Mind

Needing Nothing

NEED

These are the discussion notes accompanying my first ‘Budcast’ talk at the North London Buddhist Centre, October 2018.

The podcast of the talk itself is here.

According to Buddhism, our craving – being dominated by need – is the basic cause of suffering, our sense of frustration and lack.

The opposite of craving is a freedom of the heart and mind, which is the goal of Buddhism. Happiness does not come from getting what you want, but from liberation from craving.

What is craving?

“Craving… Is painful.… Craving is the longing for pleasure that we are not yet enjoying. It is a state of privation or lack, and hence of uncomfortable tension. As long as we have some hope of satisfying the craving, we usually fail to notice its unpleasant side, because the anticipation of future pleasure conceals the present pain, as sugar might mask sharp taste.” (Subhuti , Mind In Harmony, 24.)

For example, one can crave for material things, for other people, and for status or a secure identity. None of these things are reliable, they change, so if the craving leads on to grasping and clinging, it will inevitably result in a sense of insecurity, loss and frustration. If it becomes habitual, it is an addiction.

Likes and dislikes.

The succession of our experiences, some pleasant and some unpleasant, is pulling us and pushing us. They’re pulling us and pushing us because of our preferences, because of our likes and dislikes. The question is who is the boss? A lot of what we like and dislike is fairly arbitrary, yet we allow it to govern our lives. Can you ever arrange your life so that you will always get what you want, and never get what you don’t want?

If we govern our lives by our likes and dislikes, by the search for gratification, when will we have time to find meaning and significance, to make a real difference to the world? Pleasant experiences are wonderful, they refresh your life, but they can easily be contaminated by craving.

One of the big radical, and perhaps counterintuitive, Buddhist suggestions is no longer to let your preferences be the boss. You don’t use that scale of judging things anymore. Instead, you start to learn what is skilful and what is unskilful, to use the Buddhist terminology. You don’t try to go for experiences, instead you try to decide how to act. It’s a radically different way of living a human life.

And a skilful action is one which leads you into more expansive and freer states of mind, and which causes benefit to both yourself and others. An unskilful action is one that yields experiences which are contracted, self protective, anxious and tense, and which causes harm to both yourself and others.

The precepts – training in skilfulness.

  1. I take on the training not to harm anything that breathes. [Kindness]
  2. I take on the training not to take what is not given. [Generosity]
  3. I take on the training not to lose my way through sense desire. [Contentment & Simplicity]
  4. I take on the training not to speak falsely. [Truthfulness]
  5. I take on the training to avoid intoxicants which cause carelessness. [Mindfulness]

Desire/intention is okay

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with desire. It’s craving that’s the problem. But there are different kinds of desire – there’s the desire for stimulation and gratification, which tends to cause us problems. But there are also wholesome desires. Hunger, thirst, sex, well-being, love, acceptance – these come from our evolutionary past and our upbringing. As our species evolved, we needed to look out for food and shelter, companionship and belonging, protection, affection and sex.

There’s also the desire for the unknown, for a creative life, for a life bringing happiness to oneself and others. Desire for truth and authenticity. These are positive.

How to work with craving.

  • Noticing craving, staying with the experience/feeling. Imagine being interested in what’s happening, but without needing it to be just right, without needing it to be as if designed just for you.
  • Noticing discomfort, and staying with it. Renunciation is a great virtue in Buddhism – it means not acting on craving, not letting it turn to grasping.
  • Mindfulness of experiences, starting with the body.
  • Cultivating aesthetic appreciation, kindness, contentment
  • Learn and internalise how craving leads to suffering because of impermanence. Because everything changes, if you hang onto anything, you will be hurt and disappointed. Realising this deeply is insight.
  • Learn meditation: meditation is doing nothing. Imagine the calm delight of not needing anything, simply sitting still.

“The craving of one who lives carelessly increases like a fast-growing creeper. One races from place to place, like a monkey in the jungle leaping from tree to tree in search of fruit.” (The Buddha, Dhammapada, 334.)

Freedom.

There are three chains or fetters (from The Essential Sangharakshita, 198-201). Breaking them yields what the Buddha calls ‘the taste of freedom’.

  1. Habit. We are the sum total of our habits “a habit that a certain stream of consciousness has got into”. This knot can be untied, getting rid of the old self, becoming continually aware, positive, responsible, sensitive and creative of oneself.
  2. Superficiality. Acting from the surface, without thoroughness, without care, in appearance rather
    than genuinely, because we are divided, especially the rational mind from the deep emotions. You may be very busy, but lacking singleness of purpose, not doing things with the whole force of your being. “A small part of us is prospecting ahead, but the greater part is lagging far behind.” Commitment to something you really care about is the solution to superficiality.
  3. Vagueness. Not wanting to decide, shrinking from the pains of growth, keeping options open with several interests and aims. Break it by thinking clearly, sorting out priorities between alternatives, not postponing the moment of decision.

Our essential need as human beings, once food clothing shelter and leisure needs have been
met, is freedom – which is needed in order to grow. We need space to grow into. Freedom from all that restricts us externally and internally, from our conditioning and our old self.

Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Taste of Freedom, 1994): Freedom is spiritual autonomy, not simply licence to do what you feel like. Consider the sequence: complete bondage in prison, then unshackled in prison, then released into a life with many responsibilities, then a dictator who can do whatever he wants. However, even for the dictator, pleasant and unpleasant experiences still lead on to craving, hostility and delusion, compulsively, so one is not really free, there is no mastery, which shows that licence is not the same thing as freedom. You need to be free from craving, hostility and delusion.

 “Prisoner, tell me who was it that wrought this unbreakable chain?  It was I, said the prisoner, who forged this chain very carefully.  I thought my invincible power would hold the world captive, leaving me in a freedom undisturbed.  Thus night and day I worked at the chain with huge fires and cruel, hard strokes.  When as last the work was done and the links were complete and unbreakable, I found that it held me in its grip.”

(Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, 31.)

                                    Notes by Ratnaprabha, http://www.northlondonbuddhistcentre.com

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The Star of Healing

A video of my talk about the moment of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, Buddha Day at the London Buddhist Centre.

Tolerance — ksanti

Kusunoki_masashige

Kusunoki Masashige, photo by Jim Epler https://www.flickr.com/photos/epler/

The Zen master and the general

In the warring period of medieval Japan, one of the most ferocious of the clan generals swept into a peaceful valley with his army. The general was used to the terror his arrival would always cause. The Buddhist monks in the local Zen monastery fled into the mountains – all except one. The general stomped through the monastery buildings, and was very surprised to find one remaining monk, the Abbot, a well known Zen Master, who was calmly sitting in his room. He strode up to him. his sword drawn: ‘Don’t you know who I am? You dare to remain seated in my presence? I have killed scores of men. Do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could run you through with this sword?’ The Zen master did not move. ‘General,’ he said ‘do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could be run through with that sword.’ After a pause, the general put away his sword and bowed, and ordered his army to leave the valley.

I remembered this story as a striking example of a special kind of tolerance which is found in Buddhism, a personal tolerance which includes  the ability not to join in with any games of power. (I will question the Zen Master’s behaviour later.)

Tolerance in Buddhism

It’s tempting to bestow some reassuring but bland declarations of how nice it would be if everyone else were more tolerant. But what of our own personal level of tolerance? I’d like to look at that from a specifically Buddhist angle.

I learnt Buddhist meditation as I was about to start my finals at university (and I certainly needed the effects of meditation then!) So I had some contact with a Buddhist, the meditation teacher, in fact he was the one who told me that story. He impressed me very much, and I decided to investigate Buddhism as a whole, not just the practice of meditation.

Two things, among others, really struck me about Buddhism. One was its emphasis on the individual, and one’s actual experience, here and now. The other was that it does more than tell you that you ought to be kind to people, and tolerant and so on. It recognises that you may not feel kind or tolerant, and so it offers practical methods for developing such qualities, and methods for leaving behind habits that lead to harm and suffering. These two points apply to Buddhist tolerance.Firstly, it is said to be individual tolerance that matters most. So it is not Buddhism that is tolerant, but Buddhists. And it is not other isms that Buddhists tolerate, but real individual people. I think this is quite an important distinction.

However, if you strongly identify with your religion or your ideology, and label other people with their religion or ideology, then it is very tempting to make the label so huge that you can’t see the person behind it. And then it is a label which you tolerate, or don’t tolerate, as the case may be. She is a Moslem, so she must be bloodthirsty and fanatical, say.

The second point was to do with seeing tolerance as a quality to be developed in the individual, using practical methods, not as a pious hope, or something received from outside you by grace. So what is the quality of tolerance like, and how can you develop it?

Well, I’ve been using the word tolerance, which of course is an English word, to translate a traditional Buddhist term which actually has a rather broader meaning. The word in Sanskrit is ksanti, a rather beautiful word, I think. As well as tolerance, it means forbearance, patience, kindness, and maybe the best translation is non-reactivity. Non-reactivity is something the Zen Abbot exemplified, I think. It is the ability to respond with kindness whatever another person does to you. Quite a tall order, but it is something you can gradually strengthen, as we’ll see. It is not something you just have or don’t have, and you just have to put up with it. This is a great mistake, I think, which it is very easy to make. I can believe, ‘well, so I am a bit crabby. But I was born like that, and that’s the way I am.’ .So ksanti is a quality you can develop, the ability to remain cheerful and positive even if people are not treating you as you’d like to be treated.

An old poem ascribed to the Buddha includes the line: ‘Ksanti is the highest form of austerity.’ I think this means that when people get difficult, learning not to react with more of the same is a better form of training than the most impressive feats of self-denial or fasting and so on.

Developing ksanti

So how do you learn ksanti, how do you develop tolerance as a personal quality?

In Buddhism, the first steps for cultivating any inner quality are ethical ones. You apply awareness to your actions, and to your feelings as well. You restrain any impulses that are intolerant, because if those emotional urges turn into words and actions, they get a firmer hold on you, as well as damaging whoever has to bear the brunt. Instead of acting from intolerance, you emulate anyone you know, or know of, who seems to be truly tolerant, and so your habitual behaviours slowly adjust.

But ethics is only a first step, and it is not enough. You need to tackle the intolerant impulses at their roots in the heart, and cause tolerant impulses to sprout there instead. Any method which achieves a direct emotional change is called meditation. Meditations for developing ksanti use the medium of empathy. In a meditation to cultivate kshanti,you would get into a quiet state of mind which is flavoured with confidence. This is because the meditation will not work if you do not have a strong sense of self-worth. You could say that you can’t really tolerate others unless you can be tolerant to yourself: everyone has flaws and makes mistakes, but it is counter-productive to give yourself a hard time about them. In Buddhism, they are called ‘adventitious defilements’ because deep down you are ok, there is a core of inner purity, the potential for Enlightenment.

So with that feeling of being happy about yourself, you than call to mind the people you are intolerant of (whether or not you think the intolerance is justified), and you start to feel what it must be like to be them, as best as you can. You regard them with the same kind of understanding that you have for yourself, and notice that they are the way they are because of all sorts of circumstances, and some of those circumstances can change. Thus you start to empathise with them.

As you empathise more, you may realise that your intolerance of them is based on very superficial characteristics – it’s their tone of voice or their facial expression which really gets up your nose. Alternatively, you may decide that their behaviour is just not on. In Buddhist terms, their behaviour is unskilful, ie it is damaging to themselves or others. This is where your tolerance is really tested – when it seems that you have good reasons for it. William Blake says:

Learn … to distinguish the Eternal Human … from those States or Worlds in which the Spirit travels. This is the only means to FORGIVENESS OF ENEMIES.[i]

In other words, we can recognise that our common humanity is where our regard for each other comes from. On the surface of that humanity, everyone passes through many mental states, some skilful, some unskilful. If our reason for not being tolerant is others’ mistakes and unskilfulness, then we will tolerate no-one.

You can’t ignore unskilfulness. But I think you need a thoroughly tolerant frame of mind in order to be of any real use in helping someone overcome it. And maybe you can’t — maybe you can’t cope with this person, but you have no choice but to cope with your own reactions to them.

There are much more advanced developments of ksanti or tolerance in Buddhism, connected with the very significance of birth and death, but I just wanted to give you some practical ideas about how to make it stronger. There is one more thing I’d like to add about tolerance as a quality. Kshanti has been defined as not expecting anything.[ii] This may seem a bit extreme, because we always, surely, have some expectations. But then we are often being disappointed. And what makes it so difficult to be tolerant is other people not fulfilling our needs and our expectations of them. Expect nothing, and life is full of very pleasant surprises!

So in this talk, I have deliberately focussed on ksanti, tolerance, as a quality for each individual to strengthen in themselves. We may think we are already very tolerant. That may be true when it comes to events in distant countries, or the religious rites of exotic communities. Tolerance is really tested, though, between you and your relatives, the people you work with, or whoever is with you now. Can we really put up with such weird and unreasonable human beings in such close proximity?

One reason for the difficulty of being tolerant is that other people are different from us, and their differences can seem unreasonable, even threatening. Can I accept that someone else is fully human, and deserving of a good and full life, even though they are not like me? One way out of this problem is to regard differences as unreal, but I think that is a cop out.

Religious tolerance

I wanted to concentrate on personal tolerance, so I have not discussed religious tolerance, or the toleration of variant views and beliefs. As you know, this is not really an issue for Buddhism as a tradition, despite very poor behaviour by some Buddhist communities. But ksanti or tolerance as a personal quality is just as much an issue for Buddhists as for anyone else. For a Buddhist, any other person is to be treated as an independent human being, responsible for their own destiny, who is potentially a Buddha, whatever their opinions may be.

But what if their opinions are pernicious? For example, what if they hold tenaciously to an ideology in which a huge section of the community is regarded as untouchable, their very shadows being seen as polluting, as is still the case in large parts of India? If so, then I think the harmful views should be exposed, but in a spirit of personal friendliness. So I am pointing out that you do not have to tolerate everything. Tolerance does not mean blurring the truth and pretending that we all believe the same thing or are really all on the same path. I am convinced that there are  real differences between people, and also real differences between the Buddhist approach and other approaches, and between different people’s priorities and aims. I feel it’s rather intolerant for someone to insist otherwise.

Why is it that (with exceptions such as Northern Myanmar in our own time) Buddhists have as a whole has been quite happy to coexist with other religions and ideologies, while for most of their history, the other world religions have not been tolerant of each other?

I haven’t time to treat the whole issue thoroughly, and I could well be quite wrong about it. But I consider that it is connected with belief in God. Buddhists do not believe in God. Buddhism is a religion of discovery, of discovering the truth by taking full responsibility for the growth of your own wisdom and compassion. The other main world religions are, for most of their followers, religions of revelation. If you believe your truth is revealed from an infallible divine source, then it is difficult to admit the quite different revelations of other religions, or even the different interpretations of the revelation of your own religion.

It is obvious that individual theists can be genuinely tolerant people, but I think that such people have left behind some of the traditional associations with God. Each theistic religion as a whole, as a tradition or an institution, seems to militate against many forms of tolerance, and will carry on doing so unless there are some big changes. For example, I very cheekily asked a priest why the church did not simply repudiate the Old Testament, but he wasn’t having it!

So, if you are a believer in God, however you conceive of him, a non-theist might really test your tolerance by saying: ‘I am convinced that God does not exist, and that belief in God can in itself explain why there is more active intolerance in the theistic religions than outside them.’

Conclusion

I was thinking some more about the story of the Zen Abbot and the general. It is an impressive story, and he must have been a very impressive man. But I am not sure he was setting a very good example. In fact, I am sure he had no intention of setting an example, he was just being himself. If I had been there, I am certain I would have scampered off into the mountains with the other monks.

When I have told such stories before, some people usually respond by saying: ‘If everyone acted like that, society would fall apart!’ or ‘Someone has got to resist the tyranny and oppression of the strong over the weak’, or they think he was just lucky.

I sympathise with these responses, but I think they miss the point. The Abbot was not writing a list of recommended behaviours to suit all situations. He was just being himself, and each of us is different. For a start, we have probably not developed anything like his imperturbable kshanti, and that is not something you can pretend about.

Another Japanese master was lucky enough to die in his bed. As he lay dying, his devoted disciples gathered round, and asked him for his last words of wisdom. He just croaked: ‘I don’t want to die!’ ‘But master’, they said, ‘we want some final advice that posterity will remember you for’. ‘No really,’ he said ‘I don’t want to die.’ So I am sort of heartened by that. Maybe we can develop tolerance, tolerance for each of our fellow human beings, not imposing our expectations on them. But maybe we can keep one or two aspects of this world untolerated, as that last Zen master did with the expectations of his own pupils; maybe we can even refuse to tolerate the finality of death, and discover for ourselves what  it is all really about.

 

Based on lecture to a United Nations Association interfaith meeting in 1995

[i] William Blake, Jerusalem, 49: 72-5. His capitals.

[ii] Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 174.

Welcoming impermanence – or not?

Do you think we can make Buddhism sound too positive, pandering to a need for reassurance that everything is rather lovely, really?

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 2016 article ‘The Transformations of Mindfulness’ (1) is on the gradual leaching of central Buddhist priorities from Western Buddhist and mindfulness teaching. He acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s life, even delighting in it and dealing with various destructive habits through present-moment mindfulness is a very positive thing. But it leaves out the centrality in Buddhism of seeing through the defects of Samsara (unenlightened experience) and renouncing them, on the traditional basis of unfashionable/non-scientific viewpoints including karma and rebirth. He makes a number of points, but one of them in particular struck me. He says that some modern Western Buddhists and mindfulness teachers:

‘see impermanence as imbued with positive significance. They admit that clinging to what is impermanent brings suffering, but take this connection to mean, not that one should renounce the impermanent in favor of the imperishable nibbana, but that one should learn to live in the world with an open mind and loving heart, capable of experiencing everything with awe and wonder. The practice of mindfulness thus leads through the door of impermanence and selflessness to a new affirmation and appreciation of the world, so that one can joyfully savor each fleeting event, each relationship, each undertaking in its wistful evanescence, unperturbed when it passes. This attitude, though it has some resonances with Zen Buddhism particularly as expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh, is quite at odds with the Buddhism of the Pali Canon, the tradition from which mindfulness meditation originates. In classical Buddhism the fact of impermanence is viewed as a sign of deficiency, a warning signal that the things we turn to for happiness are unworthy of our ultimate concern. As the Buddha says: ‘Conditioned things, monks, are impermanent, unstable, unreliable. It is enough to be disenchanted with all conditioned things, enough to be dispassionate toward them, enough to be liberated from them.’

How do you feel when you read this? On the one hand I rejoice in that Zen-style open heart, and perhaps want to hunt the Pali Canon for contrary references. Or perhaps the early Buddhist approach is now out of date? On the other hand, my tendency to want to present Buddhism in these reassuring terms perhaps does it a disservice, partly because I am complacently content to keep my Buddhism on that level of successfully adjusting to the vicissitudes of life, finding joy and satisfaction in the ordinary, and pretending to myself that the full outcome of Dharma practice is no more than that.

I’ve also reflected on this in relation to a very different tradition: Tsongkhapa’s inspiring threefold summary of the path from the very beginnings of the Tibetan Gelugpa school (2). It is simply

  • Renunciation
  • Bodhicitta (a compassionate mind set on awakening)
  • Wisdom

To be frank, I’m rarely willing to renounce, I resist the embrace of the compassionate Bodhicitta, and I sidestep perfect vision of what is really going on. It’s easy to say this, but am I prepared to face the consequences of my habits of avoiding, and change my ways?! A chink of light is that I feel even more excited when I encounter Dharma teachings that oppose my customary approach than when I find teachings that encourage it. Is it not exhilarating to have your opinions exposed and convincingly overturned?

(1) Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, edited by Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, Adam Burke (Springer, 2016), p3.

(2) The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, by Je Tsongkhapa. (Sangharakshita’s edition, translated by John Driver, is in The Middle Way, XXXV, No 3, November 1960, pp 99-102.)

Am I humanist? Am I liberal?

Homo Deus coverHumanist? Liberal?

I’m in the middle of reading Homo Deus, Yuval Harari’s follow-up to his excellent Sapiens. It is so fluently and clearly explained, that it easy to forget that it’s possible that he’s not right in some of the things he says, but I suspect he generally is! His theme is understanding humanity and it’s trajectory, especially the drives for human bliss, human power, and an unlimited human lifespan.

I was particularly interested in what he says about humanism, the doctrine that glorifies those three aims. What follows may not do justice to his arguments…

He points out that humanist ideas have replaced the old European reliance on forms of religious authority to such an extent that humanist assumptions tend to be invisible to us. Particularly liberal ones. And as he went through them, I had to acknowledge that I felt a shudder of horror at the sense that they are assumptions. So in Buddhist terminology they are they are ditthis, views, and ditthis at best need to be taken as provisional conceptualisations, and at worst may be wrong views. He describes three basic forms of humanism – evolutionary, socialist, and liberal.

The evolutionary form says that some people are superior to others, and the species will progress if the superior ones are allowed to dominate. This may be comparatively benign, in the sense of recognising genuine artistic or scientific genius, or in the sense of recognising the possibility of genuine spiritual progress. But we particularly observe it in the horrors of eugenics and Nazism. Like all forms of humanism, socialist humanism values humanity above everything else, but it does so in the mass rather than in the form of individuals, initially overthrowing the privileged few through class conflict, and dreaming of an egalitarian utopian society in the future.

Liberal humanism is probably the one most taken for granted, it started earlier than the other two, as the value of each individual was recognised. It led to a sense that one’s own wishes and preferences are paramount, the more choice the better, and perhaps “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, leading to consumerism, valuing immediate personal desires and so on. You need to think for yourself, and come up with your own set of values. The interior world of personal experience is far richer and more important than the exterior or shared worlds. All meaning is to be drawn from personal inner experiences. Human life is sacred, people must be kept alive at all costs. Free will and free choice are the highest authority. Be true to yourself: once you’ve clarified your feelings, they will tell you how to behave, and what is right. Something is bad only if it makes you feel bad, and as well as amplifying our own feelings, we should respect the feelings and sensitivities of others.

So our personal experience is prioritised – a combination of sensations, emotions, and thoughts – and we need to become increasingly sensitive to the flowing variety of our experiences. Thus we specialise like gourmets in our favourite range of sensations, sharpening our aesthetic sense, and also developing our ethical sense about what is right.

Now it seems to me that the basics of humanism have a lot going for them, and that basic Buddhism does include a humanist message, particularly the message of cultivating the psyche and its sensitivity. But it is salutary to me to notice how much I take the liberal humanist message for granted, and reinterpret the grand sweep of Buddhism almost entirely within that framework, though sometimes I use the evolutionary or socialist humanist frameworks. But is Buddhism really a framework that puts the individual human being, especially me, at the centre of all things?

I’ve long felt oppressed by the tyranny of my own preferences. And my impression is that most practising Buddhists I know are not very different from the mass of Western consumers in how strongly their decisions are based on what they happen to want at the time, whether it’s snacks, the temperature of the room, the comfort of the seat, the retreat or holiday destination, or even their moral judgements and political opinions… If you arrive at a retreat, are you eager to choose your own room and bed, hoping most are still free? If your bed is allocated before you arrive, do you find yourself complaining, at least tacitly, that it does not fully suit your needs?

Being governed by immediate preferences is giving priority to vedana. Vedana means the sensation, usually pleasant or unpleasant, that is an aspect of every moment of experience, and impels us to welcome and repeat the experience — or not. But my understanding of the Dharma is that vedana is, in a sense, given. I don’t need to pay very much attention to it, what’s important is karma, that is basing my decisions to act on whether it is skilful or unskilful, rather than on whether I feel like doing it or not. (Fortunately, the skilful is often quite pleasant!) In any case, is there really a unitary me with a deciding will?

Like a good liberal I aspire to improve my sensitivity; sometimes I am pleased to say it is my karmic sensitivity that I value. But how often do I prioritise broader issues of welfare and integrity over the ‘me’ and its petulant demands?

TURNING THE WHEEL OF DHARMA

The Buddha’s first teaching

Image: John Hill

Today, 8 June 2017,  is the full moon of Dharma Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching, known as Turning the Wheel of Dharma.

Here is my Re-rendering of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Ratnaprabha, June 2017)

This is what I heard. (After his awakening), the Buddha arrived at the game reserve near Varanasi, (and was reunited with his five former comrades).

He taught the group of five. He said to them: “Going forth (to seek awakening), you must avoid two extremes.

“Looking for gratification in sense pleasures is demeaning, crude and ignoble. It’s what people always go for, but it’s pointless, and it takes you nowhere near the goal.

“Yet self-torment is also ignoble and pointless, and (it commits you to needless) suffering.

“Instead of veering towards one of these extremes, (if you’re) attuned to reality, you will wake up to the middle path. It yields vision so that you truly know. It leads to peace, to complete awareness, to quenching (the flames) and waking yourself up fully.

“Speaking simply, the middle path has eight aspects. These are complete vision, complete emotion, complete communication, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, and complete unification (of the mind). When I attuned myself to reality, I woke up to this path.

“Furthermore, (I woke up to four noble truths). Firstly, this is the noble truth, the grand reality, of pain. Birth, ageing and illness are painful. Death is horrible. (Then you’ll encounter) depression, grief and physical agony; unhappiness and despair as well, and losing what you love, and not getting what you want. In fact all the aspects of life that we cling to are painful.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality (that explains) where pain comes from. It comes from thirst, from craving. It is craving that impels us to remake ourselves so that we are still conjoined with gratification and clinging, indulging in one thing after another. (More specifically), it is craving for sense-gratification, craving for continuing (as we are), or craving for oblivion.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality, of the finish of pain. It is the fading and finishing of that same craving, giving it up, letting it go, not depending on it any more, so that we are completely free from craving.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality of the way that finishes pain. It is the same middle path (that avoids the extremes) – complete vision and so on.

“When I fully woke up, I saw this for the first time. A fresh insight, wisdom and awareness, indeed a complete illumination, dawned on me. I truly saw pain as a grand reality, I saw I had to understand it, and (eventually) I did.

“Similarly, I truly saw, as a grand reality, how pain comes from craving. I saw I had to let go of that craving, and I managed to do that.

“And I truly saw the grand reality of (the possibility of) pain finishing (for good). I knew I had to realise that finish directly, and I did realise it.

And I truly saw the grand reality of the middle way that frees one from pain, I saw that I had to journey on that way, and I travelled it to the end.

“It was these crucial insights that enabled me to perfect my full and complete awakening. This is an awakening that completes the journey, (a journey open to) all forms of life in the universe. I saw, and I realised: unshakeable is the liberation of my mind, I’m no longer compelled to re-make myself, this is it.”

The group of five listened enraptured to the Buddha. And as he listened, one of them, Kondañña, saw the truth clearly and lucidly, and realised that all that comes into being must also finish. “Kondañña knows!” Exclaimed the Buddha, “Kondañña knows!”

This, in the game reserve near Varanasi, was the (first) rolling of the Wheel of Dharma by the Buddha. The earth spirits yelled with all their might: “THE SUPREME WHEEL OF THE BUDDHA’S DHARMA IS NOW TURNING, AND NO ONE CAN STOP IT!” And the cheer went up through the ranks of invisible beings up to the (formless) world of pure spirit, so that the whole world trembled, and an incandescent light spread from horizon to horizon.

Brackets signify words added for clarification. Some repetitions have been removed. This re-rendering is interpretive, and other interpretations are possible; it is well worth looking through several translations.

Is Ken Wilber mistaken? Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

ken wilber

Ken Wilber

This is a rather critical book review I wrote for the Buddhist magazine Golden Drum in the 90s. Fans of Wilber, please forgive me!

Review of SEX, ECOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY. THE SPIRIT OF EVOLUTION.

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution, by Ken Wilber, published by Shambhala (Boston and London, 1995).

‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s,’ wrote William Blake. Ken Wilber has created a grand system of evolutionary connections. Here is yet another book, his fattest yet, expounding it.

There is an X-shaped diagram of Wilber’s system on the end-papers. Levels of consciousness, their individual and collective physical structures, and cultures or shared world-views each have an arm of the X, and evolve in correlation with each other. For example, as conceptual thought became possible in consciousness, new brain mechanisms supported it, and it was reflected in village societies, with magical world-views.

Wilber’s synthesis, with its wealth of fascinating details, is extremely well thought out. If you are a believer in the idea that all spiritual schemes reflect intuitions of the same Great Chain of Being, then you will forgive his long-windedness, repetitiveness, jargon, surfeit of long supporting quotations, and his obsession with reducing every other analysis to its spot on the great X. But what I appreciated most was Wilber’s uncompromising evolutionary vision. We can indeed evolve as individuals and as a human world, and there are pioneers of consciousness who can show us the way.

What I think is Wilber’s biggest mistake stems from the rigidity of his X diagram. To fit the model, evolution must continue in the collective sphere, after the arising of self-awareness. So in general, a later society is likely to reflect a higher average form of consciousness than an earlier society. In recent centuries, he claims, the mental and biological parts of human experience have been differentiated on a large scale for the first time, a step forward allowing rationality to produce all its benefits. (Wilber’s mission is to encourage the next development: the re-integration of mind and nature on a higher level, in a global awareness and a global culture.) But is it really true that most people of today are more rational and independent-minded than most people in India or Greece (say), 2500 years ago? Is it easier to make spiritual progress now, and are we all starting from a higher base?

It would seem that with self-awareness, further evolution focused on the individual. Societies and world-views now only evolve if they are reformed by self-aware individuals, the number of which does not necessarily grow steadily. Cultures are not caught up in Wilber’s grand current of evolution. It is true that science is genuinely cumulative in its discoveries, and this fact may have misled Wilber. The progress that science makes, in extending the scope of models of the physical universe and making more sophisticated technologies possible, cannot be ranked in alignment with advances in consciousness.

Wilber’s method leads him to judge Buddhism on the basis of the type of language used in its writings, though he comes to mistaken conclusions through relying on modern commentators rather than the original sources. His image of evolution is still a Hindu one of consciousness emerging from a Ground of Being (or World Spirit, or Emptiness: terms from diverse traditions are bunched as ‘identical’ by Wilber), and passing through an arc of development until it can reunite with this Ground (from which it has never separated). Statements couched in ‘non-dual’ terms must, Wilber seems to believe, have come from this ultimate state of being, and he implies that he can recognise their authenticity because he has been there himself. Actually, blarney is all you need to pen don-dual paradoxes.

Blarney or not, this language is what he seeks in Buddhism, so he approves of Nagarjuna and Zen, and disapproves of early Buddhism. The Buddha encouraged a radical renunciation of the deluded, cyclical habits of life, because the ‘ground of being’ for Buddhism is ignorance, something to be transcended, and it is frustration that emerges from ignorance, something to be eradicated. So Buddhists have used the ‘dualistic’ language of transcending and developing (‘follow this path to this goal’) more than the language of paradox or of immanence (‘uncover your existing Buddha-Nature’), something that Wilber sees as a limitation.

Similarly, Wilber dismisses the teaching of no-Self, incorrectly seeing it as a dualistic denial of the ‘stable cohesive self’ that one should strengthen to progress psychologically. No, the Buddha was concerned to identify ‘wrong views’ – attitudes which impede the evolution of one’s consciousness by tying one to a limited sense of one’s own identity. ‘No-Self’ is no more, or less, dualistic than ‘no-duality’ (or indeed ‘no-World-Spirit’). The Buddha wasn’t bothered about fitting into a grand system or abiding by a metaphysical taboo against dualism. He was concerned to promote provisional right views which helped people to transcend themselves until they could dwell in ‘no-view’. Later, the increasing sophistications of the deluded mind called for more sophisticated countervailing right views, such as Nagarjuna’s.

Buddhism can be presented in many formats. Wilber’s system may lead you to believe that the later ones must supersede the earlier, and the linguistically non-dual ones must be higher than those that teach a path. On the contrary, an effective path of practice is essential, I would say, and the best way to choose a system of spiritual discipline is not to collect from a warehouse of words teachings that fit our preconceptions, but to meet the people who tread a coherent path. Are they kind? Are they deeply sensible?

Reading Ken Wilber is rather like being drawn to listen to a brilliant, manic and rather tipsy monologue at a party. As we imbibe the system of another man, I think it is worth taking care. Is it liberating, or is it enslaving?