Paul Belserene (paulbel) Sat 9 Jun 12 10:04
In Tibetan buddhism here are lineages that are mostly about study (Gelug)and lineages that emphasize practice (Nyigma and Kagyu) but most would agree that the buddhist path requires both practice and study. Study, debate, and "philosophizing" to provoke, challenge and examine our assumptions about the way we create the world, and our stories about our mind. And practice so we actually have a few gaps of space in which to experience something beyond what we usually tell ourselves. without the practice, the study is pretty airy-fairy (and you see that in most commentary about buddhism by non-practitioners). Without study it's hard to progress. >>"Just sitting" has never appealed to me, but I think I get a lot of the same benefits from doing Tai Chi....<< There are many ways to synchronize mind and body. Tai Chi is wonderful, and it does confer all kinds of benefits. But. In the context of a path of mindfulness/awareness meditation it would be considered a "post meditation" exercise. (where "post meditation" is anything that happens before or after meditation. The Buddha taught forms of meditation standing, sitting, walking and lying down. And someone taught Shakyamuni how to meditate. (and there are more kinds of meditation than mindfulness awareness practice). The practice does more than confer benefits. It makes us familiar with our minds and our stuff. And to do that it needs to be somewhat more boring than Tai Chi.
Joe Flower (bbear) Sat 9 Jun 12 10:09
Two excellent posts. And I think, Paul, that you have come up with the great new advertising slogan for meditation: "Somewhat more boring than Tai Chi."
Renshin Bunce (renshin-b) Sat 9 Jun 12 10:09
That is a great observation, Paul. We finally become so bored with our own blah blah blah that the truth breaks through.
Joe Flower (bbear) Sat 9 Jun 12 10:16
It feels to me that the core of practice is noticing the boredom and coming back to it.
Renshin Bunce (renshin-b) Sat 9 Jun 12 10:49
Turning away from it is also called "daydreaming" or "sleeping," something most of us spend hundreds of hours resorting to.
Susan Sarandon, tractors, etc. (rocket) Sat 9 Jun 12 10:54
It's interesting that philosophy proper has little use for concepts that can't be described and analyzed in words, yet much in life appears to fall into that category. Words fail us, and I think this drove Bertrand Russell bonkers.
zuiko enji (zuikoenji) Sat 9 Jun 12 12:22
Chogyam Trungpa said somewhere that once you're really bored, you're getting somewhere.
Paul Belserene (paulbel) Sat 9 Jun 12 12:30
He identified two kinds of boredom: Hot boredom and Cool boredom. Hot boredom is that boredom that you encounter right off the bat (and at many other times thereafter). It's the result of the mind mightily resisting settling. It's fidgety, distracted, and a kind of torment. People who think they can't meditate often feel that way because of how awful hot boredom feels. But in fact this means that meditation is a good thing for you to do. This is hot boredom and the tools to apply are gentleness, and friendliness to oneself. And then there's what happens after you settle. The body feels more stable, more connected to the earth. There's more of an experience of spaciousness. It's not hard to rest the mind on the breath. There's a feeling of phyisical and mental relaxation and a feeling of being present. Now. And still, nothing is happening. Nothing much continues to happen. For a long time. Nothing much is ever going to happen. From time to time something arises - you touch it and taste its energy and let it go and carry on. This is cool boredom. And the tool to apply is fearlessness.
Eric Rawlins (woodman) Sat 9 Jun 12 13:36
I can't tell you how valuable I'm finding this discussion. The part about knowledge vs. practice really strikes home for me. I'm currently studying two very different disciplines: Tai Chi and classical piano. Different and not at all different. I keep finding stuff in one that I can apply in the other. And both of them are more about doing it than learning about it.
Joe Flower (bbear) Sat 9 Jun 12 14:04
Makes me think of my aikido instruction. Aikido is full of specific techniques, each with maybe a dozen basic instructions about where to place your body, which way to turn your hand at each moment, how to shift your weight. By the time you are preparing for your black belt, you know probably several hundred combinations of a given attack with various options for defense. But at the black belt level they attack really hard, none of this practice stuff. It forces you to learn the hardest thing, which is to drop all instruction in the actual moment of combat. Your practice is still in some way informed by all that knowing and the thousands of hours you put in getting it just right. But if it comes to consciousness, you're doomed.
Pseud Impaired (mitsu) Sat 9 Jun 12 14:50
Another interesting tension in Buddhism, aside from study vs practice, is "allowing" versus "establishing". That is to say, one way of thinking about practice is, don't indulge the wandering mind, come back to the breath, presence, right now. Another way, however, is to recognize that everything, without exception, is already included in the Dharmakaya, and it's equally important to realize that the struggle to tame the mind is itself something that we ultimately need to relax. Suzuki-roshi talked about both of these points, using the phrase "no gaining idea" to discuss the crucial fact that even while we try to work with and calm the mind, we shouldn't try to use that very same "gaining idea" mind to do this. It's a very tricky paradox. So, for instance, if the daydreaming mind comes up, we could say that's a deviation from presence, but another approach is to allow it to come up and check again, see it more deeply. Rather than trying to stop it, we can simply avoid "buying into" it --- the thoughts can arise, but we don't have to "believe" everything, or "run with it" as my teacher says. Interestingly, practice in this fashion can ultimately lead to an ability to literally relax the wandering mind, even though it begins with an "allowing" maneuver. We can see this contrast in many debates within Buddhism; between, for instance the Theravada which emphasize very specific practices and outcomes, to Dzogchen, which stress the "already complete" nature of mind and reality even before one begins to practice, to the tension between the slightly more "active" Rinzai Zen and the slightly more "passive" Soto Zen.
J. Eric Townsend (jet) Sat 9 Jun 12 17:41
As an athiest, I don't really have any sort of useful opinion on religion, but I do have a new one on a person's state of mind. I won't go into a lot of public detail on this but I had a severe concussion last fall and two weeks "vacation" in the hospital followed by two months not working and staying at home. During the first week I was convinced that various untrue things were true -- that I was married to someone in another state instead of the wife sitting next to my bed. They ended up knocking me under for a few days and when I came back I knew who I was but had trouble with simple tasks like feeding myself. Two months later I was driving and things were kinda back to normal. If you're interested in how the mind works and have an open mind to science, crack open some college texts on things like brain trauma or the treating of professional athletes who have had multiple concussions. Our perceptions are changed without our consent or direction in something as simple as a fall that ends with your head hitting concrete. How someone who willingly does this sort of exercise, be it through meditation with monks or practicing martial arts changes their view of the world is a really interesting question to me these days. Here's why -- I still think the flavor of iced tea changed while I was in the hospital and that I speak way too slowly. Around me, my friends say that nothing has changed, I'm acting as normal as I ever did, unfortunately.
(fom) Sat 9 Jun 12 20:38
Hey there zuikoenji -- if I may say this in an inkwell discussion, I hope you come visit the Buddhism conference one of these days.
Carol Hewitt (hewie) Sat 9 Jun 12 21:57
Norman Fischer sat with flies walking across his face. He appeared content and/or serene and/or stoic as hell. My knee hurt and I moved. Norman had asked us to sit with eyes open, which is not my usual practice, and I took a long time to find the beauty and utility of that. This time, a first time, I watched him, sitting with flies. Later we talked, and I asked him about ignoring flies and shifting away from pain. He said it was fine to shift away, but might be more instructive to sit with it for a few moments first and really experience it as a part of the whole of the moment. Thats not what he said, Its the best I can remember. What he said was simple and profound and has changed the way I deal with reality. He said to move toward a thing before you move away.
Carol Hewitt (hewie) Sat 9 Jun 12 22:18
I'm sorry - was that just totally off topic? I'm so enjoying this discussion and the talk about hot and cold boredom rang a bell and the above is what came when the ringing stopped. But I kinda forgot about the manners of entering a conversation .. palms together / hello.
Pseud Impaired (mitsu) Sat 9 Jun 12 22:59
Actually, Carol, that's not off topic at all. The story of sitting with flies (or pain, or anything else of that nature) actually fits perfectly with this tension between practice as a means to an end (establishing) and practice as a form of acceptance (allowing). The "superpower" one cultivates via the "allowing" approach is very similar to what you described in terms of sitting with flies on your face, or in pain, or with noises in the room, or even with daydreams and thoughts... one finds that samadhi can be something that you don't have to "maintain" but rather it just IS, in a way which is beyond conditions. However, the funny thing is, inevitably both approaches end up having reflections inside the other. Anyone following a "means to an end" approach ultimately has to let go of the striving mind as part of that progression. The whole point of breaking past notions of the self also has to include the idea of the self "progressing" in time, because notions of progressing include the self you're trying to "progress" away from. Similarly, the "acceptance" approach ultimately has an element of progress; one gets better at acceptance, as one lets go of habits, etc., inevitably things change, shift, get "better" and so on even if or even because you're not "trying" to attain some special state. My practice has been steadfastly in this vein, yet I can enter samadhi, move in and out of various mind states and so on if I choose to do so. I can sit with annoyances and even daydreams... yet I can quiet them too. The quality of my sitting has radically changed, and the quality of my moment to moment existence, yet at no point was I trying to "attain" anything.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 10 Jun 12 08:51
<jet>'s post made me think about how my relationship to my own perceptions, interpretations, and interior thoughts have changed as I grow older. I was confident in my memory and in the consistency of my experience, but much has happened (some of it during zazen) to lead me to question my confidence. I've seen instances where my memories were demonstrably incorrect, for instance; same with my interpretations of various experiences. Friends used to tell me I had a great memory, and I've wondered if that was ever really true, or whether I just had great confidence in memory that was actually quite imperfect. How do we know what we know? I no longer have confidence in "my knowledge." This has been helpful in losing the "gaining idea" or the "the idea of the self 'progressing' in time," it's undermined the idea of measurable "progression." A gaining idea is balanced by a losing idea, and any question of progress evaporates, perhaps the closest thing being a sense of deepening. I do wish I had your discipline, Mitsu.
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 10 Jun 12 08:56
Another host barging in on this fantastic discussion to say that if you're not on the Well and would like to participate, you can send an e-mail to email@example.com and we'll patch you in. We won't publish your e-mail address. Now to go alert a friend who's constantly thinking about this stuff.
Chris Marti (cmarti) Sun 10 Jun 12 09:06
"How someone who willingly does this sort of exercise, be it through meditation with monks or practicing martial arts changes their view of the world is a really interesting question to me these days." This is critical, I think, because the malleability of mind is a deeply important realization that come from meditation. Things, objects, are what Buddhists call "conditioned." Objects to some extent what we decide them to be and our history with them, our memories and the concepts we hold in our heads conspire to make objects what we believe them to be. Seeing this in real time is possible. Buddhists call the process of perception co-dependent origination, and it describes how the mind works at the level of perception. Of course, one of the objects that is malleable, ever changing, is the concept of self. A core tenet of Buddhism is that nothing is permanent, that everything changes. We live our lives assuming a core of self that we believe to be permanent, that stays with us over time. But as <jet> describes using the fallout form his head injury, that is just not so.
(fom) Sun 10 Jun 12 14:58
This is turning out to be a great discussion! Thanks jonl! The only time I've really sat for a long time, like 45 minutes to an hour (stop laughing, you vipassana-ites), was when I was studying with Ekai Korematsu, and the first couple of times I found it unbearably boring and just wanted to jump up and run from the room. Then I began to get that the boringness itself was a gift -- it was like a doorway into not thinking, or not being attached to thinking. Most of the time I'm all thinky-thinky so this was very nice, very freeing.
Pseud Impaired (mitsu) Sun 10 Jun 12 15:48
There was a time when practice for any amount over, say, 5 minutes, was not exactly boring, but really uncomfortable, difficult. 20 minutes seemed like an eternity, even if I entertained myself with thoughts. Somehow, however, following my rather strict application of the "allowing" principle, my relationship with time is quite different now, much less linear. So now, sitting for 30 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes (the longest I've ever sat in one go) seems pretty much the same as sitting for one second. I don't really experience it as either boring or not boring; it's not even really that different from life. In fact, for me, every moment of life is practice as well, so I don't really feel a strong distinction between formal practice and regular life. Nevertheless I still think formal practice is essential, particularly retreats, where you can do intensive practice over a period of time; somehow, it's much easier to see certain patterns that way.
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sun 10 Jun 12 17:34
From Will, an off-WELL reader: I was invited to eavesdrop on this fascinating conversation about Buddhism. Like many of you I cut my teeth on Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki and Suzuki-roshi, the Beat enthusiasts, and various Tibetans. I took instruction, went on retreats, belonged to a Zen-Vipassana sangha, and meditated. I could complete the sentence "Buddhism is..." with confidence. But for the last five years I've been living in Thailand and all of my certainties about what it is, and even if it is an "it," have been shattered (and this also goes for "religion"). Viewed from afar, your knowledge and awareness of the 2,600-year tradition seems so limited and parochial (forgive me for my judgments!). I recommend David McMahan's "The Making of Buddhist Modernism" for hearing the story of how the West (with the assist of Asians) remade Buddhism in a more palatable image. The Buddhism most of you are discussing is a new creation, a philosophy and a psychology refashioned in the 19th century. Even the idea that it is compatible with science is new. There is nothing wrong in this, but it bares only a tangential relationship to the living traditions followed by Asians. "Sasana Phut" in Thailand is an all-consuming worldview that involves metaphysical power relations and transactions with spirits, good and bad. It is a religion in the most extreme way, requiring belief in deities (most of them borrowed from India) as well as superstition and rituals. Some scholars think they can separate out "Buddhism" and "Hinduism" from the indigenous animism, but others question this dissection. I think it amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sadly, I can only appreciate the faith of my Thai wife as a sympathetic cultural anthropologist. It's been impossible to shed my critical and cynical Western worldview. But I can see the benefits (and acknowledge the drawbacks) of the all-encompassing Thai "buddhist" way of life. I go through the motions, change flowers and liquid refreshments for the images on our altar every Monk's Day, make merit ("taboon") at the temple with my wife on important holidays, and bow in respect to Brahma and Ganesha in the numerous spirit houses when I pass by. You can claim from your studies of Buddhism that these are cultural accretions and such cultural Buddhists in Thailand (as well as Japan and Korea) do not share the pure and original Buddhism you "practice" (an interesting word to avoid religious connotations). But from their perspective, your Western Buddhism is an intellectual construction and your meditation is a fad, like various forms of exercise and health foods, fated to fade away when the novelty loses its glimmer. Western Buddhism lacks cultural roots that have enabled Asian Buddhism to endure. How can you pass on a philosophy and a psychology to the next generation?
Pseud Impaired (mitsu) Sun 10 Jun 12 21:19
Very interesting contribution, Will, and I hope you'll participate further in this dialogue, as it's quite helpful to have a perspective from someone living in Thailand. What you're describing, however, is not Buddhism in "Asia" in general, but more specifically Buddhism in Thailand. The contrast you speak of isn't strictly a contrast between "Western" Buddhism and "Asian" Buddhism, but more specifically Thai Buddhism and Buddhism in other countries. I daresay Thai Buddhism is known for being among the more integrated with local animist beliefs than nearly any other regional sect of Buddhism I'm aware of. In Japan, by contrast, the local animist practices are grouped under the general rubric of Shinto, and have not, in general, been merged in with Buddhism much, at all. (I happen to be Japanese-American, so I have a particular interest in Japanese culture). Zen Buddhism as it is taught and practiced in Japan is very similar in most respects to Zen as it is practiced in the US --- although more strict, perhaps; but the biggest difference is that in Japan most "Zen Buddhists" are laypeople who do not meditate, for the most part; only monks and nuns formally practice, typically, there. Here, however, virtually all American Zen Buddhists, lay or ordained, actually sit zazen. There are a number of other divergences, of course, but Zen as it is practiced in America and in Japan is quite recognizable, up to and including the general compatibility with science, the lack of superstition, and so forth, something that has been the case through many centuries. Buddhism has an extremely broad history with many schools, sects, approaches, and so forth; perhaps the only country to have preserved nearly every variation of it is Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism has everything from the kind of extremely superstitious and ritualistic forms you describe as prevalent in Thailand to the very spare, philosophical, and non-dogmatic style of Buddhist teaching that one might characterize as being emblematic of Japanese or Chinese Zen Buddhism. I think one can hardly criticize the Dalai Lama, for instance, as being a promulgator of a "stripped-down" Western Buddhism; yet he, too, subscribes to the view that Buddhism ought to be compatible with science (he once famously remarked that if a traditional belief of Buddhism was found to be incompatible with science, the traditional belief should be discarded). Tibetan logic and debate is extremely strict, and doesn't allow for notions such as simple dogmatic belief --- "believing in" things simply by virtue of the authority of tradition is heretical to traditional Tibetan Buddhism. There's no doubt that Western Buddhism is different, of course; I don't think anyone would dispute this. But it's also the case that Western Buddhism hasn't really diverged as much as you imagine from its roots in Asia --- yet. It's certainly true that the local animist versions of Buddhism, such as Thai Buddhism, haven't caught on in the West, and never will; but that isn't to say the versions of Buddhism which have caught on are in some way inauthentic, and more than Zen or Chan Buddhism, or Dzogchen, or many other schools of Buddhism which have caught on are inauthentic. What has happened is not so much a radical change in Buddhism as it is a selection process: Westerners have taken to schools of Buddhism which are compatible with science, and there not only are such schools but they're quite legitimate, with thousands of years of history and teaching lineages. I will say that while I started this discussion with a comment about my personal scientific background, those who know me also know that I certainly do not take a purely skeptical view of many more esoteric practices and phenomena described in Buddhism. I actually practice a number of rather esoteric Asian practices, and have had a number of experiences which many Westerners might consider "impossible" given the prevailing world view in at least some parts of Western scientific culture. I daresay many Western Buddhists have had similar experiences. But while these experiences and phenomena may seem fringe from a Western perspective, Buddhists in many traditions both in Asia and here come at them from an empirical standpoint; that is to say, they don't "believe" in them, they investigate them with helpful hints from past practitioners.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 11 Jun 12 06:10
Great post, Mitsu, thanks! My understanding of Buddhism isn't as comprehensive or well-informed as Mitsu's, but my strong impression from exposure to zen and Tibetan forms through experience and study is of a fundamental, conceptually (if not practically) simple set of basic teachings that originated with the Buddha, and with which proponents of Buddhism in the east and west are familiar. To my mind, those teachings don't depend on faith or belief in a deity, and are not "religion" if religion depends on either of those. I bring this up in response to Will's note about practice as "an interesting word to avoid religious connotations." A broader definition of religion: "cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to spirituality." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion) If you define spirituality (again Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality) as "an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the 'deepest values and meanings by which people live,'" then connecting those two definitions, Buddhism could be defined as a religion. It's a semantic argument, really. Speaking just for myself, I think of Buddhism as a practice and not a religion because I think of religions as superstitions that depend on faith in something beyond human experience, and I think Buddhism works within the realm of known human experience, not depending on supernatural elements, at its core if not in all the cultural variations. Will asks "how can you pass on a philosophy and a psychology to the next generation?" I think the point of direct transmission in Buddhism was to confer the core or fundamental experience without the trappings of a particular culture.
Miguel Marcos (miguel) Mon 11 Jun 12 06:49
Will's post is interesting. My first thought in response is: Then Buddhism is "living traditions followed by Asians"? I wonder about that and intuitively think: No. In the same way Buddhism is not Western Buddhism, whatever that may be. Yesterday I read about the following about violence between Buddhists and Muslims in a remote part of Myanmar: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/11/world/asia/state-of-emergency-declared-in-we stern-myanmar.html It just doesn't surprise me. The religion (or philosophy as it may be) and its practitioners are not always of a piece. This is obviously not to say that the Buddhists in the article above are representative of Buddhists in general, either. The other point I think is worth considering is that of humility. Humility is not a one-way street, I think. I think it's not simply the responsibility of the disciple or student to be humble, the master (and the organization) should also be humble. It's a real danger to put down other traditions, old or new, unless there is something unhealthy going on in that other old or new tradition. (Witness the recent mess with Michael Roach and his organization). Ultimately, when talking about "Buddhism" (or any tradition) there's a risk of pointing fingers. Such an exercise is fruitless, it yields no useful information or knowledge. I know far less than all of the rest of the participants here so I apologize for such a long post and any mistakes I may have made in the post.
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