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April 15, 2024


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"Tollifson does a pretty good job of living as if an independent self and free will are illusions."

How so? How can you discern if someone is living as if an independent self and free will are illusions?

sant64, I discern what Tollifson is experiencing from what she says she's experiencing. I've read many of her writings. I've listened to many of her talks and interviews. She doesn't claim to be enlightened or privy to any supernatural phenomena.

Tollifson just describes her personal struggles, her ups and downs, and how her lengthy exposure to Buddhism, nonduality, and such has helped her maintain a more or less steady footing in life. Meaning, she still makes missteps, but she doesn't feel as guilty, disappointed, and ashamed of those missteps as she did before.

I trust Tollifson in the same way I trust anybody who describes their life that I'm not able to directly observe. Until someone clearly is lying or deceiving, we have to trust that what they say is correct from their perception. Otherwise human communication becomes very difficult, with little trust, empathy, and so on.

I understand the relative psychological usefulness of anatta, and likewise, the relative utility of the philosophy of limited free will. I also understand that every Buddhist embraces the anatta concept; again to a relative degree. (No free will is I think outside Buddhist teachings.)

I don't read Tollison and I trust she doesn't claim to be per se enlightened. And I get that you qualified with an "as if." But though I can fully understand how someone can face life acting to some degree "as if" they had no free will and no self and profit by it, it eludes me how anyone could ever conclusively know that any of their actions were completely outside their personal will.

That points to one of the problems I have with the no-free-will philosophy. It can be therapeutic for those obsessed with the past, but it can also be self-justifying. It would seem, paradoxically, that the more one embraced the idea that he truly had no free will or self, the more self-justifying he would be. Or confused.

Also, if anyone claimed to have "seen through the illusions of self and free will," he wouldn't be any different from the guy who claims full God Realization and is acting in all ways in God's will.

I think classical Buddhism has fleshed out very well the necessary balance between the concepts of anatta and karma. These concepts would seem to be contradictory, but actually, they are very complementary and point to a balanced perspective of avoiding extremes of self-regard and nihilism.

Generally, I tend to read books on ‘spiritual’ matters or more accurately these days, books written on Zen or Chan Buddhism just to see how the author expresses the matter. Which is one reason why I appreciate Brian’s Churchless blog as some of the books he reviews end up on my ‘may purchase’ list. Joan Tollifson’s work was one that interested me.

On her webpage in the ‘Outpourings’ section under ‘enlightenment’ she states: - “I would not say that I am enlightened, nor would I say that I am not enlightened. I don't find any solid, persisting, independent entity here to be one way or the other.”

Essentially, as far as I’m concerned, that statement encapsulates much of the matter. Zen/Chan Buddhism uses the term anatta or no-self. They talk about no inherent, independent existence, not only in reference to ourselves but to everything in existence. We ascribe certain qualities to ourselves and things as though such concepts were real in themselves though the reality is they are just impermanent and ever-changing forms.

It stands to reason that to have no self invites the conclusion that there is no separate entity there to will decisions. Although choices are made, they naturally emanate from the biology and history of the total body/mind processes.

Sapolsky honestly claims that he's only able to truly live from the perspective of no free will about 1% of the time and admits he views people, including himself, as deserving of credit and blame. That is probably quite true for most of us though I would say that the forerunner to no free will, no-self is something one can realise.

The thing is, Buddhism doesn't exactly hold that we literally have no self. Buddha never explicitly said, there is no self. He taught the no-self doctrine because what we think and wish the self to be —independent, unchanging, is always dependent and changing. But that's not the same as saying there is "no" self.

While one can philosophize that there is no free will (even Charan Singh did this, and no free will is actually a staple concept of many religions), and one can look at the past and see the ways that actions occurred with less than complete free will, I'm durned if it's possible for anyone to honestly claim that they *live* in each moment without free will. That's because it's impossible to discern whether our motives arise from conditions of the past and feature absolutely zero personal will. If anyone doesn't believe me, try going 10 waking minutes with certainty you didn't act on your personal will. I've tried this experiment, and so I have doubts about the utility of "no free will" as a plan for living.

No Philo can
If it could , Creation would vanish

Remember the moment U were crazylike in Love
and multiply by 9^9^9
That s the way
And because all Souls are the clever Creator

Just pick one that knows already who She is

For free will I explained already

No self would mean no soul.

No free will would mean no existence.

It doesn’t add up…

As much as I disagree with GSD on so many points, I have to admit that he’s probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

At least he can accept and debate any subject quite skillfully.

That said, being smart doesn’t necessarily make you right, but it certainly makes you interesting.

Yes Duality. No self means so soul – as both are mental constructs assumed from the fact that we exist and live by curtesy of an interdependent brain/mind/body.

And no free will means our existence is based upon an efficient organism that makes decisions and chooses from its vast network of past experiences both mental and physical – no mysterious soul or self needed for a physical organism to exist and function. It certainly adds up.

Buddhist philosophy Jay Garfield makes a good case for loosing the self in his book ‘Loosing Our-selves’; he states “… there are not only good philosophical and scientific reasons to deny the reality of the self, but we can lead healthier social and moral lives if we understand that we are ‘self-less’ persons.” Worth a read.

Just one among many Buddhist and scientific researchers that understand there is no self/soul or free will.

"I get how many people, me included much of the time, view Zen Buddhism and related practices as being unduly enigmatic, indirect, mysterious, and dismissive of logic/rationality. However, if reality truly is a unity, beyond our capacity to comprehend in terms of our usual this and that perspectives, then any attempt to describe the nature of reality in our " normal" fashion is bound to fail."

Nope, this defense of Zen does not make sense either. Sorry for continuing to flog the same old, but here's what's wrong with this approach:

Sure, reality itself is so complex, and so impossibly larger than our puny faculty to comprehend, that there's no way we can even begin to actually apprehend the whole of it. Agreed, as far as that, agreed 100℅.

But that has nothing to do with what this is about. Here's why:

Many elements of regular physics are complex enough, and QM even more so. Likewise other sciences. Which is understandable, given how vast is reality, and how puny our faculties. But that's not the point, is it? The complexity of science relates to the complexity of the specific explanations being discussed, and NOT the incomprehensible vastness of reality itself. That last is a complete, utter non sequitur.

Likewise, when we look at the complexity of Zen ramblings, to point at the incomprehensible vastness of reality itself is completely, utterly fallacious. We need concern ourselves only with the specific explanation that Zen is presenting us with.

As far as that, and like I said, what good scientific presenters do is take truly complex explanations and explain them to us simply and clearly. (What Feynman had said, that no matter how complex your subject, if you can't explain it clearly and fairly completely, and yet in terms that a high schooler might understand, then you don't really understand it yourself.)

And the opposite of that are people like Deepak Chopra, and these Zen types, who aim not for clarity but for obscurantism. Who, instead of explaining complex things simply, instead state simple things in as complex a manner as they can, who try to present their simple messages with as much faux-profundity as they can muster. Like I said, it's all bullshytte.

Sorry, Brian. The vastness of reality, and relative to that the puny insignificance of our capacity to know and understand, while I agree completely with that principle, but when it comes to using that principle as defense of and justification for the faux profundity and nonsensical faux complexity of Zen, in plain words to justify its obscurantism, then no, sorry, but that defense simply does not work, at all.


Again, contrast this with the message of the Buddha. His message is crystal clear. Not that all of it is fully correct, he did get some things wrong; but the point is his clarity, which lets us clearly judge whether he's right or wrong, There's no attempt, at all, at obscurantism,.

But this? Both with Deepak Chora and with Zen, you're left unsure of what is being said. Which, if you don't recognize it for the bulkshytte it thisthen you'll yourself imagine all manner of profound wisdom there ...you know, in a word, the obscurantism, deal.

Like how you yourself equate that gobbledygook to the vastness of reality vis-a-vis our puny understanding. Much like Tao speaking of that, I call BS. Because the conclusion very broadly hinted at is that Tao and Zen are somehow privy to that vastness in a way we aren't. But when they open their mouth to explain, out tumbles gobbledygook, because hey, their wisdom, that they somehow grok, is too vast to be put in our words.

Sorry, no. That's BS. Your specific explanation of it, if you can't explain it to me in words that an intelligent, well-read layman can clearly understand, then you don't understand it yourself. Feynman again. (By "you" I mean the Zen types and Tao types and their faux profundity, not you, Brian!).

See what I'm saying? The vastness of reality thing, that you bring up here, and that Tao directly invokes, is a complete non sequitur. It's true enough, that principle, but as used here it's BS, it's obscurantism,, it's an attempted defense of faux profundity.


Which is not to dismiss all of Zen and Tao. I'm quite a fan of much of both. But this is to clearly call out the elements of BS there, the obscurantism, the faux complexity and faux profundity.

And enough said. I'll not flog this poor Zen horse again, promise, at least not for a good long while!

A.R. I am somewhat bemused when you align Deepak Chopra with Zen. Chopra is infamous for his pseudoscience and questionable health treatments – all nothing to do with Zen. Okay, so Zen Koans and stories can be obscure to our way of thinking, but they are not bullshit.

I don’t get a lot of such stuff so tend to focus more on some of the Zen teachers/writers who circumnavigate traditional Zen – for instance; Joko Beck, Tony Packer, Steve Hagen, even Eckhart Tolle, and of course Joan Tollifson and many more.

This is how I view the issue in my comment on Brian’s blog of the 13th April: - “The endpoint of spirituality is breaking the addiction to spirituality.”
“The basics of Zen Buddhism are the precepts of suffering, impermanence and emptiness. Anything else, any elaborations on that seem to be either the inevitable product of later writers’ additions and of course, interpretations and translations. It seems to me that these three core elements are all that is needed to understand the essence of Zen. Of course, after three thousand years and the numerous translations, additions and interpretations – many obscured by the fact that they perhaps only make sense in certain cultural contexts – it is no wonder that confusion exists to the western mind.”

“A.R. I am somewhat bemused when you align Deepak Chopra with Zen. Chopra is infamous for his pseudoscience and questionable health treatments – all nothing to do with Zen. Okay, so Zen Koans and stories can be obscure to our way of thinking, but they are not bullshit.”

Ron, I agree, it is absurd to equate an out-and-out charlatan like Deepak Chopra with Zen. Like I said, I myself admire a great deal about Zen, and there’s lots in that tradition that one might learn from, like LOTS; unlike someone like Deepak Chopra. No question of a full-on equivalence there. Like I tried to specify, I was commenting specifically about the obscurantism thing. To spell this out a bit more, even though I’ve touched on this already:

Specific explanations in science can be very very complex. And yet, good scientists are able to explain that real complexity to generally well-read laymen in terms that they might understand, without significantly sacrificing either precision or on holisticity of those specific explanations. Indeed, us laymen can further explore some of the methods of the most complex of scientific explanations, including exploring specific “proofs” (using that term loosely), if we are so inclined. It is only those who actually want to full-on research some specific who need devote significant years of study to that specific. The rest of us can take full advantage of even these very complex systems of knowledge, thanks to scientists who take the trouble to translate that complexity into simple terms. (See my [paraphrased] quote from Feynman.)

Obscurantism is the exact opposite of that. It is taking something simple --- whether true, or partly true, or completely false, but the point is, the message itself is something fairly simple --- and presenting it in terms that are very complex. The exact opposite of simplifying complexity, obscurantism is when you dress up simple explanations with unnecessary complexity to lend it spurious gravitas, to arrive at faux profundity.

I’ve seen Deepak Chopra hold forth on quantum healing, from back when he’d first come out with his books and lectures on that subject. (That is, I read and watched them much later, but I’m talking about his articles and interviews from that time.) I remember this particular interview, where the interviewer was very gentle, very polite, trying only to understand where Chopra the wise was coming from. Turns out, finally, that all he meant by “quantum healing” was simply homeostasis on the one hand, and the placebo effect on the other; with the “quantum” part merely a metaphorical usage, a figure of speech as it were. And it took the interviewer a full quarter hour or maybe a half hour to tease this out of him. …Now forget about whether he’s right or wrong, but the point I was trying to make is, here’s Chopra taking two very simple ideas, homeostasis and placebo ---- and these two are complex enough subjects, but in as much as Deepak Chopra had nothing to contribute there, beyond dressing them up with terms like “quantum” and Vedantic mumbo-jumbo, in his usage it was indeed a very simple matter ---- and presenting them in as complex a manner as he could. That’s obscurantism plain and simple.

It is that part of his methods that I’ve likened to Zen. Again, this isn’t about Koans, like we’d discussed at one time. I recognize Koans as a legitimate pedagogic technique for students. What I’m objecting to is their always, always, always presenting simple messages in as complex a form as they can. Which is exactly what obscurantism is.

Sorry, that was kind of long-winded, wasn’t it! I only wanted to explain myself clearly to you, is all. …Some more on this in the later section, referencing what you’ve further said in your comment.

To be very, very clear: I’m not saying all of Zen is BS. Nor am I likening all of Zen to the charlatanry of someone like Deepak Chopra. But what I’m calling out here is what I see as their obscurantism, their propensity to present simple things in as complex and confusing terms as is humanly possible (rather than the honest way of science and of scientists, which is to present truly complex ideas in simple terms).

It’s important to highlight this nuance even at cost of repetition. I’m not being dismissive of all of Zen. What I am calling out is their obscurantism.


“The basics of Zen Buddhism are the precepts of suffering, impermanence and emptiness.”

Pardon me, Ron; but nor really!

Let me slip in a qualification first: While I’m fairly closely familiar with Theravada, but my knowledge of Zen is sketchy. I’ve read some books on it, including Suzuki; but the meat of what I know of Zen comes from Brian’s discussions. With that lack of depth in Zen clearly admitted at the outset, let me go on to complete what I’d started saying in raising that objection.

The precepts of suffering, impermanence and emptiness are not so much the basics of Zen as of Buddhism. Those teachings predate Zen by something like one-and-a-half millennia! There’s not a whit Zen has added to those specifics, those specifics were very clearly spelt out, and sans any kind of obscurantism, long long long before Zen.

What Zen adds to these teachings are the ideas of, for instance, the mirror not needing polishing; and that the end result of spirituality is the realization that it’s all moot, all unnecessary. (As you see, and like I said, my knowledge of Zen is based largely on Brian’s discussions!) These are emphatically not what the Buddha taught, you know. The Buddha’s original teachings were not about the supernatural, at least not in essence. They were, as you say, about suffering, and how to overcome suffering. That “how” is the eight-fold path. And every element of it, both theory as well as practice, is very clearly explained. No obscurantism there, but instead perfect clarity. So that what’s right and what’s wrong can be easily judged. Zero obscurantism, all clearly spelled out. …But, and although there’s nothing supernatural there, there’s a great deal of “polishing the mirror” involved. Spirituality, per Buddha, isn’t about realizing there’s nothing to spirituality, no sir! It involves mindfulness, it involves clearly understanding the nature of desire, it involves clearly understanding the nature of impermanence, it involves clearly understanding emptiness. It involves a great deal of polishing the mirror.

So the essence of Zen, in as much as it isn’t simply a repetition of what the Buddha taught millennia ago, is something very different. And that portion is, I’m afraid, all covered up in obscurantist BS. …Again, I’m not commenting here on whether they’re right or wrong. What I’m calling out is their obscurantism. I mean, if indeed their message is that end result of spirituality is the realization that spirituality is moot, then why not just clearly say it and be done with it, rather than this endless nonsense, if your intentions are honest? (Generic “you”, obviously).

Here’s an analogy: Say some Aztec sage somehow comes to realize the truth about the sun. His realization is actually very complex, involving physics and math and cosmology, none of which he can explain easily to the garden variety Aztec. But he might very easily summarize his message in these terms: Look, the sun isn’t a god. It’s just a ball of fire, quite lifeless, and the earth goes around it, is all. There’s nothing to propitiate, eclipses happen like so (cue schoolboy-level demonstration). Don’t worry, you needn’t spend your days worrying about propitiating the sun god, because there’s no sun god, and day will follow night regardless of anything you do or don’t do. Torture your enemies if you like, but don’t bring these nonsensical sun-god beliefs into it.

There, easily explained. No need for students to spend years, their whole lives, “learning” with these “masters”, in the process affording them a freeloading livelihood. That lifelong study can be reserved only for those very few who are actually interested in the full-on research around the whys and wherefores of it.

That simplicity, that is the hallmark of science (despite the complexity of its specific explanations), is conspicuously missing in Zen. In Zen you see obscurantism, where simple messages are dressed up in impossibly complex formulations. That’s what I’m calling out here. (And again, koans per se have nothing to do with this, I've no objections to koans when used as a specific pedagogic technique for students.)

Again, I admire a great deal of Zen. It is just this specific that I object to, this obscurantism thing. And no, it isn’t a question of culture. It’s a question of clear thinking vis-à-vis confused thinking. It is patronizing to imagine that the “Easterner” is somehow unable to think straight; or that the “Westerner” is somehow better able to think clearly and logically and rationally than the "Easterner". There’s plenty of superstitious confused idiots in the “West”; and there's plenty of clear-headed rationalists in the “East”. This is simply a question of recognizing BS when you see it, and of calling it out clearly.

A.R. The four noble truths and the eightfold path are actually the foundations of Zen (as are all Buddhist schools). I have read a fair bit on Zen and Chan and their approach interests me. Maybe because it reflects my affinity with nature and natural ways. In the practice, teaching and readings I am familiar with, I don’t find them obscure. Some of the way teachings are presented may seem obscure initially but can result in realisation. My first ever reading of the Heart Sutra had quite an effect on me though not intellectually.

There are many things I appreciate in Zen or Chan, one being that they teach gradual or sudden enlightenment, meaning that the enlightened mind is already present, and realization of that mind may come to any of us in an instant. This reflects much of what contemporary teachers like Joan Tollifson (and also Joko Beck, Tony Packer and Steve Hagen etc.) present in simple terms and it aligns with many disciplines in sciences.

There are many different ways and methods in teaching and not all suits everyone. I for example am primarily a visual learner, whereas audial teaching often escapes me. I guess that with the various methods and teachings of Theravada and Zen it’s a question of horses for courses.

Not to beat this to death, Ron; but while all strands of Buddhism start with their common Theravadin base, but each goes forward along a slightly different route, sometimes a totally different route. Pure Land, for instance, takes to fantastical theistic woo in a way completely antithetical to what the Buddha taught. Likewise, if to a lesser extent, some strands of Vajrayana. In as much as Zen advocates that the end of spirituality is that spirituality is moot, and that the mirror needs no polishing, Zen too goes down a route very different than taught by the Buddha.

Assuming that teaching does represent the final essence of Zen, its starting point is kind of moot, as far as Zen per se. Assuming Tollifson isn't incorrectly taking that to be the final essence of Zen, then my Aztec analogy does hold. There is no need to subject your garden variety students to long drawn out courses of study and practice, that are lucrative to these "masters", when a half hour's talk, or a short page or three of exposition, might suffice to teach them that truth. Mindfulness and zazen and koans, while they may have other legitimate uses, but they're completely unnecessary to conveying that final essence of Zen --- assuming that is indeed the final essence of Zen. (And also, Zen per se diverges from mainstream Buddhism, and particularly from the original Theravadin teachings, in this, in advocating that spirituality is moot, and that the mirror needs no polishing.) ...In any case, my point is, if those indeed are the final essence of Zen, then Zen masters are necessarily being obscurantist in getting all students --- as opposed to merely the very few hard core research enthusiasts --- to that elaborate hop skip and jump routine when a half hour's lecture might suffice, repeated a few times if need be to drill the message in.


That said, I've admitted to my personal lack of close familiarity with Zen, and particularly its practice ( which is to say, zazen). And I take on board your view, yours and Brian's, and both your views far better informed than mine, that you personally do not find Zen texts obscurantist. And so, even though I do not see any specific refutation of my specific arguments, but maybe it might make sense to call time-out for a space to my criticism of Zen ---- not just in speech and comment, but more importantly in my inner evaluation ---- until I've acquainted myself somewhat better with Zen myself.

I think that somewhat unsatisfactory common ground is the best we can do for now.

(The different strokes argument of yours is fine as a general principle, but doesn't quite work when the end result of two paths are so very different. ...And again, all of this assumes that Tollifson's conclusions about Zen, that Brian's discussed in past articles, are factual.)

...So yeah, my takeaway from this is that perhaps I should read some more on Zen. (Ideally go the whole zazen route, but I really haven't the bandwidth to add further to my repertoire of practice.)

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