Monday, May 10, 2010

Emptiness: Diamond Slivers

In the realm of phenomena there are four ways in which something can come into existence: from itself, from another, from both, and from nothing. These possibilities are exhaustive as there are no other ways in which something could come into being. If it can be demonstrated that an inherently existent being cannot come about in one of these ways, then it would also be demonstrated that an inherently existent being is a contradictory, and hence impossible, phenomenon. This is the Diamond Slivers: referring simultaneously to enlightenment (often depicted as a diamond) and the capacity of diamonds to cut other things (like delusions). The question, then, is how an inherently existent being comes to be, or if it can come to be. It seems obvious that things do come to be, like a tree growing in earth or the birth of a human being, so it makes sense to inquire into how this happens.

We define inherent existence as “the existence of something by the power of its own intrinsic or essential character” (Guy Newland, Introduction to Emptiness, 127). Or, as Lama Tsong Khapa puts it, “an inherently existent entity cannot be posited as having causes, conditions, or effects” (Ocean of Reasoning [hereafter OR], 97). This is an entity that continues to exist through time rather than being a temporary manifestation as a result of causes and conditions. It itself remains unchanged as the various causes and conditions around it change. Common examples of this are early psychological accounts of personality (which were thought to be relatively permanent), selfhood/identity (which is thought remain identical and persist through time), and, more subtly, the deluded thought or desire that composite things remain. Can such a being actually exist in a world where arising occurs?

Arising From Self

If a phenomenon inherently existed, there would be no reason for it to come into being as it would already exist. This has two absurd consequences: (1) phenomena would not come into being as all inherently existent phenomena would already exist; or, (2) if the inherently existent phenomena would come into existence again, it would produce an infinite regress as there would be no reason for it to stop its continual process of coming into existence. One aspect of the second consequence is that there would never be an opportunity for an effect to come to fruition as the cause would always ‘be busy’ re-manifesting itself. In short, the coming into being of the inherently existent phenomenon is either unnecessary or eternally redundant. In the words of Lama Tsong Khapa:

There would be no point in such a thing as a sprout arising again because it would have already achieved its status. Since the purpose of arising is to achieve one’s own status, when this has already been achieved there is no need for it to arise again... The absurd consequence would follow that it would never be the case that such things as the sprout would not arise again, because even once it has come into existence it would have to arise again.
OR, 61.

So, even as we accept the apparent continuity in relation to, e.g., personal identity, if this self were inherently existent it could not re-manifest without being unnecessary or redundant, nor could it cease to be since it inherently exists, nor could an effect ever be brought about. These are unacceptable as they are contrary to valid observation of phenomenon and, as such, should be rejected. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from itself.

Arising From Another

This possibility is the most commonsensical approach as we naturally see, e.g., that a sprout emerges from its seed. But if we accept that the seed and sprout exist inherently, this is untenable. If the cause and the effect inherently existed from their own sides and thus are inherently independent beings, then there is no reason why one should cause the other. Per their inherent existence, they both already exist independent of each other and, as such, there is no significant reason for them to be coupled. As such, there is no reason why a sprout could not emerge from any inherently other phenomenon. As Chandrakirti puts it,

Anything could arise from anything else, because
All nonproducers would be equivalent in that they are other.
Madhyamakavatara, VI:14cd.

Furthermore, “if they existed distinctly through their own characteristics it would not make sense for them to be dependent” (OR, 67). In short, there are two problems with inherently existent phenomena arising in dependence on other inherently existent phenomena: (1) there is no reason for the inherently existent cause to bring about a specific inherently existent effect; therefore, (2) if one inherently independent cause can bring about a given independent effect, then there is no reason why any given inherently independent cause cannot bring about any inherently independent effect as all are equally other to each other in their mode of existence. Because of this, there’s no reason why impulsively buying a car or mindlessly eating a carrot cannot cause a rash or bring about enlightenment, or that a grape seed would sprout a great oak in mid-air.

Also, in our everyday understanding we accept that things are dependent on each other: the seed is a cause for the sprout and the semen is the cause of the child. As Lama Tsong Khapa put it,

Although the seeds sown are not the child or the tree, in virtue of having sown them one can regard oneself as having given rise to the child and having planted the tree. This is because, for instance, although the hand and the eye are not the person, when the hand is hurt or one sees material form with the eye one can assert that ‘I am hurt’ or ‘I see material form.’ In ordinary life, there is no convention of referring to parents and children like that; therefore, the two things mentioned in the previous example are causes and effects in virtue of belonging to the same continuum.
OR, 69.

Since inherently existent phenomena contradict our valid observations, these logical consequences are unacceptable. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from another inherently existent phenomenon.

Arising From Itself and Another

One common response today is to try to ‘resolve’ the issue by simply tying together two problematic approaches, as if doing so somehow resolves the difficulties. However, this just compounds them, meaning that asserting this kind of causation has all of the difficulties inherent in both of the previous two arguments. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from both itself and another inherently existent phenomenon.

Arising From Nothing

The final possibility is manifestly absurd:

If there were causeless arising, arising, which by its nature is spatiotemporally restricted, would be causeless. It would follow that if something could arise from any one thing, it would be able to arise from anything, and it would follow that all efforts would be pointless.
OR, 69.

So there are two problems: (1) valid observation shows that all arising occurs within limited spatiotemporal spheres, like a seed requiring soil, water, and sunlight to sprout; (2) anything could arise from anything or nothing, like a Bengal tiger arising ex nihilo in the middle of a shopping mall. Thus there would be no basis from which we could accomplish anything as there is no causal relationship between what we do and their effects, or any such connection would be merely coincidental. Again, this possibility contradicts our valid observations of phenomenon and as such is unacceptable. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from nothing.


Since it has been demonstrated that an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from any of the four exhausted alternatives—from itself, from others, from both itself and others, and from nothing—we must conclude that inherent existence is both logically and experientially false. Since independence is not internally consistent nor logically consistent with arising, all composite phenomena must exist in dependence on others (i.e. non-inherently).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Introduction to Emptiness

What is Emptiness?

Emptiness is always the emptiness of a particular phenomenon. One of the problems that the earliest translations of Buddhist texts created (which is still extant today) was translating emptiness as Void, making it seem like emptiness is some thing that is “out there”. The truth is, however, that emptiness and phenomena are inseparable: as it says in the Heart Sutra, a pithy summary of the Prajnaparamita scriptures (which, for all its centrality in Mahayana Buddhism, has been left largely untranslated), “form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form”, and so on with all the other skandhas. So when one speaks of emptiness it is always the emptiness of this or that phenomenon, not some “cosmic emptiness” that is external to things.

As such, it must also be said that emptiness is inseparable from a mind that perceives emptiness, or, put in more Heideggerian terms, a mind for whom phenomena can appear. Apart from the apprehension of phenomena, there can be no apprehension of emptiness, so this requires a mind. It should be said that, for Buddhism, “mind” is understood more loosely than in Western thought as it includes both a conceptual and a non-conceptual element, the latter being more fundamental than the latter. If you read texts on Buddha-nature or “basic goodness”, you will find many strong similarities with transcendental accounts with a particular emphasis on the spacious and open nature of mind, which seems to connect well with Heidegger’s concept of the open space within which phenomena can enter (as in On the Essence of Truth). I hope this connection will become clearer as I further analyze emptiness.

To say that a phenomenon is empty is not the same thing as saying that it doesn’t exist (another common misconception), but that it doesn’t exist in a particular way. At the lexical level, this is because the denial of inherent existence is an “external negation”: it does not assert anything positive, much like saying that I’m not drinking Sprite doesn’t entail or deny that I am drinking chocolate milk, so that denying a particular type of existence (“inherent existence”) does not necessarily imply or deny another kind of existence. Most of the arguments for emptiness are external negations: they show that it is inconsistent to claim that phenomena exist inherently and because the phenomena examined are exhaustive, we are left with emptiness. These arguments are applied to four different conditions of existence (existence from oneself, from another, from both, and from neither, which exhausts all possible modes of inherent existence) and to every phenomenon that one finds in the exhaustive lists that many find unappealing in Buddhist philosophy, but for which you can now find at least one raison d’ĂȘtre: unless one is thoroughly convinced of the emptiness of all phenomena (which, most texts agree, begins conceptually), one cannot fully escape suffering, become enlightened, and, ultimately, be of best service to mankind.

Within Western metaphysics there is a common conception that undergirding every phenomenon is a substance: a concretely existing thing that makes the object what it is. This is the ground of identity, which is understood as the existence of necessary and sufficient properties that endure through a period of time, which can be either instantiated in a real being or exist in some realm of possibility. Furthermore, from Plato on, this substance is claimed to be findable through philosophical analysis. At a more everyday level, we see things as enduring stably through time: my cat, whom I’ve had for almost 2 years now, is the same cat as he was two years ago, just as I am the same person as I was a year ago. Similarly, but also more fluidly, we understand ourselves in terms of habitual patterns or styles of relating to things, such that we often say, “I’m just not myself today”, or, “That’s so you,” or even “You’re not the same person that I married.” Even this narrative approach to identity still can lend itself to a wrong conception of existence: we can still assert that there is some thing that is enduring through these particular changes, even if our focus is on more fluid aspects of narrative or personality. This, however, is a mistake, which can be both demonstrated and directly experienced, meaning it has both a conceptual and an experiential reality.

Here’s one useful analogy to help you understand what is being said. Imagine that you had pizza last night and you’ve been thinking about the last few pieces all day at work. As you drive home you imagine how much you’ll enjoy eating it, how it will taste, and how it will satiate this particular desire for it. Upon getting home you open up the pizza box and...find nothing. This is what it is like when we analyze phenomena: we expect to find something enduring, something that adheres to our preconceptions, beliefs, and fantasies, but when analyzed deeply we find nothing, an emptiness amidst the phenomena (skandhas) of which the thing is composed. All analogies have limits, of course: there is such a thing as pizza and pizza boxes, but if we examine them very closely and thoroughly, we will not find such a concrete, enduring thing as pizza or pizza boxes, but an interdependent coming together of causes and conditions with the manifestation of pizzas and pizza boxes.

Dependent Arising

The most intuitive and non-techincal way to understand emptiness is through dependent arising. As Lama Tsong Khapa puts it, “The ultimate mode of existence of things is nothing but their emptiness of essence—that is, their being dependently originated” (Ocean of Reasoning, 13). Its basic meaning is that all composite phenomena essentially depend for their existence on causes and conditions and thus cannot exist inherently, or “from their own side” entirely independent of other phenomena. Consider one example: my apartment is composed of various parts that can, in imagination, be seen independently of other things, like the apartments underneath it (I’m on the third floor), the earth on which it stands, etc. However, the apartment understood concretely, apart from the disconnect that is possible in imagination and thought, essentially depends on such factors, continually expanding to also include environmental and even cosmic factors. For example, if the Earth were just a little closer to the Sun then it could not sustain life, which is the basis of having contractors, builders, and a reason to build apartments (i.e., tenants). If it were even closer then any building like my apartment would combust immediately, just as the presence of a fire in my apartment is a sufficient condition (if unchecked) to bring about the dissolution of my apartment. These conditions, both local and cosmic, are essential for the existence of my apartment and apart from them my apartment could not exist. As such, we cannot say that my apartment inherently exists, or exists of its own accord; such can only be claimed about thoughts about my apartment in some sort of conceptual space, but not the apartment itself.

I said earlier that “emptiness is inseparable from a mind”, which is in a sense more important than (though inextricably connected to) the analysis of the dependence of external things on other phenomenon. This relates to the contingent relationship between things and suffering and happiness. Consider two examples: the very first bite of a peaches and cream tart is exquisite and brings us much satisfaction. However, the sixth piece (without any milk in between pieces) is almost unbearable, causing us sharp pain and suffering (because we are averse to taking even one more bite). We tend to say that peaches and cream tarts are delicious or are sweet, but even this depends on factors like the particular taste of the person eating it, what it is being eaten with (like drinking orange juice immediately after brushing your teeth with spearmint toothpaste), and how many pieces one has had. Thus, peaches and cream tarts are empty of inherent existence: even the most commonplace things we could say about it, e.g., that they are sweet, is not in the tart itself, but in its relationship to a particular body and mind in a concrete situation with its own history.

Similarly, when you finally get that job or that raise that gives you a good amount of extra spending money, you are elated, you enjoy the restaurants, the new toys, etc. But eventually this gets old: what was once new and different becomes commonplace, expected. What was once the (supposed) cause of our happiness begins to be the cause of our indifference and then, ultimately, of our suffering. This is not because the thing has changed, but because the way we approach it has changed. This amounts to the claim that we are mistaken in thinking that things are inherently what give us happiness or misery, meaning that they are “good for happiness” or “good for misery” from their own sides. Put one more way, things are empty of being causes of wholesome of unwholesome effects, so our grasping towards or aversion from them is misplaced, based on a deluded understanding of their nature. Depending on the conditions present, things may cause pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings, but they do not cause happiness or misery. Both of these point to the fact that it is because we are dependently originated that we can have these experiences in the first place: it is because we are essentially open to things that we are able to have them as objects of a consciousness. If we were inherently self contained, there would be no openness to things or affectivity; we would simply continue to exist in ourselves and be continually untouched or unaffected by other things.


This is just a surface level analysis and the very beginning point of the analysis of the emptiness of phenomena. There are more technical, intricate, and exhaustive modes of analysis, which I will hopefully get into later. There are arguments from conditions, from causes, from the three times (past, present, and future), from fruition/coming into being, from ceasing, etc. These all rest on just a handful of arguments that are applied to these various phenomenon, but in order to thoroughly eradicate even a subtle trace of the deluded acceptance of inherent existence, they must be applied to every phenomenon. It must be said that fully realizing (i.e. not just affirming mentally) even this cursory analysis of emptiness and dependent origination, even though not exhaustive, can eradicate a good amount of the unnecessary suffering in our lives. It is a vast topic, but even a small glimpse is enough to do us enormous good.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yoga and Hinduism

Douglas Groothuis, a long-time verbal sparring partner of mine, has recently posted a review of a video that argues, in Groothuis' words, "There is no yoga without Hinduism and no Hinduism without yoga."

Let me begin with our areas of agreement: though there are some points of contact between Hinduism and Christianity, particularly in relation to ethical issues, there are also serious points of disconnect. Furthermore, it is obvious that yoga as a discipline has strong Hindi roots. But this, it seems, is where the good Dr. and I must part paths.

The essential claim is that, say, doing Baddha Konasana, Prasarita Padottanasana, Paschimottanasana, or Marichyasana III essentially invokes in some form, to quote Groothuis, "reincarnation/karma, maya, nirvana, the author of the Vedas...Brahman...[and/or] one with Brahman". Yet these are all common stretches for runners and athletes. I myself did all of them for years and years before I knew anything about Hinduism, Buddhism, or yoga and they were very effective in releasing tension in my muscles. Yet, so the claim seems to go, the very fact of my doing them (along with deep breathing to help my muscles relax, which is a physiologically demonstrable causal connection) made me, in the words of the publisher, one of the "leading missionaries of eastern religion in the west". Or dancers, when they do Natarajasana, are being drawn to the evils of Hinduism and spreading its dogma to the world. Or gymnasts, when they perform Tittibhasana, are really hidden agents of the 'Eastern agenda', spreading the truth of Brahma to the world (which also makes balance beam, where this is done most often, one of the primary gymnastic evangelistic tools). Or, last but not least, when pilates instructors ask their students to do Paripurna Navasana, they are secretly initiating them into Hindi religion.

All sarcasm aside, it seems obvious that the poses themselves are not what is so essentially Hindi as to require an invocation of Brahma to make sense of them, let alone perform them. Perhaps it is the order of the poses, say in doing a Sun Salutation, that makes these bodily poses essentially Hindi. The Sun Salutation, however, is just one set of possibilities and yoga instructors within most traditions are encouraged to depart from it. I've been in many yoga classes where we didn't do a single Sun Saluation or any other Veda-required sequences (though there are no such things). So neither the poses individually nor in sequence seem to be essentially Hindi in nature.

Perhaps, then, it is pranayama, such as ujjayi breathing, that is thought to be essentially Hindi in nature. Here it is good to point out, much like in relation to the poses, that some form of pranayama is done naturally, as in the oft-heard advice to "take a few deep breaths" when hot headed or the mind is racing (when the breath is fast and shallow) or to take quicker and deeper breaths (like a bellows blowing on a fire) to enliven the mind and body when tired (when the breath is slow and shallow). The natural (i.e. non-religiously dependent) fact is that breathing is closely tied to our emotional and mental life: the depth and rhythm of our breathing accompanies and makes possible all of our emotional relations, whether it be the shallow and fast breathing of fear and panic or the slower and relaxed breathing of contentedness. Seeing and utilizing this relation in 'breath work' requires Hinduism no more than it requires atheism, though both may be brought into it. Yes, when one invokes the chakras and meridians when discussing how the breath works, one may be said to be giving Hindi views (or Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian or etc.; there are many traditions that such a discussion may be drawing from). But breath work itself does not essentially require Hindi thought.

So the acts themselves, when taken on their own, are not essentially Hindi in nature, both because we do many of them naturally without any inclination of Hindi philosophy and, more importantly, because intention plays a central role in understanding the meaning of any movement. In my own classes, for example, if I were said to take any religious approach, it would be Buddhist, not Hindi. But, with that said, I 'require' a few set of 'beliefs' as essential to my own practice and to that which I give to my students: first, that there is such a thing as observation. Second, that, with that observation, we can examine the mind and the body/breath. Third, that the students examine their body and mind as they move through the different asanas and try different kinds of pranayama. Fourth, and finally, that they accept and use whatever they see as beneficial in what I teach (what gives them more strength, flexibility, and calm) and either disregard or further test what seems to lack any particular benefit. The last 'requirement', while intended to be inherently anti-dogmatic, acknowledges the fact (that I and many other yoga teachers have seen again and again) that every body is different, has different needs, and will resonate with some poses/practices more than others (physically, emotionally, or mentally). I am no more evangelizing for Hinduism (nor Buddhism) than I am evangelizing for CUTCO (which sells excellent knives, by the way).

The centrality of intention is particularly important when you discuss the "fitness instructors" that teach 'yoga' at various fitness centers throughout the US. The large majority of them teach "flow yoga" which consists of a few hours of training that ties a yoga sequence to upbeat music, transitioning from pose to pose with the beat, thereby making one certified to teach it at various fitness centers. Within this training the instructors learn nothing of Hinduism or yoga's history (as you do with Yoga Alliance approved teacher training, where yoga's history and how it has been appropriated by different schools [Hindi and otherwise] are taught) and do not integrate any formal pranayama or meditation techniques with the practice (they follow 'objective' beats in the music, not the flow of the breath). If this is the kind of training that is given to the "leading missionaries of eastern religion in the west", when they are completely ignorant of that which they are supposedly evangelizing (and not just in the 'I'm a believer but don't really know my religion' kind of way, but complete and utter ignorance), then this is an exceedingly poor (completely destitute) programmatic spreading of the religion that could gain 'converts' only by accident.

So, for the discerning Christian, the task is to find a teacher who teaches with an intention that fits their particular belief systems, as you will find some that explicitly teach chakras and such. If any Christian (or Hindu or Jehovah's Witness or atheist or etc.) comes to my classes, they will not find even thinly veiled references to Hinduism (or Buddhism), but a systematic use of the completely natural (i.e. non-mystical) powers of observation and movement in order to find and alleviate the body and mind's blockages/tensions. No more, no less.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Meditation and Neuroscience

There is an increasing amount of research being done on the effects of meditation on the brain (see this article in Time on one recent application of this research). The following are a good sampling of some of that work. Some of them are a bit technical, but some of it should be understandable (particularly the videos).

Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness
Antoine Lutz, John D. Dunne, Richard J. Davidson

Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise
Antoine Lutz, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, Richard J. Davidson

Long-term Meditators Self-induce High-amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice
Antoine Lutz, Lawrence L. Greischar, Nancy B. Rawlings, Matthieu Ricard, and Richard J. Davidson

Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation
Antoine Lutz, Heleen A. Slagter, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson

Neural Correlates of Attentional Expertise in Long-term Meditation Practitioners
J. A. Brefczynski-Lewis, A. Lutz, H. S. Schaefer, D. B. Levinson, and R. J. Davidson

Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation
Richard J. Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jessica Schumacher, Melissa Rosenkranz, Daniel Muller, Saki F. Santorelli, Ferris Urbanowski, Anne Harrington, Katherine Bonus, and John F. Sheridan

Daniel Goleman has written a more 'popular' piece on compassion meditation and happiness:

Finding Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left

Two of the monks who have participated in Davidson and Goleman’s studies are Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (author of The Joy of Living and, most recently, Joyful Wisdom) and Matthieu Ricard (“the happiest man in the world” and author of Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill) and both are good authors to read up on. Ricard has a very good Google presentation: Change your Mind Change your Brain: The Inner Conditions for Authentic Happiness. I would also suggest Philippe Goldan’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation and Michael Spezio’s Mindfulness in the Brain. Finally, Richard Davidson has a lecture titled Be Happy Like a Monk (Part 1, Part 2, and Q&A).

Since I posted the entry on Zen Brain, the Upaya Institute and Zen Center has had a 7-part Science Meets Meditation series with Alan Wallace. I haven't had the chance to listen to them yet, but Wallace is a very familiar name in Ameican Buddhism, so it could be worthwhile.

The systematic research of the physical and psychological effects of meditation is currently on the uprise, allowing us to at least partially move beyond anecdotal evidence or traditional claims as to its effects.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Is Buddhism Selfish in Nature?

In a response to an opinion piece on the relation between Christianity and Buddhism, one commenter stated:

Buddhism is filled with selfishness, whether or not its adherents want to admit it. Many of its precepts and practices keep you focused entirely on yourself and your “destiny” and the intent behind many of the precepts is selfishness.

Another commentator put it as:

Beyond all the “good” works, a strict Buddhist is only in it for themselves, when everything said and done, regardless of the outer appearance.

This is not a new claim and, in fact, has been directed to Hinayana and Zen Buddhism by other Buddhists. Here I will bring up many (though certainly not all) of the aspects of Buddhist doctrine and practice explicitly related to cultivating compassion and reducing selfishness.

Compassion in Hinayana Buddhism

Within the Pali textual tradition, Gotama Buddha describes the purpose of a Buddha’s life as one who “has appeared in the world for the benefit & happiness of many, out of sympathy for the world, for the welfare, benefit, & happiness of human & divine beings” (Bhaya-bherava Sutta/Fear & Terror). In the Metta Sutta/Discourse on Lovingkindness, the Buddha describes those who are “skilled in goodness” as having the aspiration:

In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!


Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.

There is also the Brahma-viharas (The Four Immeasurables), three of which deal with compassion and empathy for others. Walpola Rahula, the eminent Hinayana Buddhist scholar, discusses these three as: “(1) extending unlimited, universal love and good-will (metta) to all living beings without any kind of discrimination, ‘just as a mother loves her only child’; (2) compassion (karuna) for all living beings who are suffering, in trouble and affliction; (3) sympathetic joy (mudita) in others’ success, welfare, and happiness” (What the Buddha Taught, p. 75).

The claim of selfishness is usually directed towards Hinayana Buddhism, but the above (which is only a small sampling of a rather extensive canon) demonstrates a strong emphasis on compassion and service. This is not incidental, as the attainment of enlightenment, the realization of Buddahood, is seen as a call to service to the world, which the Buddha exemplified. This, incidentally, is also an answer to the caricature of those who assume that the paradigmatic Buddhist posture is of “a man sitting in tranquil contemplation with his eyes shut to a world he wants to transcend” (Douglas Groothuis, Jesus and Buddha: Two Masters or One?, p. 3). While such an argument has been made against some Buddhist monastic traditions, there is a strong and even pervasive call to engaged compassionate service.

Compassion in Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism

This connection is made even more explicit and central in both Mahayana and Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism. H.H. the Dalai Lama has explicitly said,

Regardless of its historical origin and its evolution, the Mahayana is without a doubt a path dedicated to the liberation of all beings. When one enters the Mahayana path, one is said to join the family of bodhisattvas. This happens when anyone has, in the course of their spiritual development, gained the realization of genuine compassion.


According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive—it’s not empathy alone—but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering.
Essence of the Heart Sutra, p. 49.

H.H. Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the late senior instructor of H.H. the Dalai Lama, made a distinction between entering nirvana and becoming a Buddha:

The enlightened attitude, bodhicitta, which has love and compassion as its basis, is the essential seed producing the attainment of buddhahood. Therefore, it is a subject that should be approached with the pure thought, "May I gain enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to the world."

"If we want to attain the state of the full enlightenment of buddhahood as opposed to the lesser enlightenment of the arhat, nirvana, our innermost practice must be cultivated by bodhicitta. If meditation on emptiness is our innermost practice, we run the risk of falling into nirvana instead of gaining buddhahood.
“Generating Bodhicitta,” in Teachings from Tibet, p. 53.

The being who embodies this Buddhahood is the Bodhisattva, “a being, who, through wisdom, heroically focuses on the attainment of enlightenment out of compassionate concern for all beings. The word itself [composed of bodhi/enlightenment and sattva/hero] conveys the key qualities of such an infinitely altruistic being” (Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra, p. 78). The fundamental aspiration in Mahayana Buddhism is becoming this infinitely compassionate being, a being whose sole raison d’etre (reason for being) is to alleviate the suffering of others. A more noble aspiration is hard to imagine.

So even if we accept the validity of the criticism that Hinayana Buddhism’s arhat entering enlightenment is inherently selfish, the Mahayana tradition posits a further ‘achievement’ (or further ‘letting go’, as the case may be) that is fundamentally grounded in compassionate altruism. In the same text, in a chapter titled “The Foundations of All Good Qualities,” Khunu Lama Rinpoche, himself a recognized Bodhisattva and teacher of the 14th Dalai Lama, called compassion “the main cause of enlightenment” (p. 201) and later saying that “[w]ithout bodhicitta we cannot receive enlightenment” (p. 206). He quotes Tsong-khapa’s The Foundation of All Good Qualities:

Just as I have fallen into the sea of samsara,
So have all mother migratory beings.
Bless me to see this, train in supreme bodhicitta,
And bear the responsibility of freeing migratory beings.

Here are two representative quotes from Shantideva:

In short, wherever I am, whatever I do,
To be continually mindful and alert,
Asking, “What is the state of my mind?”
And accomplishing the good of others is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Thirty-seven Verses of a Bodhisattva

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
The Way of the Bodhisattva

There is one translation of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (Way of the Bodhisattva) available online for further verses dedicated to relieving the suffering of others.

Meditation Practices for Developing Compassion

Moving beyond the doctrinal basis of compassion in Buddhism, there are a large number of meditation practices intended to cultivate compassion for all beings. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (in his The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness) gives a three-step process for cultivating compassion, one that is echoed in many other Buddhist texts.

Begin With Yourself
First, we must genuinely connect with our own suffering and the form of our own suffering, particularly at the more subtle levels of basic discontent, our desires for permanence, etc. This is one of the purposes of meditation: by calming the mental chatter we can slow down our habitual patterns (karma), allowing us to see how our mind works, how we continually and habitually place ourselves in the cycle of suffering. We also realize our most fundamental desires: (1) to be happy and (2) to be free from suffering. In short, we must come to know our own suffering and desires before we can help relieve the suffering of others. As with most traditional progressions in meditation, this first stage is primarily composed of shamatha meditation, with the primary object (in terms of compassion) being one’s own thoughts, feelings, and body (both in terms of bodily sensations and actions).

Connect to Others
Second, after connecting with our own suffering and desires, we begin to connect with the suffering and desires of others. Mingyur Rinpoche suggests that one begins with a simple body scan, noticing the health and, if present, discomforts we are now feeling. We can then meditate on how fortunate we are to have a healthy body: “How nice it would be if I could always enjoy this sense of well-being and all the causes that lead to feeling happy, peaceful, and good” (p. 179). In order to extend this to others, it is usually suggested that you start with your mother/parent or, if you happen to have a difficult relationship with your parents, someone with whom you feel safe, open, and happy. Then extend this to others: How nice it would be if [my mother, father, grandmother, boyhood pet, etc.] could always enjoy this sense of well-being and all the causes that lead to feeling happy, peaceful, and good. Then do this in relation to bodily discomforts: How nice it would be if I/they could always enjoy relief from this physical discomfort. Mingyur Rinpoche suggests that you take a moments reprise between these meditations: first be mindful of yourself and generate the aspiration, then allow your focus to widen in open awareness, and, finally, extend the same aspiration to the other (with another open awareness meditation after this).

In order to extend this to all beings, the texts then suggest to expand to other categories of people: ourselves, someone towards which we are neutral, someone towards which we have hard feelings, and, finally, towards all beings, without exception. By progressively extending one’s compassion to every being, we strengthen the aspiration that all beings, even those that we might consider enemies, be free from suffering and that we take an active role in relieving their suffering. The exact progression is not important: those, such as myself, who have had a degree of self-loathing might find it harder to extend compassion to ourselves rather than to someone we might consider an enemy such that we would benefit from leaving ourselves till the end. The exact phrase used in this meditation is also open for debate. It is a common practice to use the Four Immeasurables as the text for this practice:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity free from clinging, aversion,
and ignorance

Using wording that you have personally developed can also strengthen this practice; see what works best for you.

Give and Take
The third practice is called tong-len, literally translated as give-take. The basic practice is, on the inhale, imagine a black smoke/light coming from the intended being, carrying all their negativity, suffering, and destructive habitual patterns into yourself. One common image is absorbing this negativity into your heart, where the energy is purified and reduced to its basic intelligence (rather than grasped, pushed away, or ignored). On the exhale, imagine that light is coming out of you towards the intended being, carrying all your positivity, joy, and skillful capacities to the other person. One of the basic principles is our inexhaustible goodness whereby we can skillfully absorb all negativity and can give all we have without being diminished in any way. In the words of Chogyam Trungpa:

We give as much as we can give, we expand as much as we can expand. We have a lot to expand because we have basic goodness, which is an inexhaustible treasure. Therefore we have nothing at all to lose and we can receive more, also. We can be shock absorbers of other people’s pain all the time... The more we give our best, the more we are able to receive other people’s worst. Isn’t that great?
Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness, p. 29.

Within one tradition, it is suggested that you begin with yourself: begin by taking the other’s negativity before you give what you can. This emphasizes the purpose of the practice: to overcome our selfishness by reversing our usual drive to horde the good for ourselves and leave the bad for others. Instead we cultivate the motivation to give all the good that we posses, without reservation, to others and take all the worst that they have, without reservation, into ourselves. By starting with taking the bad into ourselves, the focus becomes compassionately relieving the others’ suffering rather than giving the good that we have, which could be used egotistically, “I’m so good, I can afford to give it to others,” rather than beginning with an ego-weakening altruistic intention. As with the previous practice, it is suggested that you can begin with a loved being, then a neutral being, a despised being, and then to all beings, human and non-human.


If selfishness is so central to Buddhism, it certainly must be deep seated and hidden because selfishness is contradictory to much of the explicit textual and traditional claims in all three major Buddhist traditions. While it is true that some practicing Buddhists turn the Buddhist Path into a thing of ego—what Chogyam Trungpa called spiritual materialism—this can and does happen in every religious and non-religious tradition. The fact remains that there is no dearth of references to compassion and a strong (practically impregnable) case can be made for the explicit centrality of compassionate altruism to Buddhist thought and practice.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.

In this discourse the Buddha refers only to "thirst", or "grasping": our incessant desires for this or that along with the concurrent belief that having this or that will bring us happiness, either lasting or temporary. In relation to the previous Noble Truth, we also include aversion and ignorance. This, of course, is easier said than done.

One of the better definitions of karma that I've read is "habitual pattern": we find ourselves drawn, pulled, pushed, or gravitating towards this or that response to whatever occurs in our lives. On a surface level we see this in personality: our lives take on particular forms of acting and reacting, a particular style that seems to be naturally drawn out when the right conditions arise, when we find ourselves in particular contexts. So when we are in a sacred space we are naturally drawn to certain behaviors and relations, like that of reverence; when we are in a social space we are naturally drawn to other behaviors and relations, like rambunctiousness and overt sociability.

On a more subtle level, we also have habitual ways of understanding, largely based on our culture and upbringing. These are like filters through which the world becomes understandable: the world can appear very differently for an engineer than it would an artist, or a physicist than it would a custodian. Within these different realms of understanding even a single thing can appear differently: a soccer ball appears very different both in the world of soccer as well as during game play than it would if it were taken as readymade art. In the world of art, the ball's texture, the play of light off its surface, and an aura of appreciation pervade the context and bring to light certain aspects of the soccer ball. In the world of playing soccer, the soccer ball does not appear in this way: rather than its artistic qualities it is understood in terms of its utility with an essential reference to the human body and its motility, the rules of the game, the structure of the field, and the current configuration of the field.

These patterns pervade our lives and, usually, they occur without our knowing it: they are simply the way things are, how things "usually" occur, the way we are naturally drawn to relate to particular contexts. They are the ground from which things can appear as meaningful, but they can also be confining when they are grasped, when they are taken as the only meaningful way of relating to things. It is not the patterns per se that are wrong, but when they become calcitrant, stubborn, "solid", whether intentionally/willfully or unconsciously. The goal is to lessen and eventually cut through the negative karmic momentum, which is the cause of our suffering, and increasing the positive karmic momentum. Ultimately, however, we want to cultivate skillful means: the ability to spontaneously and skillfully do what is needed in any given situation, rather than being habitually drawn to relate to it in this way or that, positively or negatively. Within Vajrayana Buddhism, the goal is to discover the basic goodness or Buddhanature in all phenomena, allowing us to transmute negative/destructive energy (anger, hatred, envy) into positive/constructive energy (peace, love, and compassion). We are still working with the patterns of the situation, but our responses are fluid, malleable, impermanent, subject to the specific needs of the situation, not the dictates of the organism or some generalized understanding that cannot grasp the subtleties of this unique event, this unique context.

With this understanding, we can see the way to cut through the causes of suffering, the Path of Liberation.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dilbert and Yoga

I just got this today and thought I'd share (click on image for full-sized view):