Book Review: Why Buddhism is True – the art of being Wright

Robert Wright’s latest book, Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, extends his previous thesis in the Moral Animal that we’ve evolved to evolve. This time Wright appeals to Buddhism, a 2600-year-old religion and its philosophy to scaffold a more positive spin on genes-making-genes-making-genes.

Is Wright right?

Has he broken through to Buddhism as true?

By “true”, he means he’s discovered enough scientific evidence to support it as the True Path to making those nasty narcissistic genes a kinder, gentler mechanism for a world riddled with anger, craving, and delusion.

Wright starts tentatively, with a level of apologetics one would expect from someone about to tell a 4-year-old there isn’t any Santa Claus. Except that he’s about to tell us there is one. To give him credit, he does it was a chatty style and several appeals to modern tropes – the Matrix, addictions (to sugar donuts), tribalism – so that we can feel Buddhism is really about feeling good in our 21st-century life. And that’s where, in many places, Wright may be getting it wrong.

Honestly, when he started talking about the “Red Pill”, I was casting back to Lewis Carroll whose Wonderland is a far tighter lesson in impermanence, not-self, suffering, delusion, and all those nice things we wade around in when we practice Buddhism. In fact, most of the metaphors or teaching points Wright uses are thin explorations of the depth and richness of Buddhist philosophy and practices. Well, let me step back from that flat-footed statement: if you’re Buddhist-curious but religion-averse and philosophy-eclectic, Wright’s interpretation and frequent insertion of 21st-century desires into Buddhist foundational concepts help get over the aversion and through the often confusing rounds of Buddhist-y thought.

Start with his attitude to meditation: “I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it.” That might help as a rationale to meditate. Then he gets into a circular spin-out scare-quoting “success” in meditation and offering the typical paradox of “try not try”. Still, given the zeitgeist today of everyone and their parent being meditation-curious or a meditation-surfer, the second chapter carries some appeal and reassurance that even scientists can fall into more twisted logic than a dozen boxes of red licorice. Ironically and with the possibility that this review loses all credibility, Chapter Two has some merit.

After that, if you’re schooled in Buddhist practice and have some glancing familiarity with the Noble Truths (4 of them), poisons (3 and they’re nasty), aggregates (five and they create everything), you may find Wright’s reading of psycho-social-neuro-psychology into them an interesting journey. For the most part, he does well with the attributes of being human and how meditation has support as a means of unravelling the knots of our suffering. However, and it’s a BIG however, Wright is never clear about the term “feelings”. Of course, it’s easier to foster companionship between Buddhism and evolution psychology (genes just wanna have fun) if we call it all feelings/emotions. That allows for setting up the fight-flight-flee model to explain how we come to crave sugar donuts (really).

But Buddhist feelings are not Western Feelings. It may seem a picayune detail but, really, it’s not. Because Wright maintains a confounded view of vedana with emotions throughout the book, his careful building of arguments that meditation (insight meditation specifically) is the cure-all of the poisons (his focus) misses the point: Meditation is not a DIY self-renovation project attained through understanding its psycho-socio-neuro-correlates. In fact, he goes quite a bit astray when he continuously notes that the common ground of Buddhism and evolution psychology is the desire to improve, to avoid unpleasant experiences (because that ends the genetic lineage), and to not get worked up in case those genes make a bad decision.

When Wright writes:

Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give the calm passions more power and give the violent passions less power.

he is making the role of practice an instrumental process and, while that may be start-point, to remain there is what is called a thin understanding.

The frustration is that Wright has the chops to offer a thick understanding of the philosophy and process of Buddhist thought and practice. Unfortunately, from the feeling/Feelings frying pan he leaps into the fire of emptiness and then “oneness”. Having taken an online course on Buddhism and Psychology he offered, I did like his teaching style and found him thoughtful. I still do. But not in every aspect of Why Buddhism is True.

If you read between the lines of the dialogues he had with his teachers (Joseph Goldstein among them), there were words of caution offered to him about the direction of his thinking. I wish he’d listened a bit closer and let the teachings penetrate deeper. Then again, like Gutei’s student who ran around holding up his finger because he saw Gutei do that, who hasn’t been consumed with the need to explain the inexplicable. And with the glut of “This is the real Buddhism” books, I certainly understand the urge (like his addiction to sugar donuts) to get his view out there. 

Writing style: chatty, personable, easy to read

Will it help: Depends on what you’re looking for. Beginners would feel reassured. Seasoned practitioners may find some interesting nuggets that tie together a spiritual canon with modern science. Some may have quibbles about many things and depending on your level of seasoning these may become points of practice.

 

Other Reviews

Assessing the Value of Buddhism, for Individuals and for the World by ANTONIO DAMASIO Aug 7, 2017

What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t: Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism by Adam Gopnik Aug 7 & 14, 2017 (Wright’s comments defending his take on emptiness are in the comments.)

A Science Writer Embraces Buddhism as a Path to Enlightenment by Gregory Cowles Aug 25, 2017

Meditation can make us happy, but can it also make us good? by Nick Romeo Aug 25, 2017

 

Book Review: Grass Flute Master Yokoyama & the fragrance that spread a thousand ri

I saw zazen as a posture bestowed upon me by the Buddha
Sodo Yokoyama

The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodo Yokoyama is a long-awaited work by American author and translator, Arthur Braverman. Epitomizing the essentialist philosophy of Zen, Yokoyama is known for his ascetic life, living in a bamboo grove of Kaikoen Park in Komoro City, Japan, writing calligraphic teachings for any passerby who wanted to receive them. Braverman wrote of his connection to Yokoyama in 2005 and the undertones of his longing to pass on the ineffable beauty of Yokoyama’s life are compelling.

“I sit here every day with the exception of three, when I go to Antaiji in Kyoto for my teacher’s memorial ceremony,” he told me when I visited him at the park some thirty years ago, and he added, “It’s an easy life.” I never forgot that “It’s an easy life.” His zazen was “easy” because he left everything to the posture. He said, “Zazen is an ordinary person as he always is, becoming a buddha.” (Lion’s Roar, July 1, 2005)

Later Braverman’s interview with Yokoyama’s only student Jôkô Shibata offered further insight into his diligent if austere practice.

Antaiji, a small temple in the northeast corner of Kyoto, was under the charge of Uchiyama Kôshô Roshi, a long time disciple and dharma heir of Sawaki Roshi, when Jôkô joined the practice there. He had read Uchiyama’s first book and decided to become a monk and study under the master. Yokoyama Roshi had lived together with his younger brother disciple Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji for eight years and then in 1957 moved to Komoro. He visited Antaiji once a year from then on for the memorial celebration for Sawaki Roshi. It was during one of these visits that Jôkô met his future teacher for the first time. ‘I saw my teacher in zazen posture,’ he said, ‘and made up my mind immediately to study under him.’ (from: Hey Bro! Can You Spare Some Change)

Yokoyama appears to have this effect as both Braverman and Shibata feel drawn to him because of the utter simplicity of his life. I wrote about this attraction in a review of The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications).

Yokoyama and (his teacher) Sawaki Kôdô lived very different lives. Who is to say which is better or which had more impact. What is more relevant is our attraction to one or the other. Or neither. Experiencing that moving towards, pulling away is the essence of Buddhadharma, the kindling point of our transformation. Not because we land on one or the other’s way of life – that way lies guru adoration and the cult of personality. To experience that desire for homelessness, for simplicity, for a life struck through with offering is also to experience our desires, motivations, and intentions in all its fallibility and unexpected mercies. (108 Zen Books, June 17, 2015)

Braverman’s book begins his arranged meeting with Shibata in Komoro City and in good zen style, he begins with the waiting. Waiting for his order of noodles as he waits for Jôkô. Waiting for the memories to flow in their typical unordered way, waiting for pockets of sensibility to fall into. Waiting for a teacher is the underlying theme, running parallel with the searching and the longing. In Braverman’s words there is a longing to understand – how was Yokoyama influenced by his own teachers, by artists and poets of his time – and to understand only that the wanting is neither sufficient nor satisfactory. However, the side trips to the poet Toson and the various people who populate the surroundings of Kaikoen Park give life to the container in which Yokoyama lived his practice, literally outside in the park and outside of the institutions of Zen. In that, Yokoyama is not different from his teacher, “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki and other lineage teachers Hakuin and Bankei. For them, the marrow of practice is the only requirement for living. Braverman writes:

Truly creative teachers can do nothing else. So it was with other great teachers like Hakuin and Bankei, to name two from the other major Zen sect in Japan. What eventually happens, once institutions are formed to follow the ways of these masters, is a slow decline of the original spirit and a dependence on forms and dogmas that water down the true teaching of the founders (p. 39).

The Grass Flute Zen Master is a slowly winding journey through Braverman’s connections and memories of Yokoyama, interspersed with his views of Zen. However, the heart of the book is in his reproductions and exploration of Yokoyama’s waka.

Years ago
meditating in the mountains
a pheasant appeared
and stared
at my zazen.
p. 83

Braverman notes that “my”, being assumed in the Japanese version, is an insertion for (Western) clarity. I wondered if that is the subtle cause of the myriad problems Western Buddhism has.

Yokoyama also brushed poems for his dharma brother, Kosho Uchiyama, a poignant humbling of what he may have felt were his shortcomings

Mother and Father
Brothers and Sisters 
Forgive me
A child without a home

More than mother
More than father
More than brothers and sisters
I love the mountains and rivers
How pitiful!
p. 85-86

Still, the question Braverman takes us to, the question that hangs over all our heads as we sit zazen in all our postures, is perhaps the heart of practice: Why bother? What does a homeless monk, an itinerant teacher in a park, a wandering mendicant contribute? It is reassuring to see the answer is no different from Bodhidharma’s to the Emperor: No merit.

And yet… there is a fragrance that spreads a thousand ri – everywhere.

Zazen is becoming a Buddha while you are a deluded person.
Sodo Yokoyama

Book review: no-mind for the Minds of Winter

Not quite a zen book but zennish enough and more than bookish enough to warrant you knowing about it.

Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a book best read with a dance card, playlist, genealogy, time tracker or any variety of two- or three-dimensional process that keeps the characters and events under some control. You may also choose to read it free-form, though that may require copious amounts caffeine and significant restraint against tossing it against the wall.

It’s a good book; it is likely a great book. It might take the Giller home – or not. But it takes a discipline that is belied by the back matter on the cover. A mystery across time and culture, it promises a riddle about the chronometer from the Franklin Expedition that one assumes will be solved; historical events uncovered and put in place; and, characters who risk all just for the enjoyment of doing so. O’Loughlin’s vision of the scope of this topic is formidable and where it lacks – frustratingly – in depth, it does console with terrific prose. What may be unforgivable, depending on the level of sustain attention training the reader has, is his compulsive need to throw in everything, and the kitchen sink.

I picked up the book because a kitchen sink played a role in my own connection with the Franklin Expedition. As an archeological chemist in a previous career incarnation, I was given a container filled with frozen tin cans, dripping across the lab floor. They were hypothesized to be from the Franklin Expedition and for months the excitement in the labs was electric. Franklin’s passage, disappearance, and the eventual (best possible) resolution is the stuff of many careers and romantic speculation.

O’Loughlin begins with a speculation and fantasy of his personal life and his ambitions. There is little to foretell the chronometer. In fact, there is little substantive thread to follow about this chronometer. Its appearance is ghostly and, moving across the words on the page, one might almost wonder if it was imagined. Many a sentence is re-read to verify these fleeting sightings. I suppose this would be exciting enough, to feel the search as an embodied experience, but a purely experiential flow makes for better meditation than fiction.

Thankfully, the characters enlisted by O’Loughlin are fascinating in themselves. Some are historic and therefore verifiable. Others are purely fictitious and therefore need some level of plausible accreditation. O’Loughlin doesn’t offer any of that for these latter creatures, leaving them to our imagination but also untethered in the minds of the narrative (there is more than one).

To fully engaged with Minds of Winter, it is necessary to approach it as a 20th century telling of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Set the intention to simply meet each character and event without any attachment to the storyline or its promised outcome. In fact, it’s more a koan about desire, aversion, stuckness, and surrender than a riddle about a timepiece. Renounce all pre-occupations to know the who, what, when, where, and why of this theme. Perhaps the only value to be found here is a love of powerful language (at times), evocative imagery (at times), and a chilling confrontation with our desperate need to know fully (always).

Will it take the Giller? Perhaps. I suspect however the other books with a closer-to-bone narrative might leave it still thawing in the permafrost.

Other readings

the untamed rose

Rose petals. I don’t collect them. Passive little things that they are, they simply drop off the bloom and collect themselves in languorous little stretches across the floor. Sometimes, in exasperated tones, I huff out the first syllable of “Really…” which, were I to complete my exhale, I mean to follow-up with a stern “Must you?” But, reaching down, I don’t get past that initial contact of dry skin on those petals.

And I am lost.

The rose I love most was among the ones we rescued from my parents’ home just before the new tenants took charge of destroying the carpets and sinks. It – and its friends – took up the back of the little truck, probing into my ears with each stop and start from Montreal back home. You’ll love it on the farm, I tell them as if they had been extracted from a disastrous setting. In truth, they seem to have thrived on the neglect, unlike my mother who had left for her own journey from hospital to long-term care. I, on the other hand, firmly believed they were bereft and pining (oh evil pun) for my father’s evening companionship and his obsession with every leave and petal.

There’s no real evidence that the rose I call Dad’s rose was truly his. Besides, we know that one cannot own a rose. They are actually quite indifferent to all that attachment – as I often wish I could be. Regardless, I came to believe it had been passed on to my care. A bloodline from somewhere further back than Shakyamuni, flowing through innumerable nurseries of stock roots and grafts, to be propped up in the back of my truck nodding at passing cars. It’s sad, really. I might have been better off had I not impressed ownership by claiming a birthright or planting it in a bloodline.

But there you have it. I desire to be embedded in a bloodline that flows backward and forward. Because what would we be without something that carries us along, that holds us as if it is always forever. Because all our very best intentions to pay attention to our stinky attitude don’t stand a fig of a chance at the rose petal’s soundless dropping off. Practice, if you will, the breath, the posture, the yells-bells-smells of your preferred rituals. (Don’t get me wrong: I love the dance of chants and circumambulating a rectangular room made circular step-by-step.) But, in that moment when you hear the sound of one hand dying, will you live the lesson the untamed rose petal has been offering season after season?

buddhism can’t make you happy so why bother: what being failed teaches us

The very sad news of the tragic death of Buddhist teacher Michael Stone has stirred a flurry of comments on various Buddhist internet sites that range from the expected grief and – sadly – the expected lack of awareness of the suffering that mental illness can bring on us. The latter set of comments includes and exposes a deep misapprehension of what a Buddhist practice can do for its practitioners.

The quick answer, if asked, is that a Buddhist practice has little to do with effortlessly conferring happiness, calm, serenity, and peace. Sadly, the practice also does not confer invulnerability to slings and arrows of outrageous inner and outer judgments, exorcise self-generated demons, or make one beloved by all. Buddhist practice is also not going to cure or remove whatever neurological process involved in profound depression, extreme anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, or many other ways of being that require a more focused approach. In a word (or six), Buddhist practice does nothing for you – except one thing.

To practice the Dharma is to examine the topography of places where we fail ourselves over and over. It is to turn towards that suffering, relentlessly; that incongruity between who we thought we were and who showed up at the family dinner, the date night, the wedding, the job interview. And in that turning towards, we find a way, through practice, to be steady in the face of the whole blessed mess – even when we aren’t. Buddhist practice is a how-to lesson in cultivating humility, skillfulness in failing, and loving with a heart broken open wide.

I understand the defensive posture of superiority in the comments when any Buddhist teacher has not lived up to our expectations. Been there, sacrificed my dignity. It’s frightening to think that someone in an elevated status can be so fragile, even if we were the ones to lionize them. It’s more frightening to think that this practice does not protect even those who have such an obvious commitment and fierce devotion to it. What does that say about us mere mortals who struggle with taking seconds on dessert, feel impotent rage at the state of our world, or whose lives had to be rebuilt because we followed in a very human teachers’ footsteps? What hope is there for us?

The reality is that there is no one who can satisfy our craving for security. There is no one who can single-handedly lift us out of our messy morass and make it all better. Sorry. There is actually one who can – but that requires teaching the eye to see itself, the hand to hold itself, the heart to feel its own beat. But we’re not ready for that and won’t be as long as we think salvation is in someone else.

These incidents of teachers who show their utter humanness are themselves our teacher. It opens us to be brutally honest about who we become in the face of our desire that the teacher should be our source of safety and support. It should open us to discern between an authentic teaching that is grounded in Buddhism and aspects of our own Western culture (read: knowledge of mental illness). I have listened too long and too often to the damage caused to practitioners by Buddhist teachers who say, “Just sit with it. It will pass.” Or, “meditate more.” Or, imply that somehow it’s some past life transgression that totally explains and justifies one’s current pain and suffering. It’s a long road back from this level of hurt. And more often than not, it ends up in a conversation that necessarily deconstructs the person’s belief that they are not a “good Buddhist” but also that they may have to surrender their clinging to the belief that they are “Buddhist”. Understanding this collision of our desires and what is promised as “freedom” is crucial to understanding the core of Buddhist practice: taking responsibility for our own development.

However, in the process of taking responsibility for our own delusions about teachers and about being “Buddhists”, we also need to see how the teacher’s own frailties serve us in some way. I have sat in front of teachers who are blissfully blind to their own mental illness and – here’s the rub – whose illness is useful to their community. This collusion likely contributes to stigmatizing mental illness and seals it in silence. It is time we ask ourselves how we impart subtle judgments and demands for perfection onto to each other. It is time we examine how we uphold each other’s frailties so that ours can be further served.

I do love the story Woody Allen tells voice-over at the end of Annie Hall (at least that’s my memory of the story): A psychiatrist’s patient says he has a brother who believes he’s a chicken and wants the psychiatrist to tell him what to do. The psychiatrist suggests the brother may benefit from treatment to rid him of the delusion that he’s a chicken. The patient is horrified: But, doc, then what would I do for eggs?

Once we cure ourselves of the delusion that Buddhism will make us happy and free from pain, what would we do for eggs?

The post by Justin Whitaker, On the Death of a Teacher: A Buddhist Teaching, is a recommended companion piece to this post.

 

Book review: Watts still luminous after 46 years

84564Psychotherapy East & West, published in 1961, has been re-published by New World Library, looking refreshed and rather smart in an orange-is-the-new-seduction cover. Considering the social frame of The Sixties, one would expect Watts to have aged poorly into the 21st century with its dramatically different technology and psychological views. In fact, my aged and faded copy bought in the late ’60’s seems a strange throwback, though quite iconic.

However, like the eternal Dharma, Watts has not only aged well but also now serves as the “message in the bottle” from past wisdom, prescient and uncompromising. Of course, it’s hard to know if the impact of reading Watts today is an inevitable destination of being human or whether our journey was shaped by the thoughts and critiques of people like Watts and the Beat Generation he later influenced. In Psychotherapy East & West, Watts is clear that using this lens of duality only leads us astray and further into a socially-constructed blindness. The explicit theme throughout the book is the “inseparably interconnected patterns” of our bio-psycho-social-ecological systems. In effect, we do not and cannot be in any sense of the word outside this frame. The intention of the “East” is to make visible these interconnected patterns in the process of becoming liberated. The catch however, in Watts’s view, is that Eastern liberation as a shift in connectedness is different from Western “liberation” through psychotherapy – by which he mainly means Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis (and, ironically sets up a dualism).

Watts’s reliance on Freudian and Jungian psychology is consistent with his time. The cognitive therapies of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, which grew from their disillusionment with the psychodynamic therapies, were still in the early days of their methodologies and psychoanalysis was to hold sway for at least another decade. Still, the concept is familiar to us now: we are blinded to our inherent inseparability, not from, as part of the vast intricate pattern of nature by a social structure that is best served through our ignorance. We become “disturbed” when we fall into the social control of organizational “brainwashing”.

The role of both Eastern and Western liberation practices is to experience being “disturbed” and to see it as a point where contradictions in the social frame break through. Although sharing some commonalities of liberation theory, psychotherapy (read psychoanalysis), according to Watts, is incomplete liberation, filled with potential to be social criticism but limited by the blindness of its equally-seduced practitioners. The disturbed individual then is only brought back into line with the oppression in the culture. This seems to parallel the conversations and debates around spiritual and secular mindfulness.WWAWD – what would Alan Watts do? Equally, though I hesitate to read back into his writings through the privilege of hindsight, Watts’s argument that ignoring the context of our lives is the very seed of ignorance, and the arising of being separate, forecasts the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and the socially engaged Buddhism of the next decades.

Watts is cautious about the power of psychotherapy to liberate and I suspect this has much to do with his enchantment with Buddhism in general and zen in particular. At one moment he is forgiving of psychotherapy, allowing it to be a partner in the mutual clarification of itself and Eastern liberation practices; in another, psychotherapies are at risk of becoming another insipid compromising version of the middle way. A messed-up Mādhyamika. It’s in his attempts to critique yet line up psychoanalysis with Buddhist liberation practices that he tends to spiral out into expansive thoughts (and run on sentences). And, much like psychodynamic concepts, the arguments become somewhat self-gratifying. Of course, throw in his foray with Jay Haley’s “prescribing the symptom” and “strategic therapy” and one loses both figure and ground. It would be generous to say that is what Watts intends, a psychotherapeutic dokusan, but Haley’s concepts can be a mental labyrinth of “who’s on first in the prefrontal cortex.” (Personally, I love Haley’s work but it’s sneaky and one has to be really good at the pretence of going with the symptom.)

Despite all the meanders, Watts offers much to consider, not the least being whether we’ve come any further along this path than we were in 1960. He ends with an appeal we are all familiar with by now: if true liberation is the overthrowing of a self-serving authority that blinds us to who we are (reiterated in The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are), then it must come through the challenges to the ethical constructs that authority places on us. It begins with seeing ethics as the language by which we get to know each other. It is not only code law that points to the oughts; it is, perhaps more crucial to our relationships, the organic process of common law, an intuitive felt sense of what is needed beyond self-interest.

Although Watts addresses the ethics of survival, he doesn’t take it to the next step of the ethic of care. Psychotherapies, mindfulness or otherwise, are meant to unblind ourselves to who we have been told we must be, more about who we are becoming than who we want to be. They are relational practices with a moral arc of caring for each other and the world we inhabit, not stages of achievements for self-promotion.

 

not-zen, not-memes

A quick round-up for this week:

James Ford lists his favourite Zen blogs – and in true Zen fashion includes those Zennish and those not-quite-Zen but nice enough to read. I’m touched to be in the list and somewhat relieved to be a “not Zen specifically”. It’s actually an awakening to the truth that I’ve lost the zap of Zen and am quite happy hanging out here in the fourth jhana, chillin’ with my pups.

As you know, Facebook is a magic land where your actions are given immediate reward. No sooner had I posted something about equanimity – i.e., hanging out in the 4th jhana – when this post from Jack Kornfield appeared on my feed (they call it a “feed” for good reason).

“Spiritual life takes courage : Equanimity is not indifference, and compassion is not pity. True spirituality  requires us to be fully present for life. For us to begin to look directly at the world situation is not a question of ceremony or of religion. Meditation helps us to look deeply at the sorrow that exists now in our world, and to look at our individual and collective relationship to it, to bear witness to it, to acknowledge it instead of running away. Without mindfulness and compassion the suffering is too great to bear. We close our minds. We close our eyes and our hearts.”

So… about meditation: in a discussion with someone about their resistance to mindfulness practice and meditation, I said: You can’t substitute memes for meditation! No sooner had I posted that on my FB feed (they call it a “feed” for a reason, ya know!) when some smarty-pants posted a meme…which I improved upon:

memes-mindful

No promises about the New Year and whether I will discover my Zen mojo.

However, do have an awesome Holiday Celebration!