Saturday, August 29, 2015

Internal Alchemy, Part Three

I ended my last post on this subject by suggesting that Neidan, or Internal Alchemy, is kungfu, but aimed at a specific end. Obviously, learning taijiquan is about health and self-defense. Other kungfus, like learning how to echo locate if you are blind, or, shoot very efficiently if you are a fighter pilot, have obvious utility too. But how could learning how to see the world in terms of parallel lines, or being able to lucidly dream, or any of the other things I babbled on about be worth doing?


In and of themselves, the value of some of these exercises is somewhat limited. Seeing parallel lines in buildings and complex wave patterns in a streams is not going to make a huge difference in most people's lives. It is the case, however, that seeing parallel lines is the basis of understanding modern perspective drawing---which is very important to artists. (In The Story of the Stone, which is a classic 18th century Chinese novel, one of the characters bumps into a Western-style painting which has been imported from Russia. At first she thinks she is seeing a real human being, then realizes what it is and is totally gobsmacked by the power of this technique.) Wave patterns are also very important in physics.

What I find interesting about these exercises is the way it teaches a person that they can actively control the way that they perceive the world around them. We don't experience a "given", but rather a mediated experience which we can change if not totally at will, at least through sustained effort. This idea is a tremendous change from the naive realism that most people accept without thought.

Equally important, other exercises can be used to develop a discipline aimed at creating a specific type of personality. Once we learn how our minds work through dissecting our minds with our minds, then we can start sculpting them to act in specific ways---just like we do with our bodies through taijiquan. For example, I have found that the best way I can stop my mind from becoming "scattered" is through a regular process of writing. So every day I try to spend at least an hour writing. (I also try to do taijiquan every day to stop my body from deteriorating.)


Because they are all based upon introspection, which is inherently subjective, these sorts of interests are by definition not of any interest to scientists or academics. This is because there are no physical phenomena to identify and quantify. Not only this, but the related experiences are not experienced by the general public, which means that a researcher cannot even do randomized survey tests and quantify self-reported experiences in order to make generalizations from the greater human population.

Charles Tart
In fact, the problem of how to make this sort of thing of interest to scientists became the subject of a Master's thesis I attempted to write while at grad school. I was interested in expanding on the theories of the para-psychologist Charles Tart, who briefly described what he called "state-specific science". This was the idea that the scientific community could "set aside" the need for "objectivity" and instead look for patterns and laws governing the self-described experiences of people who were doing things like entering altered states of consciousness.

Unfortunately, in the process of researching this subject I came to the conclusion that unless someone else has actually done some of the things that I mentioned in the previous blog posts, they will not have the slightest idea what I am talking about. And if they have no personal experience, then the odds are very great that they will be indifferent to, if not in contempt of the ideas being discussed. This isn't to say that the professors I was working with were prejudiced against me, but rather that they were incapable of helping me with my thesis. I eventually pulled the plug on that subject and did an undefended thesis on the role of cultural conditioning in religious experience.

Science is a collective effort and proceeds through the creation of a consensus. This may contradict the Hollywood notion of the lone researcher pursuing his studies in an isolated castle or garage, but the fact of the matter is that if you cannot get colleagues to understand what you are talking about, your articles will not get published, which makes them fundamentally worthless.

Thus ended my decade long foray into the world of academic philosophy.


Of course, I really didn't do any of this stuff in order to become a university professor. What I was looking for was something called "enlightenment" or "wisdom". Many people would consider this something that you pursue through religion. I had had some vague idea that you could also get it through philosophy, but through my university studies I realized that the professors not only didn't share my interest, they were totally indifferent to the idea of pursuing "wisdom".

I had this insight reinforced years after the fact when I attended the wake of someone who had actually been a reader on my failed attempt at a formal thesis.

I won't mention his name, but he was really a "golden boy" in academic philosophy. He published many books, gained tenure at a very early age, and, was an exceptional lecturer. He was funny and engaging as a lecturer. But he was in many ways an appallingly weird, neurotic, little man. He had this awful mental "tic" of being unwilling to talk about anything that was remotely serious on a personal level without instantly making some sort of witty joke to shut down the conversation. He was also infuriatingly rude to working class women. (I used to have lunch with him in local diners once in a while. I started avoiding him because of his disgustingly sexist remarks to waitresses.)

At his wake I was struck by the fact that all his colleagues, who spoke of him with genuine affection, kept talking about what a great "scholar" he was. It became very clear to me that what these professors were "about" had absolutely nothing at all to do with the search for wisdom, truth, and, insight. Instead, it really was about doing good research, publishing solid papers, and so on. I think that there is a difference.

Wisdom is partially based on knowledge, but it is also based on insight---which is at heart a creative thing. Insight is about knowing to do the right thing at the right time. This leads to a second point, in that wisdom isn't just about learning something new, it is more importantly about changing who you are. It is about developing holistically as an ethical, artistic, and, emotional being. Wise people need not be geniuses---but they are not insensitive goofs.


When it became obvious that academic philosophy was not for me, I became interested in religion. Most religions have a body of individuals known as "mystics"---people who seem to be interested in the same mental practices that I was. If it is impossible to study subjective mental states through science and philosophy, then perhaps the way to go would be to join a religious order. The problem with that, however, is that these groups are enmeshed in religions.


I was raised in a pretty non-religious home. My family were nominally Baptists. That meant that us children got sent to Sunday school---but I suspect that that was more about the parents having a few hours to themselves rather than anything else. The one time I can remember that the minister came to visit, my dad crawled out the window of his study and hid in the barn until he'd left. My mother tells me that from a very early age I would argue with Sunday school teachers about the Bible. Supposedly, I insisted that many things in it made absolutely no sense and couldn't possibly be true. I don't think mom or dad considered this terrible behaviour, though, and at a relatively early age I didn't have to go to church any more.

As a result, when I became interested in religious experiences and mystical practices, I did so without any understanding of what actually happens within religious institutions.


The Christianity of Liberals
I spent a lot of time reading the scholarship of Christianity. This included people like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and so on. I was totally fascinated by their vision, which was based on the Sermon on the Mount. These are the ideals of pacifism, radical concern for the poor, etc, that tend to see Jesus as a "commie hippie". Intellectually, I think that a very strong case can be made to say that this actually is the message of the New Testament. But the problem is that the church isn't really a product of the Gospels. Instead, it was created by historical and political processes and actualized in the traditions and institutions of the existing church. Perhaps if I hadn't been so naive, I would have "twigged" onto the fact that many of these liberal theologians and scholars, like Armstrong and Crossan, had tried to be members of religious orders but had had such a terrible time that they left. Indeed, most of these people have only the most tenuous connection with the institutional church. In years past I have no doubt that most of them would have been burnt at the stake as heretics. Even though their books are best sellers and they routinely fill huge halls on their speaking tours---they are at best marginal figures and totally unrepresentative of real "Christianity".

Counter-balanced against liberal Christians of the sort I was attracted to are a much stronger and better organized group of Christian Fundamentalists that Chris Hedges has described in his book American Fascists and which he describes in this CBC interview:

And below out-and-out Fascists, there is a much larger group of Christians who's understanding comes down to not much more than a belief in whatever conservative viewpoint they grew up with and a bullying attitude towards anyone that sees things differently. A short clip from "Family Guy" encapsulates this sort of person quite well. I certainly have met lots of "Jesus people" who are just the same.


This isn't just a Christian phenomenon, or even limited to the Abrahamic religions.

Chogyam Trungpa
Richard Baker
There have been a fair number of "exposes" published recently about problems within Buddhist groups. Many of them focus on the sexual escapades of Buddhist teachers, some of the most flagrant examples have been Chogyam Trungpa  and Richard Baker, both of which used their positions as "gurus" to live excessive lifestyles and sexually exploit their students. There have also been other stories about problems in other Buddhist organizations. It seems that there are just as many problems in institutional Buddhism as in Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is also a much much bigger worm in the apple of Zen Buddhism that needs to be addressed. The Soto Zen priest and academic historian, Brian Victoria, has published two books---Zen at War, and, Zen War Stories---detailing complicity between Japanese Zen and the Imperial Japanese Empire. This is very tough stuff to read. The organizations that governed Japanese Zen tried to take over and control the local Zen institutions in China and Korea. They also created a theology called "Imperial Way Zen" that justified the Imperial Japanese Empire so Buddhists could feel happy fighting for the Emperor. At no point did "enlightened Zen Masters" attempt to oppose the vicious, colonial oppression, brutal wars of aggression, or, Orwellian state. So much for the teachings of the Compassionate Buddha!

Zen at War
Zen War Stories
 The really disconcerting thing about these revelations comes down to two points. As most people understand Buddhism, the key goal is "enlightenment". At some time in the ancient past, a specific person, "the Buddha", pursued a specific spiritual process and became "enlightened". This was such a good experience that it changed him profoundly. Moreover, it is something that everyone can, at least potentially, also replicate in their own lives. Indeed, in some traditions---such as the Tibetan and Zen, which Trungpa and Baker come from---teachers are given specific "credentials" as having become enlightened, just like the historical Buddha. This gives them tremendous legitimacy and authority in the eyes of their followers. It is this authority that allows leaders like Trungpa and Baker the ability to so abuse their followers.

This is a significant difference between Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. It might be that for many people the pope, the local priest and everyone in between has enormous authority that they can use to abuse parishioners. But the fact of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing in Catholic theology, law, or, tradition that says that they cannot abuse their authority. Medieval painters and poets---like Dante---routinely filled Hell with Popes, Bishops, and, priests. In contrast, Buddhism creates transmission charts to show that Zen and Tibetan Masters have unbroken connections to ancient masters. They are supposed to literally be "supermen". If so, how can a "superman" be a boob that can't keep his hands off his female followers, has a thing for expensive cars, and, is willing to support a bloodthirsty Fascist regime?

The second thing that I found really unnerving about this controversy was the response from the Buddhist community in North America. Some teachers did think that this was a big deal, but far, far too many just dismissed Victoria's books as a question of "cultural relativism".  Even recognized masters seemed incapable of understanding the profound question that these revelations raise about the nature of both "enlightenment" and "lineage transmission". What value is there in "enlightenment" if it can't help you make proper ethical decisions or even understand the question in the first place?


Once I started finding out about the problems with Buddhist clergy, I started asking myself what the actual goal of Buddhist meditation could be. It seems to have nothing to do with ethical insight, as it seems that even people with real progress in Zen could end up being ethical morons. At this point I started to really question a lot of assumptions that I had had about the nature of religion and religious experience. In my next post on Neidan, I'll share some of my conclusions.


Jim714 said...

Greetings CWO:

I have been too busy to read your blog for some time; but I'm glad I stopped by. I think your observations are worthy of reflection. I would like to add a few regarding the differences between Christian and Buddhist organizational responses to questionable behavior.

The behavior of CTR (Chogyam Trungpa) and some Zen Masters, and Japanese Zen during WW II, calls into question a central view of these traditions at the metaphysical level. The idea I am referring to is called 'original enlightenment'. The idea is that human beings are 'originally' or 'essentially' pure, vast, unlimited, and 'enlightened'. Hindrances to this original and essential condition are viewed as in some sense illusory; though the degree to which they are illusory varies depending on the tradition. Enlightened Masters have contacted and are supposed to embody this original condition of enlightened nature. So when it doesn't work out that way, the behavior of these masteres undermines a central tenet of their religious views.

In contrast, when Christian (or Jewish) representatives misbehave this does not undermine the metaphysical basics of their tradition. The difference is this: in Buddhism you are supposed to become a Buddha, that is what enlightenment means. But in Christianity you can never become God. So misbehavior of Catholic Priests is comprehensible in that these Priests have not overcome sin because of that primal separation from the ultimate.

The second point I would like to touch on is that western Buddhists have constructed a type of Buddhism which is unrecognizable in terms of traditional Buddhism. In traditional Buddhism the ethical precepts are in the foreground and take center stage. Meditation is for advanced practitioners, almost always monastics. The practice of the precepts and ethical commitments are, historically, much more important than meditation. For example, the monastic sangha is based on a complex code of ethical commitments and historically it is monastics that have occupied the center of the Buddhist world. But in the west the precepts have become marginalized and among many completely dismissed. Instead, weterners have put meditaiton at the center. But meditation is value free -- it can be used to make you a better accountant, a better tennis player, a better soldier, etc. Only when meditation is practiced in the context of traditional ethical commitments does meditation assist in the journey to understanding. But because westerners have declined to engage with ethical commitments they have become vulnerable to the posturings of people like CTR.

Thanks for the post,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks for this comment. It articulates issues that I have been grappling with for a long time.

The divergence between ethics and meditation is something that asks the obvious question "Where should our ethics come from if they aren't intrinsic in what describe as "original enlightenment"? The Abrahamic religions would talk about revelation as transmitted through tradition, but that notion has been pretty thoroughly discredited in modern times. My personal response is to return to what I call the "practical philosophy" movement of the late Roman Empire. These included Stoicism, Empiricism, Cynicism and so on. I also think the same sort of thing happened in China with the schools of Mohism, Confucianism, Legalism and so on. I also include rationalist elements of both Buddhism and Daoism in this movement. The idea is that all of these systems create codes of conduct based upon both inductive and deductive reason, and codify them through an evolutionary, communitarian process, which I call "the community of the dialogue".

This isn't to say that I reject meditation, ritual, or, other things in traditional Buddhism, Daoism, academic philosophy, etc. It's just that I would suggest that they become explicit about their ethical short comings and add on practical philosophy as part of their holistic process.

Thanks again. I always enjoy and learn from your comments!