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By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, August 24 2011, 07:02 - Journalism
A week back, I posted about an article on Buddhism and Christianity I'd had published in Third Way. It is behind a pay wall, though I've now had permission to publish the entire piece here.
Many thanks for providing the link to the whole article; as I said earlier, the excerpt was suggestive and raised an important timely issue, but stopped before the important bits.
For me, the article raises two questions. "What is western Buddhism?", and "Is it viable - will it do the job, either as described by the Buddha himself, or desired by western followers?". Underlying both of these questions is the deeper epistemological issue that ultimately we only have a set of texts, and that every form of practice is therefore a work of interpretation, and to that extent both bound up with our culture and psyche, and properly provisional.
I haven't really been able to discern a coherent "western Buddhism". There are so many different levels of commitment (from the much-derided appropriation of terms and images by popular culture, to those who dedicate their entire lives to a weirdo sectarian practice) and so many focuses of attention - from "engaged Buddhism" to the psychotherapeutic. More generally, there certainly seems to be a desire for well-educated westerners to get a handle on the whole thing, and develop a view that helps with everyday life without involving too many lifestyle changes. The Buddha as one club in the hipsters golf-bag, along with selected stoic philosophers, Tai Chi, and designer drugs. Such people are likely to pick up on writers like Stephen Batchelor and Susan Blackmore.
Whether any of this represents an emerging western orthodoxy, however, is debatable. Good luck if you have discerned one, and remember that the provisional interpretive nature of the process means that the attempt will be like nailing a variety of gloopy substances to the wall, all the while trying to remember which is the real custard!
More important for me is whether one western interpretation or another has anything useful to offer, and is in the spirit of the original truth which the Buddha was pointing to. Of course, I'm not exactly sure what that is, but in the apophatic style of the Christian who knows that pastor Terry Jones is misguided, I know pretty well what it isn't. Good guides to this are reputable translations of the Suttas; and the sense that western practices which reflect too closely our contemporary desires ought to ring alarm bells.
So meditation. I can't find anywhere a Sutta where the Buddha instructs people in meditation by telling them to observe themselves. The Satipatthana Sutta seems to be the best summary here, and it recommends aspects of the body, aspects of the mind, and Dhamma. All very clear. And absolutely compatible with meditation on God. I think Christians or ex-Christians introduced to Satipatthana ought to think God, reflect on God, and seek God. It is, I think, what the Buddha would have wanted. Most of us in the west think a great deal about ourselves, either as a fascinating personality, or as a philosophical puzzle along the lines of a Kantian transcendental unity of apperception. So sit us down and ask us to focus intensively on that for a long time, and I would guess the outcome is a mixture of psychological gratification and confusion.
The same applies to the "doctrine" of Anatta. You are absolutely spot on in your observation that we can be offered a form of Buddhism which is complicit with our own individualism. The trick is, however, to spot what we are asking for. Westerners who obsess about who they are might go straight to the Anattalakkhana Sutta, in which the Buddha tells a group of experienced monks that there is nothing in the conditioned universe worthy of being called a "self". But more often, he dismisses the question of the existence of the self as unprofitable. And, most graphically of all, is this:
"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'
"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress" (Sabbasava Sutta)
I think it is a possibly unhelpful reification to think of a thing called "Buddhism" which can mutate on arriving in the west. Rather, a teaching which anyone can use, and which westerners are likely to use a bit differently from those in older traditions. Ultimately, we come to Buddhism because we want something. When we want something, we get something. But very rarely what we want. Westerners have trained their minds to want urgently and indiscriminately, and therein lies the problem.
Mark, apologies for the wall of blather!
Sam Vega - Thanks for the blather.
- 'I can't find anywhere a Sutta where the Buddha instructs people in meditation by telling them to observe themselves'. You'll remember at the Uncertain Minds event, John Peacock argued that even meditation might be a post-Buddha invention, because the earliest texts talk of 'cultivate', to 'grow', to 'bring something into being'.
- Interesting your free use of the word 'God', as this seems to be something that is resisted by many who call themselves Buddhist.
- I wasn't quite clear what point you were making in quoting the Sabbasava Sutta, though the references to suffering reminded me of another possible point of difference, as in Christianity it seems to me that suffering is part of love, and you wouldn't want to be free of love.
Thanks for the response Mark - I hope it is OK to respond to responses, and here's hoping someone else joins in...
The term "meditation" is interesting. It is obviously a western attempt to capture something of the practice, but what? "Mindfulness" (Sati) is one candidate. It forms part of the Eightfold Path, and is one of the 5 "Faculties" - which is the nearest Buddhism comes to a list of what we might call virtues. It is also a "Factor of Enlightenment". Its use in the Satipatthana Sutta informs the practice popularised by Ed Halliwell et al. Etymologically (Smrti in Sanskrit), it means no more than "memory" or "bearing in mind". (Interestingly, the Theravadan monk Thanissaro believes the choice of the term "mindfulness" was entirely due to the first translator using St. Paul's "Be ye ever mindful of the poor"). It is always presented as mindfulness *of* something; never as a special mental activity.
In addition, there is "Samadhi", which is translated as "collectedness".
JP was right in that these are both aspects of cultivation (Bhavana). (The meaning is the same as "becoming" in, say, Plato.) But he was wrong to say that the Buddha only taught "Bhavana", and that meditation developed later. In the Satipatthana Sutta and several others, the Buddha instructs monks in a formulaic manner to sit down with their legs crossed, and focus on the breathing. He tells them what to do about intrusive thoughts, distractions, tiredness, and so on - just like a modern meditation class. This is variously called "Sati", "Samadhi", or Achieving Jhana (absorption), and all are aspects of Bhavana. But to say that the Buddha did not teach what we now call meditation is plain wrong. Canonical sources on request!
As for God, I might be a bit influenced by the fact that my wife is a Christian and intends to train for the priesthood - I have to be careful what I say! I can't, though, see anything in the Sutta that tells one not to do this. If that is what presents itself to consciousness, then that is what one deals with. If a thought or idea or mental state is wholesome and tends to the welfare of ourselves and that of others, then it should be cultivated. I have never met a person whose belief in God made them a worse person, ever. And there are obvious similarities between the Metta Bhavana practice, and a meditation on God's love. My guess would be that in practicing either, one is so far removed from one's petty preoccupations that it makes little difference. I might have got this theologically wrong, but Christians I know seem very supportive of the idea.
Many western Buddhists do resist this idea, as you say. But there are historical and cultural reasons for this (most of which are used to burn you at the CIF stake on a regular basis!) and, as I said, people will approach the teachings with different needs. For what it's worth, I think any Christians delving into Buddhism with a strong simplistic view of a personal creator God would do well to focus on their emotional commitment to this idea; and any simplistic militant atheists ought conversely to focus on universal well-being and compassion. With any luck their "Bhavana" would be in the right direction!
Sabbasava Sutta? Sorry, that's the trouble with a lot of Suttas. Wall of text, all needed, but one glazes over! I mean that the Buddha explicitly told people not to think about the self. The view that one is a self, one has a self, one is not or has not, etc., etc: all equally unhelpful. All "Miccha Ditthi", or wrong view. The poor western Buddhist who swaps his/her certainty that there is a self for the certainty that there is not, is still clinging to a view. Clinging is suffering. "How fascinating I am, that I dont exist in the way that the rest of you non-Buddhists think I do!"
Suffering is part of love? Well, it can be, but it doesn't have to be. We can suffer without love, and we can love without suffering. Pass me some of the latter, please...
Buddhism and Christianity, that's not the same at all!
For most people I know Don Cupitts definition of religion of ordinary life is the only acceptable version of things. The Christian church attendance and influence is and has been in terminal decline as it fails to adapt to the modern audience raised with science/technology and critical thinking.
I have been influenced greatly by Richard Holloway who suggests; 'I still think of myself as Christian, because I want to expand the envelope of Christianity to include people who no longer hold the thing as referring to a supernatural sphere, but who see it as essentially a great poetical, metaphorical narrative that tells us deep things about ourselves,'
The way Cupitt and Holloway interpret Christianity for the modern era is not the way most people have experienced Christianity and as a result have little time for it and find nourishment in music, nature and the arts for example.
'Western Buddhist' practices are far more appealing to many people as forms of self help and are perhaps in danger of being thought of as medical modalities . However, as Tim Parks proved learning to meditate is not such a bad thing when the alternative is a wire up the urethra ... Learning to develop self compassion , becoming more embodied and emotionally literate with oneself and with others can all be learned through mindful practices. I think you are wrong about the obsession with self . Once you develop more conscious self awareness it is what you do with it which can make it either a self obsessive process (which has no end) or a life affirming process which one shares with others. I think sharing mindful approaches with others is the key and that is why perhaps watered down 'Buddhist' practices have been successful in many areas of medicine such as anxiety/depression and pain management -all of which are modern hidden 'epidemics'.
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