flinching from eudaimonism in buddhism

Let me pick up on a hint of a theme from yesterday’s book review of Thich Nhat Hanh’s new novel, The Novice. Towards the end of the post, I commented that Thấy’s teachings offer an easy entry to Buddhism.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say he, like many teachers who are skillful, offers an apparently simple beginning to practice.  There is wisdom in this.  The teachings can be encouraging and lay a solid groundwork for deeper understanding as we continue on the path.  However, there is also a danger that we can fall into a flowery, vapid, and naive approach that gentle teachings can evoke.

It has always concerned me that “simple” is absorbed as “simplistic” and the evidence is rampant in the millions of catchy sayings that attempt to transport us from the truth of suffering into a facsimile realm of the Pure Land.  Tragically, this creates a blindness to the deeper teachings offered by teachers such as Thấy which are – under the child-like renditions – a complex integration of scripture and aids to practice.  Over the years, I have come to appreciate that his words, audio and written, are killing-sword koans whose edge we can skip over or on which we can impale our delusions.

I once said to a dharma teacher in Thấy’s tradition that Thấy offers an easy in but it’s a tough stay.  Practice, as Thấy teaches, demands an unrelenting devotion to being honest with oneself in every moment.  Try it for five if you question how hard this is.  And yet, the preponderance of his teachings seem to end up as sound bytes turning the nectar of compassion into a mind-numbing salve against the reality that the practice of Buddhism is not about salvation in this moment or any other.  It’s a true koan of our times.  How do such accessible teachings result in such a diversion from the intent of practice?

About the time of my struggle with this conundrum an email arrived pointing me to a delicious post by Glenn Wallis on “Flinching.”  As frightened as I am by the depth of Wallis’ erudition, I was compelled by his argument that there is a turning away from the truth of suffering, that we have developed a predictive, fallacious equation whose outcome variable is set as “deep joy.”  He refers to this perspective as “a eudaimonistic subterfuge” to which Buddhism is becoming heir.  If I grasp Wallis’ exegesis and in my simplistic terms, we Buddhists have taken a wrong turn in our understanding of the Dharma by making practice instrumental rather than intentional.  Not only have we let our fears about the true nature of reality get the better of us, we have become deeply desirous of a belief that a virtuous practice will reap a future of deep joy.  This utilitarian stance to practice is subtly subversive and the ground quickly becomes unstable because it is driven by avoidance of pain.  This is further emphasized by a recent retreat on the Tricycle page in which Rita Gross spoke out on “feel-good Buddhism.”

In psychotherapy, we call this a flight into health.  The patient, overwhelmed by what is required to make sincere and long-lasting change, suddenly gets better – a one-hit-one-session-wonder.  The therapist, anxious about the depth of intervention and the demands of sitting with the pain of the Other, flinches at the prospect and welcomes or even offers this endpoint of deep joy.  It is a collusion that creates a dynamic of mutual blindness.  Winding this thread back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I wish had a peanut for every time I heard someone say, “If you just practice for three days, your depression will go away.”  Or, “If I could just sit in the presence of my partner’s anger and understand Interbeing, it will be ok.”  Well, if I had a peanut for each of these times, I’d be a happy elephant.

Here’s the unfiltered truth:  There are no promises.  Hope was a demon in Pandora’s Box.  Practice simply because there is no choice.  Don’t flinch from this.

and a map

And finally, Glenn Wallis offers sixteen propositions as a map to find our way through the texts.  These cluster into six groups that are fascinating in their intent.

The teachings begin by asking you to recognize and explore where you are (Habitat).

You are introduced to ideas and perspectives that have a disorienting effect (Dis-orientation).

You are introduced to ideas and perspectives that point you in a different direction (Re-orientation).

You are shown a plan for a new habitat (Map).

You are given the details of that end (Destination).

You set out on the open journey (Going).

Looking them over, I can see that I don’t tend to get further than the second group.  Of course, every journey begins with hours of obsessively cleaning house (habitat? – likely not), and organizing the unorganizable.  Some call it procrastination; I call it letting the Muse emerge.  Then I’m likely stuck in a dis-orientated pose for years and years.  The primary question of the last three days has been “Am I willing to change?”  Or more poignantly, “Am I willing to give up my treasured stances to dukkha on the chance – a Chance! – that it might lead me in a different direction?”

Wallis calls de-orientation a “bewitchment” against knowing reality, “knowing for yourself.”  I like this.  I like Magic in general; it takes the responsibility off my shoulders.  But I’m guessing that a true application of the teachings isn’t going to let me wave any more wands.


Here’s the third question to ask as we dig into our relationship with the teachings texts of the Buddha (as far as we may know them):

Would I be willing to alter my life in the way the text is suggesting?

Often, the answer – and a superficial one – is to say, No.  I feel challenged by Wallis’ call to sit in the dynamic of a good question.

Learning takes place at the point of tension between credulous appreciation and wary dismissal.

He points out that we are experts at the dichotomies. We thrive at the nadir and zenith of the acceptance/rejection continuum.  And we are loath to abandon this immediate stance.  And that’s just fine.

Whatever it is, your response to a word, passage, or text is the very lifeblood of reading.  It is in your response that your relationship to the world of the suttas is formed, developed, and fulfilled or unfulfilled.

The art of discovery lies in the willingness to open – not so much to the answers but to the question.


Here’s the second question from Glenn Wallis’ approach to working with Buddhist texts (from Basic Teachings of the Buddha):

What limitations do I impose on the text?  For example, would I be willing to do the practices that may be required for a thorough understanding of the text?

 I’m no scholar of Buddhist texts so my work with this question would be, in itself, a limiting of the texts as a meta-document.  One of things I do struggle with are the repetitions among various collections but also an anxiety that I’m not picking up the subtleties that may also be contradictions.  That aside, it makes for interesting self-revelation to sense into the hitch of the in-breath, the slight clutch at the throat or belly when I encounter a teaching that just doesn’t mesh with the way I believe the world should work.  That initial arising of doubt or culturally-based rejection points to a rich understanding of my own limitations, my own willingness to push my edge.

The validity or veracity of the text can be in question; hoisting 2,600 year-old teachings into the present poses many difficulties.  But for now let’s suppose that isn’t so much the issue as is cultivating wisdom.   If the intent is to develop trust in my intuitive understanding, it helps to notice these moments of resistance.  Then it is important to turn towards this self that is stepping back as ask the question again – of a different subject:

What am I imposing on myself?  

questions -1

When I started the Chaplaincy program, I had envisioned a process of studying the sutras and digging deeply into koan practice.  As the year unfolded it became clear that this weaving together of heart/mind was going to be challenging and it demanded more than structuring time to read and reflect.  The subtle aspects of learning, absorbing Dharma rain, are not laid out in any manual.  It is very much a process that relies on the convergence of teachers, materials, readiness, and simmering time.

One of the best approaches to this form of heart/mind absorption of the teachings is by Glenn Wallis.  In trying to organize my thoughts on the Four Noble Truths (and, if you’ve read of my previous notations on them here, you may feel it’s a hopeless task), I started working with Wallis’ Basic Teachings of the Buddha.  Nothing like going back to the basics and, in this case, well worth it.

Wallis takes great pains to explain the nature of his own organizational structure.  In about 11 pages of Introduction, he covers the developmental history of the Buddha and his teachings.  Then on page xxi, the fun begins.  I actually may never get past the Introduction to the texts themselves because what Wallis proposes we pose as questions in our relationship to the suttas are also life questions.

In reading the texts, Wallis suggests we ask several questions.  The first few are related directly to the texts themselves: meaning, theme, trajectory and so on.  Then he suggests questions that I particularly love to work with – not just with respect to contemplative text but with any aspect of life presenting itself in the moment.

Here’s the first one:

What does this text demand of me?  For example, does it indicate some sort of practice is required for a thorough understanding?  Does it ask me to alter my life in some fundamental way?

Wallis has sixteen suttas he presents in his book.  I think this approach would work with any text.  Or any life.  Give it a shot and let me know what opens up for you.