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):

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Second Noble Truth: The Origin of Suffering

The origin of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is the craving that produces renewal of being accompanied by enjoyment and lust, and enjoying this and that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being.

While in this particular verse, Buddha refers to craving or grasping as the origin of suffering, recall that in the previous verse he also mentions aversion as "association with the unpleasant" and ignorance as "the five aggregates of attachment" or "to grasp the Five Aggregates as though they constitute a self." These poisons (kleshas) produce our desire to continue (either in this life or through further reincarnations), our facile enjoyment in continuing, and our attachment to the pleasures that keep drawing us back, even though they only give temporary relief and enjoyment (including the aversion to things that we think will interfere with these). These can each be fruitfully examined in more detail (though there is a lot of overlap as these principles inter-are):

Our Desire to Continue: in our usual state we all fear our own death, or own non-continuation in life. It is something that we continually avoid thinking about, so we seek near constant distraction: through TV, music, activities, books, parties, shopping, eating, drinking, drugs, and sex. It is behind emotions such as anger, boredom, fear, listlessness, and the Western favorite of existential anxiety (the feeling of profound groundlessness). This is primarily because we think that in death we cannot continue enjoying that which we crave: we will not 'have the chance' to reach that "just one more this or that and I'll finally be happy" that is always escaping us (and always will). This can also refer to not wanting the passing away of that which we wish would stay: that the pleasant always has an end and, in some cases, can turn into its opposite, pain.

Our Enjoyment in Continuing: when we continue we can continue to enjoy our various pleasures. So our continuing will most likely increase our continued enjoyment, or so we like to think. Though this is our desire and it is true that we can and do experience pleasure in our lives, this is only one side of the three-sided coin, the side that we fixate on.

Our Attachment to that Which Inevitably Fades: We all desire pleasure in our lives. But because the nature of reality is that of impermanence, our pleasures always fade, oftentimes turning into pain: indigestion, withdrawal symptoms, exhaustion, hangovers, etc. Ironically, this impermanence is exactly what spurns us on: we want more pleasure when it fades and we want things that we don't have; when we get what we want and it doesn't last, we seem to think that the next thing will give us lasting happiness, though, by its nature, it is incapable of causing this result (like cold cannot cause water to boil). So our lives are punctuated by an endless cycle of desire, satiation, lack, and the inescapable return of desire. So we desire that which is no longer or is not yet (non-being).

These are the causes of our suffering and, in order to live and realize the Second Noble Truth, we need to see how these play out in our own lives. Only then can we hope to let go of the causes of our suffering.

Grasping for the Guru's Gift

People always come to the study of spirituality with some ideas already fixed in their minds of what it is they are going to get and how to deal with the person from whom they think they will get it. The very notion that we will get something from a guru--happiness, peace of mind, wisdom, whatever it is we seek--is one of the most difficult preconceptions of all.
Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, p. 31

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Genjokoan ¶1

As part of my personal practice in The Big Sit, I'm going to do a series of commentaries on Eihei Dogen’s Genjokoan, paragraph by paragraph.

As all things are Buddha-dharma, there are delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings. As myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The Buddha Way, in essence, is leaping clear of abundance and lack; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

The first paragraph of Dogen's work plays off of the Two Truths: the relative or conventional realm, where we speak according to social conventions and relative binary concepts (A vs. not-A), and ultimate truth, or truth as experienced beyond conventions or concepts. This warrants a post (or a series of posts) on its own, but it is sufficient for now to say that the Two Truths are not mutually exclusive: relative truth is not a small-t truth nor is ultimate truth a big-T Truth. Similarly, relative truth is not 'half false' nor is it to be looked down upon as something less than ultimate truth. In fact, relative truth exists because ultimate truth exists and vice versa: since we are essentially engaged in this world, we can realize or awaken to ultimate truth; if we weren't so engaged, the conditions for awakening to ultimate truth would be gone. We do not forsake relative truth when we become an Awakened One (Buddha), but we see its truth nature.

It is because of this inter-relation that Dogen says that, "[a]s all things are Buddha-dharma [the Path to Awakening], there are delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings." However, at the ultimate level, since things like delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings "are without an abiding self," or are composed of non-delusion, non-realization, non-practice, non-birth and non-death, non-buddhas and non-sentient being stuff, "there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death." This is the potentially perilous conceptual distinction within the notion of emptiness (shunyata): it is not the nihilistic understanding that nothing exists, but rather that things are empty of individual existence.

Consider, for a moment, the nature of delusion: it is composed most immediately of mental formations (with its respective objects, thoughts), but also of form (with its respective sense organs and their objects), feelings (positive, negative, and neutral), perceptions (of good, bad, and irrelevant), and consciousness (both as store [alaya] consciousness and our inherited social order). This then extends even further, beyond the Aggregates, to wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong diligence, wrong mindfulness, and wrong concentration (the Ignoble Eightfold Path), all with their respective relations to people, contexts, and events. And we can continue to find all the non-delusion elements that constitute delusion, eventually including the whole cosmos, yet we never find a concrete object we can call "delusion". So, put in abstract logical form, A is not-A, which is why it is genuinely A; without the not-A, A cannot exist, which is why the not-A is essentially (rather than contingently) necessary for the (empty) existence of A. Just like a flower cannot exist without the Sun and rain (and the local and cosmic causes and conditions for the existence of the Sun and rain), so delusion cannot exist without, well, everything!

In turning to the next sentence, the Buddha-dharma/Buddha Way, "in essence", is to move beyond notions of abundance and lack, which initially (at the relative level that we primarily inhabit at first) is living in the world of "birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas." As we start on the Path we have to "leap clear" of our concepts, hence the Path essentially includes working within the relative world of binary concepts like birth and death, delusion and realization, and sentient beings and buddhas. We must not think that we can get to the other shore (paragate, in the words of the Heart Sutra) without first jumping in the boat and moving on the water, without first examining our concepts and (mis)understandings and learning to look deeply so that we can see the emptiness of all phenomena. Thus, an important and essential part of the Path is working with our concepts.

Our constant guard, however, is to remember that even as we try to grasp on to that which is 'good' and 'beautiful', it will eventually wilt and die; even as we try to push out that which is 'painful' and 'disgusting', it will continue to grow and spread. How much of our lives are spent in grasping and pushing? How much energy do we waste in wishing things were different: that the good would stay and the bad would stay out? Creating our concepts of 'good' and 'bad' doesn't help. In fact, it exacerbates things by creating the illusion that that which we think of as 'good' or 'bad' substantially exists, that it is something to be horded or warred against with every breath in our that we cannot appreciate the joy of simply breathing for its own sake. We always have something to 'gain' and something to 'lose', hence we are always doing something for the sake of something else. And then, when we finally get 'what we've always wished for' and 'what would make us happy', it inevitably leaves or something else that will really make us happy takes its place; when we finally 'get our revenge' or 'vanquish our enemy', a new sworn enemy inevitably appears. Seeing the reality of impermanence is the first step in "leaping clear" of our concepts.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The First Noble Truth: The Reality of Suffering

Not long after his enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first discourse where he brought to light the Four Noble Truths. In Walpola Rahula's translation of this discourse:

The Noble Truth of suffering (Dukkha) is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering--in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.
What the Buddha Taught, p. 93.

Here we are given three orders of suffering: the first broad level is birth, aging, sickness, and death, the sights that helped the Buddha realize the need for spiritual work. This is the wider context within which suffering occurs: the cycle of birth to death (and, in one interpretation of reincarnation, to re-birth).

The next and more specific level of suffering is particular afflictions: regret for the past and our losses, experience of pain in body and mind, emotional distress, and hopelessness in the face of living. As we go about living, these afflictions, which can also be categorized by their respective temporal frames of reference (i.e. regret is related to the past, pain and emotional distress the present, and hopelessness the future), occur at different times and cause suffering.

Then we have the very grounds from which the previous kinds of suffering arise: experiencing things we find undesirable (aversion) and that the things we like don't stay and many things that we like don't come to us (grasping). These basic afflictions (kleshas), or basic ways of relating to things and events, are the grounds from which regret, pain, distress, and hopelessness arise; they are what waters the seeds of affliction.

Lastly, the basic objects of our attachment are named: the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, aptly translates the last sentence as, "In other words, to grasp the Five Aggregates as though they constitute a self is suffering" (p. 258). This is the third klesha: ignorance, primarily ignorance of the nature of non-self or, put in other terms, our clinging to the ego as if it were some substantial thing. While the three kleshas are all genuine causes of our suffering, ignorance is generally considered the prime cause: it is because we think of ourselves as substantially existing that we feel a need to protect our selves from things that can hurt us (aversion) and seek things that will build us up (grasping).

One important thing to realize is that the First Noble Truth is not claiming that life is suffering. In fact, to make that claim is to deny the Third Noble Truth: the cessation of suffering. The First Noble Truth is making the fairly obvious claim that we do suffer, that suffering exists. Another important point is that Buddhism, by virtue of the First Noble Truth, is not claiming that suffering is just an illusion: that we really aren't suffering. Rather, suffering is a genuine reality, a real part of our lives. The polysymy of the word "illusion", both in English and as a translation of Buddhist concepts, will require its own analysis later; for now it is sufficient to realize that suffering exists.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Buddhist Valentine

My Love is Empty
By Kevin K. Winters

My love for you is empty
So that it may contain the whole cosmos
And that through it
You may see the abundance of life.

My love for you is impermanent
So that it may grow more and more
Through compassionate service
And genuine openness.

My love for you is non-dual,
For it is not “mine”,
Not “yours”, as if it were a mere possession,
But a manifestation of our self-less devotion.

My love for you is non-grasping,
For to grip you too tightly
Or to mold you into an idol/ideal
Is to do both of us violence and harm.

My love for you is non-love:
Composed of the cosmos,
Watered by blessed causes and conditions,
And therefore is authentic love.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Big Sit

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review is hosting The Big Sit, a 90-day Zen meditation challenge. Here's the text from the site:

On February 23rd, the Tricycle Community will launch "The Big Sit," a 90-day Zen meditation challenge and the first of many Community events to follow. For the Big Sit, participants will sit daily and meet here to share thoughts on meditation practice. Let's support each other!

Guiding teacher Pat Enkyo O'Hara Roshi, abbot of New York City's Village Zendo, will guide you through a classical Zen text with her weekly video teachings. Joining her will be several prominent Zen teachers from around the country who will provide additional support throughout your 90-day meditation challenge.

Don't be discouraged if you begin late or miss a day or two — just pick up where you left off. This is about practice not perfection.

There's more coming soon! Sign up now and we'll send you a reminder as the big day approaches.

For more information, and to prepare for the challenge, please read the Spring 2009 issue's special practice section in print or online.

Good luck. We look forward to sitting with you. Stay tuned!

The Tricycle Staff

Here is the suggested structure of the event:

  • Sit in formal meditation for 20 minutes each day.
  • Listen to one dharma talk each week on
  • Study Dogen’s Genjokoan, the text selected for the period.
  • Commit to the sixteen bodhisattva precepts.
  • Practice with others at or at a local meditation center.
  • Begin when you like. Tricycle’s staff will begin February 23.

I hope many join in this collective attempt to cultivate further peace in our lives.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Zen Brain

The Upaya Institute and Zen Center has a series of podcasts on meditation and neuroscience.

Zen Brain: "Science is just now documenting what meditators have known for millennia. Jim Austin calls meditation “artful attention” and discusses the importance of this skill in our lives. He talks about his own experience both as a Zen student and a neurologist looking at the brain in relation to meditation."

Zen Brain 1: "Science journalist and New York Times contributor Sandra Blakeslee provides an overview of how recent developments in neuroscience have changed the way we view the impact of various practices, including meditation, upon brain structure and function."

Zen Brain 2: "Neuroscientist Richard Davidson provides an introduction to brain systems that may be relevant to meditation. This presentation gives an orientation to neurophysiology and lays the foundation for Dr. Davidson’s second presentation which discusses the relationship between the brain and meditation."

Richard Davidson has done some excellent work on meditation and neuroscience; he will come up again on this blog. James Austin is best known for his earliest work on Zen and neuroscience, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, which I haven't read so I can't vouch for his work. He is, however, one of the most long-standing researchers on the neurological effects of meditation. Finally, this is the first time I've ever heard of Sandra Blakeslee, but she seems to be a lay expert on neuroscience.

Also, take a look at Upaya's other dharma talk podcasts.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is Buddhism?

The final, and natural, introductory post for this blog addresses the question, "What is Buddhism?" The first thing that should be said about every tradition, religious or otherwise, is that it is complicated. As with every tradition, Buddhism has many schools of thought and a long history within which those schools have developed. My own approach is generally within the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools and is marked by particular authors like Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, and Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet). A very brief history of Buddhism's doctrinal beginning might be useful to provisionally differentiate these schools of thought.

Mahayana Buddhism refers to the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma: three series of teachings by the Buddha. In the first, and universally accepted, turning of the wheel (given in Sarnath, India), Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. In these teachings the emptiness (shunyata) of the self was taught, as we find in Hinayana Buddhism, but the emptiness of all phenomena was not. In the second turning of the wheel (given at Rajagriha, Vulture Peak Mountain), the fundamental emptiness of all things (not just the self) was emphasized and the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal was given: the dedication of the practitioner to relieve the suffering of all beings. In the third turning of the wheel (at Vaishali, in northeast India, accepted by Tibetan Buddhists), we receive the teachings on the Buddha nature (tathagatha-gharba)--the fundamental goodness and openness at the core of all beings--and a refutation of the nihilistic interpretation of shunyata.

With that, one of the most surprising aspects of Buddhism is that it is not a "religion":

When you're trained as a Buddhist, you don't think of Buddhism as a religion. You think of it as a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a nonjudgmental way, with the view toward recognizing, "Oh, this is how my mind works. This is what I need to do to experience happiness. This is what I should avoid to avoid unhappiness."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, p. 11.

One reason for this is that the Buddha is not a god that is prayed to for liberation. At least within the Mahayana tradition, it is thathaghatha-gharba, the Buddha-nature (or enlightened one) within that we seek. There is a story about a student who became disappointed in his guru over this or that matter, to which his guru responded, "Good! I don't want you to think that the Buddha is to be found outside of yourself." The Buddha is venerated for being an enlightened one, an example of one who has tread the Path, but he is not sought as an external savior who "gives" or "grants" enlightenment.

The non-religious nature of Buddhism can also be seen in its relation to dogma: Buddhist practitioners are not asked to accept anything on faith and are repeatedly exhorted to test what is given. The Four Noble Truths are not propositions to be believed, asserted, or died for, but realities to be experienced: the concrete reality of our suffering, the understanding of the concrete causes of our sufferings, the concrete realization of the causes of well-being, and the concrete experience of well-being through wholesome living. One metaphor used by the Buddha is that of a finger pointing to the moon: if we fixate on the finger--the words, doctrines, propositions, signs--we will miss the beauty of the moon that the finger is pointing to. Furthermore, Buddhism's truths are understandable by everyone and does not require any special understanding of philosophy or theology: the cessation of suffering and the cultivation of well-being are possible now and here, even for the most philosophically un-savvy and uneducated individuals. There are no "orthodox" doctrines that must be believed under pain of eternal damnation or suffering, just concrete ways of living and experiencing life.

Buddhism, put very simply, is the science of self-understanding. We examine the nature of the mind, the body, the senses, and the grounds of our experiences. Through this process we come to understand why we suffer and how to cultivate well-being. This does not occur through affirming and believing some proposition that some book or some authority tells us to believe. It comes through intimately connecting with our own experience, understanding our own relation to suffering and well-being, and learning how to live abundantly. Anyone from any religious, philosophical, or socio-political tradition can benefit from such self-scrutiny and the majority of meditation practices can be done regardless of whether one accepts the emptiness of all phenomena (e.g., see The Foundations of Mindfulness).

NOTE: I finally (2/13/09) found the exact reference for the anecdote given above. Here it is:

When I complained to my abbot Ajahn Chah, considered by millions to be a great saint, that he didn't always act as if he were completely enlightened, he laughed and told me that was good, "because otherwise you would still be imagining that you could find the Buddha outside of yourself. And he is not here."
Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstacy, the Laundry, p. xx.

What is Yoga?

A very apt second post for this blog would be to discuss the nature of yoga. In the West yoga has largely been reduced to a physical exercise, a way to get in shape, a mere option among other fitness options. There is also a segment of the population, particularly among fundamentalist sects (which is not meant in a derogatory way), who sees yoga as essentially Hindi: that its practices cannot be usefully or meaningfully separated from Hindi religious devotion, veneration of Hindi gods, or some notion of uniting the soul with Vishnu. So yoga finds itself, in Western minds, as a phenomenon on two extremes: extreme secularism or extreme religiosity.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts in yoga, defines yoga as "the restraint of the modification of mind-stuff" (Book I:2; Sri Swami Satchidananda, trans.). Another translation states it as "the mastery and integration of the activities of mind". "Yoga" itself means "union", the union of the mind with the body, the union of the mind with itself, rather than being scattered, disjointed, or at war with itself. It should be noted that if we accept this as a description of yoga's essence, it makes no dictates as to what the mind is (beyond that it has "modification[s]", which is hardly disputable) and that it requires no particular acceptance of the mind's nature, except that which is found in our own examination of it. The yogi/yogini who thoroughly examines their own minds, its workings, and its relation to their lives and finds nothing of Vishnu, a "larger Self", chakras, or any particularly Hindi religious contents is perfectly free to reject them. In my own practice and classes, I have seen no need to invoke any of these concepts and my understanding of how meditation and yoga works requires none of it: just the cultivation of the natural capacities of attention, concentration, and understanding.

In line with the above, yoga was originally sitting meditation practice without the asanas, or poses. This is how the term is still used in Buddhism. The physical practice was done primarily to strengthen the body so it can withstand the rigors of sitting practice, which can be excruciating when the body is not strong enough to sustain the posture. Even as the asanas became more prominent in yogic practice, they are intended as anchors for the mind: to become mindful of what is happening in the body (during and after asana practice), what is happening in the mind (during and after asana practice), becoming mindful of the relation between mind and body (during and after asana practice), and learning the body's capacities (during and after asana practice), while simultaneously expanding them during asana practice.

This points to one of the best aspects of yoga: it is not a matter of how flexible or strong your body is, but of how mindful you are during your practice, and afterwards. When practiced in this way, the physical benefits will naturally accrue, even though they are not the explicit focus, but the psychological benefits will also be cultivated: increased understanding of the mind's workings, developing the powers of attention and concentration, increased intimacy with one's own body and mind, and, with it all, increased overall well-being. How this occurs will be discussed throughout this blog, but an understanding of the body will be useful for seeing the particular usefulness of the asanas, what they add that sitting meditation, on its own, misses.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What is Meditation?

The best way to start this blog would be to address the question, "What is meditation?" This is a question I will address on a few occasions, particularly to correct some very common misunderstandings many have about the nature of meditation. I wish to start, however, with a useful description given by Sakyong Mipham, heir to the Shambhala lineage, in his book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally:

Even though the bewildered mind is untrained, it is already meditating, whether we know it or not. Meditation is the natural process of becoming familiar with an object by repeatedly placing our minds upon it. Whatever we're doing, we always have a view; we're always placing our mind on one object or another. (24)

One of the primary goals of meditation is to train the mind in its ability to attend to or concentrate on whatever it is that we are doing. The Sanskrit word for meditation is bhavana which means to "cultivate" or "develop" and it is always used in reference to the mind. Much like the body, which we all think can benefit from exercise, the mind can also be trained, yet we rarely set aside time each week to train the mind while we will make an effort to schedule time to exercise our body. One reason for this might be that we think that these capacities are innate and permanent, incapable of cultivation or development. Another reason could be our penchant to think that our happiness depends on external conditions: having a beautiful body, having money, fame, and sex, or having a beautiful girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse are (supposedly) what give us happiness, so we ignore the mind as a potential source of contentment and joy in our lives. One way or the other, the training of the mind does not have a place of importance in 21st century America.

There are many different meditation practices that are meant to train the mind's natural capacities of attention and concentration (shamatha bhavana, concentration meditation). There are also many different meditations that use the power of attention/concentration by directing the mind towards wholesome things and penetrating into the nature of all phenomena (vipassana bhavana, wisdom meditation). This is the core of meditation and any religious trappings are secondary to cultivating this concentration and clarity.


Welcome to my blog. As of late my interests have expanded from my original interests, though certainly still related to it. My life has benefited in many ways from my meditation and yoga practice: increased peace, decreased stress, decreased ruminations, increased overall well-being, and more than a handful of moments of pure joy following practice. Yet my enthusiasm for mindfulness' benefits is tempered by a critical mind that desires to see things clearly, rather than just accepting what is said without question. This blog is an attempt to bring these two things together: uniting my positives experiences with meditation with a critical look at the philosophical and psychological grounds of Buddhism, particularly in its Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of thought, and yoga.

My own approach to mindfulness is explicitly non-religious and my descriptions of the various meditation practices and even Buddhist 'doctrines' will be given with variations for different religious perspectives (when relevant). Most importantly, though, I will be providing links to and summaries of important research on the physiological, neurological, and psychological effects of meditation and yoga. At present the scientific research on both of these practices is still in its infancy and its conclusions must be held tentatively, though they are illuminating and suggestive.

So enjoy!