Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category

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

In 1988 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

Posted in Meditation

Machine-minded man

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Where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. Within a machine heart in your breast, you’ve spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. (from Zhuangzi, chapter 12, translated by Burton Watson)

In Zhuangzi’s story, these words are spoken by an old farmer who is seen carrying water in a gourd and watering his garden with it, making trip after trip. A passing city clicker sees the old man laboring to carry small amounts of water and tells him he could irrigate the entire field using a mechanical pump.

As I was sitting in silence in the Quaker meeting for worship yesterday, this story and those farmer’s words came to mind. As I thought of putting them aside, a mental image arose of the words appearing on a computer screen in the context of a word-processing program. In my imagination, I closed the file and stored it in a folder. What came to mind when I thought of clearing my mind was the image of shutting down a computer. As I tried to turn my thoughts to other things, all I could visualize was a computer monitor on which I was clicking on concrete thoughts with a mouse, dragging files into folders, deleting unwanted files by dragging their icons to the icon of the trash basket. Even when I tried to put machines out of my mind and to visualize a beautiful meadow in the mountains, it was as though I was looking at the scene through the lens of a digital camera, or seeing it on a television. I could visualize nothing directly. Everything was mediated by machines. A mild panic began to arise in my breast. For a good half hour, I found myself almost completely incapable of having thoughts of anything that was not somehow connected to a computer, or an iPod, or a mobile telephone. When I tried to listen, the only ambient sounds I could hear were the sounds of passing traffic, air conditioners, electrical fans, machines that neighbors were using to do yard work. No sounds of birds, no sounds of insects, no sounds of thunder or rain. For the remainder of the meeting, I felt completely hemmed in by machines, and machine worries. I was imprisoned by conTRAPtions. And indeed, while that lasted, my spirit knew no rest.

There has been a growing literature on the subject of how computers and other electronic devices affect our brains. One recent contribution to that literature is an article called Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Science programs on NPR and CBC radio have chronicled studies showing that multi-tasking actually takes more time than doing a series of tasks in tandem. (Contrary to what may people in our post-literary society seem to believe, “in tandem” means lined up one after another rather than linked together side by side.) Not only does it take more time to try to do several things at once, but the risk of error increases. Trying to do several things at once not only wastes time, but it makes people more careless. And the more habituated one becomes to trying to work that way, the more one deteriorates into conditions very much like attention deficiency disorder (which most people lack the patience to say in full, preferring to call it by the abbreviation ADD).

As inefficient and careless as multitasking makes those who try to do it, most of us are in one way or another seduced into doing what computers and other electronic devices make it possible to do. Many people admit to interrupting their writing of an article by checking their e-mail quickly, clicking on a link to check out a website, downloading a song they have just heard on Pandora.com while doing all the above, and quickly doing a chat with a cousin while checking to see whether there are any voice messages on their mobile telephone, which reminds them that it is time to call their mother-in-law on Skype. And if any of these tasks takes a microsecond or two longer than usual, impatience boils over into keyboard rage. I don’t have to report that people I know have learned to work that way. I myself have begun to work that way, with bad, if not disastrous, consequences.

It has been shown that when one multi-tasks on computers, dopamine levels rise for a moment, followed by a crash into mini-depression as one has to face a few moments in a normal mental state rather than in a dopamine-adrenalin high. From the point of view of brain chemistry, the effect is close to the mental state of a person with mental illness.

Machines are not only giving most of us restless spirits through an abundance of mechanical worries, they are also numbing our awareness of the fact that the manufacturing, transporting, fueling and using of machines is making human beings act collectively in ways that are destroying the planet on which we live. As I write this, oil is gushing into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as a result of one company’s bid to maximize profits by cutting corners in the enterprise of producing petroleum to be captured and transformed at enormously high cost to fuel and lubricate machines, or to make plastic products that are to be used for a short time and then thrown away to produce garbage that will pollute the land and the waterways for centuries. There is deep and serious madness in this way of living. We have arrived at the state where the majority of the more than six billion inhabitants of the earth should be in mental hospitals. But when the majority of the population has gone insane through their restless spirits and machine-worried minds, those few whose spirits are still intact are the ones who seem mad. Something seems uncanny about sane people. They disturb the rest of us.

Zhuangzi finishes his dialogue in these words:

Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up. It’s not that I do not know about your machine—I would be ashamed to use it.

I am ashamed to have written this on a computer, and to be publishing it on the Internet. If you have had the patience to read it all the way to the end, rejoice that you have not succumbed to machine-induced ADD. And then feel ashamed for have read it on the Internet. May your shame lead you into the garden to listen to the bees buzzing among the petals.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, June 7, 2010 at 16:44

Posted in Meditation

Confessions and confusions of a Buddhist Quaker

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A while back I was inteviewed (in English) on a Dutch Buddhist radio station. The interviewer, Fred Gales, had done his homework well and was interested in asking questions about my dual religious membership in a Quaker meeting and in a Buddhist organization. His questions provoked me into thinking more carefully about just how I manage to balance and reconcile these two approaches to religious practice, and about why I don’t experience any conflicts on account of pursuing two paths at the same time. Thinking about all these things has made me review pretty much my entire life (yet again) in a search for clues that might help solve this mystery.

Sometime in the 1980s, during my Zen years, there was an open house event at the temple I belonged to. An outsider observed that our Zen group seemed to be a very happy bunch of people who were very quick to smile and laugh. The Zen master, Samu Sunim, replied by saying “We don’t have much fun around here. And because we don’t, we make the most of the small opportunies to do so.” That statement, I have realized many times, could be used as a fairly accurate description of my whole orientation to life. Growing up in a post-Protestant family with no religious affiliations exposed me to a culture of general skepticism about all religious claims but with a cluster of attitudes that bore all the marks of Protestant influence. Doing things just for fun was not encouraged, but at the same time I was led to believe that if one enjoys one’s work, then one does not really need to play very much. Work itself is recreation enough. I have no idea whether that is what my parents intended for me to get out of my childhood, but that is what I did in fact get out of it.

The emphasis on work and on constant self-criticism (which Socrates called the examined life, and which Buddhists call being mindful) led me naturally into an abiding love of Stoicism; my first philosophical love was an anthology of writings by the Stoics. If there had been a guild of Stoics in my neigbhorhood, I surely would have joined it. A time went by, the closest I could find was a community of Quakers, and, a few years later, a community of Buddhists. Both communities reinforced childhood patterns of preferring plain utility to ornamentation and frills, tools to toys, of gravitating to simplicity in clothing, fewness of possessions (except books, and those always educational in nature) and a ferocious selectivity in friends and companions. Neither community demanded adherence to creeds or dogmas or doctrines. Both placed an emphasis on thinking carefully before speaking and acting, on living a life of service, on self-reliance and on open-mindedness, pluralism and relativism. One of my Buddhist mentors, Sangharakshita, once said words to the effect that a dedicated Buddhist never takes a holiday; a Buddhist’s principal work is being a Buddhist, and from that work one can never take a day off. Very much the same can be said of a Quaker (and, I believe, any spiritual tradition.) If one is not leading the examined life every hour of every day of one’s life, then one is not leading the examined life. This does not mean that one never stumbles or fails; it means that one is rarely unaware of one’s shortcomings and never complacent. In all these practical ways, being a convinced Quaker is indistinguishable from being a practicing Buddhist.

Despite an overall similarity in attitudes and spiritual practice, there are differences between Buddhists and Quakers in community structure. And on this score I have to say I am much more attuned to the the community of Quakers than to any Buddhist community I have known. Among Quakers all people, in principle, are clergy; there is no laity. There is no concentration of authority or of power. Everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a disciple. No one is considered more authoritative than another simply because of gender, age, ethnicity, education, economic status, or familial prestige. There are no masters, gurus, lamas, swamis, cardinals, bishops, or priests to be reckoned with in a Quaker community, no one to prostrate before or bow to. (In early days, many a Quaker spent time in prison for refusing to remove his hat or to scrape and bow before a man considered to be of higher station.) Because everyone is to be honored and revered, no one is to be treated with special veneration. That attitude is so deeply ingrained in me that I have never felt perfectly at home in Buddhist communities that have people (nearly always males) who hold exalted offices and whose words are held to be especially sacred. In community structure (or lack therefore) the Quakers speak to my condition, and the Buddhists are always slightly off-putting.

In the language in which they express their teachings, on the other hand, I feel perfectly at home with Buddhists. I can speak Quakerese, but I am aware that I speak that language with a detectable accent. I can use all the usual Quaker words and expressions, but in my heart I know I mean something else when I use them than most Quakers mean when they use them. I translate every Quakerism into Buddhist idiom, whereas I rarely need to translate Buddhism into any other idiom (except when the topic of conversation comes to rebirth, in which case I find myself translating that into the unrepentant materialism of my scientific upbringing).

Somehow, despite the potential confusions of being both a Quaker and a Buddhist, I never find myself wondering which I am, or whether I am more one than the other. When I do feel confusion (and I do feel it plenty), it is when I ask myself whether I should be anything at all other than a human being who was given a name by his parents. Why wear any other label at all? Why have a name brand? Why belong to a Quaker meeting? Why be a member of a Buddhist sangha? Asking myself these questions makes me aware of a decided lack of authenticity, a recognition that I am not yet following the advice that Polonius gave to Laertes in words my mother encouraged me to memorize, and which she spoke to me on many occasions during my adolescence and my adulthood:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

In this both the inner Buddhist and the inner Quaker knows I have fallen short. But why?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 17:31

Posted in Meditation

Have yourself a complicated Christmas

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For those of us who grew up in nominally Christian countries, the Christmas season is an annual time that evokes memories of every previous year of our lives. Christmas is like a string on which the beads of all our years are strung together into a more or less coherent whole. Having lived through the better part of sixty-five years and gone through just about enough transitions, I find my thoughts and emotions around Christmas are pretty complex. Let me try to tease some of them apart.

  • Silent night, secular night. I grew up in a pretty secular family. We celebrated Christmas by putting up decorations, sending out cards, exchanging gifts and drinking eggnog and eating turkey. As a child I was always moved by the story of Joseph and Mary trying to find a place to spend the night, and I loved the idea of a baby being born in a pile of straw in a barn, surrounded by gently lowing cows and bleating sheep. It seemed a perfect start to life. And of course I also knew how the story ended with the tragic execution by Romans of the man who had once been an innocent babe in the manger. The story moves me no less now than it did when I was a child. In fact, it probably moves me much more now, because I am much more aware than I was then of the kinds of suffering people can go through between the time of their birth and the time of their death. The birth of Jesus symbolizes for me the birth of every innocent child who will someday face challenges and trials that shatter innocence and leave wounds that never quite heal. So Christmas has been, and continues to be, a time of joy mingled with profound sadness. It is a time to reflect on what it means to be human.
  • All is calm, all is light. As a young man living and worshiping with Quakers, I developed a deeper appreciation of Jesus the rebel who listened to his own inner voice and followed his own light. The Quaker conviction that we are all in possession of the same inward light of the holy spirit that inspired Jesus made me look to Jesus as a model of uncompromising and fearless integrity, a man who did what was to be done and was never intimidated by the reactions of those in positions of power and authority. As a young man who saw the fullest realization of the teachings and actions of Jesus in the writings of Karl Marx, and especially in the advocacy for the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the downtrodden, I saw Jesus as an angry and persistent champion of those who were being held down by social, political and economic forces, and Christmas was a time for reflecting on all that. Reflecting on all that had the effect of turning me more and more against the commercialism and consumerism of modern Christmas. Nothing was a better symbol of the enemy of all the Marxist-Quaker Jesus had stood for than the modern image of Santa Claus, which had been fashioned by the advertising companies that promoted Coca-Cola, a company at the vanguard of the shameless commercialization of the Christmas spirit.
  • Christ the bodhisatva is born. My discovery of Buddhism, which in an odd way was a by-product of my explorations of Quakerism and Marxism, was a discovery of the teachings and practices that became the beacon of my adult life and led me to see the limitations of angry rebellion against the powerful classes. Buddhism gradually turned my personal picture of Jesus into a bodhisattva who selflessly healed the sick and injured, who rescued women from angry mobs bent on stoning them to death for adultery, who enabled the blind to see (which I always took as a figurative expression for enabling the foolish to become wise). For others Christ might be a savior, but for the Quakerly Buddhist that I had become, Christ was still the model of a life well lived, the Socratic examined life, the Buddhist life of wisdom and compassion.

Everything I have ever been, I still am, although in transformed ways. At Christmas time all those images of Jesus from Christmases past come fully to life. I walk around with tears in my eyes. Tears of joy, tears of rage, tears of hope, tears of despair. Secular, humanist, Marxist, Quaker, Buddhist tears. Human tears. Complicated tears. Wonderful tears.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 14:47

Posted in Meditation

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

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Huge cathedrals and basilicas always plunge me into a complex web of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I almost always find myself feeling peaceful and serene in the vast spaces under the vaulted ceilings, and I usually feel appropriately inspired by the iconography. If a cathedral is very old, I invariably feel a connection with the dozens or scores of generations of worshipers who have been there before me. All those feelings are just what magnificent cathedrals are meant to evoke.

On the other hand, there is a part of me that rebels against the possibility of being dependent on externals for any kind of religious feeling. After all, I come from a long line of Protestants who were so wary of external symbols that they sometimes physically destroyed them. The actions of those iconoclasts, of course, betrayed a deep attachment to abstract ideals that was every bit as pernicious as the dependence on concrete externals they so feared. I am fully aware of that, and that awareness blunts the the edge of the sword of my instinctive rebellion against institutional structures.

Less easy to moderate is the sense of uneasiness I always feel around anything grand. Huge buildings, highly ornamented vestments, well-crafted religious artifacts, magnificent thrones, bejeweled scepters and crowns and rings are invariably costly and therefore sponsored by the exceptionally wealthy and powerful. It is impossible for me to see such things without being reminded of all the poor who have borne the heavy burden of providing goods and services for the powerful. Even when the wealthy are generous, the very possibility of their being generous is almost always bought at the expense of those who come to be in need of generous aid. I have a difficult time escaping the conviction that there is something indecent about some people amassing as much wealth as several thousand ordinary people could amass by putting all their fortunes together. Using that wealth to sponsor the building of magnificent cathedrals and temples and splendid vestments for priests and the monarchs they bless does not offset the indecency of acquiring such an imbalance of wealth in the first place.

A few days ago I sat in Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. Despite trying my best to get in touch with the inward light that my Quaker practice is based upon, I simply could not get past the distraction of the flashes of the cameras of thousands of tourists who ignored the many signs requesting them not to use a flash if they took photographs. There was hardly any sense of the sacred remaining in the cathedral. But perhaps one cannot expect much of the sacred to dwell in a cathedral in which kings and emperors were once crowned; the secular has always been a persistently invasive presence in that particular cathedral.

My own inability to get beyond external distractions to make contact with my internal guide distressed me and made me feel shallow and somehow inadequate. I found myself longing for the quiet and simple Quaker meetinghouse where my wife and I normally worship when we are in our home town. The Zen Buddhist side of my mentality brought forth images of masters tearing up sutras and burning wooden Buddha statues, not out of contempt but to show that in the end we have only our own inner resources to draw upon and cannot rely on anything else. My Zen background also delivered a sense of being ashamed for being so dualistic in seeing the sacred and the secular as antogonistic opposites.

Outside the cathedral, after my unsuccessful essay at meditating, I blended into the crowds of curiosity-seeking tourists from all over the world and the local pickpockets honoring a long tradition of striving to make a dishonest living. For a moment I felt like a character in a Victor Hugo novel. A brief fantasy of swinging from the belfry like Quasimodo passed through my consciousness. My wife became in my eyes the lovely Esmeralda with whom the unfortunate hunchback of Notre-Dame was enamored.

We went across the street together, Esmeralda and I, and there we ate baguettes with cheese.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, September 14, 2009 at 09:26

Posted in Meditation