory there it seems. But I don't get not much sense of who he might be as a person who has accomplished his project of being who he is as a person of the  Way (法), or why I might see what he has to say on it, and unfortunately in Mr. Horn's exchange with me, I got no sense of that either. 

Again, I'll wait for the transcript.  But I will point out that we're all in 参禅 (sanzen) with each other all the time.  I know as I write this very post I'm failing many people who might be observing my understanding of the 法, but one must keep trying...

Here's a transcript between Vince Horn and Rohan Gunatillake

Vincent:    Well Buddhism is interesting from my perspective cause it is conceived in many different ways. The way that I’ve approached it is as more as sort of an inner technology, a way of transforming the mind. Now that’s a very western and modern understanding of Buddhism. Of course, the roots in the tradition that point to that and yet practicing it in a way where its sort of a little bit removed from those some of the historical cultural pieces is a new thing in a lot of ways.
So I basically approach Buddhism as a model which supports one in transforming certain patterns of mind. So it’s fundamentally focused on the interior subjective experience of the individual. And there are some very important ethical pointers toward how does one live a meaningful life, how does one interact without causing harm to other beings, to other people. And then in a modern context, there’s all sorts of question around how does one interact with the environment, the world, the ecology, etc. And those are big questions as a modern Buddhist I ponder.
Rohan:    I guess Buddhism is interesting as a religion in contrast to some other of the major religions around the world in that there’s always sort an open question. Is Buddhism a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, a practice? Whereas for Islam and Christianity, there’s never a debate whether it’s a religion because of what have been said. It has this focus of this inner work, inner practice which can be, doesn’t necessarily have to come with the more religious trappings but it can do as well. And so it has that flexibility which makes it, the other religion, traditions do that, but Buddhism is one of the most significant which has that flexibility. So it’s totally feasible to say that one is a Jew or Christian or an atheist and have a Buddhist practice of sort and that’s quite interesting.

Huh? Buddhism is a model of an "inner technology?"  With "ethical pointers" to help one live a "meaningful life?"

I realize that with things like podcasts (like this blog) there's things one's said or written that one might have gone beyond.  But if Mr. Horn (and Mr. Gunatillake) subscribe to the views above, I'd submit they really aren't getting anywhere near what Buddhism, as most Buddhists understand it,  is.  They are conflating artificial strawberry flavor with that of a wild strawberry, the kind you can't get except at those higher end food stores we well-off  proto-hipsters keep in business these days.

And it's not a red herring.  People's livelihoods, and in some cases lives, might be depending on it.  I'm going to use a metaphor from the president of the place in which I work though the context is different.  If you had 5,000 years to live, such an approach might be OK.  But you probably don't have much more than 50 years on this planet. In that case you have to move quickly and sedulously to practice the Way, if it is the Way you think has benefit.  

Maybe some folks don't think the Way has benefit.  But if they call "not the Way" the Way, it will confuse folks at best, and at worst?

Your mileage may vary. Thanks for reading this post.

Friday, August 30, 2013

We're all either doing McMindfulness or 功夫

Another Tricycle interview mentioning McMindfulness, if not by explicitly by name...this time via an interview  with Hozan Alan Senuake.

When you worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship you had a sign with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness must be engaged.” Mindfulness has now been brought into many different realms of our culture, and that seems generally beneficial. But I recently saw an article about mindfulness being used by the US military. This seems like an odd combination. It is true that all Buddhism is engaged because the precepts and teachings are all about how we are all in relation to everyone and in relation to everything around us. That by definition is “engaged.”
When the Buddha was teaching in North India 2500 years ago, the reality of peoples lives was almost completely socially determined by gender, caste, occupation, and the tribe they were born into. Basically, where you were born was where you stayed, in a geographic as well as social sense. In that context, what the Buddha taught was something that could be seen as a kind of radical individualism. He taught that your actual position in the world and your value in it was not to be based on your birth but on your actions, and that you had to take responsibility as an individual for your actions. Fast-forward to what we have today in the West, a terribly individualist ideology. The greatest threat to Buddhism, or any progressive movement, is that it can be turned into a commodity that is sold back to you. We are constantly being sold this commodity of individualism. I believe that if the Buddha were teaching today he would be teaching a more explicitly social doctrine. He would recognize that we have created systems and structures of suffering and that the suffering is not just about individuals experiencing racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression; what we have are structures of suffering that also have to be addressed. Engaged Buddhism addresses exactly that intersection of our individual responsibility and individual involvement in the creation of systems of suffering.
The problem that you point out about mindfulness is important. I feel there is a risk of mindfulness being seen as a technology, presented as a technique, which is sold back to us. What I’m concerned about in terms of this increasingly popular approach is that it’s being psychologized and marketed.
Certainly a lot of it is very good. Mindfulness is now happening in schools and prisons, in settings where it is truly useful. But I worry about it being brought into a corporate context and a military context. In those contexts people are being helped to find ease and suffer less within systems that are causing suffering. Right Mindfulness would be looking at the actual function of that system as well as the freedom that an individual within that system feels. I don’t wish ill to people working in corporations or people in the military; everyone has the right to be at ease and to live without oppression. On the other hand, I think that an Engaged Buddhist perspective looks at the function of that system. That’s the larger, often neglected view of mindfulness.

Well, first of all, what about them samurai?  As I've written before, Zen as we know it would not have existed but for official patronage of governments, including but not limited to their cultivation by militaries.

Secondly,  having militaries practice Buddhist precepts is not entirely wrong.  It gets substantially more than problematic of course when it's used to justify atrocities, as was done in Japan during its militarist period.  I think Senuake gets that ultimately, but it's kind of odd to bring this up at all, I think.  We get that. 

Secondly, it is in part a technique, and there's nothing really wrong with that. 

In fact, cultivation of skill and technique is part and parcel of the practice. You can't get "good" at mindfulness - like martial arts, yes, like martial arts - without seeing its practice in all areas of your life. 

While I share many of the political positions of so-called engaged Buddhism, I remain skeptical of the attempt to fit Buddhism into a political ideology, any political ideology, because the political ideology is usually a shiny object we're using to distract ourselves from something far more important.

So when I see someone go in the direction of political Buddhism,  I tend to be skeptical of the depth and quality of their practice,  given how hard it is to deeply cultivate an authentic practice.

Some of the best practitioners might not be Buddhists...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

For Too Much of My Sitting...

I worried over getting it right.   I really did. I would read something...something of the order of roshi so-and-so saying that you had to practice 無 like Christ dying on the cross...and I would berate myself in thought for not being 無  with all the attendant pain and anguish that goes with being crucified.

That's the sort of thing ... like how this blog hasn't been updated in a's supposed to be, right?

The convergence of my Wing Chun with my 公案 practice has helped with that. And I've always been the kind of guy that says "Don't do stuff just because the 'authorities' want you to!" That is, I always subscribed to the Gandhi thing, being revolutionary as a good thing, and so on. 

I just never realized how much we're conditioned to get nervous about it.  We've got lots of nasty stuff conditioned into us that we're not even aware of.

So,  yeah, stuff matters...but don't kill yourself over it.

For example...there's a lot of people who (obviously to you) don't quite get it. (Like this?)  But ...we're all doing to perish eventually,  and genuine practice will continue anyway, and all that will sort itself out...nobody made me judge jury and executioner.  (I sympathize with Arun, on the point made here, and would up him one by saying it's also quite Western-centric too.)  However...

It is not exactly a matter of life and death.  It is not the Great Matter of Life and Death.  Or to put it better, the matter of life and death is realized in how you approach the endless sewage stream thrown your way every day of stuff is mildly (or severely) frustrating, annoying,  often patently obviously wrong, immoral, dangerous, etc. but is not, in and of itself anything but an opportunity for calm, relaxed practice. That's true even if we're angry and have every right to be.

Thanks for reading this.