Tuesday, November 5, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Ten)


Previously, I’ve put forward the argument that while taking responsibility has been shown to be generally good and psychologically healthy, it is not moral responsibility that is actually taken. Despite the intuitive feeling and tendency to strongly identify with one’s “character traits” as one’s “authentic self,” claims of moral responsibility that open one to punishment or reward cannot be founded upon such “feeling.” And yet, not only do some advocates of moral responsibility say we take moral responsibility for the character you happen to have, some say you gain moral responsibility because you literally “make yourself.” It is to that claim, I wish to now turn attention.

The Renaissance philosopher, Pico della Mirandola, in “The Dignity of Man” says that god has granted “man” a supernatural power of unlimited self-making. He writes: “Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have places thee, shall ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature…. thou mayest fashion theyself in whatever shape thou shall prefer.” Such positing of acausal free will requires the belief in a supernatural soul. Buddhists, allegedly rejecting such an essence, must face the implications of the anatta teaching and reject such a belief.

While rejecting god, Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, also settles onto a miraculous assertion when, insisting that our existence precedes our essence goes on to assert that we are “self-conscious, self-creating ‘being-for-itself’ with the free power – indeed, the necessity – to make ourselves; we are different in kind from entities with their own given natures, the unfree ‘being-in-itself.’” (2011, 115) Sartre argues that humans alone are uniquely self-creating, and that we make ourselves unconstrained by natural causes and natural processes.

To this, the buddhist and naturalist must ask: “who is doing the making?” The positing of “self-making” infers that there is already a self that is doing the making. Infinite regress follows! Or, if it’s a miraculous process (as with della Mirandola) or if it defies natural understanding (as with Sartre) then there is nothing that can be said about it and it by definition cannot fit into a naturalist system of thought or worldview.

And yet, there are avowed naturalists, like Daniel Dennett, who argue that one does indeed create and unleashes an agent who is oneself, and therefore should be held morally accountable. Not denying that  there is indeed a sense in which we do indeed make ourselves, it is also undeniable that we start with different resources and abilities which we neither chose nor created for ourselves!  If you have a loving and supportive early family life, an excellent education, good genetic dispositions and financial security, you are likely to create a superior character; someone starting with the opposite extreme is likely to fashion a ‘self’ with serious deficiencies and flaws. It remains unclear that you deserve reward and the other deserves blame.

Others say while we may not be “self-made,” we “choose ourselves” through the various choices we make. But even here, to speak of choices free of influences and conditions makes no sense in a naturalistic worldview. Yes, we all make choices, but we come to make those choices with differing capacities of rationality, self-efficacy, different temperaments and experience. It remains unclear how one becomes morally responsible for choices that have been conditioned by conditions out of one’s control.

Once again, Bruce Waller puts it succinctly and clearly: “… when I make my own choice – a choice that shapes my further character development – that choice is not made in a vacuum, nor is it the product of some miraculous power that transcends my causal and social and genetic history (at least naturalists cannot claim such transcendent choices). For the issue of moral responsibility, the key self-making question is whether it is fair to punish or reward for the results of choices that are themselves the product of vastly different conditions that ultimately were not the product of choice.” Some may argue that it is fair, but they must them offer convincing reasons to accept this, which I’ve not heard, yet. In fact, I believe that the weight of evidence shows that it is not fair.

The Dhammapada is replete with verses that extol “self-cultivation.” Many distinguish between “the foolish” and “the wise.” Verse 85 reminds us:

Few are the people
Who reach the other shore.
Many are the people
Who run about on this shore.

It should be clear to any practitioner that we do shape ourselves “as a fletcher shapes arrows; as carpenters fashion wood; as irrigators guide water.” In important ways my practice has shaped my life and has led to me being who I am today. But it should be equally clear to every practitioner that the “shaping” never transcends the causal history that set us on the trajectory we have followed. Zen Naturalism is not fatalism: our decisions, evaluations, and actions play a hugely important role in shaping who we become. We, and our practice, are part of the shaping process, not simply pawns or automatons. But this “self-shaping process” (including our own values and choices) among individuals proceeds upon differences in capacities, opportunities, circumstances and situations that were not created by the individuals. Thus, if one practitioner shapes the character of an arahant, and another remains tethered to "foolishness"; if one yogi shows fortitude and commitment to her practice and another falls into “laziness,” these differences are based upon differences in resources and capacities that were not created or chosen by the individuals. How then, does the one morally deserve praise and the other blame?

I end the current post by arguing that the system that asserts moral responsibility is unfair in another, perhaps more pernicious way. It is a system that blocks and forestalls any deeper inquiry into the causes that shape our values, our choices and our behavior. As soon as we say someone is morally responsible, we stop investigating the factors that underlie their behavior: from the “personal” factors such as cognitive capacities, differences in self-efficacy, and locus-of-control to “external” factors including specific circumstances, as well as cultural, social, economic, and political influences. The status-quo goes unquestioned. 

Waller, Bruce, 2011: Against Moral Responsibility. Cambride, MA: MIT Press

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Nine)


It’s been a while since I last posted to my series, “All Beings Are Without Blame.” If you haven’t followed the argument laid out so far over eight previous posts, I invite you to do so. If you have followed my argument, you may wish to refresh your memory as to what is meant by “taken responsibility” as opposed to “moral responsibility."

Those who believe that it is moral responsibility that is taken argue that people must therefore be coerced into taking such responsibility, as Daniel Dennett does, because he says, “… there will always be strong temptations to make yourself small, to externalize the causes of your actions and deny responsibility…” Therefore, he adds, “If you want to be free, you must take responsibility.”

But the only real responsibility that  can be “taken” is “take-charge responsibility” and no coercion is required. As Bruce Waller says, “Take-charge responsibility is not the price we pay for freedom, but is instead a vital element of living freely and exercising free control. It is very satisfying to take responsibility for my own life, my own decisions, my own projects, my own health care choices.”

Yes, it is very satisfying to do so – much of the time. However, it is often enough not very satisfying at all! It can be distressing and burdensome. When there is knowledge and confidence to act efficiently and skillfully, exercising control feels quite satisfying. It has been shown that patients with such knowledge and confidence who exercise take-charge responsibility for their own health care decisions recover faster and are more compliant with following their health-care regimens. I think it safe to say that this plays into the success many people have when they undertake some “alternative” medical regimen even if it’s been shown that the so-called therapy is objectively ineffective!

The benefits of “take-charge responsibility” have also been studied in long-term care situations (such as nursing homes) when patients have been asked to care for plants or kittens. Such patients exhibit greater resistance to infection, less depression and greater participation in community activities. And factory workers who have more control over their environment, and are given the opportunity to have greater involvement in the company show greater job satisfaction, are less likely to suffer depression and have fewer days lost to illness. But… if one is placed in a position of having to make a big decision without the appropriate knowledge and ability to make such a decision, then such control and responsibility becomes a stressful burden.

Those who have a strong sense of what Alfred Bandura calls “self-efficacy” find great satisfaction in exercising take-charge responsibility in making decisions and carrying on projects. They do not need to be forced to take responsibility; they welcome it! Better than thinking people need to be forced to take responsibility would be to create the conditions of solid, grounded knowledge, self-confidence, sense of self-efficacy in which people happily embrace and enjoy taking responsibility. Any parent knows that when children are young, they seek taking on responsibility – sometimes to the consternation of their parents for activities they are not developmentally ready to perform! My three-year old daughter loves to make her own eggs in the morning. Her mother and I have helped create the conditions where she knows what to do, understands what she can do (now, she can do every part of the operation but light the stove), and feels confident that she can do it, and so she embraces the opportunity. And to be sure, if she drops an egg, that doesn’t make her morally responsible! What she has taken upon herself is “take-charge responsibility.”

And this is important to distinguish and point out because when take-charge responsibility is confused with moral responsibility the conditions that favor the effective taking of take-charge responsibility are actively denied! When we hold people morally responsible and blame them as individuals for their bad acts or character, we are willfully blinding ourselves to the forces that shaped them. If we look closely – as did the buddha – it becomes quite clear that we are blaming and punishing people for acting as they do but such behavior is in fact the product of their unfortunate conditioning. And again, make no mistake, this is quite the willful avidya or ignoring and not seeing. Dennett again: “Instead of investigating, endlessly, in an attempt to discover whether or not a particular trait is of someone’s making – instead of trying to assay exactly to what degree a particular self is self-made – we simply hold people responsible for their conduct (within limits we take are not to examine too closely.”

Whew! Dennett, and those who argue alongside his form of compatibilism are literally telling us not to investigate how one’s character was formed, and to take care not to examine how responsibility actually functions. And our whole society does this quite well! For our punitive, retributive form of “justice” that holds people morally responsible and possessing free will, we must not look too closely. But it is imperative that we – as a society – begin to look seriously and deeply into the cultural, social, political and psychological conditions that foster and impede the exercise take-charge responsibility.

There is plenty of evidence that even those handicapped by conditions can learn, with the proper support, to make more skillful decisions, act less uncritically impulsive and develop a greater sense of self-efficacy. But certainly, nothing at all is gained by forcing someone to accept responsibility if they are not able to effectively; in fact, we are contributing to their suffering by doing so. The better response is to offer restorative and rehabilitative opportunities for such a person to grow in self-efficacy and the desire to exercise skillful control.

Bruce Waller strongly condemns the conditions that lead so many in our society to lack the sense of ‘self-efficacy’ and freedom: “We aren’t born free, but must develop the capacity for freedom. And we are in chains, but they are the chains of substandard education, hierarchical authoritative religions, standardized jobs that require obedience rather than thought, and a consumer culture that encourages and rewards mindless conformity.”

Not seeing the causes of duhkha is duhkha. Seeing the causes of duhkha, we see the path to ending duhkha. The buddha argued against those who said duhkha was a matter of fate, the will of the gods or random. There are causes and conditions. Recognize and understand the causes and conditions, and then change them. That is the way to “freedom” and the challenge, as we’ve come to see, is that this is by necessity a collective movement. The very reason we must act as a collective is the same reason all beings are without blame: there are no atomistic selves independent of causes and conditions that can be deserving of blame or praise.


Dennett, Daniel, 1984: Elbow Room. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Dennett, Daniel, 2003: Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking

Waller, Bruce, 2011: Against Moral Responsibility. Cambride, MA: MIT Press



Friday, June 28, 2013

On the "Gen X Dharma Teacher Gathering"


For those unfamiliar with the Gen X Dharma Teacher Gathering that took place earlier this month at Deer Park Monastery, please read the summary here.

On the surface, such a gathering seems simply and only positive: what could be better than teachers from the various buddhisms gathering to dialogue with one another? But there are so many questions and issues that simply remain transparent for such participants, too many unquestioned assumptions that the “shadow” appears in the very light the conference was meant to shine.

First: the opening paragraph states that the conference was for “Western teachers – of any recognized Buddhist lineage that offers refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha…” As a Gen X conference, the invitations were limited to said teachers from “recognized Buddhist lineages” “for whom teaching is a major life direction” born between the years 1960 and 1980. Someone born in 1960 would be 53! Seems a bit old to be considered "Gen X!" That's still well within the "Baby Boomer Generation."

This question of "lineage" and being "recognized" or "authorized" is one that gets little superficial attention. I would hope younger teachers would be questioning this very notion rather than seemingly unquestioning the very structure of "lineage." I recently had a personal experience around this when a few months back, Michael Stone passed along in an email to me that he was being asked by some elder zen teachers who had only just heard of me, “Why wasn't Frank nominated to come to the Gen X meeting?” (I am so outside the radar of contemporary mainstream, ‘consensus buddhism’ that the fact I’m too old to be invited had they even  known about me made me laugh when I read that question). The other questions asked bear some relevance to the first point I wish to raise: “Who has the right to “recognize” whom or what is “legitimate?”  How is such "right" granted? And by whom?

These zen teachers – rather than reaching out and asking me directly their questions – went through Michael, which at best seems a breech of their holy “right speech” ethic! Michael, as a friend of mine, was put on the spot by these zen elders, and forwarded their questions to me. What prompted their questions was their having become aware of a dharma training program I am offering two-dozen students that had only just begun! Keep in mind, this is a multi-year program requiring a commitment that will be for over five years, and this was only in its first week! You’d never know from the urgency of their questioning!

Their questions: “Who is he? Can he empower dharma teachers? Why not a mentorship program? Why dharma teacher? It's a 2000 year old lineage that isn't perfect but... What lineage exactly? Does he have a teacher now? Do you know the students? Are they ready? Why is this the first I have heard of Frank? How come the lay Zen teachers associations have not heard about this? Are these going to be Zen teachers?”

Can you hear the mixture of proprietary investment and status preservation? So, who determines whom is “recognized?” Who determines what “lineages” are recognized? When zen started out, it was a bunch of upstarts not recognized by the mainstream contemporaneous buddhist schools in China. The fact that they made up a lineage going back to the buddha was clearly an attempt to create a sense of legitimacy, and over time the zen school became rather powerful and dominant.

The story of Hui-neng’s dharma transmission in a “secret” meeting with his teacher one night (for me, such “family secrets” are a red flag alert) was created by Shen-hui, a student of Hui-neng in yet another upstart movement designed to wrestle institutional power from an established lineage holder, Shen-hsiu. Shen-hsiu was acknowledged as one of the great Ch’an masters, honored by court and populace alike. He was the great leader of the Lankavatara School, which later came to be known as the Northern Ch’an and was, according to all contemporary records, one of the most eminent priests of his time.

The first mention we have of Hui-neng is found in the Leng-chia jen-fa chih where he is simply listed as one of the eleven principle disciples of Hung-jen along with Shen-hsiu, Fa-ju, Chih-hsien and seven others. This same text states that Shen-hsiu transmitted the Patriarchate to P’u-chi, and that along with P’u-chi, Shen-hsiu had three other principle heirs: Ching-hsien, I-fu, and Hui-fu. While this Ch’an of Shen-hsiu and his disciples was enjoying great popularity and prestige, a then unknown priest from Nan-yang, Shen-hui, intent upon promulgating a new school of his own launched an attack upon the Ch’an of Shen-hsiu, and after years of struggle, eventually carried the day. One of his methods was the disparagement and undermining of Shen-hsiu. The Platform Sutra is a wonderful example of propaganda, even if it contains some cool teachings.

Despite the self-congratulatory nonsense about the “different views” expressed at the Gen X conference, there is a ringing hollowness in the proclamation that “No one voice was dominant. No one tried to take over and make it their show.” This hollowness is the shadow peaking out over this movement to create and maintain a hegemonic monopoly on what they might refer to as the “true dharma.” The “one voice” that dominates is the “one voice” of contemporary mainstream, ‘consensus buddhism.’ Where are the current “upstarts” looking to create truly new expressions of the dharma – maybe even a new dharma? The real questions are being asked outside the accepted, “recognized” lineages as it has been true throughout buddhism’s history. 

I don’t know if I can find the words to express the dismay I felt when I read “And so it seems that a kind of template has been set…there are already several groups and projects forming from the retreat that will in some way shape the direction the dharma takes going forward.” Can they not hear the egoic, self-inflating tone of this statement? Of course not, because real dialogue would include questioning the decisions made before the conversation even began. All the differences in opinion and perspective expressed in such gatherings take more for granted than they acknowledge and are nothing compared to what a real dialogue would require. While I don’t agree with every argument they make, the only real "dangerous"  and vigorous questioning that dares to investigate what "goes without saying" that I see regarding buddhist teachings and practices is at speculative non-buddhism.

The second point I’d like to raise is the blindness evident in the following:

“Gone are the days of the culty and isolated rockstar dharma teacher beyond question — or at least the Gathering’s participants hope them to be gone. Those who would assert that they or their lineage alone hold the sole keys to the Buddha’s truth would have been very out of place in the midst of those of us who gathered at Deer Park Monastery for our sessions of conversation and interaction.”

Are they insane???? The contemporary commodified buddhist “marketplace”  couldn’t be any more obvious to me if it hit me in the face! Oh, they “hope” such days are gone! Good one, that! From the cult of personality around Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama to the newest ones being created around Lodro Rinzler, Brad Warner and Noah Levine, (among others) I see “dharma rockstar” trappings in the packaging, in the way they brand themselves, and how they market their image to a degree not possible before social media and the ubiquity of advertising and public relations. It’s actually hard to resist this momentum!

That this statement could be expressed in the same year we became aware of four scandals (Geshe Roach, Eido Shimano Roshi, Genpo Roshi, Sasaki Roshi) alone in the buddhist world strikes me as avidya (ignore-ance) plain and simple. And, do I need to point out these were “authenticated, recognized” teachers? 

Laying my cards on the table, not that it matters or is in any way necessarily relevant to the discussion, but for the record, I was ordained as a dharma teacher by Samu Sunim on July 4th, 2007, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. By 2008, I declared myself independent of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, the order established by my teacher. There were no secret dharma transmissions or empowerments. I'm a nobody, that way. In 2009, I established the Empty Mountain Sangha in Tucson, Arizona. I cannot foresee us ever being "recognized" or accepted by the growing cultural institutionalized western buddhism as evidenced in this and other conferences such as  the one held by Buddhist Geeks. If you find yourself passing through Tucson, please feel free to come and sit with us. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The False Consensus Effect and Some Consequences


My opinion, my conviction, gains infinitely in strength and success, the moment a second mind has adopted it.
Novalis

In the aftermath of the shocking revelations of scandal such as we’ve seen all too much in the buddhist and yoga communities lately, one salient point is often ruminated upon and just as often with great anger: why do so many practitioners “enable” the abusive behavior? How is it that people can know a guru/teacher is engaging in inappropriate and damaging behavior and not speak up? And most hypotheses revolve around psychological causes and conditions. Here I’d like to look into another potential cause that metacognition studies (involving thinking about how we think and perceive) offer: the imagined agreement of others and the exaggerated impressions of social support.

It should be obvious that what we believe is heavily influenced by what we think others believe. One typical example I’ve often found humorous is the office collection for a co-worker’s gift to celebrate the birth of her new baby. When asked for a donation towards the gift, most of us try to find out how much others have given and then decide our own contribution accordingly. I’ve often wondered what operations lie behind the first person’s calculations!

Within limits, the tendency to be influenced by the beliefs of others is valid and justified. What others think and how they behave provide us with important sources of information about what is correct, valid or appropriate. However, our ability to effectively utilize this information is compromised by a systematic defect in our ability to accurately estimate the beliefs and attitudes of others. We tend to exaggerate the extent to which others hold the same beliefs we hold, and because of this tendency to think our beliefs are shared by others these beliefs are more resistant to change than they would be otherwise.

In a form of projection (which we usually think of in Freudian terms as the projecting of unwanted or distasteful characteristics onto others that one is unaware of possessing themselves) we tend to also attribute to others characteristics that we do know we possess onto others. Thus, we tend to over-estimate how many people like what we like. This tendency has come to be called the “false consensus effect.” 

The false consensus effect refers to the tendency for people’s own beliefs, values and behavior to bias their estimates of how widely such views and behaviors are shared by others. For example, fans of country music think that more people like country music than those who dislike country music; yoga practitioners tend to think more people practice yoga than those who do not practice. Perhaps relevant to the “guru scandals” that have come to our attention, one university experiment involved asking students if they would be willing to walk around campus wearing a sandwich-board sign with the message “REPENT.” There were fairly substantial percentages of those who would be willing and of those who would not. After agreeing or declining to wear the sign, the students were than asked to estimate the percentage of their peers who would agree or decline. As the false consensus effect would predict, the student’s estimates reflected their own choices: those who had agreed to wear the sign estimated that 60% would do so while those who refused thought only 27% would agree to wear it!

Note, the false consensus effect is of a relative nature; it is not that people think their beliefs are shared by a majority of other people, but simply that people’s estimates of the commonness of a given belief is positively correlated with their own beliefs. It is not that religious fundamentalists believe most people share their beliefs, but rather their estimates of the percentage of religious fundamentalists in the general population can be counted on to exceed similar estimates of their more secular peers.

Why should this be so? Research seems to point to the mediating role of a host of cognitive and motivational variables. For example, one motivational factor stems from our desire to maintain a positive valuation of our own belief or judgment. If we have a strong emotional investment in a belief we tend to exaggerate the extent of perceived social support for the belief. Interestingly, research shows that people are particularly likely to exaggerate the extent to which attractive, respected and well-liked people share their beliefs.

A major factor behind the false consensus effect that we can definitely see in cults and cult-like communities (such as we’ve seen in the AnusaraDiamond Mountainand Mt. Baldy communities to name three of the more recent and infamous scandals) is the more generalized tendency to selectively expose ourselves to information that supports our beliefs. Conservatives read conservative periodicals and watch Fox News and thus receive support for their conservative political ideology; religious creationists read creationist literature rather than contemporary evolutionary biology and thus bolster their creationist beliefs. With the fracturing of discourse found on the internet, where we can choose to follow blogs and websites that support our views, it takes a concerted effort and willingness to seek out opposing viewpoints. 

Besides selectively exposing ourselves to a biased set of information relevant to a particular belief, we are also exposed to a biased sample of people and their views and beliefs. Liberals associate with other liberals; yoga practitioners associate with other yoga practitioners. It is a fact that similarity of beliefs, values and habits is one of the primary determinants of those with whom we associate. In fact, this is consciously valued, celebrated and suggested in the buddhist and yoga community as “the company of like-minded people” or sangha. And while such association does indeed have great benefit, if such a sangha grows insular and isolated, it can lead to the cultishnness we also often see. The importance of “transparency” for the health of a community becomes quite clear and pronounced when we come to understand that if we become insular in our association with others, the false consensus effect will lead us to see our beliefs as “common” because they are shared by “everyone we know.”

There are other factors that contribute to the false consensus effect.  One more I would like to touch upon here is the mechanism that involves the resolution of the ambiguities inherent in most issues, choices, or situations. Before we decide what we think about some issue, we have to be clear about the terms. For instance, if I’m asked for my opinion about Christianity, it would be helpful to know what the term  “Christianity” refers to: the Pope and CatholicismBilly Graham’s Evangelicalism or  Radical ChristianityKnowing what is meant will not only help determine my own opinion, but will also influence my estimates of the preference of others.

With the false consensus effect seen to be as prevalent as it is, the question becomes why aren’t our misconceptions about what other people think corrected by the feedback we receive from others? Shouldn’t we expect others to let us know if our beliefs or assumptions about them are wrong? While in the most bizarre and erroneous cases we can count on being called out, the fact is that generally such corrective feedback is not as common as we might think. And this is yet another factor that leads to the cult-like, group-think behind the silence that allows dysfunction to breed and persist in closed communities. To some extent, cult members don’t get the corrective feedback from others that their beliefs may be wrong, irrational and harmful or that certain behaviors may be dysfunctional, because they are associating with those who share their beliefs, values and behavior. However, even more telling, it has been shown that even when we do cross paths with those whose beliefs and attitudes conflict with our own, we are rarely challenged. People are generally reluctant to openly question other people’s beliefs.

I should clarify that it’s adults who are generally reluctant to do so; children tend to be brutally open and honestly revealing. Just think: as an adult have you ever gone to the restroom while out at a social gathering to find your zipper undone or some green salad remnant  obviously caught in your teeth? Yet I’m sure we can all remember how gleefully our grammar-school friends would chant and point out our open fly or the bit of food caught in our teeth!

I can speak from my experience as a naturalist that when I lecture at yoga centers and hear some bit of new age, magical thinking, it’s taken me years to get over my reluctance and discomfort in offering contradictory information and evidence. Our reluctance to voice our disagreements has been repeatedly demonstrated in psychological research: people generally try to avoid potential conflict with others. Such reticence is exacerbated in yoga and buddhist communities where any hint of dissent or critical thinking is often met with silence or charges of “wrongful speech.” In fact, in many contemporary communities, “right speech” has become a kind of yoga/buddhist political correctness, marginalizing and devaluing any real difference of opinion.

The emphasis on “right speech” amplifies the cognitive tendency we already possess to avoid the unpleasant emotions produced by disagreement and criticism. In social situations, people feign agreement to head off conflict and disharmony. Social psychology tells us that we tend to like people who are like ourselves and so the flip side of this, that if we express disagreement we risk being disliked and ostracized, keeps us from speaking up.

The buddhist and yoga communities tend to be extremely uncomfortable with disagreement, conflict and criticism. And again, such discomfort is a more particularized example of a general tendency shared by us all. In everyday life, the hesitancy to speak up often has only minor consequences. However, there are situations where this tendency can contribute to great harm for individuals and for the community.

Psychologist Irving Janis’ work on “Groupthink” shows that even members of highly cohesive advisory groups whose task is to suggest effective courses of action can become paralyzed by the concern with maintaining apparent consensus within the group and will sometimes censor their personal reservations to accomplish it. Janis quotes Arthur Schlesinger’s account of the Bay of Pigs debacle where Schlesinger confesses to “having kept so silent during those crucial discussions in the Cabinet Room…. I can only explain my failure to do more than raise a few timid questions by reporting that one’s impulse to blow the whistle on this nonsense was simply undone by the circumstances of the discussion.”

Over and over again, whenever a scandal is finally revealed, the questions immediately arise as to how such behavior had been allowed to continue. When the John Friend scandal broke, it became clear that many senior teachers had known of his breech of ethics; when the tragedy at Diamond Mountain was made known, it became clear that many had known of Lama Christie’s apparent magical thinking, irrationality and narcissistic disconnect from reality and her husband Ian’s instability and aggressive tendencies; and when it was finally revealed that Sasaki Roshi was a sexual predator over the course of 50 years or more it was also revealed that many knew about his despicable behavior all along!

Because of the cognitive tendencies that are than exacerbated by yogic and buddhist teachings that can be twisted to inculate a culture of repression of expression and diversity of opinion, the failure to express dissent is all too prevalent and has led to severe and painful consequences. Because of the culture of silence and the false consensus effect, our beliefs and behavior all too often lack healthy scrutiny and debate. This lack of critical discussion leads us to exaggerate the consensus for our beliefs and behavior. Bolstered by such a false sense of acceptance and social support, our beliefs may strike us as more valid than is actually the case, and they become ever more resistant to logical and empirical challenge.

I wish to end by expressing my gratitude and appreciation to those, like Matthew Remski, who have taken on the generally thankless task of speaking up and speaking out. May such critical thinking and compassionate inquiry continue to grow within the contemporary buddhist and yoga communities so that perhaps we can finally correct (and compensate for) some of our cognitive errors.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Reading Texts


Recently, a correspondent wrote to me asking:

“How do you deal with the fact that nearly every work on zen buddhism available on the market is either infected by new age thought or riddled with information a naturalist can hardly be happy with? What's your criteria (for) which books are a good read? Do you extract the thoughts that are sound for naturalists or do you reinterpret the infected thoughts so that they can be embraced by naturalists? What's your motivation to deal with zen buddhism even if so many ideas inherent in it are so unsound for naturalists?”

These are good questions, and need to be addressed by any practitioner professing to reject any supernatural or transcendent ideas or teachings. In fact, if you were to look into the pages of any buddhist (zen or other) book that I’ve read, you are likely to find lots of marginalia where I am in argument with what is written! So why do I read such material? I could say I’m a glutton for punishment, but actually, what I find is that engaging with other perspectives keeps me on my toes; engages me in questioning what I truly believe; and sharpens my critical thinking skills. But yeah, it’d be nice to read a book now and then that truly captures a naturalist perspective.

In direct response to my questioner:
1.   My criteria is whether the topic seems interesting to me; whether the author is someone I’m familiar with or not (if not familiar, I may read to see what they offer); and whether or not I can find something useful for practice and/or teaching purposes.
2.   I both ‘extract’ ideas and perspectives that I believe are in harmony with a naturalistic perspective where possible, and also find myself engaged with some creative re-interpretation of other material so as to be in harmony with such a perspective.
3.   My motivation to remain involved in zen buddhism despite so much of it being at odds with a fully naturalist perspective has to do with my love of the practice as well as some of it’s imagery that is either naturalistic or easily framed as such. In honesty, part of the reason is most likely due to the fact that it’s the tradition I trained in and found – despite all else – most simpatico!

Now, I teach two Mindfulness Yoga classes a week here in Tucson, and the format is a short reading (3 – 5 minutes) followed by a short dharma talk (5 – 7 minutes) where I either draw out a point made in the reading, add my thoughts and responses to the reading, or critique the reading. I find many students surprised by this last response; they seem to assume if I’m reading it before class I am ‘endorsing’ the teaching! Just this past Sunday, it was an example of the latter that, in partial response to my correspondent’s question, I offer here.

For quite some time (as the readings are always short, it may take a year or more to get through a book) I’ve been reading from Steve Hagen’s Meditation: Now or Never. I find it generally useful for my purposes of setting intention and for developing a theme for class. Most of his book (and his other writings) falls into the category of being good for extracting ideas that do not conflict with a naturalist perspective. However, like most zen teachers, he does fall into idealist, transcendent, super-mundane ideas (even if he isn’t aware of doing so, and most likely would reject the suggestion that he does).

For instance, on Sunday, I read the following from his chapter “It’s Not About Getting Things Done”:

Meditation is not about throwing things out of your mind or trying to make your mind blank. For starters, this is impossible. If you try to throw things out of your mind, how will you throw out the final thing – the willful mind that has been busily throwing things out?

Now, this first paragraph is a good example of a teaching in line with naturalism. I think it important to address the common misunderstanding that all meditation has a blank mind, free of all thoughts as its goal. Despite this, there are reams of texts from the zen traditions that actually do assert a mind free from thought as an ideal!

Hagen continues:

Meditation is not about doing anything. It is pure attention without grasping, without interference. It is simply paying attention.

Here’s where he begins his step into hogwash. Paying attention is doing something; not grasping or interfering is an action and relationship toward experience. Attention is a mental formation (citta-samskara). Many teachers and practitioners fool themselves into thinking (ha!) that “non-reactive attention” is not itself a mental activity/stance and chosen relationship to other mental activity! This is a subtle positing of an atman.

He writes:
If our will is directed toward any object or purpose – even toward meditating correctly – then we’re not in meditation. We’re doing something.

But isn’t paying attention doing something? Actually no – not if it is pure, simple attention devoid of hope, fear, dread, or expectation. Bare attention, in fact, is the only activity that does not involve doing something.

This whole passage reflects the influence of Taoism upon zen. Whatever one thinks of Taoism, whatever poetry one finds there, it is not what the buddha taught!

The buddha is said to have described his awakening as “gradual” and specifically says “I directed my mind to the understanding of…” what we would call rebirth and karma. It is plain to see that the buddha’s meditation involved willful direction of attention and analysis.

The buddha also apparently rejected any idea of “pure awareness.” “Bare attention” is a mental activity, and you can see the related brain activity in an MRI. Such terms as “pure awareness” can only make sense if you posit a transcendent, independent self. This is the back-peddling from the radical implications of anatman we see in much of the later Mahayana buddhist thought (whether called ‘original face,’ ‘true nature,’ or the more traditional terms ‘buddha-nature,’ or ‘tathagata-garbha’ these are simply the reappearance of an atman in new garb, but it shouldn’t fool anyone.

In the above passage, Hagen posits a “pure awareness” devoid of characteristics. That’s a formulation of the absolute – and to be sure, Hagen often uses capitalization of words like “Reality,” “Truth” and “Awareness” as in a sentence where he writes, “Actually, this is how things are in Reality.” Watch for those capitalizations! They are semantic signifiers of the Absolute that, by definition, is Super Natural and Transcendent. All rejected by zen naturalism. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Eight)


At this point it’s worthwhile to address the question, “If there is no-self; if there is no absolute, acausal free will; if all is determined and conditioned, than who takes refuge? Who takes the five precepts, the foundational ethical training of buddhism? What does it mean to "be" or "take responsibility" if there is no apparent base for moral responsibility?

I’d like to begin by investigating those who argue for taking moral responsibility; question if doing so is possible, and then explore the possibility of there being other understandings of what it means to take responsibility. Harry Frankfurt has argued (with gendered bias) that, “To the extent that a person identifies himself with the springs of his actions, he takes responsibility for those actions and acquires moral responsibility for them.” He even goes on to say that “the question of how the actions and the identifications with their springs is caused is irrelevant to the questions of whether he performs the actions freely or is morally responsible for performing them.” (1975, 122).

This would mean that your past is irrelevant; once you take responsibility, the responsibility is yours by virtue of identifying with and accepting the responsibility as yours. Taking responsibility is seen as a key element of agency. Who can deny the desire to be an agent, taking responsibility for our actions, and not being under the control of others? But is taking responsibility a justification of moral responsibility? Is it true that I am morally responsible because I take responsibility for my actions?

As I wrote about in my previous post, taking responsibility has been shown to be healthy – physically and psychologically. But it is essential to distinguish two very different forms of “responsibility” because if we understand the deeper implications, I argue that we will see that only one form of taking responsibility actually can be taken and is the only form beneficially worthwhile to take! Moral responsibility cannot be taken, and the benefits we see from taking responsibility do not even apply to moral responsibility. In fact, the assumption of moral responsibility is an obstacle to taking responsibility!

The difference between moral responsibility and taken responsibility comes down to some very basic, and quite obvious observations, despite the wide-spread confusion. You can take responsibility for many things of varying degrees of importance. I can take responsibility for teaching a course on meditation, planning a  trip to the coast, for my financial planning, and for my health care decisions. But such “taken responsibility” is profoundly different from the moral responsibility that would open me to justified praise and blame. Perhaps the trip to the coast is a dismal failure, with cancelled and delayed flights, followed by storms that prevented anyone from ever getting into the ocean. If I were to say, “I took responsibility so I deserve blame for the dismal failure of the trip,” I think it clear someone would argue that given the air travel fiasco and the severe stormy weather, all of which was out of my control, I don’t deserve blame.

I am arguing that there’s really no difference between this and the failure of the course on meditation that I took responsibility for being a complete failure because I never advertised it and no one showed up! Yes, it was my responsibility and I royally messed up, but I am not to blame because my procrastination, forgetfulness and laziness are all part of my genetic inheritance from my father, as well as the poor parenting skills of my parents (which themselves were conditioned by their genetic and environmental conditions). Now, you may dispute that genetics – or even upbringing – has anything to do with my ineptness and insist that I am morally responsible and deserve blame. Fine, but the point I am making is that such a claim is still different from the claim that I took responsibility. The fact is, we can agree that I took responsibility and still differ over whether that makes me morally responsible or not. This clearly shows we are talking about two radically different concepts.

Just so it’s clear, the same is true regarding praise. Perhaps my course went splendidly! If I say, “I took responsibility for the course, so I deserve special credit,” you can now respond, “Well, you took responsibility for it, but it was Rachel, the yoga studio manager who did all the work publicizing it, getting the room set up and taking the registration fees. You don’t deserve any special credit and you are not morally responsible.” OR, you could say, “Yes, you took responsibility and you worked your ass off getting the word out, making sure the room was prepared and did a magnificent job of handling the administration. You certainly have benefited from your parent’s strong work ethic and you are quite fortunate to have the genes for such leadership behavior.” Again, the point of this example is simply to emphasize that we are talking about two different concepts when we talk about “taken responsibility” and “moral responsibility.”

This is a distinction ignored by those, like Daniel Dennet and Harry Frankfurt, who see a “need” to conflate moral responsibility with taking responsibility. However, the responsibility that one can take, called “take-charge responsibility” by Bruce Waller, is similar to the “role” responsibility described by H.L.A. Hart: “A sea captain is responsible for the safety of his ship…. A sentry is responsible for alerting the guard at the enemy’s approach; a clerk for keeping the accounts at his firm... whenever a person occupies a distinctive place or office in a social organization, to which specific duties are attached to provide for the welfare of others ot to advance in some specific way the aims or purposes of the organization, he is properly said to be responsible for the performance of those duties. (1968, 212)

This “role responsibility” is categorically distinct from moral responsibility. The sea captain is role responsible for the safety of her ship. She does a great job, but that doesn’t mean she is morally responsible and deserving of special praise. She is lucky to have benefited from exceptionally good training, and she has a top-notch first lieutenant who keeps things running smoothly. Again, you may like to argue that she is morally responsible and deserving of special praise just because she does fulfill her duties well, regardless of whatever conditions contribute to her stellar performance. For the moment, setting aside whether the claim that she is morally responsible is correct or not, the simple point I’m making here is that claiming she is morally responsible is an additional claim, beyond the question of her role responsibility. We can agree that she is role responsible and still disagree as to her being morally responsible.

Waller’s “take-charge responsibility” (1998) designates a broader taking of responsibility that includes taking charge of one’s own plans and projects and life as we see in the buddhist tradition of taking refuge, taking precepts and other forms of vow-taking. Just as the sea captain has role responsibility for her ship, you can have take-charge responsibility for your life values, goals, actions, practices… your life. It is possible that someone else could do a better job at managing your life. I often suspect that in my case it is most probable that someone could do a better job of it! But, I “take-charge responsibility” of my life because doing so is something I value and most times I enjoy exercising. As the Bhagavad-Gita says of sva-dharma, I would rather exercise my take-charge responsibility badly than turn it over to some life-manager who could run my life better! 

Just as the sea captain can take “role responsibility” without being morally responsible for exercising that role responsibility well or badly, I can assume “take-charge responsibility” for my life and not be morally responsible for whether I do well or not. Maybe I do indeed exercise my take-charge responsibility wonderfully; But I was lucky to have a loving and supportive family, a solid and advanced education that emphasized critical thinking skills and self-sufficiency, as well as a genetic disposition toward being a chronic cognizer and a strong internal locus-of-control. Whether or not I take responsibility well, it does not follow that I am morally responsible. Perhaps I am, but the very fact that there are cases where take-charge responsibility is clear while moral responsibility remains unclear shows that these are two different kinds of responsibility and thus one (take-charge responsibility) does not necessarily imply or establish the other (moral responsibility).

At this point, it is obvious that proponents of moral responsibility may argue that "if you took responsibility for setting up the classroom for the lecture, you are to blame if you fail to do so.” I’m arguing that that is not so. However, I end this post by simply stating, once again, that if you believe that take-charge responsibility results in moral responsibility, that assertion will require further justification because it is clear that there are cases where take-charge responsibility does not involve moral responsibility. Those who argue that taking responsibility justifies moral responsibility are confusing two different types of responsibility. Their argument is thus wrong or lacking in some essential aspect that would justify the claim.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 1975. Three Concepts of free action. Aristotelian Society Proceedings Supplementary 49: 113 - 125.

Hart, H.L.A. 1968. Punishment and Responsibility. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Waller, Bruce N. 1998. The Natural Selection of Autonomy. Albany: State University of New York Press

Thursday, January 17, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Seven)


Physicist Leonard Mlodinow writes about a wide range of experiments on what has been called automaticity that demonstrate the enormously significant role the unconscious plays in our behavior. As he points out, science has now confirmed what advertising and public relations firms have known intuitively: decisions are largely made by factors outside our awareness. Ironically, automaticity theorists suggest that such automaticisty turns out to be very highly adaptive. The mind operates most efficiently, they argue, by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious.

Mlodinow points out that the human sensory system sends the brain about 11 million bits of information per second, yet our conscious mind can handle only about 50 bits per second! This means there’s an enormous amount of processing before we can even become aware of what has been sensed. One estimate is that we are conscious of about 5% of our cognitive processes with the other 95% going on “under the radar” of our awareness. We’d be paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of information if it were all consciously available to us!

Yet, this raises the question, “if our brains are making our decisions for us outside conscious awareness so often, how can we be held morally responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals who aren’t in full control of their decision-making faculties?”

One argument as to how we can still hold people morally responsible is to distinguish between regulative control which would be the control that allows us to choose our direction in life through making open choices from among truly open alternatives (for which there is no real evidence and which buddhism and naturalism denies) and guidance control which is a sort of control that doesn’t require open choices: I may not have any choice about my path, but I can be held morally responsible for how I walk down this path. (This is a similar argument I’ve heard from some contemporary buddhists who do not seem to fully comprehend the more profound implications of anatta and dependent origination). Epicetus used this argument, interestingly, in the context of fatalism; the fates controlled your destiny, but the details as to how we responded to our fate was up to us: “For this is your business, to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to another.”

John Martin Fischer offers a contemporary naturalist version. From his perspective, I could not have been a physicist because I could never understand calculus, I couldn’t be a hockey player because I’ve never learned to ice skate and I couldn’t be a high-wire aerialist because I’m afraid of heights. I did not exercise regulative control in becoming a yoga/dharma teacher because it was the only path open to me! However, according to his argument for guidance control, how I carry out my teaching role is up to me: I can do it with good humor or with a stern gravitas; I can do it with sharp precision or with an air of improvisational whimsy. I can teach with gusto and √©lan or with slacker-laziness. However, under what grounds can we justify isolating guidance control from the same causal factors that shape all our behavior? My tendency towards more good humored, improvisational whimsy was set – and most certainly not chosen by me – by myriad factors of genetics, environment and life experience, so why should I be blamed or praised for it?

To be absolutely clear, there are truly important benefits from having guidance control. For instance, it has been shown that while cancer patients cannot control the fact they have the disease, those who feel they have some control over the treatment choices available to them suffer less depression and anxiety. Research has shown that elderly residents of long-term care institutions, who generally feel that they’ve lost much control over their lives, often suffer depression, lowered immunity and a higher death rate, but when given the opportunity to exercise control over the care for plants, or even have control over the furniture arrangement in their room have lowered rates of depression, better immune functioning and lowered mortality rates.

But, there is no justification for supporting moral responsibility provided by guidance control. Yes, if someone handles their illness with grace and dignity they will experience greater well-being psychologically, and those around her will respond with respect, admiration and kindness that they most likely would not to a more curmudgeonly patient, but to say that someone who exercises a more healthy and skillful guidance control should be held morally responsible for doing so is another question completely. That someone has the inner resources to handle illness with such dignity and another patient does not because of factors they have not chosen means that they cannot and should not be held morally responsible.

If we cannot be held morally responsible, and thus are without blame, how can we speak of “taking refuge” and “taking” or “receiving” precepts? What does it mean to practice “atonement” if we are not morally responsible? I hope to begin to approach these questions in future posts.

Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012)

Epicetus, Enchiridion 17

John Martin Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will: An Essay On Control, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994)