Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for March 30th, 2021

Meditation without beliefs

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If anyone is interested in seeing me become uncomfortable in a hurry, the surest method of achieving that goal is to ask me my opinion about something. Anything. Perhaps some of the discomfort arises because of uncertainty about why my opinion is being solicited. Is the inquirer looking to pick a quarrel? Is the inquirer seeking my advice? If so, will the advice be followed? If it is, will I be held responsible for the consequences?

Perhaps most of the discomfort stems from my own uncertainty about what my opinion is. Over the decades I have learned that most of my opinions are liable to change, so there is really not much point in anyone learning what my opinion on anything at any given moment is. Often enough, the moment I have expressed what I think my opinion may be, the shortcomings of the opinion become so obvious that I feel foolish for having expressed it.

Enough of this pointless speculation about why being asked my opinion makes me uncomfortable. Like most things in life, it really does not matter.

Doxastic minimalism

Several decades ago, I wrote a book about the Indian Buddhist philosopher Dignāga. At the time I was writing the book I was intrigued in some of the points of commonality between Dignāga and an earlier Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nāgārjuna. Both of these authors seemed to me to represent a philosophical attitude that I called doxastic minimalism, that is, the preference to keep speculating and personal opinions to a minimum. (The English word “doxastic” is derived from the Greek δοχαστικοσ, meaning conjectural, which is derived from the verb δοχαζειν, meaning to conjecture, to guess.) Whether it was accurate to portray these Buddhists from long ago as doxastic minimalists is for others to ponder. All I know is that the idea of doxastic minimalism appealed to me personally for some reason—perhaps for no good reason—and that I was bold enough to project my own attitudinal preferences onto two ancient philosophers whom I happened to be studying at that moment.

One very good way to achieve doxastic minimalism is to study logic and epistemology. This, it seems to me was the strategy preferred by the Dignāga, or at least of the Dignāga of my fantasy world. What Dignāga did in his principal work, Pramāṇasamuccaya (Collected writings on the means of acquiring knowledge), was to lay out the criteria that would have to be met for a thought or belief to be established as truthful. Without going into details here, the upshot is that remarkably few of the propositions running around inside our heads meet these criteria. That is not to say that the propositions in our heads are false; rather, it is to say that the vast majority of our beliefs, thoughts, and propositions are indeterminate. They are beliefs that cannot be established as either truths or falsehoods. Realizing that tends to make a person feel a bit more humble and less prone to being intoxicated by a sense of certainty.

As I imagined Nāgārjuna, his strategy was to examine the very idea of what it means to establish a belief as true. The examination, articulated in his work Vigrahavyāvarttanī (Averting disputes), goes approximately as follows. Any belief in order to be deemed established as a truth, must be warranted by observed data or by another belief that has itself been established as a truth. But the belief that a given observed datum or another established belief is an adequate warrant is itself a belief that requires a warrant, and that gives rise to an infinite regress. A belief needs a warrant. The belief that a belief needs a warrant needs a warrant. The belief that the belief that a belief needs a warrant needs a warrant needs a warrant. No matter how far one pursues this chain of warrants, one arrives at a putative warrant that is itself unwarranted. This strategy seems more radical than Dignāga’s, in that Dignāga’s method shows that astonishingly few of our beliefs are grounded in a warrant, whereas Nāgārjuna’s method leaves us with the sense that there are, in the final analysis, no warranted beliefs. Note that this can only be a sense; if it were an established truth, then it would be a counterexample to the claim that there are no warranted beliefs.

Meditation without beliefs

I have no idea whether meditation is a good way to achieve anything. That question does not even interest me very much, because I am not in the business of promoting meditation. It is something that I started doing because I thought it would result in changes that I regarded at the time as potentially positive, but eventually I was not sure what it means for a change to be positive. Perhaps change is nothing more nor less than just change.

By now I meditate only because it is a habit that is, so far as I have been able to tell, relatively harmless. One could say I do it for aesthetic, or perhaps hedonistic, reasons. I enjoy it. Usually. To be more accurate, I usually enjoy the things I do that I call meditation. There are plenty of things that people do that they call meditation that I do not enjoy at all. Guided meditations, for example, tend to irritate me. Being told to relax tends to make me tense. Being told to focus on my breath tends to make me want to solve algebra problems in my head or see how far I can get in recalling Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.

By far the least satisfying modes of meditation to me are those that have a hidden or explicit agenda of reinforcing some dogma or other. (The English word “dogma” comes from the Greek δογμα, which is derived from the verb δοκειν, meaning to think or to seem good.) For example, Buddhist vipaśyanā (insight) exercises have the agenda of reinforcing the Buddhist dogma that every experience is ultimately unsatisfactory because it is transitory and neither one’s self or one’s property. Other forms of meditation are meant to reinforce the dogma that God (or Buddha nature, or Brahman, or Awareness, or Spirit, or Unconditional Love) is the fundamental core of every living and sometimes even every non-living being and that because this ineffable entity is the true self (ātman) of all beings, all beings are in a sense one. There are people who seem to thrive on meditative exercises rooted in such ways of talking. I am not among them. I do not like being told what I will believe after doing the meditative exercise properly, nor do I thrive on being assured that if I emerge without embracing the dogma, then I must be doing the meditative exercise improperly.

Fortunately, there are meditative exercises for people with temperaments unfortunately like mine. Not surprisingly, the exercises that are conducive to doxastic minimalism are themselves minimalist in nature. One example is the exercise (if one can call it that) called shikantaza (just sitting). Although it is called just sitting, it can just as well be done standing, walking or reclining. The instructions are admirably simple. 1. Just sit. 2. Eventually stop sitting. No need for a timer, a bell, a set of robes, a special mat and cushion, or a guy creeping around the room with a cricket bat ready to hit you if you move a muscle or begin to slouch. Just sit. And then do something else.

There is another meditative protocol that has become popular during the past few decades, one that I find satisfactory. It is called Centering Prayer, but I must confess I have no idea why it is called that. It is similar in many ways to shikantaza, except that one is encouraged to use an anchor of some kind to keep one’s chain of thoughts from growing too long. This anchor can be a single word, but it can just as well be a visualized image, or one’s breath. The purpose of the anchor is not to focus single-pointedly on it, but rather to return to it momentarily if one catches oneself pursuing a train of thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Some Centering Prayer practitioners guide themselves by what are called the four R’s. They are:

  • Resist no thought.
  • Retain no thought.
  • React to no thought.
  • Return gently to the anchor. (Some versions refer to the anchor as the sacred word.)

In Centering Prayer parlance, the word “thought” refers to anything that comes into the mind, whether it be a verbally articulated idea, a bodily sensation, an emotion, a fantasy, a vision, or a fleeting conviction that one has attained unsurpassed supreme enlightenment. Retain no thought. Let it go.

That’s enough words.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 at 14:09

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