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. 


Unknown said...

If we already know what we are looking for, why read books on Zen at all? In other words, if reading zen texts is a matter of simply picking and rejecting, why pick up a book to find it? I mean this somewhat facetiously but also very seriously. The idea of sacred texts is prominent in many religions and is usually tied to the idea that the text has some kind of divine/spiritual authority. One might argue that keeping ancient sutras, etc central to practice only encourages the notion of exclusive spiritual authority and revelation (which I think run counter to most naturalist approaches).

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Thanks for commenting, but I can't say I am sure I understand your point or question!

Who says I am "looking" for anything in particular in reading ANY book (zen or otherwise)? Don't you read for enjoyment? Also, if you note what I wrote, I find it helpful to engage with texts to help me in my own thinking: if I find myself agreeing with a passage, I question what it is I'm really agreeing with. And conversely, if I find myself disagreeing, I check to see what I'm in disagreement with and sometimes find it is more a projection than what is actually written. I read with an open mind and as if in dialogue with the text.

As well, where did I ever say anything about "sacred texts?" My post is about a contemporary zen teacher/author and one of his books on meditation practice.

As for the "ancient sutras," even the buddhist tradition does not see that buddha's insight as "revelation" as does the Hindu tradition regarding the Vedas, the Torah, the Bible or the Koran as do Judaism, Christianity and Islam respectively. In fact, the buddhist traditions rejected the very idea of "revelation."

Finally, even if the buddhist sutras were considered "revelation," that doesn't mean I have to accept it as such. I can read any of those texts as text with critical faculties working.

As I'm not sure of your point, I don't know if my response actually is relevant to what you write, but it is what I'm thinking as I read your comment.

Unknown said...

I see that your post focused on modern zen books and Steve Hagen's book in particular, but it seemed to me that the original question and your response was relevant for any zen text that might be used in relation to contemporary practice. I.e. Ancient sutras and modern Zen paperbacks often contain supernatural speculation, so how do we as modern practitioners deal with that?

"Who says I am "looking" for anything in particular in reading ANY book (zen or otherwise)? Don't you read for enjoyment? Also, if you note what I wrote, I find it helpful to engage with texts to help me in my own thinking"

I agree that reading to engage is useful (whether we agree or not with what we are reading); however, we're not talking about novels that are simply for enjoyment. We're talking about books that purport to "instruct". Have you ever read the Da Vinci Code to your students?

"As for the "ancient sutras," even the buddhist tradition does not see that buddha's insight as "revelation" as does the Hindu tradition regarding the Vedas, the Torah..."

Notions of enlightenment and sacred texts in Buddhism are very close to notions of revelation in the religious traditions that you mentioned. The Pali canon certainly has a quasi-sacred status to many as do the Mahayana sutras. Books by modern Zen masters can also be treated this way.

My overall point was simply to question the need to engage with books/sutras at all in relation to practice.

Anonymous said...

Frank Jude,
I very much like your criteria of (1) practical usefulness, (2) extraction and re-interpretation as well as (3) love of practice and imagery. I find it very helpful and will model myself on you concerning this. Recently I reread the only critical book on Zen existing on the German book market where I found a wonderful psychological interpretation of Zen practice without the exaggerated ontological claims that are often made like being one with the universe and so on. Here one finds a nice application of criteria (1) and (2) with much useful things that survive.
Your extracts from Steve Hagen’s book are very nice examples also demonstrating the usefulness of your criteria. The back-peddling concerning the teaching of anatman is something that seems distinctive for Zen Buddhism. Big Mind or the Self (be aware of the capital S) say hello. Among others, it seems to be the anxiety felt because of one’s own mortality that revived the atman idea in Zen Buddhism. As naturalists, we simply cannot accept this regarding the currently available knowledge. All things are contingent and impermanent. I think the idea of anatman is utterly naturalistic. As Tom Clark puts it in his wonderful article on meditation: “The first-person meditative experience of the dropping away of ego, should it occur, is to experience what third-person science shows to be the dependent arising, and non-arising, of the phenomenal self. In this way, the scientific-physicalist and meditative-experiential perspectives, both empirical in different senses, end up with the same conclusion: the very core of self – the experienced locus of all our concern and striving – is a mutable, perishable, dependent phenomenon, just as the Buddha taught (http://www.naturalism.org/buddhism.htm)”. Some Theravadans, for example Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, were intellectually honest as well as naturalistic on this matter as am I: “We can conclude by saying that if you understand anatta correctly and truly, then you will discover for yourself that there is no rebirth and no reincarnation. The matter is finished.” I couldn’t have said it any better.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...


"Have you ever read "The Da Vinci Code" to your students?"

No, because I think it a suck-ass book! I HAVE read to them from other fiction (Thomas Ligotti, Paul Auster, Dashiell Hammett among others) as I see the potential for teachings in many places -- not just buddhist texts. I've read from non-fiction as well, including Antonio Damasio and Bruce Hood.

It is generally understood that the awakening of the buddha is not/was not what is meant in theology as "revelation," no matter how 'sacred' the texts might be seen by some followers. It was in this context I was speaking when I spoke of the buddha's insight as not understood as 'revelation' as -- for instance -- the Koran is understood to be 'revealed' knowledge or the Vedas 'revealed' to the rishis.

I see plenty of useful psychological and existential information even in the suttas without feeling the need to exempt them from critical thinking. I find some of the stories funny, intriguing and psychologically sophisticated and thus 'relevant' to my practice. So, I read them.

I still see much in the buddhist tradition amenable to a naturalistic worldview, so buddhist texts are valuable for study, inquiry and application. They are not privileged in being exempt from criticism, reinterpretation and sometimes rejection.

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...


Yes, I love the audacity of Buddhadasa when he says, "Make no mistake, you come from the womb once and you are placed in the ground once." His take on 'rebirth' as the arising of self-contraction on a momentary basis rings true to what neuro-science seems to be saying as well!