This is a glorious takedown of unquestioned dualism in the sciences that, naturally, has to fall back on the experience of meditation to make its point:
[C]onsider that in certain intense states of absorption – during meditation, dance or highly skilled performances – the subject-object structure can drop away, and we are left with a sense of sheer felt presence. How is such phenomenal presence possible in a physical world? Science is silent on this question. And yet, without such phenomenal presence, science is impossible, for presence is a precondition for any observation or measurement to be possible.
The idea that there’s a world “out there” and a mind “in here”, and we just haven’t figured out how they’re connected yet, is the most irrational religious belief in the secular world. The world actually does not make sense if you believe that, and it does if you let that idea drop away and see for yourself that it isn’t true. Yet Science™ plows ahead assuming it to be the case.
I am pretty interested in this model:
Treeleaf Zendo is an online practice place for Zen practitioners who cannot easily commute to a Zen Center due to health concerns, living in remote areas, or childcare, work and family needs, and seeks to provide Zazen sittings, retreats, discussion, interaction with a teacher, and all other activities of a Soto Zen Buddhist Sangha.
The videos are pretty wonderful.
I’ve never written in to a magazine before, but I couldn’t resist this invitation:
Do you practice Buddhism alongside another religion? If so, how does that work?
Here’s what I sent them:
I was born, raised and educated Jewish, but I first experienced religious feelings when I encountered Buddhist teachings. In college, I reconnected with my Judaism, but I also developed a relationship with a Buddhist teacher and community and began my meditation practice. I’ve maintained that practice, but I’ve also become more enmeshed in Jewish community; in fact, my wife is about to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, and our family observes the practices and rituals of a Jewish home.
All along, I’ve wondered how to be a Buddhist Jew. I’ve had trouble integrating my Buddhist practices and beliefs into the culture and worldview of Judaism. Recently, though, I’ve realized I might actually be a Jewish Buddhist, not a Buddhist Jew, and that makes a big difference. Jewishness provides my culture, which I share with my family and community, and that culture and its practices point towards spiritual truth in many ways. But if my religion is my core beliefs about the nature of the universe, all beings within it, and the way for all beings to live harmoniously, then I’m a Buddhist, and Jewishness is the cultural source of my mindfulness practices.
We’ll see if it gets printed!
This overview of Nichiren Shu by a head priest impressed me the same way yesterday’s link about Pure Land did. I know even less about this tradition of Buddhism, and I was again struck by its openness, simplicity, and humanity:
The main practices of Nichiren Shu include chanting the mantra Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (translated as “Adoration to Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma”), reciting various chapters from the Lotus Sutra, and reading invocations and prayers. It is a wonderful feeling when we meet at the temple to chant together, but anyone can chant anywhere at any time. Chanting quietly in your mind while riding the bus is okay. Daily morning chanting in front of the home altar is recommended, but not required.
Did you notice that “sitting meditation” is nowhere in that list? It’s so interesting to me that the Buddhist tradition — which was literally created by sitting meditation — has diversified so much that some strains of it no longer emphasize that practice. I was reading some excerpts of early Zen texts last night that were explicitly critical of sitting meditation as a way to realization.
I’m not giving up my sitting practice anytime soon, but I continue to be intrigued by the power and simplicity of these Japanese Buddhist chanting practices. It must be because I was born into a tradition — rabbinic Judaism — that also condensed its spiritual practice into repetitious chanting of texts.
The thing is, in a standard weekday of Jewish prayer, the chanted liturgy is about 22,000 words long (according to my calculations), and that doesn’t even include any Torah readings that might be part of services. There have been times in my life when I’ve found that practice fulfilling, but most of the time it’s just too much to sustain, especially if I’m trying to closely heed and internalize the meaning of the words.
Something calls to me about the idea of chanting the same few words over and over again. It seems less superhuman, more acknowledging of what life is really like. That, as I understand, is similar to the rationale in Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism about why chanting is “enough,” and lay people don’t need to sit for hours of meditation.
I really want to incorporate more mantra chanting into my practice. I’ll be interested to see whether some Hebrew texts emerge for me that might suit this practice, or whether these Japanese ones will start to feel organic to me over time.
This introduction to Pure Land chanting practice by Dharmavidya David Brazier is so gentle and humane.
Pure Land practice is simple. It doesn’t require that the practitioner be learned in Buddhist thought or exceptional in moral virtue, meditation, or spiritual discipline. It is suitable for those with busy lives, and it is as suitable for those who are struggling with self-destructive habits or feelings of despondency, anger, sadness, or confusion as it is for those who are full of joy in living.
I remember learning about this practice in college and chanting “Namo Amida Butsu” for a few minutes once, but I don’t think I got why it was interesting. Now I do, thanks to this article.
One of my most bedeviling obstacles in practice is intrusive and repetitive thoughts early in the morning. They’re usually about work or other stuff I have to get done that day. This morning, they were there while I brushed my teeth, they came back a few times while I sat zazen, and then they came on strong in the shower. So I started chanting, “Namo Amida Bu, Namo Amida Bu, Namo Amida Bu,” and before long, that chant was all I was.
There’s a lot of magical reincarnation stuff in this interview with Tenzin Palmo that strikes me the way it usually does: tantalizing and interesting but not exactly convincing. My tendency is to just leave that stuff be and appreciate the luminous faith behind it. But one question and answer in here stopped me cold with its compelling logic:
How is the dharma’s understanding of merit different from thinking that if I’m a good girl in this life, then I will go to heaven?
But we don’t want to go to heaven. We want to be reborn so that we can keep going and realize the dharma so as to benefit other beings endlessly. It’s a very different thing. We’re not collecting merit scores for ourselves. We’re making merit so that we can be reborn in a situation where we can really live to benefit others, and ourselves, again and again and again, more and more and more every time. We are in a position to deepen our understanding to be of genuine benefit to other beings.
This is what it sounds like to take the Bodhisattva vow seriously. It’s a much better argument than heaven, if your goal is to settle the rational mind and orient it toward being a good person.
Rather than staking everything on Pascal’s wager in one shot, karmic merit in this life is an intermediate step. But earning merit in this life is necessary to be reborn well and keep earning merit. And you have to do that, because there’s an infinite number of beings to help, and an infinite amount of benefit one can bring them. Admitting that one lifetime is not enough enables sanity. Accepting that one still must do one’s best each time keeps one oriented toward the good.
I’ve long had issues reconciling my Jewishly religious feelings and my Buddhist ones. Somehow, they still feel unresolved. I still feel a polarity between them, and I’m still pulled back and forth.
Zoketsu Norman Fisher was one of the first Jewish Buddhist teachers I ever met, learned from, and sat with, and he always makes it seem so natural. I don’t know why that naturalness doesn’t stick with me, but I guess hearing or reading him tell it over and over again is the next best thing:
I do believe in the benevolent protection of God. Not in the sense that good things will always come to good people whom God loves, but in the sense that something always happens, and that what happens is what it is and not something else, and that therefore there is a special virtue in it.
I feel this, too, and I would never deny it. It’s the particulars laid on top of God that give me pause.
Fisher says, and I agree, that part of the problem is that the longstanding design of Jewish religion optimizes for group cohesion and survival, which can come at the expense of personal spiritual experience. No Jew at any point on the religious spectrum would deny this; in fact, I hear this problem preached about most fervently from Orthodox Jews. The reason Fisher teaches Jewish meditation, in addition to Zen, at a dedicated institution is to help compensate for this spiritual lack:
So this is where the meditation comes in: it is easy access to God-encounter, through encountering your own body, breath, mind, and presence.
What he won’t be baited into saying is that this is more important than religious observances for their own sake. This is the kind of thing my desire for Zen urges me to say: Abandon the complexities and cognitive dissonances of formal religion and just do the practice! But Fisher has a deft way of sidestepping that problem by showing that wherever God is, that’s also where the practice is.
Brad Warner takes a big risk by publicly tunneling under the idea that the only moral way to live is with complete, uninterrupted commitment to obvious acts of service:
[F]rom a very young age I was aware of the idea that a truly moral person must give absolutely everything in order not to fall short of what the virtuous life requires. I felt like a real scumbag for enjoying my job.
I relate to this deeply. I can identify two different societal pressures on how I feel about the morality and virtue of work. On one hand there’s the liberal ideal that one should commit as much time and energy as possible to acts of service. On the other there’s the capitalist ideal that economically productive work is a virtue, and there’s no upper limit to how much of it you Should™ do.
The really tricky part is that these pressures both apply, but they aren’t exactly connected, and they can easily come into conflict. The result is an insatiable societal demand for more sacrifice.
But isn’t it the case that one should give of oneself in service of others? Warner brings a teaching from Dogen to show that this moral demand is much more radical than its conventional interpretation:
“Both receiving the body and giving up the body are free giving,” Dogen says. To Dogen, even being alive and dying are examples of free giving. Even the mere fact that you are alive and someday you will die are ways that the universe gives itself to the universe.
The way to truly serve all beings is to begin from the understanding that you’re always giving. Warner’s first post on the topic stops there, though, which doesn’t quite resolve the question of whether it’s virtuous to do self-satisfying work.
To clarify, he wrote a part 2 that examines the sort of moral Butterfly Effect that seems to inevitably arise from doing good work, even if not necessarily in the sense of direct acts of charity or community service.
To me, the takeaway is not that one should feel good about oneself merely for living one’s life. It’s that an orientation that every act is an act of service is what generates a truly moral attitude, as opposed to an attitude of doing acts of service as a means to some morally satisfying end.
I’m extremely grateful to Karen Maezen Miller for writing this short blog post and matter-of-factly stating this:
These days I carry a tiny notepad to the cushion to record passages that arrive when I am going nowhere and doing nothing.
I have struggled mightily over what to do with good ideas — or even merely important to-dos — that arise while I’m meditating.
My instinct has always told me to stop and write them down, or else the ideas will keep distracting me for the rest of the sit. When I’ve done that, it has worked.
Yet some teacherly voice in my head has always said not to do this.
At times I’ve felt like I should let them pass, because that’s what meditators are Supposed™ to do, and no matter how beautiful or important the thought is, it’s an opportunity to practice non-attachment by letting it disappear, possibly never to return.
My sense of loss over some of those ideas has been great, though. In a few cases, I’ve sensed it would be too great, so I’ve written them down. For example, the idea to create this website came to me in the middle of a retreat. I “broke” the silence of the retreat to sneak off and write it down, and I’m quite glad I did.
But apparently I’ve fretted about this problem needlessly. Karen Maezen Miller has an authoritative source saying it’s okay:
Yasutani Roshi said as much in the seminal Three Pillars of Zen: “There comes a point in your sitting when insights will flash into your mind. If you don’t jot down things that you want to remember, this could bother you and interfere with your concentration. You may want to keep a pencil and notebook next to you.”
Yes. That’s exactly why I think it’s the right call for me. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but I know when a really good one comes to me during meditation, no more meditation will get done until the idea is safely recorded.
If there is a faith claim that motivates the practice of meditation, it’s the claim that it “works.” For meditation to “work,” it could be enough that it alleviates suffering incrementally, or partially. But I admit that sometimes I believe, or want to believe, that it works completely — that the awakening the Buddha taught about is available.
If I’ve seen awakening in other beings with my own eyes, though, I didn’t know it. But I do occasionally hear reports from others that I believe. This description from Sarah Beasley of her teacher, for example:
Having even a brief taste of awakening, or true nature, causes one to fervently wish it for all beings. I remember with devotion the look on Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s face when he would softly say, “It’s so simple, you won’t believe me,” with tears in his eyes.
Oof. I think I would, actually.
I’ve never felt learned enough to decide on or declare adherence to any particular Buddhist tradition, but I’ve always gravitated toward Zen.
I try not to cling to that, because I suspect of myself — and of Western Buddhists writ large, if I’m being honest — that I’m merely experiencing some aesthetic preference rather than a legitimate philosophical one.
I think that skepticism and concern for cultural appropriation is healthy. Still, the closer I get to heart of Zen, the more true it sounds:
Bodhidharma was the first to introduce the specific teachings that defined the Zen school. Much of his renown comes from a famous four-line teaching attributed to him:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not depending on words and letters;
Directly pointing to the mind,
Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining buddhahood.
If those four lines are, as this post by Haleigh Atwood says, “the taproot of Zen,” I get why it calls to me. It’s the counterweight to my Jewish side. I can’t incorporate another tradition that depends utterly on the authority of scholarly texts. But “not depending on words and letters”? I can get into that for sure.
As usual, Pema Chödrön demonstrates the clear, penetrating simplicity of a true master’s teachings:
“There are different kinds of laziness. First, there’s the laziness of comfort orientation, we just try to stay comfortable and cozy. Then there’s the laziness of loss of heart, a kind of deep discouragement, a feeling of giving up on ourselves, of hopelessness. There’s also the laziness of couldn’t care less. That’s when we harden into resignation and bitterness and just close down.”
It would not have occurred to me naturally that laziness is more than one thing. This post shows that it is three distinct things, all of which are familiar to me, and all of which I recognize as laziness.
The more I study Buddhism, the more it seems to be the most scientifically advanced description our species has yet come up with of our own psychology.
“The problem is there are no good ways to give instructions on how to do nothing.”
I like this post not so much for its wisdom as for its style. It makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I think that’s because of its undisguised real-person-ness.
A lot of harm comes from believing a teacher is something more than or beyond a real person.
Plus, it seems important to accustom oneself to learning wisdom from real people — that is to say, anyone. Someone who writes and talks like this, rather than like some simulation of a holy guru.
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