Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Realization---Moment by Moment

I've been reading a lot lately about "crazy wisdom" teachers. Primarily, I read The Buddha from Brooklyn by Martha Sherrill, Holy Madness by Georg Feuerstein and Stripping the Gurus by Geoffrey D. Falk. I'm interested in this subject, at least in part, because I've often wondered if the fellow who introduced me to Daoism, Moy Lin Shin, was some sort of "crazy wise" teacher. If he was, perhaps his behaviour wasn't simply weird and dysfunctional, but instead a tremendous opportunity to learn that I passed up when I left his organization.

For those readers who haven't heard of "crazy wisdom" before, the idea is that some religious teachers choose to teach their students by stressing them to the breaking point in the hope that this will force them reassess their basic assumptions about what it is to be a human being. The stress can take many forms, but primarily, it consists of expecting far, far too much from the student, either in the form of simple effort or in the form of breaking very important social taboos. Religious literature abounds with this sort of thing---Zen masters who beat their students, Lamas that force students to do heroic tasks of labour, Taiji Chuan masters who work their students so hard that they attempt suicide, and so on. In a more modern context, it involves gurus deliberately ignoring the boundaries that usually exist between a religious teacher and a student---such as forcing them to engage in abusive or embarrassing sex acts.

How could this possibly be justified?

The best illustration that I've ever seen comes from the delightfully complex movie "I Heart Huckabees". (If you have or haven't seen the movie, I'd recommend this essay on it.) The scene involves two men sitting at a picnic table bouncing a beach ball off each other's face. The idea is that the minor pain that results distracts them away from whatever thoughts are filling their minds and gives them a chance to experience "pure consciousness". (I suspect that this experience might have at one time been behind the Zen "keisaku" stick.) The two men are so enamored with the experience that they ignore their teacher's warning that this taste of empty consciousness can only be nothing more than just a fleeting event that invariably becomes overwhelmed by the complexities of life.

In order to force them to listen to her, she illustrates her point by caressing the crotch of one of the men with her foot, which immediately focuses his mind on her. As they walk off into the bushes to have wild, crazy sex, the other man is overwhelmed with jealousy. This, of course, completely makes the teacher's point that no matter how hard people try to take refuge in the "suchness" of life, they will invariably become distracted by the world around them. As such, their teacher is breaking social convention in order to teach them an important truth---i.e. in a "crazy-wise" way.

The problem with this style of teaching, unfortunately, is that the knife cuts both ways. Just as the two guys in the movie were quickly distracted from their beach-ball illumination, so can even the most enlightened master who gains a similar awareness from years of meditation. It isn't just the student who gets distracted when he gets "boinked" by the teacher, but the teacher too! The sad truth is that people with some significant insight can find their store of wisdom exhausted by the grind of attempting to help other people. I happen to believe that this is the reason why people who appear to have genuine insight at one point in their life can end up becoming abusive tyrants later on. Moreover, I think that this problem can become magnified within organizations as people who once had genuine insight but then lose it go on to make decisions about the abilities of other people, who then get promoted to positions of authority that they may either never have been capable of filling adequately, or, once did but since lost their ability to do so.

Underlying this issue is the fallacious assumption that "enlightenment" is an "all or nothing" or "once you've got it, it can't be taken away" sort of thing. If you believe that this is the case, then once someone "gets it", then they can never ever be wrong again---"backsliding" is simply impossible.

Well, IMHO, things just aren't that simple. In fact, I think that every moment of everyone's life we are in the same situation that confronted Neo when he first met Morpheus in "The Matrix". That is, we have a significant test of our courage and integrity. Do we take the "blue pill" and wake up safe and secure in the bed of comfortable illusions that sustain us in our present existence? Or do we take the "red pill" that may expose us to an uncomfortable truth that may shatter those illusions even though it might give us significant new insight? Those pills aren't just offered as a test for introduction to the spiritual life---they come along all the time. The failures we find in spiritual authority figures come up to their having decided to choose the blue pill.

So what does this mean for the serious student of the Dao (or Christ within, Buddha mind, etc)? Well, I'm not about to give up on the entire enterprise of spiritual practice. I think that there still is value. (I hope that by making this decision, I'm not just grabbing at a blue pill myself.) But it does get me thinking about a couple practical issues. First of all, I think that people should change the emphasis on enlightenment, realization, etc, away from the individual to the experience. Men (and women) cannot become "enlightened" or "realized". Instead, they can experience moments of realization. Obviously, some more than others. But the emphasis in teaching needs to be the contents of the vessel, not the vessel itself.

Secondly, I think that we should accept that if no one is "enlightened", then no one, ultimately can take on the mantle of "Mastery". This means that people have to accept that while there are people out there with insights who can offer us suggestions in our search for wisdom, we are always going to end up sitting in that chair having to decide on the red or blue pills all by ourselves. And if we decide to live in institutions, we are going to have to give up on any illusion about there being someone to tell us what to do. Instead, we are going to have to accept that any sort of authentic collective religious life is ultimately going to have to involve the "give and take" of people trying to figure out the right thing to do through the messy activity of consensus building and democracy.

Some people might complain that I've robbed the spiritual path of any goal. What is the point of it if no one ever becomes enlightened? Agreed, this is a big change. Without the ideal of the enlightened Master, the goal ceases to be personal and instead becomes collective. We go through our life attempting to gain insight through our glimpses of realization and try to hand them on to future generations---by personal interaction with others, through writings (like this blog), works of art, and, the institutions we create as collections of people. If some people think that this is not enough, I would suggest that it is all that sustains people who devote their lives to art, science, public service, etc.

Why should religion be any different?


Jim714 said...

Happy 2011 to CLO!!

I enjoyed reading your post. This is an issue that I have given decades of thought to.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that crazy wisdom is simply crazy. I think that becomes clear when we look at it in terms of cause and effect.

Here's an analogy: if I am a gardener and I go out in early spring into my garden and start grabbing the newly emerging leaves of the first flowering plants and say, "Grow, come one, grow!" I think people would find that to be odd behavior. The plant will grow at its own pace and will flower in its own time.

It might be helpful for me, as a gardener, to water the plant, weed around it, fertilize it; but to slap it around demanding that it grow, attempting to 'shock' it into flowering simply doesn't make sense. In fact it would likely harm the plant.

The same applies to crazy wisdom approaches. There is no evidence, none, that crazy wisdom is effective, that it actually helps to awaken people. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that crazy wisdom teachers and teachings have harmed countless people.

I don't think it is difficult to draw the correct conclusion.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I had a discussion about this with a Buddhist fellow. I think that he found any concern about "crazy wisdom" a threat to his understanding of what he called "deeply enlightened beings".

This is the thing. If we accept that there are "deeply enlightened beings", then it stands to reason that they would see things that mere ordinary folks cannot. And once you accept this idea, the door opens for the crazy wise teacher to come through.

That's why I ended up rethinking the whole idea of enlightenment altogether. Western monasticism doesn't accept the existence of "deeply enlightened beings". I once was asked by a grad student about what I was seeking through Daoism and I suggested that all I was seeking was wisdom.

I don't know if Buddhism can exist without the concept of "enlightenment", but I do think that we could "rejig" Daoism to seek wisdom instead of "immortality". In the process of doing so, I think a great many excesses could be avoided.

Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

I understand the reasoning that people use to buttress the idea of crazy wisdom. But I think it is mistaken. Here is why:

If a fireman is discovered to secretly start fires people do not argue that the fireman is a 'crazy wisdom fireman', even though he knows much more about fire than the ordinary person. If a policeman is caught dealing drugs we do not conclude that we have a 'crazy wisdom policeman' even though the policeman presumably knows more about crime than the ordinary person.

And, I would argue, when one observes a spiritual teacher engaged in transgressive behavior we should not conclude that what we are observing is 'crazy wisdom'. Many of the teachers in question are allegedly Buddhist but they seem to be incapable of maintaining even the most elementary ethical precepts. I really don't care if they have had meditation 'experiences'; if they are not capable of maintaining the precepts they are not qualified to teach. Just as a fireman who starts fires is not qualified to be a fireman even if he is very talented at putting out fires. The transgressive behavior in both instances negates any claims for realization or insight.

I think you are on the right track in questioning the idea of a 'deeply enlightened person'. This idea is one of the bases of the Confucian critique of Buddhism. You can find it in the writings of Chu Hsi, the neo-confucian Sage. I've arrived at the view that if being 'deeply enlightened' means exhibiting the kinds of behavior we are discussing then being 'deeply enlightened' is not a good idea.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I agree wholeheartedly with your position, but if I might play the "Devil's advocate" with regard to your example. A supporter of "crazy wisdom" could reply that firemen do set fires sometimes. In my neck of the woods they are sometimes asked to do so in order to preserve tall-grass prairie ecosystems. People fighting forest fires also often use "back fires" to control fires and protect areas.

Even the police example can be countered. In Canada we have a safe-injection site in BC where people are allowed a space where they can get clean needles and where there are medical people on call to deal with medical health emergencies. The police in those jurisdictions were opposed at first, but once they saw how much harm reduction resulted, they became big supporters. I knew a guy who's job was to hang around sleazy bars and hand out condoms, clean needles and sterilization kits to junkies and whores in order slow the spread of disease.

These are picky details, however. I'm glad you picked up my big point, though. I'm also glad that you mentioned Chu Hsi. I'm going to try and get something from him on the subject ASAP.

I don't know if there are "deeply enlightened individuals". But even if there are, it doesn't seem to be any way that we mere mortals would be able to tell them from people who have had a few insights, but still carry around human foibles. The traditions try to get around this by talking about "human to human transmission", "lineages", "inkas" (Zen teaching certificates) and "lus" (Daoist certificates of authenticity.) But these are just human institutions---and as such totally fallible.

There just seems to be an irreducible element of life that boils down to an ambiguous "you pays your money, you makes your choices". I think that accepting this is almost a "right of passage" for religious people. We, probably more than many others, really do want to find some sort of fundamental truth in life that we can build our lives around. We want to build our houses on foundations of stone, but all we can find is sand.

I find that in a lot of cases the only thing we can do is learn what isn't truth rather than what is. Karl Popper said that you can never prove that a scientific theory is "true" but only that it is "false". I suspect the same thing happens in religion too.

Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

I got a chuckle from your counterexamples because that is just the kind of thing I've heard advocates of 'crazy wisdom' bring up. The Buddha encountered such people in his own time and he had an interesting expression for these kinds of argumentative gymnastics. He referred to such people as 'eel-wrigglers'. Can't you just see the Buddha exasperated after trying to make a simple point and turning to a disciple, say Shariputra, and saying, "What an eel-wriggler!"

There's no real communication with people who take that approach. A Jain friend of mine once said that talking to Mahayana Buddhists was fruitless because at a certain point they 'stick their nose in the air, say "everything is empty" and then walk off declaring themselves the winner.' I cracked up because I've encountered that kind of response numerous times.

Here's the thing about the idea of a 'deeply enlightened being': if I know a baker that I think is very skillful, and then the baker burns a batch of rolls, well those rolls are burned. The baker will, no doubt, be embarrassed, but I don't think the baker will say "Ah, these are the true, supreme, really truly nifty rolls. You pathetic shortsighted non-bakers just can't see it." And if a baker did try to say something like that the baker would be laughed out of the kitchen.

Roughly, this is what 'deeply enlightened' crazy wisdom teachers try to do. Caught in egregious behavior, or just ordinary unenlightened human behavior, they try to camouflage what they have done under obfuscating rhetoric. No reason why we should take any more seriously than if a baker tried to do the same thing regarding baking.

Your friend,