Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ego's Bad Rep

In spiritual circles, ego has a bad rep. It's something one is supposed to get rid of. "If I could only control my ego, I'd be enlightened," people often think. And so there are numerous strategies to do this.

This seems to me to put the cart before the horse. Ego, after all, is trying to make us bigger -- trying to make us as big as we really are, that is to say. And how big is that? Infinite!. But it doesn't know how to go about its project. It's looking at you from the outside and imagining if others admire you, that will mean you've  made it.

People struggle and struggle to deny the ego's ingenious strategies to make us bigger. But what really solves the problem is discovering how big we already are -- how big our true selves are, not just the image the ego is concerned with. When we discover this, the goals of ego seem shallow and not that interesting. It doesn't mean that ego goes away necessarily; it just doesn't matter that much anymore.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

In the centerfold of the Summer 2017 catalogue of the Buddhist publisher, Wisdom, there is a whimsical drawing of a bear and raven in dialogue. Their interaction is reported as follows:

"Black Bear came to a meeting late and said, 'I'm feeling frazzled after dealing with my cubs. What if I don't feel compassionate?'

"Raven said, 'Fake it.'

"'That doesn't seem honest,' said Black Bear.

"'It doesn't begin with honesty,' said Raven."

There is no attribution, so I suspect that this is a traditional Buddhist teaching story.

But whether this particular story is traditional or not, in my experience it does represent an important attitude in Asian Buddhism: behave not based on what you are but on what you aspire to be. Or, in other words, fake it 'til you make it.

When I was twenty-two, I lived in a Buddhist temple in Japan and this attitude came up again and again. Once, I was told to write a letter to my mother telling her how grateful I was for everything she had done for me. Like most 22-year-olds, I had my share of resentments toward my parents. Giving thanks to them for what they had done for me while omitting what they had done to hurt me seemed dishonest.  Black-bear like, I complained, "But I don't feel grateful." "That doesn't matter. Do it anyway," my teachers replied.

It actually caused me pain to be false to myself in this way. I don't know whether Asians experience this or not. But I think most Westerners, contrary to Raven, would say that it does begin with honesty. My main teacher was Adyashanti, a third-generation American Buddhist -- that is, his teachers were all American-born. And he definitely stressed honesty -- to the extent that it may have been his most important teaching. 

Why is honesty important? Well, for one thing, it takes a lot of energy to lie and keep track of your lies and make sure that they have had the intended effect -- which is usually to either enhance your ego's standing among other egos or to make sure, at least, that it isn't diminished. If you are using your energy in this way, you are wasting it, and it's running counter to the realization of oneness that a glimpse of egolessness will give you.

So I'm with Adya on this one. That said, I do still tell social lies. If someone invites me to dinner whose company I don't enjoy, I don't tell them that. I usually, like most people, find an acceptable excuse for bowing out. Perhaps this is a cop-out, but I can't see a reason to hurt someone unnecessarily.

With intimate relationships, though, and, most especially with oneself, honesty is essential. Lying in those circumstances will bring one further and further away from the Truth one is seeking.When I find myself lying in those situations, I try to remember to ask myself, Why did I do that? What was I hoping to gain?  And, most importantly, Why am I so lacking in trust -- in myself, in the universe, or in a loved one -- that I felt the need to try to manipulate through lying?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

And One More Time: There is NO Separate Self

Recently, I heard an interview with an engaging, modest man named Robert Wright, who has written a book called, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. 

One thing I notice when Westerners write books about Buddhism, though, is that they rarely mention the most important aspect of enlightenment, maybe even the only aspect that really matters: one realizes that the separate self doesn't exist.

(I really want to emphasize this because some people imagine that the separate self somehow disappears.
And so they are looking for evidence in behavior in order to decide if a given teacher is enlightened. But the fact is that the idea of a separate self exists in the mind; and once it is seen through, one knows that it never existed in the first place.)

So, as usual, this fundamental fact was ignored in the interview, which, I think, means that Wright doesn't know it.

I decided to look for a review of the book and found a thoughtful one in yesterday's New York Times, by a Antonio Damasio. But the lack of clarity about the lack of a separate self results in this conclusion to his piece:

 "The self appears fragmented, in daily life and in meditative states, but subjectivity does not break down. It never disappears, or we simply would be unable to observe the fragmentation in the first place.

"I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?"

Whose view would it be then, indeed? The emptiness that we actually are is doing the looking (and at the same time IS the objects it is looking at).

Emptiness is form
Form is emptiness
Emptiness is NOTHING BUT form
Form is NOTHING BUT emptiness.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Comparison with others is never helpful

I've noticed that comparing oneself with others is never helpful, especially in spiritual matters.

Comparison come in lots of packages. The most obvious is, "I'm better (more enlightened, have a better spiritual path, etc.) than you." But just as unhelpful, though it disguises itself as humility sometimes, is "You are better (more enlightened, etc.) than I am. If I were more like you, I'd be a better person."

In fact, the second kind of comparison can be more insidious because something in us often reacts to our putting ourselves down this way, and we end up with a projection that looks something like, "That person thinks s/he is so much more enlightened than everyone else!"

Comparing ourselves to a beloved spiritual teacher is even more tricky -- just because it is so natural to do this. It seems that if we could just have the experiences our teacher has had, we would be just as enlightened. So we often ask the wrong questions of him or her. "How did that experience of illumination come about?" "How did you learn to live in the eternal present?" We want cues -- a road map. And if our teacher claims to have followed a road map that doesn't feel like the right one for us -- or doesn't feel like one it is possible for us to follow, it can be distressing. But it can also turn into the teaching we really need.

I remember once one of my teachers was saying that this, that, and the other was true. (I don't remember the details anymore.) I finally raised my hand in exasperation and said, "That doesn't seem right to me."

She replied, "Well, what's the problem?"

It was obvious to me what the problem was: here was a teacher who was the embodiment of what I wanted, but what she was saying seemed wrong.

My teacher kept probing: "Why do you think you have to see things as your teachers see them?"

"Well, they are enlightened, and if I want to be enlightened, then it seems I need to learn to have their view."

"But you see things as you see them and therein lies the enlightenment."

And so it was.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The provisional nature of life and thoughts

I had a stroke in February and my left side was paralyzed. I got to the emergency room quickly and, after some imaging and tests, was administered this miracle drug that reverses the effect if your stroke is caused by a clot (as mine was). It seemed a miracle that suddenly I could move my arm and leg again! But just as I was celebrating, two women entered the room, at least one of whom was clearly a doctor. She said, "Well, that's the good news. But the bad news is that you are bleeding  in your brain so we need to give you a drug to reverse the effect of the one we just gave you, so that you can clot again." I said, or at least thought, "You're kidding."

But no, they weren't. "We talked to Dr. X and Dr. Y by phone and they agree that this is necessary."

I asked if I would then be paralyzed permanently. Probably, they said. And if I said no, would I die? If the bleeding continues, quite likely you could, they said.

I was in turmoil. Would I rather be paralyzed the rest of my life or dead? But then, I came to the conclusion  that I'd lived a long, fruitful life and if it was over, that was all right. I had nothing left it was imperative to do before I died. I would choose that over lifelong paralysis.

As it turned out, they'd misread the Cat-Scan -- what they thought was bleeding on the image was only a shadow. But I didn't know that then. And because I didn't know what, I had the opportunity to discover something.

I've wanted to say that I discovered I'm not afraid of death, but that doesn't feel exactly true. What I discovered, more exactly, is how provisional our thoughts are, and how determined by our physical and environmental situation. At the moment when I had to choose, everything I usually think is important fell away. My mind only was thinking about the dilemma in front of me.

So actually, "I am, (or, am not) afraid of death" makes no sense. The "I am" statement is just the way we create our psychological selves by imagining that we are identified with a thought we have and that it continues over time.  

Friday, September 9, 2016

Secret versus Open Spiritual Teachings

I've been thinking about secret versus open paths. In some traditions, especially those with roots in Asia, the path is secret -- that is, outsiders are not permitted to know the details of how one progresses spiritually. The knowledge is considered esoteric, and it is thought that preparation is needed to understand the teachings. If people are not prepared spiritually, they will misunderstand what is being taught and perhaps even be injured by what they hear. They may also speak in a misinformed way to others about the teachings, which could therefore be corrupted.

Others seem to believe that having a secret teaching gives it a special power. For example, my mother, a follower of Yogananda, had a secret mantra. It was supposed to have been given to her specifically to address her unique spiritual needs.

In Rinzai Zen, where koans are employed, it is considered unwise to comment on the solutions to koans, as the answers are not to come out of discursive reasoning but out of one's deeper being. I remember once seeing a book of solutions to koans. A friend who read this book was sure that he now knew the meaning of all those koans. But in the Zen tradition, only the Zen master is capable of seeing whether the student has grasped the teaching embodied in the koan. Publishing the answers violates the premise that a koan is not an intellectual puzzle but a way of breaking through discursive reasoning to a deeper truth. Therefore, a Western student who does not agree to keep material confidential can run into trouble. It is said, for example, that Yasutani Roshi, dismayed that when his student, Philip Kapleau, included transcripts of Yasutani's interviews with his students in the back of his seminal book, The Three Pillars of Zen, cut him off. (I remember reading those interviews when I was young, with tears in my eyes, because I too wanted what was being pointed to.) The interviews, Yasutani had thought, were only for Kapleau's research purposes. The argument against such publication is that every student is different, and what the Roshi said to each is therefore different. Such conversations cannot be taken as a map of how to proceed, or as a statement of what is ultimately true.

But Westerners have trouble with secrecy. There are many sanghas in the West that have "Open" as part of their name. The American teacher, Adyashanti, for example, calls his sangha "Open Gate." The invitation is to everyone, and while seriousness is encouraged, no commitment is required. Anyone can come, anyone can listen to what he has to say, and anyone can pass on to others any or part of what he or she hears. And, simply due to sheer numbers, Adya no longer meets with students privately but only at satsang, so every student hears what he says to every other student. Some might apply to you; some not. Adya apparently trusts that things will sort themselves out: people will take what applies to them, and discard the rest.

As Westerners, we have been brought up in the tradition of openness, in the belief that if all views are aired, that which is true will ultimately prevail. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," is a quotation widely attributed to Voltaire. Whether or not Voltaire actually said this, the spirit of this freedom is certainly alive in Western world, and one definitely not shared with other all cultures. The culture clashes with Muslims in Europe, which sometimes have turned violent, are a case in point. 

To Westerners, secrecy means you have something to hide. So when Eastern paths are transported to the West, they often have to adapt to the West's openness. I have never been a part of a secret spiritual tradition, and maybe there is virtue in that approach of which I am unaware, but, whatever the virtue, I don't think such traditions can stay secret in the age of the internet. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Dangers of Shakti

I've written a bit before about transmission of shakti, or spiritual energy. What I want to focus on here are the dangers of transmission to the wrong person at the wrong time.

One way (and perhaps the only one) in which transmission is similar to hypnosis in that the recipient has to be open, has to have a welcoming attitude of trust. But sometimes, the recipient may not realize what s/he is opening to. In fact, the thought-wall that we use to protect our sense of a separate self is pierced in a transmission. The results can be blissful, startling, disruptive, confusing, or almost anything else. This is so because they depend on both the relationship already established with the transmitter and on the recipient's karma and how that karma reacts to being met with the pure, unmediated life energy.

It's not necessary, unfortunately, for a transmitter to be egoless. Some people learn to use this energy for power over others. I'm not going to discuss these situations here except to say that they happen. What I want to talk about is how transmission can cause confusion and pain even when the transmitter has the best of intentions.

Transmission can seem so easy for the transmitter. The transmitter knows that they intend to do – to open the other person to how the divine, unmediated by the mind, feels. But if the recipient has never known this before, the energy might not be interpreted this way. The result might be an extreme attachment to the transmitter in one form or another. It could come in the form of, you brought me bliss; no one else can do for me what you do, and now I love you forever. Or it can come in the form of some kind of repulsion or fear because the transmitter has upset the personality's balance of defenses. Sometimes, the chaos that ensues can last a long time. So one rule I think is important is, If you know how to transmit, don't do it unless you are willing to stay in the person's life to make sure it turns out the way you hope it will.

The life energy that gets transmitted can also be transmitted through other channels – through sex, for example. But sex requires physical touch, and generally people know it is coming and can decide whether they are up for it or not. There are also lots of societal rules about whom to have sex with. It's not like that with transmission. You can gaze at a person in a certain way – maybe even someone you have never seen before -- and suddenly they are in another dimension and it has happened so suddenly that they have no clue what happened to them.

Of course, that's part of the reason it is so effective: the defenses that are normally present aren't there because the transmission was unexpected. Suddenly, the connection between two people is more intimate than would ever happen in sex; sometimes the two people literally become one as boundaries disappear. How the mind interprets what happens can vary, but initially the mind actually can't get a good grip around it, and it is not until the mind learns to relax and let it happen that moving into deeper dimensions of consciousness starts to be truly fulfilling.