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.