Through the magic of my Twitter feed, where occasionally pearls can be found amidst the social media junk, I came across a "Thich Naht Hahn is wrong" post on Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen blog.
I was attracted to the title because I've tried to read some of Hahn's writings, but they end up seeming too Buddhist'y preachy to my increasingly churchless mind. (Yeah, I'm becoming so turned off to religion, even godless Buddhism seems too doctrinaire to me.)
At first, Warner's piece struck me as making some good points about mindfulness. Basically he doesn't agree with the notion that something called "mindfulness" is going to bring us closer to reality. This is at odds with a tweet from Hahn's account which said:
When you contemplate the big, full sunrise, the more mindful & concentrated you are, the more the beauty of the sunrise is revealed to you.
But there's another way to take this statement. And I honestly believe it's the way most people would take it. They'd look at it and say, "Gosh. I'm not mindful enough. I'm not concentrated enough. Because when I look at a sunrise, I just shade my eyes so that I can get through this traffic jam on West Market Street without running over any of the kids from Our Lady of the Elms. Sunrises kind of annoy me. They give me a headache. I better get more concentrated and more mindful so that I can be more like Thich Nhat Hanh and let the beauty of the sunrise be revealed to me."
In other words, the concept of "mindfulness" gets in the way of the sunrise. It becomes a big obstacle between what we think of as our self and what we think of as the sunrise. And we make our efforts to try to overcome the obstacle we've placed in our own way. Most of the time I hear or read the word "mindfulness" it sounds to me like an obstacle.
Pretty much all of our religions and our various self-help practices are based on the idea that what we are right now is not good enough. We then envision what "good enough" must be like and we make efforts to transform what we are right now into this image of ourselves as "good enough." We invent in our minds an imaginary "mindful me" and then try to make ourselves into that.
Yes, true enough.
But Mark Warner says he is a Buddhist monk. He's written quite a few Hardcore Zen books that he advertises on his web site. Why would Warner do this if he didn't also embrace the idea that "what we are right now is not good enough"?
I skimmed through the many comments on Warner's post. Some supported Warner's perspective; others, Hahn's. Still others, some other way of looking at mindfulness, meditation, and other Buddhist practices.
Interesting how looking at a sunset can get so complicated, when spirituality/religion becomes part of the seeing. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this -- given how much crap I've written on this blog during the past six and a half years, there's no way I can criticize someone for analyzing the Zen of sunset watching.
In my beloved "Complete Idiot's Guide to Taoism," this morning I read in a section on Buddhism:
Mahayana's doctrine grew out of a famous paradox at the heart of Buddhism. It encourages us to eliminate our desires, first for inessentials like wealth and status, then for sex, then for food, and eventually even for breath.
When these desires are extinguished, one is nearly ready for nirvana, but one desire remains. It's the desire that motivated the entire exercise -- the desire to enter nirvana.
...It's easy to see the path to Zen from here. Why make the desire to get to nirvana the last desire you extinguish? Make it the first!
It's also easy to see the Taoist contribution from this viewpoint. How do you extinguish the desire for nirvana? Simple. Abandon the distinction between nirvana and samsara, accept that we all have the Buddha nature (are all already Buddha), and return to living everyday life!
OK. But wouldn't it be even better to not have to return to living everyday life, because the notion of nirvana or enlightenment never entered your mind?
Or to not write what I just said, for the same reason? But if there's no nirvana and no samsara, it doesn't matter what I do or don't do, because it's all the same.
Glad I cleared that up. But what is that? (Note to self: resolve all this confusion in future blog post, once and for all. Then seek psychiatric help for delusions of grandeur.)
(I'm just typing out loud). Thanks for the interesting blog post!
I guess the only reason one even sets out to seek "nirvana" is to escape the harshness of the world. It is interesting how people in third world countries (parts of rural India or rural Mississippi?) seek more spirituality and religion based on the dire circumstances of their life. Poor health, sleeping in feces, annihilation of family members during war, etc. The only thing they can do is pray or meditate because that is the only "treatment" which may exist for them. Do you think people in the western world who have the luxury of writing blogs in the comfort of their own homes clearly get "bored" or turned "of" the Zen-ness and spirituality because they are not "miserable" enough? Perhaps because they just start taking for granted their comfortable positions and have nothing to "stress" about, so why not start analyzing spiritual scriptures? Nursing studies show that people of lower socio-economic statuses and chronic disease processes are more proned to "not question and analyze" spirituality and religion as much as those who are healthier (physically and mentally). So where does that lead one with Zen crap and/or enlightened wisdom?
Posted by: WholisticNurse | March 13, 2012 at 11:52 PM
WholisticNurse, interesting observations...and questions.
Yes, poor people in India and elsewhere do seem to be more attached to their chosen religion/spirituality. Like you said, when life is tough, the prospect of a more pleasant afterlife is appealing -- or feeling that suffering is part of God's plan, is burning off karma, or whatever.
Comfortable people in industrialized countries have different attitudes. Yet I think the United States is one of the most religious nations, even though we're also one of the richest. Go figure. But maybe your observation regarding questioning and analyzing helps explain things.
Even fundamentalists in this country probably aren't as strict as fundamentalists in less developed nations. Questioning does appear to be linked to the ability to have free time and other resources that allow for skepticism, debate, and such.
Posted by: Brian Hines | March 14, 2012 at 12:10 AM
It is perhaps interesting to note that social economic systems go through evolution. The systems compete whit each other and the best system survives. Nowadays it seems that the requirement that the subjects of these systems life nice lives is not an important parameter in its survival chances. We are completely exploited by the current system offering day and night to work. Listening to economic rules (the system) for what we have to do. It also seems that the current form in between de dinosaur Kapitalism and the dinosaur Communism is even more effective in producing things that keep us all hooked like tv and iPad. But what will be the 'purpose' of such an evolution? Eventually something else will evolve like always. Will it be the machines that eventually learn to reproduce without human mindless like they are and mindless like we are? Will we be some kind of batteries hooked to virtual environments producing the dream state of the machines from which they chose the actions? The thinking tank? Will they live in the harsh natural environment that seems to evolve from this one copying a virtual environment that is showed to us in which we will act and learn the machine how to copy with the outside world. We than will have evolved to the grey matter of silicon valley but hey we already are!
But to get back on buddhism. I don't see a place for non productive philosophizing except for the fact that in times of trouble we need people that had lots of spare time to think of new ways to handle the new environmental challenges.
Thanks for reading my mental cocktail that results form the recovery of a cold ;)
Posted by: nietzsche | March 14, 2012 at 04:04 AM
"Pretty much all of our religions and our various self-help practices are based on the idea that what we are right now is not good enough"
This is because we can usually imagine something better and the comparison creates discontent. This is a good thing in technical matters, but in being self-conscious...
Posted by: cc | March 14, 2012 at 09:48 AM
There is a paradox here because there does seem to be this concept many have about a realization called liberation or nirvana.
Yet there is no "way" to get "to" "it".
We are in this bind where it seems that practice reinforces the sense of a self that would be realized because if there was not this sense of self why would one practice to get rid of it?
For this reason some come to the conclusion that practice is to be avoided in order for the sense of seperate self to be eliminated. Thus, we hear non-dualists say there is nothing to be done because there is no one to do it or anything to be gained or gotten by anyone. People pay money to hear this or buy books that tell them this.
This leads one to endeavor to not practice, but the ego is involved once more because there has been this conscious effort not to practice by someone who would not do the practice.
One says, "I neither practice nor do not practice."
Well then, what the hell do you do?
I don't know. Both forms of practice are incompatible with liberation because in Buddhism, Advaita, etc. liberation means liberation from a practicer or non-practicer.
I think eventually there comes a point where all this exhausts you and you just throw up your hands in helplessness in your inability to do anything about seeing the nameless, ineffable thing you want to see.
Maybe in that moment whatever there is to be revealed, non-revealed, recognised or realized just dawns of its own accord.
Posted by: tucson | March 14, 2012 at 05:37 PM
tucson, nicely said. What I wonder about is this:
Is there any difference between (1) a happy person who has never heard of Zen, Advaita, self-realization, or whatever, and just goes about his or her daily business, enjoying life as it comes, and (2) an enlightened Buddhist who has spent many years in meditation, studying the sutras, listening to dharma discourses, or whatever, and has come to an elevated state where he or she just goes about his or her daily business, enjoying life as it comes.
That is, is there any point to searching, when there is nothing special to be found? Are those who enjoy life without going through a stage of feeling "I must learn to enjoy life" less worthy than the seekers of truth who come to the same realization after a lengthy detour through the byways of spirituality?
Posted by: Brian Hines | March 14, 2012 at 06:09 PM
I don't think anything matters except the meaning we give to it. To some people the Chicago Cubs mean everything. To most others, they either have never heard of them or couldn't care less.
That's how we live our lives. We go with what we love or what we must do. Sometimes the two go together if we are fortunate. Sometimes we live dull lives of tension filled commutes to boring, tedious jobs saying, "Why do we have to live this way? What does it all mean?."
It means nothing.
"All we are is dust in the wind". That's how I see it. We're here "only for a moment and then the moment's gone." Someday Julius Caesar will be forgotten and even the Taj Mahal will crumble and decay. The flower blooms and dies only to be replaced by another in endless cycles.
And that's the beauty of it too. It means nothing and yet it means everything because we ARE here in this moment, an expression of the underlying consciousness from which, in which, we appear and disappear. A twinkle in the matrix of infinity. That's a beautiful thing.
It means nothing and yet life is wondrous and amazing. Infinity expressing itself in a myriad of forms in a myriad of ways all interconnected flowing in a mysterious harmony out of nowhere to nowhere. That's the meaning of it. A meaning with no meaning.
So, does it matter if the ignorant peasant rambles through the countryside, happy in their circumstances and beliefs while a zen monk sits "enlightened" gazing over a Himalayan vista, with the solution to every koan clear as a bell?
No. They both arise from and fall to, in fact ARE the same eternity, both essentially the same at the core of their being. The only difference is the sage sees infinity now while the peasant sees it ultimately as we all do.
Posted by: tucson | March 14, 2012 at 11:08 PM
Perhaps to extinguish the desire for nirvana one must first acknowledge nirvana exists. The whole process probably leads to a better everyday life.
Posted by: Geo | March 15, 2012 at 08:26 AM
"...is there any point to searching, when there is nothing special to be found?"
Finding the pointlessness of searching is very special.
Posted by: cc | March 15, 2012 at 09:50 AM
"Perhaps to extinguish the desire for nirvana one must first acknowledge nirvana exists."
Once the idea of nirvana is implanted, it's either pulled out by the roots or it grows into a tree, the shade of which keeps the brain in the dark.
Posted by: cc | March 15, 2012 at 09:57 AM
cc, I like...
"Once the idea of nirvana is implanted, it's either pulled out by the roots or it grows into a tree, the shade of which keeps the brain in the dark."
You should publish a book of spiritual aphorisms. Your one-liners are appealing.
Posted by: Brian Hines | March 15, 2012 at 10:37 AM
I wonder if the longing for spiritual experience has kept me from reaching it. But now that I don't care I would probable ignore it if it came.
This post is actually hurting my mind :(
Posted by: nietzsche | March 15, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Hmmm if we are already enlightened and in nirvana, would not the search for enlightenment be just a part of nirvana, and so we should stop worrying about searching for it. Or since the worry about searching for nirvana is part of our always-enlightened existence and we shouldnt worry about doing that either. Or... ahhh loops on loops... althought thinking in loops is also part of out always-enlightened life. grrr.
Posted by: geo | March 15, 2012 at 08:01 PM
geo, I think you've cleared up my questions about searching vs. not searching. Thanks.
We shouldn't worry about loopy questions, or clearing up questions. I seem to be pleasantly accepting of my confusion, but if I'm really not, that's OK too, because it's all what it is.
Far out. All this probably will make even more sense after I've had my evening glass of red wine. (If I drink the whole bottle, MUCH more sense.)
Posted by: Brian Hines | March 15, 2012 at 08:52 PM