Monday, January 6, 2014

There Is No Brad Warner and He Writes A Lot Of Books

Brad Warner’s new book has the clever and catchy title, There Is No God and He Is Always With You. And with this book as well as in a recent essay for Tricycle, titled “How To Practice With God” he shows himself to be the traditionalist, conservative, safe zen practitioner and teacher that he actually is: “hard-core” be damned.

In a blog posting earlier this year, Warner wrote:

“God does not exist, says Eriugena, because he is beyond existence. To say that he exists is to place him in contradistinction with that which does not exist. But if God is really God, then he cannot be bound by such categories as existence and nonexistence.

"This is a nice piece of logic, and I happen to like it quite a bit. But in the end that’s all it is. Because in order to agree with the logic, you have to first accept that there is something called God who is infinite and omniscient and transcendent and so on. But what if you don’t believe in that in the first place? What if you’re coming to this discussion from the standpoint that all matter is essentially dead and that consciousness is just an accident arising from the movement of electricity in the cerebral cells of animals who think far too highly of their own random brain farts?

"Pseudo Dionysus has an answer: “Find out for yourself.” You cannot answer the question of God’s existence or lack thereof through reasoned analysis. So rather than just stopping at a logical explanation of God he goes further. He says, ‘In the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge.’ These instructions sound very much like the ones the Japanese monk Dogen gave seven hundred years later and five thousand miles away for sitting zazen meditation. Dogen said, ‘Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections.’"

The problem is, as neural beings, we cannot “leave behind the senses” and to posit something, or some realm, that “transcends all being and knowledge” already assumes that which you are trying to prove. As a naturalist, I argue that such a transcendent realm doesn’t even exist, but if it did, by definition we could not know it (or ‘un-know’ it) because we are thoroughly natural animals. And, by the way, Warner and all zennies spout on endlessly about nonduality but seem to be confused about the idea because positing some transcendent realm beyond all being (or non-being) is exactly what dualism posits!

In his Tricycle essay, Warner writes: “I think the ultimate object of inquiry in Buddhist practice can be called God if we choose to call it God. Dogen Zenji, the founder of the order of Buddhism that I belong to, preferred not to name it at all. He just called it “it.” He said this “it” was infinite and intelligent, that “it” sees and knows all, that “it” is the source of compassion and truth, and that we are intimately connected to “it.” Medieval Japan had no other name for “it.” But we do. And that name is God.”

Whew! This may be what Dogen and Soto Zen believe, but it has little to do with what the buddha seems to have taught! This is more in line with Vedanta and Daoism. Repeatedly throughout his work, Warner shows he is in line with standard zen doctrine (deeply influenced by monistic Daoism) that reifies mind (as Mind) and speaks of “the Way” and now “it” as a substratum – a “source” of compassion and truth. The problem is, the buddha rejected any such substratum. Warner's description of the attributes of his "it" are no different from those posited by Vedantins about brahman, which the buddha criticized.

What zen has done – as well as many other forms of mahayana buddhism – is to reify the description of phenomena as being empty of any unchanging, independent and persistent essence into “emptiness,” described as essence, a “source” of phenomena! When adjectives such as shunya (empty) are made into nouns such as shunyata (emptiness) this is the kind of lax thinking we find.

But of course, thinking itself is seen as an obstacle to some “ineffable” understanding or “vision of reality” (more often written as “Reality” – and note the reifying symbolized by capitalizing such words as truth, reality and mind that is quite common among contemporary buddhists). This anti-thinking stance pervades much of contemporary buddhism, but it can be found in much traditional east Asian buddhism, despite the rich and varied intellectual tradition of early Indian buddhism.

Witness the following random quotes collected by Glen Wallis at his blog:

Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know. (Hsin Hsin Ming)
No thinking, no mind. No mind, no problem.  (Seung Sahn)
Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don’t know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you.  (Seung Sahn)
Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis. [Sutras are] mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more. (D.T. Suzuki)
Mindfulness is not thinking. This is one of the reasons it is so powerful. (Trevor Leggett)
It’s like this. If you start really paying attention to your own thought process, you’ll notice that the thoughts themselves don’t go on continuously. . . . Most of us habitually fill these spaces with more thoughts as fast as we can. . . . Try to look at the natural spaces between your thoughts. Learn what it feels like to stop generating more and more stuff for your brain to chew on. Now see if you can do that for longer and longer periods. A couple of seconds is fine. VoilĂ ! (Brad Warner)
And of course, that quote from Dogen that Warner shares! “Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections.”

In other words, become a vegetable (though recent research seems to point to the ability for plants to form memories!).
As such commonly repeated statements demonstrate, a particularly despicable aspect of much buddhist propaganda is a disdain of thinking. Yet despite these common pronouncements, the early buddhist understanding rejects such monist notions as promulgated by Seung Sahn above (it’s not merely that we are not in fact all one substance, there is no substance – and here, make no mistake, the word “substance” is a stand-in for “essence”). And Warner’s latching on to the “space between thoughts” as something more real (more essential) like “pure awareness” or “pure consciousness” (terms often bandied about by contemporary buddhist teachers) simply reifies awareness into a stand-in for atman.
This kind of thinking about the need to stop thinking (kind of ironic, ain't it?) or somehow “go beyond thinking” is currently favored in the mainstream mindfulness movement as well. Mindfulness is often described as “bare attention” which entails cultivating and maintaining a “non-discursive, non-judgmental, non-reactive attending to the present moment” and is, in fact, a relatively recent understanding, dating from the early 20th century. Historically, buddhist philosophical thought more generally rejected the idea of an awareness outside of all cultural and cognitive conditions. Indeed, many schools of buddhist thought would understand such bare awareness to be impossible, just as contemporary neural science shows.
Cognitive science shows us how awareness is constructed at every level. Since we are neural beings, our experience is categorized (constructed or conceptualized) from the cellular level. Categories are part of our experience from the first stage of contact, “the simultaneous coming together of a sense organ, a sense object, and a moment of consciousness that cognizes one by means of the other,” as the buddha is reported to have taught. The assertion that basic awareness carries no content or qualities of its own goes a bit further than the evidence provides and is more a Vedantin idea than anything the buddha seems to have said. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, a book I believe every practitioner should read – if for no reason other then to be challenged to look deeper into their own concepts – “Categorization is not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond” our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.”
This is important to bring to attention because there are definite effects of placing one’s faith in the possibility of such awareness. As Tom Pepper writes: “Certainly, as a social practice, convincing oneself that one has reached a state of “non-conceptual consciousness” can function as a kind of support for the ego, cathecting mental energy and helping to reify and naturalize one’s socially constructed construal of the world.  In a word, so long as one is convinced of the dual ancient and scientific power of this practice, and participates in the social institution of mindfulness, it is possible that it can serve to more fully interpellate the individual into the dominant ideology, of which empiricism and belief in a transcendent soul are powerful components…”
Read those quotes above again and you can see how such thinking has led to a generally quietistic, accommodation to oppressive social structures thoughout buddhism’s history in Asia and in many contemporary sanghas where dharma and political and social action are seen as separate realms. Even in most so-called “engaged buddhist” sanghas, the engagement is rarely of a radical critique of institutionalized structures of oppression, but more often 'band-aid' types of activity that, while perhaps helpful in the short-term, with the lack of deeper critical activity, simply serves to prop up the very structures at the root of social inequities.
Pepper continues:
“Simply put, to be able to achieve “bare awareness” assumes that there is some kind of mind or consciousness that is uncreated by, not dependent upon, the phenomenal world, and which can therefore become aware of this world “as it really is,” separate from this radically dualistic mind that does not affect and is not affected by it.  On this understanding, all of our cognitions are part of this phenomenal world, but our “pure consciousness” is not.  (Sharf refers to this as the “filter theory,” in which language and cultural conditioning “filter” or obscure the eternal mind’s direct access to the reality separate from it.)  Locke seems to have believed in such a pure consciousness (he suggests that the soul “thinks” outside of language, for instance), but it is antithetical to much of Buddhist thought, which assumes that consciousness and object arise dependent upon one another (as well as upon other conditions)."
It is a deeper engagement with, and understanding of, dependent origination, and the support and encouragement of critical thinking (thinking better), not some escape into non-thinking, non-conceptual, blissful, “pure awareness” (a pipe dream in any case) that is needed in contemporary buddhist practice if we have any hope for deconstructing the structures and ideology that are at the root of oppression and the creation of new ideologies and structures supporting greater liberation and equality for all.

Glenn Wallis' list can be found somewhere on this interesting and entertaining blog:

Tom Pepper's writing can be found both at the Speculative Non-Buddhism blog and here.

I've written more about the distorted contemporary view of mindfulness here.

And this talk by Robert Sharf is an even better critique of the contemporary view of mindfulness.