The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien – Behind the Scenes in Zen-dom (book review)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications) is an ambitious attempt to accomplish two key approaches in understanding Buddhist history. as our perspectives of Buddhism have broadened (and hopefully also deepen). First, the re-telling of Buddhist history is marked by a dropping off unexamined stories as we acknowledge and cope with its romanticization and impact of its appropriation by the West. Second, as we become more aware of the complex intersectionality of our inner and outer environments, aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practices that may not address the issues in our times are being deeply questioned.

Academic and popular press publications in the last few years have been sharp examinations of what we think are the roots of Buddhism and reshaped what we believe are its principles. Author/scholars like David McMahan, Erik Braun, and Ann Gleig have provided incisive and insightful challenges to Western views and uses of Buddhism. Ira Helderman and Candy Gunther Brown have brought attention to naivete in thinking that the complex religious and sometimes political field of Buddhism can be neatly flipped into Western psychological practices with impunity.

This is a time of choppy waters and sudden storms whether one is a historian, researcher, practitioner, or student of Western Buddhism. In this context, O’Brien’s book is a brave one, especially if we place it in the lineage of previous authors who tried to make sense of the fables and enduring mythology of Zen history.

In the introduction, she confronts head-on the muddiness of Zen history, the knowledge we prefer to have avoided: broken lineages, (purposely?) muddied history, dogma, assumptions of a linear progression from Theravada to Mahayana – even the assumptions that the latter is the evolution away from a less developed form of Buddhism. Of course, there’s also the erasure of the feminine lineage, the wise women of Zen. (While searching for the published books on Zen women, I happened across this blog, Zen Women.) This is a lot to take on and I’m tentative about saying that O’Brien, despite being a scholar in the field, does it all to the degree that is required. Then again, I doubt any historian committed to a transparent investigation of several thousand years of the history of anything could do full justice to the topic.

The first two chapters offer a rich and complex story of Buddhism and then Zen. More particularly, it places “The Six (or so) Patriarchs” in the context of a wildly developing region whose political capriciousness is as much Zen-ish as are the teachings and teachers who cooked in that broth. When O’Brien describes Zen as it made its way through China’s geography and political turmoil, the going gets a bit rough. There’s too much to put into the chapters and the interactions become complex. It’s not a criticism of the author as an acknowledgment that trying to convey this part of history as a thick understanding is difficult for reasons that lie in the modern mind.

First, we do love our thin slices of Zen history, the dramatis personna and their perplexing statements of our quality of mind. The wild, often inebriated teachers, chopping off arms and fingers, cutting up felines and making perplexing exits with slippers as hats have appeal far more than the emperors, concubines, and their progeny who stymied or advanced Buddhism.

Second, we love a linear, logical progression in both our lives and those of others. We also love a Just World where the good are rewarded and bad punished. That it contradicts all manner of understanding of Buddhism in general and karma, in particular, is a cheap delusion. The messiness of Buddhism’s history means no one has the right view but it is, itself, a Right View. And that in turn means, we need to stop waving our mind flags and get down to the real work of Buddhist practice.

O’Brien has made a valiant effort and the challenge of getting through the middle part of the book is a personal one. I am too much a fan of the brazenness of Ikkyu and the morose Dogen. So, I do encourage you, Dear Reader, to persist through to the last chapter, Zen in the Modern World. Or perhaps, start there at the finish. If we can tolerate a different view of our perspectives of our present history, moving back in time may not be so discomforting. (Spoiler: O’Brien thankfully does not give the current cultism of secular or what a colleague calls “bubblegum mindfulness” any space. I’m grateful!)

Book Review: American Dharma by Ann Gleig

Book Cover American dharma by Ann GliegJust when I thought I had caught up with the winding path Buddhism took from Siddhartha to Asoka to Buddhist Modernism via McMahan and Braun, American Dharma adds another step in the evolution of Buddhism in the West. Author and scholar Ann Gleig brings an incisive and insightful examination of Buddhism’s adaptation, shapeshifting, and co-creation by Western perspectives of its root philosophy. In fact, Gleig’s reading of this path (as with McMahan and Braun) questions whether there was ever a root philosophy. And that takes us directly to the anxiety-provoking thought: Is Buddhism only what we decide it is?

Here, I need to disclose that Gleig includes our work in confronting the misconceptions of the psychologized form of Buddhism called Mindfulness. More specifically, my colleagues and I have attempted to address the self-identification of Mindfulness-Based Interventions/Programs (MBIs) with Buddhism/not Buddhism. (I will forebear jokes about self/not-self.) Gleig is generous in covering our concerns that MBIs while attempting valiantly to siphon in Buddhist concepts and practice, fall short of what is required to be Buddhist teachings in spirit if not exactly in design. I’ll have more to say about that further down.

For now, let’s take an overview of Gleig’s incisive thoughts about Buddhism and the shapes it took in Western culture. Drawing from McMahan’s and Braun’s extensive work, Gleig carefully describes the cultural (and political) imperative that shaped Buddhism from the time of Ledi Sayadaw which placed meditation at the heart of Buddhist practice. The passing on of the torch is traced further from U Ba Khin, Mahasi Sayadaw and their own students, with the most influential being Goenka who (aling with Thai Forest monks) eventually influenced the American phalanx of Buddhism: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein and the founding of the East and West Coast Insight Meditation Societies.

Gleig explores, with a remarkably balanced perspective, the explosion of Buddhist-based practices with Chapter Two: From the Mindfulness Revolution to the Mindfulness Wars. This is a particularly important chapter because it lays out the reality that it doesn’t matter whether we have subverted Buddhism to support our Western consumer-mind. If we have yet to address issues of disadvantage that are misogyny, racialization, and abuse, Buddhism qua mindfulness is only a mirror of our corrupted values. And, it becomes a weaponized approach to maintaining the status quo. This topic of disenfranchisement is powerfully explored in Chapter Five: The Dukkha of Racism, Gleig unmasks the attempts to change “racial rearticulation” which is

the acquisition of the beliefs and practices of another’s religious tradition and infusing them with new meaning derived from one’s own culture in ways that preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony (From Cheah quoted in Chapter One).

Chapter Five is sad to read yet from the undertones of disappointment in our limitations to understand how we hurt each other through erasure, there is some hope that with pain comes insight into the suffering caused. Personally, I deeply resonate with “The Empty Seat” (that painful space left on either side of me when I sit at any table – meeting, gathering, socializing) and felt seen by the reading of it.

But back to Chapter Two where Gleig addresses the surge of mindfulness in its multitudinous forms of psychological programs, wellness movements, and “woo-vending”, a fantastic term coined by Philip Theofanos in his article here. The central criticism of mindfulness as a secularized and psychologized process (not practice) is repeatedly that “ethics are stripped” from its content. I’m stepping out of the container of this review by inserting my ongoing stance to this criticism: ethics are both implicit and explicit in the teachings of mindfulness. Dare I say in teaching anything. As such, the battle lines of ethics-protectors (ethics must be included in MBIs) and ethics-dismissives (ethics are implicit in MBIs or would be oppressive to teach) are missing the point. It’s impossible to teach any concept without immediately hoisting the flag of one’s inclinations as well as value-ridden approaches, and that requires full transparency (see Gunther Brown’s chapter in this linked page) as well as self-awareness. However, there is much gold to mine in the hills of conflict, even if generating that conflict is somewhat in conflict itself with the essence of Buddhist thought. And that essence is living a life that is congruent in its intention to do no harm and to test one’s actions against its consequences.

One interview mentioned in Gleig’s impressive references is between Edo Shonin and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Although Gleig uses it to support the view that secular/psychologized mindfulness has value, the interview points directly to the many reasons the discussion of MBIs are so confusing. Kabat-Zinn, both in this interview and innumerable other sources continually dances between “it’s Buddhist” and “it’s not-Buddhist” – I would add there is a hint of “it’s not-not-Buddhist” too. However, this chapter is worthy of a careful read if we hope to understand the convulsive route secular mindfulness has taken to ensure it doesn’t offend anyone.

Of course, the most reliable evidence we have that ethics-in or ethics-out requires more than posturing is this evidence of sexual predators within Buddhist communities. Chapter Three: Sex, Scandal and the Shadow of the Roshi is an excellent dissection of yet another way Buddhists fail to see their dismissal of secular/psychologized mindfulness because of its “stripping away of ethics” begs the question. Further, the connection Gleig makes between Buddhist Romanticism and Buddhist Modernism is crucial to understanding the reasons Western Buddhism has taken on the allure of self-help and the mantel of psychology. This is also covered in Chapter Four: Meditation and Awakening in the American Vipassana Network where we meet the varied branchings out of the vipassana practices into addiction, pragmatism, emotional and relational health, and so on.

In Chapter Seven, aptly titled From Boomers to Gen X, Gleig sets the stage for future generations. Noting the heavy lay slant in the Gen X cohort of young teachers, I wonder about the possible loss of historical memory of what Buddhism is and how Buddhism is to become (though they just need this book to ensure fidelity to the path). However, despite its efforts to rise above the previous generation’s missteps, it was noted in the first gathering of Boomer/Gen X teachers that Gen X may be creating its own blindspot of a “progressive America”. Time will tell.

In all, Gleig has dug deep and carved thick slices of understanding the historical evolution and societal forces that created Buddhism.America. It’s a powerful and unstinting gaze leveled at our misunderstanding of how Buddhism came to be in the West and what it represents in American culture (I can include Canadian culture to some degree because so much of where we train and what we learn comes from south of the 49th parallel). This is a book for the person who wants to strip away the illusion that is currently Buddhism so that they can discern whether it’s self-improvement, awakening, or therapy that they seek.

For the academics of MBI trainers, the look on your students’ and trainees’ faces is worth gold when you talk about the long and winding road that is Western Buddhism! I’ve already made it required reading for my University of Toronto course on Buddhist Mindfulness approaches to Mental Health!

Canada Reads but does it understand? A memoir that was a tragedy in three parts.

I love literary lists. Each year I pick up one book authored by the Noble Prize in Literature; this year was the ever-confounding Kazuo Ishiguro. I sit anxiously waiting for the Man Booker Prize shortlist (though the long list actually has better writing sometimes); this year the weirdly contemplative Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders won. I become feverish and irrational as the Scotia Giller Prize lists are published; 2017winner was Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. I read and rooted for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson and had a brief disappointing affair with Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter.

Canada Reads, however, has never quite been my cup of tea, being too much a survivalist themed-show with a time range of books that brought back memories of English Lit in university. Unlike the other literary prizes, Canada Reads is made up of debators who trash out their support of the book they have been chosen to read, eventually voting a book a week off the stacks until the surviving one goes on to fame and glory. When this year’s list was announced, I was attracted to Cheri Demaline’s The Marrow Thieves and, tentatively, Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness. Perhaps it was the influence of the Giller’s shortlisted Eden Robinson’s amazing, searing Young Adult story of an Indigenous youth and his peripatetic spirit quest, all the while managing a family drama that is too real to shut out. I chose Demaline’s book, putting Forgiveness on the shelf. (Yes, there is irony in that.)

As with Robinson’s book, the Marrow Thieves is riveting and gut-wrenching YA, tearing open into full view the psychological survival of Indigenous Peoples in a dystopic future. There, survivors of a climate catastrophe, hunt the Indigenous Peoples for the key they hold to survival. It’s worth the read.

But it’s not what I want to write about today.

A reluctant reader of Sakamoto’s memoir, Forgiveness: A gift from my grandparents, I confess I feared the theme of Asian oppression that occurred in Canada as a reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. I’d also read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep Northa powerful story of Australian POWs forced into building the Thai-Burma Death Railway; the book effectively ruined my summer – or was it winter? But then, fear is a seductive creature, drawing us ever closer to the very thing we seek to avoid.

Sakamoto’s book is a tragedy in three parts: his Japanese grandparents, born in Canada and the target of Canadian bigotry; his East Coast grandfather, escaping a brutal home life only to become a POW in Japanese-held Hong Kong and later sent to a shipbuilding factory in Osaka, Japan; and, Sakamoto’s writing, filled with grammatical and historical errors, that almost derails the early history of his two lineages.

The richness of the two sets of grandparents, their own parents and children (Sakamoto’s parents) is mostly lost as is the opportunity to capitalize on an important theme of hope and belonging, betrayal and resilience. Sakamoto’s Japanese great-grandparents came to Canada’s West Coast and became a fishing family among many other Japanese. As we so well know from centuries of history, nothing turns one part of a community against another faster than the success of one and not both. Colour of skin, accents, and other external features become the target of ridicule and bullying. Eventually, governments step in with shoddily clad legislation that sanctions prejudice. In 1941, after Japan’s entry into WW II, the government claimed “military necessity” and Japanese Canadians were shipped to the interior of British Columbia, Ontario, and the beet farms of Alberta¹. In all, 21, 000 were displaced and never compensated for lost homes, businesses, and emotional wounds of disbanding families. The timeline here shows redress occurred in 1988 but did not include compensation for loss of property and hardship.

Sakamoto’s grandparents survived by agreeing to go to a beet farm in Alberta so that they could stay together as a family, only to discover that life on the open prairie during the fierce winter in an un-insulated animal shed will challenge them in ways they could not have imagined. For his grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, caring for her parents and children becomes the source of her resilience. Her son, whose woundedness is not made clear, is Sakamoto’s father (the book could use a genealogy!).

Across the country on the East Coast, Sakamoto’s Canadian grandfather, Ralph MacLean, lives on The Magadelan Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As Sakamoto narrates it, his grandfather’s story edges on cliché despite the very real likelihood of his unforgiving, brutal parental environment in an unforgiving land. So much could have been done with this, however, it distils down to a physically and emotionally abused child with a heart of gold who eventually survives his own internment by the Japanese military in Asia. His daughter, wounded as well, is Sakamoto’s mother. The painful irony of his parents bringing together two victims of oppression is unexplored other than a nod to a mysterious process of forgiveness.

Against a painful and powerful background such as this, Sakamoto had ample material to weave a rich narrative. However, the rushed sketches of these characters, who were so critical to the later narrative that intertwines to shape the author’s own life are frustratingly sparse and staccato. I want to know more about Sakamoto’s father beyond his self-involved tendency to move from dream to dream. Then again, is it self-involvement or a desperate need to repossess what was lost? How did his mother become who she became, besides the usual “falling in with the wrong crowd”? Ironically, the chapters about his parents are read better, yet the characters all stand unavailable, still caught in their psychological internment.

The final tragedy of Forgiveness is captured by Goodreads reviewer, Edward Fenner‘s whose comments save me writing out the frustrations of reading a book that is poorly edited and sloppy in its fact-checking. It doesn’t take much to validate geographical locations – there is only one ferry from the Magdalen Islands and it goes to PEI. It crosses a “strait”, not a”straight”.  The first sections of the book had a sense of notes taken in conversation with his grandparents. The latter sections about his parents and his own life were better written and, I am guessing, might have been the manuscript he was to send to the Globe and Mail for publication, from whence someone thought it would make a great book (it would have). Certainly, the language and style of the early years describing his family seem akin to parents or grandparents telling grandchildren about their life experiences. How Forgiveness won the Canada Reads debate is perplexing. However, one can hope Sakamoto will use this revival of his book to consider his family’s stories again because we only die when we are forgotten. Somehow, I think that would be the gift from his grandparents.

As an immigrant generation, we are losing our history. When my parents passed away, they left a gaping historical hole in our family, much like the missing photographs in their albums. In my mother’s later confused years, she had taken out the photos of my brother and placed them in a separate album – supposedly because I would not be interested in seeing his life in grainy black and white snapshots. So, I have albums comprised in part of grainy snapshots of my life in Burma and in part of blank spaces of black. My lineage skips across these spaces and my now-troublingly poor memory tries to backfill the emptiness. I suppose I should be happy because the memories that fill the spaces are likely less triggering than the ones in the lost photos!

It’s a shame Sakamoto didn’t do a greater justice by taking the time to produce the powerful story it would have been if only to show that his grandparents’ ability to forgive was not about the individual. It was a clarity that the world is good, evil, neither, and both. It was a realization that we can encourage our stories to blind and bind us or shed light on another way to honour our narrative – ones that are already hidden in the folds of the stories we tell ourselves.

 

  1. http://japanesecanadianhistory.net/historical-overview/general-overview/

 

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: 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

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.

 

Book review: Choosing Buddhism

Choosing Buddhism: The life stories of eight Canadians by Mauro Peressini (published by University of Ottawa Press 2016) offers an interesting mix of socio-anthropological information of Buddhism in Canada wrapped around narratives of eight living Canadians who converted to Buddhism. Specifically, the domain of the book is the phenomenon of conversion rather than cultural or heritage Buddhism. The arc of the book however is a study in coming to Buddhism through a variety of life choices, many of which appeared to move away from Buddhism rather than towards it.

Peressini begins with a detail description of his own process in writing the book and a heavily detailed description of the way the book is set up. It’s only 13 pages but it’s a bit of a slog unless research methodology and census data is something that intrigues you. Nevertheless, it was interesting to learn about the intricacies of tapping into the actual numbers of Buddhists in Canada and even more so for the conversion to Buddhism. The chapter on Buddhism in Canada (p53-61) was particularly fascinating especially noting the differences before and after 1967 being related to the political lines drawn between those of European races and the “undesirable” Asian races. (We arrived in 1965 and I recall my parents saying with some awe and anxiety that we were one of 19 families accepted from “the East”.)

The heart of Peressini’s book however beats in the narratives of the eight Canadians (some naturalized):

Ajahn Viradhammo (born Vitauts Akers in Germany),
Jim Bedard (born in North Bay ON),
Albert Low (born in London England),
Taigen Henderson (born Ian Henderson in Toronto ON),
Zengetsu Myokyo (born Judith McLean in Aylmer QC),
Louis Cormier (born in Rogersville NB),
Kelsang Drenpa (born Christine Ares in Longueuil QC), and
Tsultrim Palmo (born Anna Szczygielska in Ostrow, Poland.

Their stories are not the typical sorry tale with a flash forward to some moment of enlightenment after which all is well. The very poignant human struggles and challenges of faith are helpful to know for anyone who thinks the Path smoothly rises up to greet us. And of course, it just continues after (their self-reported) enlightenment. Peressini offers a commentary at the end of each life story which rather nicely ties together his intent in the methodology and the narrative itself.

Personally, I was fascinated to read the life path of Ajahn Viradhammo and Albert Low, having met both as teachers and practice briefly with Low. Ajahn V. is a towering individual in the Buddhist community in and around Ottawa. I recall meeting with him when he was living in Ottawa and caring for his mother. Our conversation was warm and wide-ranging but it was very clear that he, as a traditionalist, was going to have no truck with this beast called ‘secular mindfulness’. I learned a lot in that conversation, not the least was to hold the integrity of the Dhamma close in anything I was going to do.

Albert Low’s narrative was astonishing probably yet so consistent with his clear vision of who he is (was?). Of all my teachers, I knew him for the shortest time but was most deeply affected by his gentle and quiet presence. He left me with a simple instruction: Be gentle with your breath, don’t be afraid to always start over. When I wrote to tell him I could no longer make the 4-hr return trip to Montreal every week, he wrote back (I paraphrase here): We are only given the privilege to walk with each other for short spaces. But stay with each other for an eternity.

Choosing Buddhism is really not about how these practitioners decided what path to take. It is about the what they chose in each moment of their lives. If it was to suffer, they chose to suffer fully. If it was to stop, they stopped fully. If it was to move on, they did so whole-heartedly. Like Ajahn V., they heard that very quiet call that could have easily been lost in the noise of whatever drama was playing out in their life at the time.

The book itself is a resource to understand both the development of Buddhism in Canada and how we come to create the path we walk. If that’s not your bag, the life stories make a lovely fireside read.