Tuesday, January 29, 2008

As both a Yoga teacher and a Dharma teacher, I feel moved to respond to two articles in the January 2008 issue. While appreciating Shambhala Sun's publishing an interview with Hatha-Yoga teacher Rodney Yee, I am dismayed, once again, to find yoga conceptualized as postural practice! To ask if one "began yoga before beginning meditating" perpetuates this misunderstanding. Sadly, Rodney only offered a half-correction when he said, "in some ways yoga is meditation." Until recently, if you spoke of "yoga and meditation" in India, you would be met with the perplexed query, "But are they two?" For millennia before the arising of Hatha-Yoga, yogis (such as the Buddha) practiced yoga primarily by meditating. Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra is a concise model of yogic practice that would be extremely familiar to any Buddhist practitioner (who practices yoga every time she takes her seat on the cushion). This is especially so for a practitioner of vipassana. Patanjali’s definition of yoga is a description of meditation. It wasn't until just about 1,000 years ago that the postures (asanas) westerners now think of as "yoga" began to be practiced as a separate form or tradition of yoga known as "Hatha-Yoga." If one practices asana without the foundation of meditative mindfulness, you may be exercising, but it is not yet yoga. I believe this point is an important one to reiterate because a more accurate understanding of the relationship of Buddhism to the larger Yoga tradition helps us to see the family resemblances as well as the differences with greater clarity and appreciation.

I am also happy to see Shambhala Sun take up the very important issues raised by the so-called "new atheists" in "Mind, Matter, or God?" I too wish these writers would engage with the particular issues raised by the various Buddhist traditions and not limit themselves to the "Big Monotheistic Three."

However, I feel I must respond to erroneous statements made by Joan Sutherland Roshi and Ajahn Amaro. Roshi opens with the assertion that "belief per se tends not to be a central concern for Buddhists." This oft-made contention was one of the factors that drew me, a "scientific materialist" to Buddhism many years ago. But all too soon, I found much disguised -- and not so disguised -- theistic thinking presented by the various Buddhist Traditions. Roshi herself falls back on a belief that is itself not universally accepted within all Buddhist traditions (the Trikaya doctrine) when she says that the atheist writers fail to take account of "all three of the kayas." I was taken aback when she further says, "... they have lots of trouble with the sambhogakaya, the realm of the supernatural, the transpersonal, a fluid world between the other two, where things don't quite have solid form yet, a realm of dreams, imagination, art and creativity. To them, this is simply the realm of superstition, and therefore they deny sambhogakaya experience which is a vital part of who we are."

I believe Roshi presents a confused description of the sambhogakaya by conflating it with "dreams, imagination, art and creativity." And I wonder how does she arrive at the notion that science denies "dreams, imagination, art and creativity"? In fact, science studies these phenomena and has repeatedly shown their naturalistic basis. Does she really believe that dreams, imagination, art and creativity are based upon the supernatural? Would she then say Buddhism requires a belief in the supernatural? Wouldn’t this then make Buddhist thought a dualistic system, setting up the supernatural over and against the natural? It is true that naturalists or scientific materialists do not accept the existence of the supernatural; but in any case, there is simply no need to postulate some supernatural realm merely to explain the existence of dreams, imagination, art and creativity!

I have found it interesting that many Buddhists (including teachers) tend to denigrate the theistic beliefs of the Big Three, and then substitute "mind" or "buddhanature" as some salve for their wounded egos wishing to assert some fundamental difference between what we "truly are" from "nature." Despite Melvin Mcleod’s insulting dismissal, (“I don’t think anybody, no matter what they argue intellectually, actually believes their subjective experience doesn’t have some nonmaterial basis…”) I do indeed believe just that. His inability to imagine the heartfelt understanding of others is yet another subtle form of religious intolerance. My spirituality rejects all forms of “supernaturalism.” It seems to me, every so-called "spiritual" tradition that valorizes some postulated "non-material realm" ends up devaluing the material! You can hear the disdain for matter when he writes, "You don't have to believe in God to think you're more than just cells." I for one, stand in mute awe that "just cells" (which in fact, as inherently empty, are not and can not be "just cells" independent of the totality, and therefore neither are we -- science and Dharma both agree on this) are indeed among the myriad natural causes and conditions of just this radiant suchness! I don’t see how this diminishes us as humans – or as Buddhas! Perhaps an outdated understanding of matter is at the base of such sentiment? In response to his apparently rhetorical question, “So is this goodness, this human nature, purely material…?” I would recommend Michael Shermer's excellent The Science of Good and Evil for a completely naturalistic, evolutionary explanation for the origination of morality that can be shown to predate religion.
Ajahn Amaro also shows the confused thinking about what science really is and how it operates that is all too typical of many non-scientists, as shown by his contention that "what makes scientific materialism, which would aptly describe the atheist view, unrealistic and therefore unappealing is the incredible conceit that sooner or later we'll have the whole thing figured out." Could there perhaps be some projection at work here? I have found many Buddhists who feel that the Buddha “figured it all out” long ago, and that we should just accept all he is alleged to have taught uncritically. Oh, they say we are not to just accept, but question the teaching, but despite the Buddha’s clarion call for free inquiry, it has been my experience that many teachers and practitioners leave large areas of Buddhist doctrine exempt from such questioning. While I totally agree with Ajahn Amaro that the Buddha encourages inquiry, and that we don’t need to figure it all out, the Ajahn's assertion that "Scientific materialists are often frightened of uncertainty and not knowing" is absurd.

Scientists work happily with the understanding that all claims to any validity for both data and theory are provisional. Here's the physicist Richard Feynman on the subject: "I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar."

Not only are scientists not afraid of uncertainty, they find life, purpose, and even a sacred truth in the uncertainty which they find lacking in religious certainties, and dogma. Here is Ann Druyan speaking of Carl Sagan: "He never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Sciences's permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe it revealed. The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good sceptic." I think it a sad commentary on our culture that this noble word has become something of a pejorative. It simply means "thoughtful" from the Greek skepscepticus and its Latin derivative, scepticus means "inquiring" and "reflective."

Again, it is ironic that Ajahn Amaro would assert that materialists (atheists) are frightened of uncertainty and not knowing when as you can see from the quote above, it has long been a common argument of the atheists that it is the religionists (particularly theists) who fear the unknown and seek palliative solace in their "absolute truths." I don't think we can deny that the appeal of most religion for most people is the definitive, absolutist answers that end up leading to the intolerance we see all around us. In light of the current troubling state of political discourse we are witnessing, where presidential candidates are being asked how they believe the “truth” of the Bible, perhaps the results of a 1999 Gallup poll need to be pondered. The poll asked "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be X would you vote for that person?" with X representing Catholic, Jew, Baptist, Mormon, black, homosexual, woman, and atheist. Six of the eight received more than 90 percent approval, with only 59% saying they'd vote for a homosexual and only 49% voting for an atheist!!!

I agree, based upon my own experience, with Ajahn Amaro when he says that Buddhadharma and Buddhist practice can help us to "greet uncertainty as the well of potential" and that "when we meet the unknown from a place of selflessness or self-effacement, then it is not frightening but rather full of wonder." And I also affirm that this is true of the scientific method as well. The very process of "doing" science requires one to accept and abide in "Don't Know Mind." In fact, I have found that it is much easier for Buddhists (including teachers) to pay mere lip service to Don't Know Mind, while abiding in a variety of unquestioned doctrinal beliefs that seem designed to give easy comfort.

I would like to conclude with the following quote from Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures, where he succinctly states the position of scientific materialism: "I think this search does not lead to complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."
This is the kind of Dharma I can fully accept and practice with integrity.

Yours in Dharma
Rev. Pobsa Frank Jude Boccio