Showing posts with label Buddhism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buddhism. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mind Only Teachings and Naturalism

My (current, tentative) understanding of this deep issue is that all mind-only teachings imply a perspective, which is generally not shared by most sentient beings. Why? Because part of the very process of individuation is the creation of the distinction of self and other. If you read developmental psychology, this happens in very early childhood, and is of course thereafter deeply ingrained in everything we think about the world. That is the origin of the 'self-and-other' division, which from a somatic perspective is completely necessary. But then it later forms the basis for the constant arising of 'me, mine, myself' and the consequent sense of division and otherness from everything around us.

Now, 'natural philosophy' takes this condition as its starting point; it assumes the reality of self-and-other, subject-and-object. And again, for the purposes of natural philosophy, which is concerned with analysing and mastering the forces of nature, that is a natural thing to do, there is nothing inherently the matter with doing that. But it looses sight of the crucial fact that reality is actually not something we're other to. There really is no such division, because there really is nobody standing outside of or apart from experience. Reality is actually totality, it is not actually divided between self-and-other, that division is first and foremost a reflex or a habit of thought. It is a necessary aspect of being in the world from the viewpoint of survival, but it is also an existential plight.

The most influential philosophy of mind in the West is representative realism of the kind developed by the British empirical philosophers. Long story short, this assumes the reality of the object or objective realm, of which the mind generates a facsimile, image or likeness. Then the understanding seems to be, that this image or likeness is continually enhanced by the progress of empiricism, which discloses more and more about reality and through which we gradually build up a more complete understanding. But the problem here is that the amount of scientific knowledge is already so vast that no one individual will ever know more than a narrow speciality. And there's also the 'fact-value' issue, which is that scientific analysis only deals with what is quantifiable, that it assumes that the objective realm is devoid of meaning, and so on. That is the origin of the whole materialist attitude in a nutshell; I have noticed that most people with a scientific materialist attitude (which is the predominant outlook in the secular west) assume that the phenomenal domain that is the object of scientific analysis, comprises the whole of reality; that is very much the empiricist understanding.

So - what the mind-only teaching is reminding us of, is that all we ever know of the world, even when mediated by scientific instruments, is still ultimately vikalpa. It is incorporated into our cognitive apparatus and then we make judgements about it. Obviously through scientific methodology humans have been able to realise great material power, but from the viewpoint of 'being in the word' that in itself is not necessarily beneficial (i.e. you have to put it to good use, and so on.) But the point I'm driving at, is that mind-only teachings come from those who really have seen through or beyond the 'illusion of otherness', they themselves understand the way the mind generates judgements which it then takes to be reality itself. So they have a different perspective or stand-point. And until we actually get to that stand-point - till we go 'through the looking glass' ourselves - we won't really understand what they're saying.

That is my current, tentative understanding of it.  (For a very good comparison of Western idealist and Buddhist philosophy, have a look at Schopenhauer and Buddhism, Peter Abelson. It discusses many similar points. This blog post cross posted at DharmaWheel.)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Being Real about Suffering

I had a discussion item posted on the NY Times in response to an opinion piece called 'Can Wanting to Believe Make Us Believers?', as follows:


I notice that this series of posts was predicated on the notion that religion is always a matter of belief. As a self-taught Buddhist convert from an Christian cultural background, I have learned that this seemingly basic assumption about what constitutes religion can be questioned.  
The basis of the Buddhist path is not whether there is an ominpotent but invisible deity, belief in whom is fundamental to our well-being, but observation of the verifiable fact of 'suffering and the cause of suffering'. 
It is worth reflecting that the derivation of 'orthodoxy' is from the Greek words for 'correct belief' (ortho doxa). The Buddhist point of departure is not belief, as such, but 'right view' or 'right understanding' (samma ditthi), which is similar, but also different in an important way. 
Anyway, this post is really not an advertisement for Buddhism, but an observation about how the question of 'belief' has become so central to the whole debate. So much hinges on this 'yes/no' response to the question 'does God exist'? And that question carries a lot of entailments and ramifications, over and above (for example) the teaching of Jesus to 'love one another'. 
Just something to think about.
Well, thinking about it some more, it occurs to me that one major obstacle for Christian believers is indeed 'the reality of suffering'.  Why? Because, the argument goes, if God is both benevolent and omnipotent, then why should there be suffering in the world? This seems to present a lot of problems to some people.

Personally I have never found it a convincing argument. My view is that there is suffering in the world, because of the way the world is; that is the nature of the world.  The worst suffering that I am aware of has been inflicted by people on others. Of course there are also natural disasters and epidemics; but Christians have always known the world was a 'vale of tears'. I thought the idea was: 'have faith, and in the end you will go to a better place, where there will be no tears whatever'.

But that is not the point I want to make. It is more about what Buddhism makes of suffering. Buddhism doesn't start from 'who made the world', which is at front and centre of the 'culture wars' about religion and science in Western culture (for instance in the question 'if God made the world, why is there so much suffering?')  Buddhism starts with the fact of dukkha, suffering  - unsatisfaction, you might call it. There is suffering - this is indisputable fact - and there is a cause for it - a cause which can be investigated and understood. So we need to learn to observe what is the cause, instead of having beliefs about something which might or might not exist.

This kind of direct observation is always applicable, without having to believe anything. Whenever I am in some kind of distress - at the moment, I'm in 'job distress' - there is the fact of dukkha, of suffering. Without trying to rationalise it or escape from it, you need to be aware of what the mind is doing in such a situation. All these thoughts come up - 'why me? Aren't I good enough? Will I ever find another job? Woe is me. I wish I had had another occupation' - and so on. This can be very distressing, obviously; despondency looms, it virtually stands next to you, saying things to you, like the proverbial 'black dog'. But part of me knows, these streams of words is also just thinking, just the activities of thought and the associated emotions. Actually it occurs to me that in some way I am the problem. 'Oh poor me'; I am so pre-occupied with myself. So I think if one has any meditative wisdom whatever, then you have to be able to not get drawn into those internal mental dramas, even though it is easy and natural to do so. You have to do whatever needs to be done in terms of finding work, but also be equanimous about not finding it. But most of all, you need not to let that black dog convince you of its reality.

Anyway, on a more philosophical note, that act of direct perception of the facts of one's mental and emotional state, and learning to maintain some kind of equanimity even when things are going to s***, is better than praying to an imagined deity and then asking why nothing seems to happen.  It is not a question of belief. It is based on the observation of the reality, and also on the ability to maintain some sense of detachment from it, by not being too caught up in your own dramas.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

'Adharma' and Contemporary Society

After quite a few years of debating on philosophy forums, I have formed the view that few of the atheist critics of religion and spirituality have much insight into what it is they don’t believe in. Writing from the perspective as a kind of ’spiritual-but-not-religious’ practitioner of Buddhist meditation - although I am finding that the distinction is hard to maintain! -  I think there is a profound truth in this observation by E. F. Schumacher (of Small is Beautiful fame) in a 1957 radio broadcast called The Insufficiency of Liberalism, about what he termed ‘the three stages of development’ in society:

The first great leap was made when man moved from Stage One of primitive religiosity to Stage Two of scientific realism. This is the stage modern man tends to be at. Then, he said, some people become dissatisfied with scientific realism, perceiving its deficiencies, and realize that there is something beyond fact and science. Such people progress to a higher plane of development which he called Stage Three. The problem was that Stage One and Stage Three looked exactly the same to those in Stage Two. Consequently, those in Stage Three are seen as having had some sort of relapse into childish nonsense. Only those in Stage Three, who have been through Stage Two, can understand the difference between Stage One and Stage Three 1

In all my debates, I encountered only a few who seemed to come from a ‘Stage Three’ perspective. There were some followers of the perennial traditions and those with an affinity for mystical spirituality or philosophical idealism in various forms. But the great  majority were scientific realists, who naturally assumed that any talk of higher truths was a throwback to religious literalism and fundamentalism. And they were so resolute, so absolute, in their rejection of ‘anything religious’ that it conditioned their response to any such ideas. Anything spiritual whatever was obviously, simply, a trojan horse for fundamentalism, or mysticism, which they seemed to detest just as much (whilst showing little comprehension of it. The aversion of analytical philosophy to 'mysticism' is so great that the term itself is a pejorative.)

A Straw God

From all this I have come to the view that anti-religion is a belief system. It is based on the firm and unswerving conviction that there is no God, and nothing that can be called ‘supernatural’. However those who advocate such views - and they are legion  - have very odd ideas about what might constitute Deity and the supernatural. They are generally very literalistic and concrete; Richard Dawkins frequently expresses incredulity about the notion of the 'super-complex being' that a God must be, on the basis that something that designs must be more complex than what it designs. Quite why this is mistaken then turns out to be impossible to explain, because such philosophical and theological notions as 'the divine simplicity' are impossible to describe or imagine.  And this is the case with virtually all the atheist depictions of Deity I have encountered - on account of which, I feel that if 'God' was as atheists depict God to be, then I would certainly be one of them. The God which Dawkins and others so vociferously insist could not exist, certainly does not; but, as David Bentley Hart points out, such a God never has existed, so Dawkins is effectively criticizing a 'straw God'.

Fingers Pointing at the Moon

There is a Buddhist idea that Buddhism itself - all the teachings, liturgy, sutras and commentaries, and everything else, are but ‘fingers pointing at the moon’. The Buddha points the way, but you have to walk it. Even Dharma must be abandoned in the end to say nothing of 'adharma'. 

However according to anti-religion, there is no moon, nothing to point at, no 'way' to traverse, and no such thing as ‘release’ or ’nirvana’.  There is only our momentary life in the world, book-ended between the non-existence that we have fortuitously and momentarily sprung forth from by entirely material processes. It follows from this that the only aims in life are utilitarian and technological - things which aid material comfort and well-being. Certainly there are intellectual and artistic aims, but these aren't related to the cosmic order - only to social, civic and personal aims and virtues. They are always ultimately subjective and relative. But if you point this out, they say 'What else is there?'

There is an asymettry in this: for the materialist, it is only about the denial of 'a belief', and furthermore one which has no 'empirical referent'; whereas, for the awakened, what is denied is a dimension of being-knowing-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) which is as real as the ground we stand on (or even more so, being the ground of the ground). So for the atheist, reality is simply the world of appearances, that is known, imperfectly, through the sciences and the senses, into which we are born, by chance, and from which we eventually disappear; whereas for anyone of whatever spiritual persuasion, this life is simply one chapter in the overall story, one facet of a larger whole. So from the atheist point of view, it is simply a matter of a false belief, whereas for the spiritual, what is at stake is the very nature of life itself. 

But it seems it can only be understood in terms of an archaic Sky-Father-God image by many people - both believers and atheists. So even if that is not what you mean, that is what they think you are talking about, and then they proceed say that you're irrational or retrograde for believing such a thing. (I'm sure that many theistic believers actually believe in something very similar to Jupiter, which is derived from the Indo-European word for 'Sky-Father'. After all 'Jehovah' and 'Jupiter' are very similar words, even if from completely different etymological roots. Although it ought also to be considered that this might be necessary at some stages of development. )

Poisoning the Well 

I think the main cause behind contemporary anti-religion goes back to the reaction against the influence of fundamentalism in the Christian mainstream. The shadows of Calvinism and the Inquisition and the related conflicts loom large in the Western psyche. It has poisoned the well, so to speak, and given rise to entire generations who are cut off from any sense of the spiritual. One of the last dialogues I had on Philosophy Forum was with a friendly contributor who could sort of see what I was getting at, but seemed to think it must always mean 'a return to the past' -  to the judgemental, inquisatorial Sky Father God and all the associated baggage. How to explain to him the 'bliss that comes from within'? Can it be explained? Maybe not, or maybe it no longer has anything to do with the subject of philosophy, which after all nowadays seems more and more to be 'talking about talking'. 

Inner Experience

Right now I am reading David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, and finding it generally congenial to my outlook. There are some basic points of dogma that I don't go along with, but, having been awakened to some small degree by meditation, I now am more sympathetic to Christianity as a spiritual philosophy, than I ever could have been previously. (Although I still think there are perspectives that are missing from the way that both its advocates and opponents portray it. Some books I encountered which helped me to see alternative perspectives were Inner Christianity by Richard Smoley, and A Different Christianity, by Martin Amis; they both put a lot of emphasis on the path of meditation and are generally 'gnostic' in some sense.  The absence of that perspective of 'inner knowing' is what drove many people to Eastern spirituality, although I am now beginning to recognise the treasures of the tradition I was born into.)


The basic issue in all this is, that the aspect of spiritual philosophy that is important is concerned with a different way of being. It is not, as many atheists depict it, 'an hypothesis' about a being. Metaphysics requires metanoi - and 'metanoia' means 'change of mind' or 'change of heart'. This doesn't mean suddenly adopting a belief in a super-natural designer - whatever that might be! -  but discovering a different way of being, and the very different perspective that comes out of that.

That is why meditation puts a lot of emphasis on inner silence rather than on discursive thought.
The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.2

 'Always keep this don't-know mind'. That is the way to higher truth, which is actually and simply 'what is' when the monkey mind is in abeyance.

(This kind of understanding can be found in Christian teaching also, if you know where to look, but you generally wouldn't learn about it in Church.)

Fear of the Unknown

And I think another problem is that atheism projects a lot of unconscious fears onto religion rather than understanding that it is really about inner peace and understanding the nature of mind (as Buddhists would put it). Furthermore it does this unconsciously, that is, without really being aware of what it is doing and why. You can actually see this in the deep hostility that 'the new atheists' have towards religion - a real 'fear and loathing'. Hence also the long-standing aversion in analytical philosophy to metaphysics, which it disparages as 'woo'.

I think that this fear and loathing is a manifestation of the unconscious awareness of aspects of our own being - the unconscious, which is ambiguous, fluid, not subject to quantification, but at the same time foundational to existence. So there is the constant, relentless drive to 'prove' what 'the real ground of being' is, in terms of science, physics and quantifiable, external data - what can be made explicit, what can be made manifest and objectified. So whether it is 'the selfish gene' or the theory of the ultimate material entity, perhaps in some ways it is always the sublimated search for the immortal, for that which is beyond change, decay and death. But it has to be external, objective, 'out there somewhere', as people say nowadays -  that in terms of which everything else can be explained (on which point, see The Gospel of Scientific Materialism). But the very search itself has now overflowed, so to speak, the vast Universe itself, into many worlds and multiple universes - which is something for another post.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Knowing Higher Truth

The point of spiritual teachings generally is enable the student to access higher truths and to realise their true nature. The idea of ‘higher truths’ is not recognised in modern analytical philosophy or science but is well understood in some forms of traditional philosophy and in Eastern practice-based religions.

Liberation or moksha is grounded in realising your ‘true identity’, real nature or Buddha-nature.   This is not something fixed or permanent in an external sense, in that it is never an object of cognition, as it is not something that one is ever apart from but is ‘that which knows’. But it is also not simply non-existent - those who think it is non-existent fall into the trap of nihilism. It is also not really your personality, although it will manifest in each individual in a unique way. But it is definitely beyond ego in the sense of beyond your day to day sense of who you are. 

(There are many rancorous disputes about this idea on Dharma forums. Many people insist that Buddhism teaches ‘there is no true self or higher self’. It is true that Buddhism generally doesn’t utilise such language. But the real meaning of ‘no-self’, anatta, is not ‘there is no self’ but that nothing has any self, ‘self’ being defined as ‘something that exists in its own right’ (‘svabhava’, self-originated or self-originating.) That applies to atoms as much as persons.)

But the idea of higher truths is also not much understood in Augustinian Christianity. In that tradition, all ideas of higher truths must conform to the dogmatic formulae within which salvation is dependent on ‘right belief’ (ortho-doxa) in Jesus.  However there are some Christian schools and teachings which recognise the concept of higher truths (see for instance Richard Rohr’s excellent Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.)  But the Augustinian doctrine of ‘total depravity’ is, I think, dangerous and vitiating. The ‘grace’ that ‘saves’ is not the exclusive property of Christianity; it can’t be confined by doctrinal boundaries or sectarian creeds. In other words, it is not only available via religious channels, although to seriously engage with it requires a religious type of intent. 

You may begin to experience that grace whenever you start to meditate. It might not be described in such terms, because words like ‘grace’ - unfortunately! - now carry cultural baggage. But my early experiences with meditation were that just that - from sitting for 20 minutes, powerful experiences of bliss came along. Sometimes they were vivid, sometimes very quiet, but really there was a sense of an energy source or a source of light or joy within my own being.

And sometimes not! That is the meaning of ‘the wind blows were it lists’.  You can’t get attached to such experiences,  because they do come and go, and you have no ability to control them. They’re not ‘yours’, even if they are intimately connected to your very being.  But they are definitely real, not just whims and fancies. 

So we have to focus on realizing that higher truth here and now, even though we might have many hindrances and obstacles and habit-patterns that get in the way. That is what spiritual teaching is about, there is no other purpose to it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Meaning of Rebirth

There is a lot of debate in Western Buddhism about whether rebirth is real or not. Sometimes it is said that rebirth is an Indian religious belief, and not necessary for practicing dharma. However I am not so sure about that. I think the meaning of 'rebirth' is that 'so long as we identify with those things that are subject to birth and death, then we too are subject to birth and death'. When seen this way, rebirth seems a lot less fantastic, less like participating in an endless series of Hollywood films that many people seem to understand 'rebirth' to mean. It is more that we are then subject to all the sufferings of creatures bound to the wheel of birth, decay and death, and driven by instincts to keep struggling for survival.

We can't simply run away from that, however. It is not as if we can simply step out of that, even at the time of our death, because the latent tendencies will then re-form another existence which is also bound to the wheel of re-birth. It is not voluntary, it is out of our conscious control. I think that is why Buddhism stresses 'mindfulness' which is to understand these deep drives which power the 'wheel of life and death'. But that understanding is not a simple matter, it is not like having a relaxing time or being 'free from stress' in the way that worldly people understand. If it were like that, then simply being materially well-off and not having any emotional problems would be the same as liberation. But the Buddha teaches that, even though we might be lucky enough to be free of stress now, even for a whole lifetime (although very few are), at the end of that we are still subject to change and decay, and so still bound to the wheel of samsara, and so whatever favourable circumstances we have now will one day be lost.

So I think understanding 'freedom from rebirth' is not actually a matter of whether you believe in reincarnation or not. It has a deeper meaning than that. It is about whether you are of this world, part of the whole cycle of birth-and-death, change-and-decay, rising-and-falling, that everything in nature is subject to. Nowadays we seem to think that 'natural' is good and wholesome, yet it is the case that everything in nature is subject to decay and death, even if it is temporarily beautiful, young and vital.

There is something that is beyond change and decay, that is not subject to the constant cycle of birth and death. It is something always new, never perishing. That is what the Buddha found and points to. Living in the light of that, realizing what that is and making oneself available to it, is the aim of the Buddhist teaching. And that is not something that is taught very much in 'Western Buddhism'. Many 'Western Buddhists' can talk expertly and at length about subtle and abstruse concepts and quote passages from all kinds of texts. But in the absence of the understanding of the meaning of rebirth, 'nirvana' means simply being happy in this life, not having anything to worry about, being relaxed. It doesn't really have a deeper meaning. And so their idea of Buddhism supports that condition very well. But I think it's because they don't understand the meaning of rebirth.

May all beings realize the truth of re-birth in this human realm.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The European Enlightenment and Buddhism

In the European enlightenment, there was an underlying presumption that science ought to replace 'religion' as the source of normative judgement. However science is not directly concerned with ethical questions - it is mainly concerned with measurement, prediction and exploration of the natural world. The scientific attitude has been generally associated with the tendency towards positivism in philosophy, which is the rejection of metaphysics and many other facets of traditional philosophy.

‘Positivism’ was a term devised to differentiate the empirical and natural sciences - 'positive sciences' - from prevailing religious and metaphysical philosophies of the age. Auguste Comte, who coined the word, saw a progression in the development of society from the ‘theological’ to the ‘scientific’ phase, in which data derived from empirical experience, and logical and mathematical treatments of such data, provide the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge. The general conception of the evolution of society from theological to scientific - a model which might be called ‘historical positivism’ - has remained an important component of the modern outlook. In this world-view, the mechanistic model and the idea that the underlying reality of the Universe was matter was, then, the culmination of the idea of Progress. In important respects, science assumes the role that was previously occupied by religion, to become something like a 'religion of scientism' which has recognizable exponents in modern society.

Secular thinking, conceived as a systematic philosophy which does not make recourse to anything metaphysical, accepts the natural sciences as the umpire of reality, understanding of which is always to be sought in objective terms. Within this view, individuals are free to practice within any religious or spiritual tradition of their liking, with the proviso that it ought not to be harmful to others. But note that this radically subjectivizes the question of the validity of the truth claims of any such traditions. In practice, it is impossible to differentiate such truth claims from matters of opinion, because they are basically subject to individual conscience and beyond the purview of the objective sciences.

What I think is lacking in all of this is a model which accomodates the fact of spiritual enlightenment. There was really no idea of such a thing in the ecclesiastical traditions that the Enlightenment reacted against, where 'spiritual enlightenment' in the Eastern sense was generally the subject of ecclesiastical censure and persecution. If such an understanding is to be found, I think it has to be sought through comparitive religion, anthropology, and the study of what William James called 'the varieties of religious experience'. And I think if you do study it that way, with an open mind (which is a very hard thing to come by in regards to this question) you can see the outlines of what 'spiritual awakening' across many different cultural traditions really consists of. 

One of the groundbreaking popularisers of comparitive religion, Huston Smith, addressed this in his book Forgotten Truths in which he says that in all the sacred traditions, there are "levels of being" such that the more real is also the more valuable; these levels appear in both the "external" and the "internal" worlds, "higher" levels of reality without corresponding to "deeper" levels of reality within. On the lowest level is the material/physical world, which depends for its existence on the higher levels. On the very highest/deepest level is the Infinite or Absolute, which might be identified as God in the theistic traditions. (The key point, the single most important understanding that was lost in the European Enlightenment, was the notion of a 'hierarchy of being'.)

Basically his Forgotten Truths is an attempt to recover this view of reality from materialism, scientism, and "postmodernism." It does not attempt to adjudicate among religions (or philosophies), it does not spell out any of the important differences between world faiths, and it is not intended to substitute a "new" religion for the specific faiths which already exist.

Nor should any such project be expected from a work that expressly focuses on what religions have in common. Far from showing that all religions are somehow "the same," Smith in fact shows that religions have a "common" core only at a sufficiently general level. What he shows, therefore, is not that there is really just one religion, but that the various religions of the world are actually agreeing and disagreeing about something real, something about which there is an objective matter of fact, on the fundamentals of which most religions tend to concur while differing in numerous points of detail (including practice).

I would hope that some kind of common vision is beginning to emerge from the Western encounter with Buddhism as well as from other sources. If we are able to construct a cosmology within which the fact of spiritual awakening retains the pivotal importance that it has always had for Buddhism, there is no reason why this can't accomodate, and also counter-balance, anything which the objective sciences discover. In its absence, however, we are facing only ever-increasing and more sophisticated forms of avidya which is a threat to both the human and natural environment.


(Originally posted on Dharmawheel).

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Vision and Routine

by Bikkhu Bodhi

"All human activity can be viewed as an interplay between two contrary but equally essential factors — vision and repetitive routine. Vision is the creative element in activity, whose presence ensures that over and above the settled conditions pressing down upon us from the past we still enjoy a margin of openness to the future, a freedom to discern more meaningful ends and to discover more efficient ways to achieve them. Repetitive routine, in contrast, provides the conservative element in activity. It is the principle that accounts for the persistence of the past in the present, and that enables the successful achievements of the present to be preserved intact and faithfully transmitted to the future.

Though pulling in opposite directions — the one toward change, the other toward stability — vision and routine intermesh in a variety of ways and every course of action can be found to participate to some extent in both. For any particular action to be both meaningful and effective the attainment of a healthy balance between the two is necessary. When one factor prevails at the expense of the other, the consequences are invariably undesirable. If we are bound to a repetitive cycle of work that deprives us of our freedom to inquire and understand, we soon bog down, crippled by the chains of routine. If we are spurred to act by elevating ideals but lack the discipline to implement them, eventually we find ourselves wallowing in dreams or exhausting our energies on frivolous pursuits. It is only when accustomed routines are infused from within by vision that they become springboards to discovery rather than deadening ruts. And it is only when inspired vision gives birth to a course of repeatable actions that we can bring our ideals down from the ethereal sphere of imagination to the somber realm of fact. It took a flash of genius for Michelangelo to behold the figure of David invisible in a shapeless block of stone; but it required years of prior training, and countless blows with hammer and chisel, to work the miracle that would leave us a masterpiece of art.

These reflections concerning the relationship between vision and routine apply with equal validity to the practice of the Buddhist path. Like all other human activities, the treading of the way to the cessation of suffering requires that the intelligent grasp of new disclosures of truth be fused with the patient and stabilizing discipline of repetition. The factor of vision enters the path under the heading of right view — as the understanding of the undistorted truths concerning our existence and as the continued penetration of those same truths through deepening contemplation and reflection. The factor of repetition enters the path as the onerous task imposed by the practice itself: the need to undertake specific modes of training and to cultivate them diligently in the prescribed sequence until they yield their fruit. The course of spiritual growth along the Buddhist path might in fact be conceived as an alternating succession of stages in which, during one phase, the element of vision is dominant, during the next the element of routine. It is a flash of vision that opens our inner eye to the essential meaning of the Dhamma, gradual training that makes our insight secure, and again the urge for still more vision that propels the practice forward to its culmination in final knowledge.

Though the emphasis may alternate from phase to phase, ultimate success in the development of the path always hinges upon balancing vision with routine in such a way that each can make its maximal contribution. However, because our minds are keyed to fix upon the new and distinctive, in our practice we are prone to place a one-sided emphasis on vision at the expense of repetitive routine. Thus we are elated by expectations concerning the stages of the path far beyond our reach, while at the same time we tend to neglect the lower stages — dull and drab, but far more urgent and immediate — lying just beneath our feet. To adopt this attitude, however, is to forget the crucial fact that vision always operates upon a groundwork of previously established routine and must in turn give rise to new patterns of routine adequate to the attainment of its intended aim. Thus if we are to close the gap between ideal and actuality — between the envisaged aim of striving and the lived experience of our everyday lives — it is necessary for us to pay greater heed to the task of repetition. Every wholesome thought, every pure intention, every effort to train the mind represents a potential for growth along the Noble Eightfold Path. But to be converted from a mere potential into an active power leading to the end of suffering, the fleeting wholesome thought-formations must be repeated, fostered and cultivated, made into enduring qualities of our being. Feeble in their individuality, when their forces are consolidated by repetition they acquire a strength that is invincible.

The key to development along the Buddhist path is repetitive routine guided by inspirational vision. It is the insight into final freedom — the peace and purity of a liberated mind — that uplifts us and impels us to overcome our limits. But it is by repetition — the methodical cultivation of wholesome practices — that we cover the distance separating us from the goal and draw ever closer to deliverance."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Believer or Non-believer

I was watching a presentation about the Dalai Lama just now, and he said something he often says, which I think is worth reflecting on. He said 'Believer or non-believer, compassion is a most important quality in the human heart. Whether you are a religious believer or not, compassion is very important.' Actually, the Dalai Lama often says this, and I think it is perfectly true. But the question is, without a spiritual path or practise - believer or not - how are you to realise it?